Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner

I've been putting off reading this book...a book about the French Revolution??? I am not too keen on historical fiction. Too often there is more history than story!

That is not the case in this story! I really enjoyed it! It's a fast read - one that pulls you in and keeps you interested. There are children - Yann the orphaned son of a gypsy dancer and Sido the forgotten and mistreated daughter of an insane Marquis. There is a dwarf, a very talented fellow named Tetu who is able to control a wooden puppet by pulling at the invisible light threads with his mind. And a horrible villian named Count Kalliovski - his name alone brings fear into those who surround him.

This is a story at the start of the revolution, when the excesses of France cause the people to revolt. When the revolution was about equality and freedom for the masses. In this turmoil Sido's father spends and spends and spends and ignores his rising debt, he has the Count to back him up. You see the Count is more than willing to lend money to anyone - so long as they share their secrets with him. It seems a tiny price, until he comes to claim his pay. At that point the borrowers understand blackmail for the first time - and for many the last.

Sido is held captive by her insane father, until by chance Yann crosses her path on a fateful night. At that moment both of their futures are sealed - though they don't know it.

The Count has other plans for the dwarf and Sido. He plans to kill the dwarf - he knew the Count when he was only a nameless gambler with a special interest in a gypsy dancer. And Sido - he plans to marry her in order to gain her vast inheritance. To that end he has blackmailed Sido's father.

This story stands alone rather nicley - but the story does not end with this book. There is a sequel... Can't wait!!

Scat by Carl Hiaasen

Nick attends a snooty private school on the edge of the Everglades. He is trapped in biology class by Mrs. Starch - the toughest, meanest, grouchiest teacher ever. His only ally is Marta, a girl he finds himself spending more and more time with. In the same class is Smoke, a creepy older boy who had been through biology more than once and based on his confrontation with Mrs. Starch was headed for another round. On that day Smoke chomped on the pencil Mrs. Starch was poking at his head, chewing and swallowing it. The class was stunned and more than a little afraid when he threatened to get even with her.

The next day was a field trip to the Black Vine Swamp, Smoke didn't show up for the trip and Mrs. Starch didn't come back from the trip.

Nick and Marta find themselves in the middle of a horrible mystery. It seems obvious that Smoke has something to do with Mrs. Starch's disappeareance, following a fire set on the edge of the swamp...Smoke and fire!

But, there is more going on than they first suspect. A strange character named Twilly is seen driving Mrs. Starch's car AND he finds the kids in Starch's house.

Then there is the incredible change in Smoke, he is clean, studies and even seems civilized. But , most disturbing is what Mrs. Starch's complete disappearance.

This is another great story by Hiassan. Each character brings a piece to the final puzzle. But, Nick is clearly the strongest of the bunch. From trying to become a lefty since his father's arm had to be amputated following an injury in Iraq, to believing Smoke when everyone else couldn't and finally and most importantly to having the courage to really seek out Mrs. Starch and follow her commands to save an endangered Florida animal.

This is a fast and fun read. I really liked it - even if it's named after Panther poo.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede

This isn't one I can rave about. It was good - but in a build up for a series way. This is the first in a series called Frontier Magic. Interesting premise...maybe. The United States is now Columbia and magic is a strong piece of the lives of all Columbians. The founders - Franklin and Jefferson used magic to gain independence as did leaders all the way back to the Romans. But - that's just history.

This first installment is about Eff - the thirteenth child and her brother Lan a double 7 - the seventh son of a seventh son. Lan is supposed to be gifted with powerful magic and Eff will end up turning to evil. So the old aunts and uncles say.

Eff and Lan's parents do not put much belief into that and decide to accept a job teaching magic at a frontier academy at the western edge of the civilized world. The town is right by the magic border that keeps out all manner of nasty beasts...mammoth and such.

That's the set up. The story is part frontier life and part magic. I kept waiting for a big moment - Eff is constantly fighting any urge to use magic or give in to any negative thought for fear it will turn her bad. But the big moment never came. There is a magical confrontation and some questions are sort of answered...but not really.'s ok. But, I really want to read the next book before I decide how much I liked it!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Airman by Eoin Colfer

I have enjoyed all the Artemis Fowl books Colfer has written...these are filled with brilliant fairies, demons and fantastic machines of the future/otherworld. This book is a huge departure.

Here is a story of a doomed pair of islands of the coast of Ireland - Saltee Islands. Presiding over these rocky outcrops is Good King Nick - an American raised balloonist from the Civil War who happened to be the last remaining heir to the Saltee throne. The time is mid 1800s and the race to the sky is building.

That sounds a bit boring to me - I am not really a mechanical lover...but this story is more than just mechanics. Conor Broekhart is is a lovable, charming flying fanatic...actually pre-flying. It hasn't technically been invented yet. He is also the son of the head of the Wall guards and the best friend of Princess Isabella. Life is good on this island. Good King Nick is trying hard to right centuries of wrongs - bringing about improved living conditions, making things more equal and providing more humane conditions in the diamond mine/prison on Little Saltee.

There is however a cloud...Marshall Bonvilian - head of the royal guards. He is a power mongering, conniving, evil man who has been bred to overthrow the royalty so his family line will finally be the rulers of the Saltees.

Due to a horrible twist of fate, Conor is sent to prison, yes the diamond mine prison, at the age of 14 at the Marshall's hand. He must face the impossible task of staying alive that first day. He does so with the help of his cell mate Wynter. Displaying some of the wit and brilliance of Artemis Fowl, Conor is able to strike a deal with the prison hit man - Otto Malarky - one of the Battering Rams gang, and the next two years of his life are bearable.

But, he must figure out a way to escape, decide whether to try to reconcile with his family ( they believe him part of the plot that killed the king) or flee with stolen diamonds to America to build his dream airplane.

I really liked the story, although when I thought things were lost for Conor - I did stop reading for the evening. Sometimes it's just too hard to know things that the characters don't!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

This is a powerful tale of the holocaust from the eyes and the heart of a young boy. Bruno and his family move to Out-With when his father is made commandant by the Fury. He hates the nasty little house and the fear that seems to live everywhere. But, most of all he is desperately lonely.

This changes when he decides to begin exploring. As he walks the length of the fence he discovers a 'dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.' So begins his friendship with Shmeul.

The reader knows the realities of this concentration camp, but told through the innocent eyes of a 9 year old boy it is easy to ignore the hard bits. Reading it,made me understand how the neighboring people could justify and ignore just as Bruno was doing. Even after a year he didn't understand why the fence existed.

The ending is sad - but sad in a ridiculous way...but I can't tell you a single thing. I can't hint at the end. I can't.

The book is written in a light handed, non-judgemental way that allows all the judgement to come from the readers. My Boyne is a genius!!!

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Hugo is a scruffy french orphan caught in an impossible situation. His father was killed in a museum fire and left Hugo with an uncle who lives in the bowels of the train station and must wind and maintain all the station's clocks. He is mean and cheap and forces Hugo to steal to be able to eat. And then, he disappears.

Hugo secretly keeps the clocks running as he works on a project to amazing to really contemplate.

Before his father died he had been a clockmaker and had discovered an automaton - a man machine poised to write a secret message. The automaton was in the museum attic where he worked and that's why he was in the museum when it burned. Hugo rescued the automatan from the rubble of the museum and set out to rebuild the damaged parts. To do this - he had to steal toys from the toy maker stand at the train station. That is where he meets an old grumpy man and his god daughter.

This sets in motion a series of events that bring all the details of the mysterious machine, the old man and a history of making dreams together.

What makes this book truly spectacular is the drawings that intersperse the text. The book becomes a slow moving movie - starting with a broad shot and slowly tightening down to the main focus. There are also photographs of actual events which add a sort of newsreel feel to parts of the book. This is a big fat book that took only an hour or two to read - but it's a book that a second reading would be beneficial - it feels like there might be hidden clues and magic secrets woven into the book just waiting to be discovered.

This is an award winning book for all ages!

Storm Glass and Sea Glass by Maria Snyder

These are the first two books of the Glass series about Opal Cowan ( the final installment is not due out until the fall of 2011)
Opal is a glass magician in the country of Sitia. That means she is a magician who is able to insert her magic into glass objects - something no one else in the country is able to do. The glass statues she makes are able to transmit magical thought from magician to magician over distances - sort of a glass telephone. That should make her proud and confident. But, Opal is anything but that. She second guesses herself constantly, misreads those around her and basically exudes naiveté. She is especially embarrassed that she is unable to do the basic magical tasks of lighting a fire and is certain she is a one trick pony.

But, the citizens of Sitia - at least the evil ones - see the potential in her and are constantly trying to kidnap, torture her and take her skills for their own use. She remains oblivious to most threats - but is constantly buffeted by one or another controlling force...her family, the Council of Magicians, her boyfriend Ulrick, an evil magician who has captured and tortured her more than once (Devlen) and her embarrassment.

By the end of the first book Opal has discovered and learned to control an incredible talent - she can 'steal' another's magic and seal it up inside a glass orb. The transfer of this magic turns it into diamonds...powerful and beautiful diamonds.

The second book follows her maturing from a ditzy pawn into a powerful magician trying very hard to control her own destiny. The Council feels she is too dangerous to be free - she could steal any of their powers. The villains of the country want her blood - it augments their own magic and makes them invulnerable to her own, she feels controlled and responsible for providing glass messengers to the citizens of Sitia and she is sick of it all.

She gets herself into the ultimate showdown and ends up vulnerable, naive and almost dead.

The series is clearly not over. The story leaves you hanging and wondering about several loose ends. I like Opal - but the constant kidnapping and harm get a bit old. Mostly, I want to just shake her and tell her to get a grip - she clearly is an important person, why doesn't she understand that...

Distant Waves by Suzanne Weyn

The titanic, spiritualism, sisterhood, famous Americans and romance all play a role in this book. Jane Oneida Taylor has a rather odd childhood. She is the second of five sisters, the plain and practical one. Her father has just died as the story opens and her mother is striking out on a new path - one of becoming a famous seance leader, spiritual guide, 'ghost whisperer' we might even call her today. The family ends up in the town of Spirit Vale, New York, an entire town dedicated to speaking with those who have passed on - never 'the dead.'

On a whim Jane and her older sister Mimi run off to New York City to meet the famous scientist Tesla for Jane to interview for a journalism contest. While there, they both meet the characters who will change their lives and history. Mimi decides to become the maid and traveling companion of the mistress of Guggenheim ( one of the richest men in America), Jane meets Tesla, the eccentric inventor who created an earthquake machine and Thad his assistant.

Through a series of convoluted events - Mimi and the youngest sister Blythe end up on the Titanic returning from Europe. Due to bad vibes and impressions Jane and her two remaining sisters - Amelie and Emma - sneak aboard the Titanic to get Mimi and Blythe off. The are not able to accomplish this before the ship all five sisters are on the ship.

Only three will make it to New York. There will be a wedding, an experiment which goes awry and a bit of time traveling.

This is one of those books that I had decided was just too cheesy to like. I mean, we all know the Titanic sinks. But, Jane is a very likable narrator and Tesla is a pretty unusual scientist. His inventions sound like things that we should be researching right now! So - it was a fun and predictable read. The old Titanic story with a twist for YA audiences.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Shift by Jennifer Bradbury

Win and Chris - friends and recent high school graduates embark on an epic riding from West Virginia to Washington state. That was the plan... but the ending wasn't quite what was expected. Chris returned alone.

That's how this story begins, you know the ending before you even really know the beginning. Chris is being questioned by an FBI agent about the disappearance of his friend Winston Coggans. Chris knows things, but not what Ward, the agent, is really looking for.

He knows that two unprepared high school grads began a journey. Win, with his jokes and his secrets, and Chris trying to prove that he was more than nothing. As the two journeyed for two months, pedaling and meeting new folks, they both changed. Changed enough that Win's disappearance on a mountain pass in Washington didn't surprise Chris as much as you would think. He knew Win's dad was a controlling freak who couldn't wait to get him in an Ivy league school and on the path to running the same chemical monopoly that he did. But, Win kept his secrets.

The book toggles between chapters of the ride and chapters of Chris's life in college, with the agent, with new friends. The reader is able to see the changes unfold and culminate in a reunion of sorts over Labor Day.

This is one of those buddy books where the friends discover they don't really need each other - and in that understanding they become deeper friends. Weird huh?? This is also the story of two boys who actually did the thing that they dreamed!

This was a fast and rather predictable read, but the descriptions of the scenery and the companionship were enough to make even a sworn bike riding hater consider the call of the road. Bradbury is clearly a biker and that adds to the authenticity of the story.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin

Matthew, Emmy and their sister Callie live in a world controlled by their unstable mother Nikki. Their life is filled with constant fear and stress. Nikki wants to show her love for her children in a very frightening way...and then she meets Murdoch.

There was something about Murdoch which drives Nikki beyond all reason. And when he watches her put Emmy in danger and decides to break up - Nikki looses it... The more the kids liked Murdoch the Nikki becomes obsessed.

Matthew gets the brunt of his mother's craziness to try to keep his sister's safe. And then he takes a stand that causes irreversible changes.

This is one of those books that makes you want to reach out and grab the kids around me. This is about a family doing all they can to keep themselves safe and the adults around who can't or won't see what is absolutely happening. As a teacher and a mom we need to keep our eyes open. Because as Matthew describes it - the fear doesn't leave - it changes you - it seeps in and creates something that wasn't there before. Sometimes those changes are for the good - it gave Callie the courage to become a great doctor. But sometimes the changes push you to make a decision that can not be taken back.

This is a goodie!

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The world is not a pleasant place in this futuristic puzzle book. Thomas comes too in a dark and metal cube which is rising slowly in the air to...

The doors open and Thomas is ushered into a reality that is nothing like he has ever experienced. This is a world of boys and stone walls that open and close each day to keep the Grievers out. A world that divides each newbie into one of the different jobs and Thomas knows that he will be a that runs through the enormous mazes that surround this stone Glade looking for an elusive escape.

This is also a world that is changing. Somehow Thomas knows things...fleeting memories of the past and boys who have been stung by the Grievers know who and what Thomas is - even then he doesn't.

And then a girl appears who can speak to Thomas inside his head. Teresa, has fleeting memories of the Flare, the ending and the fact that Thomas and Teresa are somehow connected to this odd place.

And then they figure out how to free themselves - but to what? A world that isn't the warm home thought it would be...this is only the beginning