Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Cover image for The book of threeTaran is unsatisfied with his quiet life at Caer Dallben.  He helps Coll tend the garden, make horse shoes, and care for Hen Wen, a very special pig.  But Taran dreams of bigger things, swords, battles and becoming a hero. When Hen Wen is spooked by something coming toward Caer Dallben, and runs off into the forest,  Taran runs after her, and begins his first adventure.  He meets a knight, Gwydion, but he is not at all what Taran had expected. Gwydion is seeking Hen Wen as well, so the two become traveling partners.  The search for the pig takes him to places and into danger that Taran couldn't have imagined.  Along the way Taran discovers what it really means to be a hero.

How many times have I read this book?  At least 4.  I am reading it again because it is our Mother/Son Bookclub pick for October.  It is such a classic high fantasy for grade school age kids.  As I read it again, I was amazed how devoid of violence it is.  There are a couple of short skirmishes, but is it nothing like the fantasy books that are being published today with chapter after chapter of tense fighting.  When you have less violence, you have more time for character development.  The characters and language in this book are a delight.  Alexander has an amazing way of creating different voices for each person in the story.  As I finished the book, I was ready to pick up the next one, and read through the whole series again.  (190 p)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Cover image for UngiftedDonovan is a classic ADHD junior high boy with a particular problem with impulsivity.  His adventure starts when he happens to whack a statue of Atlas with a stick, and part of the statue rolls down the hill and does damage to the school gym.  He is taken to the School Superintendent, who accidentally mixes his school record in a stack of papers recommending people for the talented and gifted program.  So Donovan ends up at the Academy for Scholastic Distinction.  At the Academy is quickly becomes obvious that Donovan is not at the same academic level as the other students, but the administrators are so confident in their admissions procedures, it takes them a long time to admit that they made a mistake.  In the mean time Donovan endears himself with the other students, who are at first baffled by a student that is so un-driven and yet fairly socially adept (which the gifted kids are generally not).  The chapters of the story are written from the point of view of different characters.  At the beginning of the chapter it has the character's name and IQ.  There are a lot of social stereotypes here.  The smarter the kids are, the more nerdy they are.  There is the pompous adminstrator, and the uber supportive T& G teacher. Although maybe not exactly true to life, the story is very funny, and all the characters are interesting and endearing. We will be reading this book for our Mother/Son book club next spring.  It should be a fun one to discuss. (280 p)

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Cover image for Tuesdays with Morrie an old man, a young man, and life's greatest lessonI was about to get in the car to drive to Arizona for my son's wedding, when I thought, "I need something to read on this trip."  So I grabbed Tuesdays with Morrie off of my book shelf (I had picked it up at a yard sale) and I read it in the hotel.  It was an interesting choice to read during that emotionally charged time in my life.  It brought a bit of peace, and gave me a chance to reflect on some of the bigger questions.

It is a story of a man, Ted, who had a beloved teacher in college.  As the story begins, Ted has been in a successful career for several years and has lost track of his old teacher.  When his company goes on strike, he happens to visit the teacher again and discovers that he is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease. Ted starts visiting Morrie every Tuesday, and they discuss the meaning of life and what is important.  As time progresses, Morrie's condition gets worse and both men learn to deal with and accept the decline of life, while coming to value their own friendship even more. The discussions are thought provoking and Morrie's philosophy focuses on strengthening relationships.  It is a short book, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting a contemplative look at life. It is written for adults, but there is nothing in it that would be inappropriate for teens.  I don't think it is for children. (192 p)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Back of the North Wind: an audio drama based on the story by George MacDonald

Cover image for At the back of the North WindLittle Diamond lives with his father, who is a carriage driver, and his mother in early Victorian England.  One night Diamond hears a voice at a knothole in the wall of his attic bedroom.  It is the voice of the North Wind, who befriends Diamond and takes him on magical journeys. During one journey he meets a poor flower girl and on another, a goodhearted rich man.  His interactions with the North Wind, who is portrayed as a kindly woman, make him wise and compassionate.  He comes to understand that when people die, they go to the back of the North Wind to a kind of paradise.  This knowledge helps him face his own failing health and impending death without sorrow.

This is a radio play produced for Focus on the Family.  It is performed with full cast, sound effects and an original music sound track.  It is an odd story.  Often the North Wind is portrayed as a menacing character, and even in this story she has to go out at one point and sink a ship.  Half way through the story I still couldn't tell if she was like the White Witch in Narnia, pretending to be kind, all the while ensnaring the boy in her trap.  But no, she really is kind and helps him and others repeatedly throughout the story. MacDonald was a Calvinist minister and the story is dripping with Christian imagery.  I am not sure if I enjoyed it. It felt one party moralistic, one part sentimental, and one part creepy.(2 CD's)


The Boxcar Children: the Beginning by Patricia MacLachlan

Cover image for The Boxcar children beginning : the Aldens of Fair Meadow FarmIt would be hard to find a person my age who hadn't read at least some of The Boxcar Children when they were little.  I loved the first Boxcar Children books when I was a child.  I wanted to go out and live in a boxcar myself, and search through the dump for dishes, and work on a farm to get food.  I was, therefore, very interested when I saw this book on the shelf.  I marveled at the audacity that someone thought they could write a prequel to such an icon of children's literature. Then I saw the author, and thought: Ok, so this might work. MacLachlan is a wonderful author who wrote, Sarah Plain and Tall, one of my favorite Newbery books.

In this story Henry, Jesse, Violet and Benny live with their parents on Fair Meadow farm.  It is the beginning of the Depression, but the family makes do and has enough to spare to be generous to others in need.  During a snow storm, a family shows up at the farm.  They are refugees of the economy, and have lost their home.  They are on their way to a relative's to stay but their car has broken down. They have two children similar in age to the Alden children.  The children all become quick friends as they stay for some time at Fair Meadow, waiting for a car part to arrive. During spring break, the 6 children decide to put on a circus for the neighborhood.  Each of the kids comes up with a part to play.  It is a fun story to read, full of the innocence and ingenuity that makes the original Boxcar Children books such a delight.  MacLachlan does an amazing job of not capturing, not only the characters, but even the writing style of the original books.  Of course the book ends when the Alden children's parents are suddenly killed, and the children decide to run away rather than face becoming wards of the state. So how do you deal with death in a lighthearted book like this?  MacLachlan barely does.  The parents die, the children are sad, and decide to leave, but MacLachlan doesn't really explore the depth of emotions that would accompany such an event.  It reminded me of the scene from the old Disney movie, Bambi.  When the mother dies, the father dear says something like, "Your mother can't be with you any more" Bambi looks sad and turns to follow his father, and that is it.   I think MacLachlan wrote it this way to make the book, like the other in the series, appropriate for very small children who are not ready to understand trauma.  It was an interesting choice, but I think in this case it was the right one. The book isn't about death.  It is about getting to know and understand the way the Alden children came to be the Boxcar Children. (119 p)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan

Cover image for The throne of fireThis is the second in the series that started with The Red Pyramid.  Carter and Sadie Kane are siblings who discovered, in their first adventure, that Egyptian gods are real, and that their family has a long history of being Egyptian magicians.  When this story starts Carter and Sadie are living in a safe house in Brooklyn and training new recruits in the Egyptian magic. They are also trying to figure out a way to bring the god, Ra back to life so that he can battle the giant snake, Apophis, god of chaos.  They team up the a dwarf god, Bes, who can scare away even gods because he is so ugly.  The trio race against the clock to find the three pieces of the scroll of Ra, and then raise him from his millennia-long sleep before Chaos destroys the world. The story is punctuated with Riodan's fun fantasy action scenes and spiced up with a few romantic crushes on the part of both siblings. I think I liked this book better than the first.  I am not as familiar with Egyptian mythology as I am with some others, so as I read the first book I was still getting used to how the gods worked and interacted with each other.  By the time I read the second book, it was all making more sense to me and I was able to sit back and enjoy the story and characters more. (452 p)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pendragon: the Merchant of Death by D. J. MacHale

Cover image for The merchant of death14 year old Bobby Pendragon has just enjoyed his first kiss from a girl he had liked since grade school when he is whisked away by his uncle to another world.  This world, named Denduron, is more primitive than Earth, and is on the brink of civil war.  Bobby's uncle, Press, is a "traveler,"--a kind of inter-dimensional do-gooder--and he wants Bobby to be one, too.  Bobby is not at all sure that he wants to be a "traveler" especially when Press gets captured and Bobby is left to fend for himself with a sulky warrior girl as his only aid.  While Bobby is on his adventure, he is able to send back journals to his best friend on Earth via a portal. As tensions rise, Bobby has to decide if he wants to use that same portal to escape his dangerous mission and return home or if he has the courage to save his uncle, and by doing so save all of Denduron.

This book, written in 2002, is the first of ten books in the Pendragon series.  I think the length of the series is one of the reasons I hadn't jumped into it earlier.  It is quite something for me to commit myself to 10 books, each around 400 pages.  I am trying to decide if I will read any more of them.  I liked this book alright, but half way through I was about to give up on it. The story seemed to be dragging, and I didn't really connect with the main character. He is such a whiner in the first half. It also bugged me a little that Pendragon was thrown into this dangerous, volatile situation without any preparation or training. Then he makes mistakes, that aren't his fault because he didn't know any better, and the mistakes almost destroy the world. The ending helped me like the book a little better.  Maybe I will read the second book, and maybe I wont. (374 p)