Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Nerdy Dozen by Jeff Miller

Cover image for The nerdy dozenNeil is the typical super gamer; nerdy, wimpy, and socially unskilled, but awesome at any game.  He is battling for the top score on the flight simulator computer game Chameleon when he is kidnapped by the US Air Force.  It turns out that the Chameleon game is based on a real top secret airplane and the Air Force has recruited 12 kids who are the best at the game to go on a secret mission flying the real thing. The twelve include all the stereotypes of nerdy kids.  There is the one who does medieval reenactments and speaks in old English.  There is another who wheres a superhero costume under his clothes, etc.  The twelve team up to keep top secret military technology out of the hands of an evil computer game creator. 

Of course, for those of us who are old enough to remember, this is strongly reminiscent of the 1984 movie, The Last Starfighter.  The difference is that the stakes are a lot lower in this story.  There is no "the fate of millions lies in your hands" idea going on here.  This is fun adventure fluff--a wish fulfillment story for kids who spend all of there time inside playing computer games.  It is the author's first book, and the writing style has some room for improvement.  Several times during the story I lost track of what was happening because the action sequencing isn't really clear.  Also, the author introduced too many characters, so none really had a fully developed personality.  Still, it was a fun story and I can think of several specific boys who come into my library that would really enjoy it. (292 p)

Ms Rapscott's Girls by Elise Primavera

Cover image for Ms. Rapscott's girlsThis was just the kind of frothy fun I needed this week.  Ms Rapscott runs a school for daughters of very busy parents.  The four students arrive at the school in flying boxes, but one box shows up empty. One of the students got lost in rout because her parents were so busy they forgot to stick down the sticky tab once she was inside of the box. Ms Rapscott takes the remaining girls on a number of magical journeys in search of the lost student, and in the process, the girls learn about making their own way in the world. There is a lot of tongue in cheek humor here, but also a healthy dose folksy wisdom.  This would be a fun one to read aloud to a family of young girls, ages, 5-8 or so.  Some of the chapters suggest activities a family could do together to go along with the story, like learning to bake a birthday cake, or write a thank you note. I look forward to further adventures.(262 p.)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Valley of Kings by Michael Northrop

Cover image for Valley of KingsThis is Book 3 of the TombQuest series.  Alex, Ren and Luke have traveled to Egypt looking for Alex's mom, and the Lost Spells in the Valley of the Kings.  Another Death Walker is causing the famous archaeological sight to burn with extreme heat and light every day.  Alex and Ren, once again, must find out who the death walker is and how to destroy it.

Whereas the last book was all about zombies, this one all about mummies. The action writing is good. There is a little plot development, and a little character development, but mostly it is more of the same.  Kids who liked the first two books, will like this one, too, I guess, but I am losing interest.  Plus there was a plot twist at the end I didn't like.  I don't know if I will read the next one.  (190 p)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

(Here is another book that got tons of starred reviews this year.  I think it may have received starred reviews in 5 or 6 different sources.)

Cover image for The nestSteve is worried about his new baby brother.  He was born with congenital defects and is not doing well. Steve is also OCD and deals with a lot of anxiousness.  One night he has a dream that some creatures--he thinks of them as angels--come to him and promise him that they can "fix" his baby brother.  The dream gives him hope.  The dream recurs and after a while, Steve realizes that the creatures are actually the wasps who are building a large nest outside his home.  When the wasps tell him that they are, indeed, planning to replace the baby, instead of repairing him, Steve has to decide whether he wants his own flawed brother, or a perfect child provided by the wasps.

This book was as weird as it sounds.  In some ways it was like the old late night horror films I used to stay up and watch occasionally as a kid, like "The Twilight Zone."  That said, the book brought up a lot of moral and ethical questions, some of which, if genetic engineering technology progresses, we might face as a society in the future.  Would we be willing to trade a potentially disabled child for the chance of having a physically perfect one?  How eager would we be to correct our own physical imperfections, if given the chance, and how would that affect the people we are?  Another intriguing thing about the story is that an adult reader will question, throughout, if what Steve is experiencing is real, or a creation of his over-stressed, immature emotions.  I am not sure if kids will pick up on that element or not.  Kids are used to being thrown into a fantasy world in a book, and are mostly willing to take it at face value. 

I can see why this book got a lot of critical attention.  It is very different from anything else that came out this year.  It will be interesting to see if it will win any awards.  Personally, I thought the writing in Orbiting Jupiter was better. I guess it will depend on the committee. Are they looking for something unique, or just really well done? (244 p)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

Cover image for The hollow boyHere is book three in the Lockwood and Company series I have enjoyed so much.  In this one Lucy is faced with twin horrors: a massive outbreak of ghost activity in Chelsea, and a pretty, new, perky assistant at Lockwood and Company.  The second one is a much greater trial than the first.  Lucy has become even more attracted to Lockwood, and watching him interact with the "perfect" new assistant makes her blood boil.  Letting your emotions get away from you is a dangerous thing if you are a psychic investigator, and Lucy's lack of focus, and her growing talent to be able to talk to ghosts, starts to cause a lot of problems for the team, and ultimately, all of London.

About 50 pages from the end of this book I thought to myself, "Oh, I hope this is not the last one in the series."  This was a lot of fun to read.  Stroud has a great ability to make really interesting and fun characters, and then put them into tense and exciting situations.  Some writers make "character development" what happens between the action scenes, but with Stroud the characters never put off their personalities while they are fighting monsters.  In fact, the personalities and interpersonal conflicts drive the action scenes.  This was such a delightful change from what I have been reading, I truly did not want it to end.  It is a bummer that I will probably have to wait until next fall for the next one to come out. (385 p)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt

(You can tell it is the end of the year and I am trying to read all the Newbery hopefuls before the ALA Midwinter meeting in January when the Newbery winner is announced.  This is another realistic fiction that is getting a lot of attention from reviewers.)

Jack lives on a farm with his mom and dad.  They are a good, solid, family who take in foster children.  At the beginning of the story they take in a foster child, Joseph, who has been in a correctional facility.  He is 14 years old and has already fathered a child.  Joseph is talented and intelligent, but he is traumatized by a past full of abuse and loss. Becoming part of Jack's family and participating in the routine of farm life starts to heal his soul.  Jack, who is 2 years younger than Joseph, is fiercely loyal to Joseph and together they try to deal with all that has come before, and all that is yet to come in Joseph's life.

This is an amazingly well written book. I loved Schmidt's book, OK for Now, and this one has a similar tone and intensity.  In both books, the main character is already battered and broken at the beginning of the story, and then, through consistent love and support, they start to heal and become stronger. If anything, Schmidt's writing in this one is better than his earlier ones.  It is so spare and understated that nothing gets in the way of story.  If I were to try to copy Schmidt's writing style I would have to take one of my stories, cut out about 2/3rds of it where I try to explain why people did what they did, or what they were thinking, and just write what they did and what actually happened.  It takes a lot of courage to write like that.  You have to trust the reader to understand what you haven't said.

I actually haven't ordered this for the children's department yet.  One of the reasons I read it was to try to decide if I should.  I think it would be appropriate for a 12 or 13 year-old-who has a serious personality. It isn't really appropriate for an 8-or 9-year-old because of mature themes.  As much as I liked it, I think I will leave it in the YA department.  (192 p.)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff

Cover image for Lost in the sunHere is another Newbery buzz book.  It got a starred review in every major review source I checked.  Trent Zimmerman is 11 years old and is in very difficult place emotionally.  He is traumatized by his parent's divorce, but also by an accident that occurred in the recent past in which his friend died. His trauma makes him full of fear, which easily turns into an explosive rage when he is put into an uncomfortable situation.  Luckily, he meets a girl, Fallon, whose buoyant personality and sunny outlook lets him temporarily escape from his fear and hate filled environment.  Fallon is not without trauma in her own past, and when she witnesses one of Trent's violent explosions it triggers her own unpleasant memories and threatens their friendship.  Trent knows he has to find a way to win back her trust, and that search leads him to a better emotional place of his own.

Ok, so it sounds heavy, doesn't it.  It is.  But it is also a really authentic depiction of a boy's struggle with some serious emotional issues.  This is the kind of book teachers could give to a traumatized kid to help them through a difficult time. Or it is a book parents and teachers could read to help them understand the behavior of traumatized kids.  I am not sure what child I would give it to for casual reading.  I guess, if there was a kid who really liked social issue books, this would be a good choice.  I have met kids like that, mostly 12 or 13 year old girls. But I am not likely to be sharing the book with your average pre-teen boy very much. (298 p.)

(I have read several of these social issue, contemporary fiction in a row, and I am pretty ready for some fantasy.  I was therefore excited when I saw that my hold on The Hollow Boy Jonathan Stroud had come in.)

Listen Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Cover image for Listen, slowlyHere is a book that is getting a lot of starred reviews this year.  Mai is a Vietnamese American pre-teen who has been raised in California.  One summer she is sent with her Grandmother to Vietnam. Her grandmother has hired a detective to try to find out more about her husband who was lost during the Vietnam War.  Mai is not at all thrilled to be away from her friends, the beach, and a certain boy for the summer, so she is determined that they will find the answers her grandmother is looking for and return to California within a few days.  Of course, it doesn't work out like that, and the longer they stay the more she comes to accept and even enjoy her cultural heritage.

The amazing thing about this book is that it immerses the reader in modern Vietnamese culture.  I get the feeling that if someone read this book and then spent the summer in a small Vietnamese town, much of what they experienced there would be just like the book.  The other nice thing about the book is the relationship between Mai and her grandmother.  They don't even really speak the same language, since the Grandmother never learned much English, and Mai never learned much Vietnamese, but still they are very close.  The drawback to the book is that it is a little slow.  A lot of kids now want a fast paced and exciting plot, but that is just not this book.  There are some funny scenes and some touching scenes but not a lot of excitement. I listened to this book on CD and the reader was clearly bilingual and knew how to properly pronounce all the Vietnamese words.  I don't know how some of the scenes, where they were talking about the tonality of the  Vietnamese language, would work just in print.  I recommend, if you are going to get this book, that you get it on CD. (260 p)