Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

Cover image for The fourteenth goldfish12-year-old Ellie lives with her mom who is a drama teacher.  Her dad is divorced from her mom, and is an actor.  Ellie, however doesn't have any interest in the stage.  One day her mother brings home a sulky teenage boy.  He seems familiar to Ellie, and she discovers he is her grandfather who is a scientist who has discovered a "fountain of youth" serum and tested it on himself.  He had been arrested trying to "break in" to his own lab and Ellie's mother had to take legal custody of him.  The rest of the book recounts Ellie's growing friendship with her grandfather, her discovery of her inner scientist, and their attempts, with the help of a new friend at school, to break into the grandfather's old lab and get the key ingredients to the youth serum.  Her grandfather hopes he can publish his findings and win the Nobel prize but as Ellie learns more about life and her family through interacting with her grandfather, she begins to wonder if the world is ready for perpetual youth. Ms Holm adds a lot of humor into her story.  The relationship of the grandfather with his daughter/now guardian is funny but also thought provoking.  The goldfish metaphor is a little heavy handed (you will have to read the book to know what I mean), but sometimes kids need things to be a little more obvious. Of course, this whole topic has been explored before.  I don't know if any book can compete with Tuck Everlasting on the topic of eternal youth. But you have to be pretty mature and philosophical to enjoy Tuck Everlasting, whereas this book, because of its more lighthearted treatment, is probably accessible to a wider range of audience. (195 p)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rain Reign by Ann Martin

Cover image for Rain reignRose is a 5th grade girl who has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. She has an aid at school and an uncle that are very kind and patient with her fixation on rule keeping and homonyms, but her father gets frustrated that Rose is not "normal."  At home, her main comfort is her dog, Rain, which her father found in a storm and gave to his daughter.  When Hurricane Susan hits Rose's town, Rain comes up missing. Desperate to find her beloved dog, Rose begins an extensive and systematic search that leads to more questions, and answers, for the brave and sympathetic little girl.  This book is getting starred reviews everywhere and is probably a major contender for this year's Newbery award. I can see why critics like it.  It is the first good portrayal of a child with autism/aspergers from the child's point of view.  Rose is a very sympathetic character and all through the book the reader is hoping something nice will happen to her.  It rarely does.  I actually found the book difficult to read.  Her father is so harsh with her that it made me physically cringe.  I also found the hominyms fairly hard to get through.  I know that is the point.  Her father found them difficult to deal with as well and that was a source of much of their conflict, but also they slowed down the pace of the narrative.  If the book hadn't gotten such good reviews I probably would have given up on it 100 pages in. It would take a really specific kind of kid to enjoy this book. For most it will be the kind of book the teacher assigns them to read, and the kid hates. Parents should know that the book contains some harsh profanity.  I hope it won't win the Newbery, but I am afraid it will.(226 p)

George Washington Plants a Nation by Peggy Thomas

Cover image for Farmer George plants a nationMost biographies of George Washington spend a lot of time talking about his role as a military general, or as the first president of the United States.  This picture book biography mentions those things, but focuses on George Washington as a successful farmer. Washington inherited Mt Vernon when his half-brother died in 1752.  Under his careful and intelligent management, the productivity of the farm increased significantly.  Washington experimented with crop rotation, and developed several innovations like an indoor threshing house. Thomas includes a discussion of Washington's relationship with his slaves and finishes off the book with a timeline and resources sections.  Although not as engaging as George Washington, Spymaster, it gives another valuable perspective on a complex historical character. (40 p)

The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson

Cover image for The Great Trouble : a mystery of London, the blue death, and a boy called Eel
Eel is a homeless orphan in London, 1854 who works odd jobs to support himself and his little brother.  All the while he must avoid his evil stepfather who wants to turn him and his little brother into beggars and burglars. When cholera strikes in his neighborhood he is enlisted by the famous doctor, John Snow, in a desperate effort to find the cause of the epidemic.  This historical fiction is based on an actual outbreak of cholera that lead to the discovery of how the disease is transmitted.  This book was an OK historical fiction, but came across a little didactic. Dr. Snow spends a good deal of time teaching Eel--and through him, the reader--the method of scientific research. That said, Eel is a likeable character, as are several of the other characters in the book. A lengthy note at the end of the book explains which characters and events are fictional, and which are based on actual people involved in the historical event.  I couldn't help looking up John Snow on my family history to see if there was any relation, but no.(249 p)

Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes

Cover image for Words with wingsGabby has always been a daydreamer, but since she moved to a new school after her parent's divorce, her daydreaming has gotten to be a bigger problem.  A single "word with wings" can send her off into a world of her imagination and make her forget what she is supposed to be doing.  In an attempt to please her parents and teacher, she tries to suppresses her daydreams for a while, but that just makes her sad. Finally her teacher encourages her to write what she is thinking and both her parents and teacher discover that her daydreaming has made her a wonderful writer.  This is a short novel written in free verse. Even though the text isn't long, Ms Grimes does a good job suggesting dimensional characters and complicated relationships.  She is good with word craft, and it is not a surprise that this book the Coretta Scott King honor award last year. This is a good choice for either a child that has to read a poetry book over a certain length, or for a reluctant reader who has to read a realistic fiction novel. (84p)

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

Cover image for Liesl & PoLiesl is a girl, locked in the attic because her father has died and her stepmother wants to control her inheritance.  Will is a young alchemist’s apprentice who likes to watch Liesl draw through her attic window.  Po is a ghost who also likes Liesl’s drawings and decides to pay her visits.  When William accidentally switches Liesl’s father’s funerary box with one that contains a great magical power it sets off a series of events that brings Victorian England to the brink of disaster, but just might bring Liesl, Will and Po their greatest heart’s desire.  This is a cute, non-scary ghost story.   It reads like a fairy tale.  The characters are not really very dimensional, especially the villains, who are comical caricatures, but there is a brisk pace of action and suspense, and a very nice happy ending.  It is such a different kind of Ghost story from Lockwood and Company.  Po is not spooky at all and certainly not threatening.  He is actually endearing and seems to have a little crush on Liesl. This is a good book for a younger child who is a good reader and wants to read a ghost story but gets creeped-out easily. 370 p

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Memory Maze by Gordon Korman

Cover image for Memory mazeIn this sequel to The Hypnotists, Jax has relocated with his family in Connecticut.  They have taken on new names, and his parents are attempting, none too successfully, to take on new careers in an attempt to avoid the evil Dr. Mako.  Jax is having a hard time fitting in at school because he has to act strangely to keep from hypnotizing people.  He wears dark glasses all the time and never looks anyone in the eyes.  Despite his best efforts his hypnotic power still influences people and he ends up winning the school chess competition.  This leads him to competitions on the district and state level, and brings him to the attention of an elderly tycoon who figures out Jax's real identity.  The tycoon hires Jax to put him into a deep hypnotic state in an effort to slow the advance of the old man's fatal disease and promises to pay him handsomely.  As Jax starts creating daily extended hypnotic connections with the man, Jax starts to experience his memories. There is more in the man's head than Jax had bargained for and soon Jax is struggling to maintain his own sanity. This book further explores the personalities of each of the main characters and adds a psychological element to the plot.  There are more interesting moral questions and lots of exciting action.  The book ends with a new twist, and now I am eager for book three (which isn't out yet, rats!).(234 p)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lockwood and Co: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

Cover image for The whispering skullAnthony Lockwood, Lucy Carlyle and George Cubbins are back on the job trying to neutralize the source for the ghost of the necromancer, Edmund Bickerstaff. When a powerful relic is stolen from the body, Lockwood and Company go head to head with their rivals from the Fitts agency to see who can recover it first. The relic and those who stole it turn out to be far more dangerous than they could have imagined.  I liked the first in the series, The Screaming Staircase.  It has an original premise, and really good suspense writing, but I thought the characters where not quite as interesting or dimensional as the ones in Stroud's "Bartimaeus" series.  In this second book Stroud explores the characters more deeply and their relationships become more complicated. I don't know if I liked it better than the first book, but I liked it as well and will be interested in reading the next in the series as soon as it comes out.  One thing that a co-worker and I discussed was that it is obvious the author is a man because if it were a woman she would have already done more with the hint of romance that is starting to occur between Lockwood and Lucy.  It will be interesting to see what he does with it, if anything, in the next book. (435 p)