Thursday, March 27, 2008

Artemis Fowl

By Eoin Colfer

Artemis is a twelve year old criminal genius. What else would you expect from the Fowl crime family? Artemis' father has been missing, and the fortune is dwindling. Not that they have to worry about money, but Artemis is worried about the family prestige, so he decides to kidnap a fairy, hold it for ransom, and restore the family honor. What could be simpler? Well, probably anything.

A few things to note. The author's name is pronounced "Owen." I've called him "Eee-oh-in" for years, but his website cleared it up for me, and I thought others might be interested. I read this originally in early 2004 (right after the third one in the series came out), and I re-read it this past week for book club. Lastly, my husband wishes he were Artemis Fowl.

I really like this book, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time. Artemis is clever and funny. He really does know his stuff, and other than being rather snooty (probably the result of his immense wealth and knowledge) he is a really fun character to read about. Having read the rest of the series, I thought it was interesting the signs of "humanness" (guilt, humor, etc) that start appearing even in the first book because I don't think that I caught them the first time.

My real favorite character is Butler though. I wish that I had one. Not only is he the size of a mountain and trained to kill in order to keep his watch (ie Artemis) safe, he has a big heart and really does seem to care about his family and Artemis. I also thought he was one of the funniest characters, though I am not sure he is intended to be - he is just so deadpan that I can't help but laugh.

The story itself is very clever. The fairies in this story are not typical fairies, and their use of very advanced technology was really interesting. I thought Foaly (a centaur) was hilarious, and I love that he wears an aluminum foil hat to protect himself from humans. However, I did find their need to constantly talk about pollution (in the air, on food, etc) a little annoying. To clarify, I felt that it was overdone - if he (being the author) had mentioned it once or twice it would be one thing, but he mentions it often.

The writing isn't as strong as some YA fiction out there right now, but the story is fast-paced and clever. There were several parts that left me guessing until the end (at least the first time). Also, it works well as a stand alone. You can't read the other books in the series without reading the first, but you definitely don't have to read the sequels in order to feel the story is complete. This one is both my husband and my favorite in the series (the story gets kind of weird), but if you liked it you should check out the others. The sixth book, The Time Paradox, will be published this summer.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Non-Review

Usually (or always), I only talk about books that I have finished reading. Sometimes this means that I forget interesting bits that I had thought to include while reading the book, but forgot when I was actually writing the review. But, since I am just trying to process the book, it all works out.

Today, I would like to talk about a book that I am currently listening to. It's a classic children's book. Adored by many. A famous and popular Disney musical.

It's Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers.

I am about 1/3 of the way through this book (based on the fact that there are three tapes, and I have completed one), and so far, I really don't like it.

Before we get too far, I have to admit that I have seen and that I love the movie. So, maybe my expectations were way off where they should be. But with that admission in mind, I hate Mary Poppins as portrayed in the book! She is mean! For example (the children have just asked how Mary Poppins spent her day off):

"Did you see Cinderella?" said Jane.
"Huh, Cinderella? Not me." said Mary Poppins contemptuously. "Cinderella, indeed!"
"Or Robinson Crusoe?" asked Michael.
"Robinson Crusoe - Pooh!" said Mary Poppins rudely.
"Then how could you have been there? It couldn't have been our fairlyand!"
Mary Poppins gave a superior sniff.

Look at the adjectives used to describe how she's talking: contemptuously, rudely, superior. And just about every time she speaks with the children, these same (or very similar) words pop up. I guess one could argue that the children were being nosey when they asked, but it appeared (or sounded) to me like they were young kids wondering what their nanny had been up to. Not brats that deserved to be talked down to.

The Mary Poppins of the book is also very vain. She's always stopping to look at herself in the mirror or in windows as they are out walking.

Perhaps the Julie Andrews, happy-go-lucky Mary Poppins appears in the second half of the book, and this grumpy version is her trying to straighten out the Banks children (who I think are better behaved than in the movie) and once they come around she will too.

Or, perhaps for only the second time that I can remember, I prefer the movie to the book. Perhaps the old adage "the book is always better" isn't true in this case. Or perhaps, it is more an issue of having such a high opinion of the way a character is portrayed in one version makes it difficult for me to accept the fact that she behaves in a very different way in the book version.

What do you think? Have you read Mary Poppins? Does it get better?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Lacemaker and the Princess

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

This story follows the unlikely friendship of a poor lacemaker (Isabelle) and Princess Therese, daughter of Queen Marie Antoinette. As the girls play and enjoy the luxuries of palace life, rumors of revolution start trickling in. Even Isabelle's older brother George believes that revolution may be what's best for the country. Will this friendship survive a revolution?

I am not really sure how to explain my feelings about this book. I think I liked the concept more than the execution. Therese and Isabelle's friendship never felt natural. It always felt very forced, mostly because of Therese's attitude towards anyone below her. I realize that she was raised royalty at a time that was guided by the Divine Rule of Kings, but it got kind of annoying. Plus, I always wondered if she actually cared for Isabelle or just enjoyed not being alone. I did believe that Isabelle cared for the princess overall, though she definitely had her moments of displeasure.

However, I did think that this book did an excellent job of softening both sides of the French Revolution. The King was portrayed as a very weak leader, but a loving man that cared for his children. I thought the scene where the King weeps after the death of his son was rather touching. I actually really liked the Marie Antoinette of this story. She seemed like a loving woman, who actually did care for the people of France. She came off as a rather cold mother, though some of that may have been more distraction due to having a very ill child than actual coldness. The Marie Antoinette of my 10th grade history class (the only time I learned about her) was much more evil character who didn't care for anyone but herself.

The story of the friendship itself is fiction. However, according to the author, the Queen was known to take compassion on children and that a peasant the Queen called Ernestine really did play with the princess. I don't know how many of the facts surrounding the revolution, etc were true, but with my very limited knowledge, they seemed believable. And, the book caught my interest enough that I am interested in doing some more research into the French Revolution, which I always think is a bonus.

Overall, I liked the story. It was a really quick read that fans of historical fiction will probably enjoy.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ginger Pye

By Eleanor Estes

This is a cute little story about the Pye Family: Mama, Papa, Jerry and Rachel, who adopt a puppy they name Ginger (who's a boy). Ginger is a brilliant dog that goes on lots of adventures with Rachel and Ginger, until Thanksgiving day when he is stolen out of the backyard. The rest of the story follows Rachel and Jerry as they attempt to find Ginger and rescue him from the "Unsavory Character" that took him.

This book is by no means great literature. It's pretty silly and very predictable. But, I liked it. I thought it was cute and fun, and it made me wish I had grown up in Cranberry with Jerry and Rachel. There is something so wistful about being allowed at 9 and 10 (and at times Uncle Benny, aged 3, got to participate to) to wander freely around town. I loved that Jerry, Rachel and Uncle Benny spent the afternoon dusting the church pews in order to get the money required to purchase Ginger. It's all just so light hearted. In a weird way it reminded me of Half Magic by Edward Eager. The two stories have absolutely nothing in common, but the childlike innocence and allowance of a free reign both really resonated with me.

The story is very predictable. I figured out who Unsavory was pretty much immediately, and it did get a little frustrating that the kids had no idea who it could possibly be. But, I think that may have been part growing up in that era. **SPOILER** Who would think that just "a boy in my class" could possibly be that bad guy? **END SPOILER**

Overall, it was a really fun sweet story. I think I would have loved if my dad had read this one to me when I was younger. It has a pretty good read aloud feel to it, and the adventure never gets scary enough to frighten even the youngest listeners.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Time Travelers

by Linda Buckley-Archer

(previously published as Gideon the Cutpurse, which I think is a better title)

This book follows Peter and Kate children of the 21st century who are accidentally sent back to July 1763. Before they are able to get their wits about them, the horrible Tar Man takes off with the anti-gravity machine and their only way home. Peter and Kate meet up with Gideon Seymour and make their way across the English country side in attempt to get home.

I liked this book. A lot. Gideon may be my new favorite character. He is clever, funny, and most importantly a moral man. He really seems to want to do what's right, even though it seems like life is against him at times. I read a review on Amazon that thought Gideon was really flat, so maybe I read more into him than was there, but I thought he was a well developed, likable character.

As to the two main characters, I liked Kate a lot. She was a fairly fleshed out character and was a strong leader throughout. Her little temper tantrums got a little old, and it bothered me that she had so little confidence in Peter. But, as the story progressed, she did seem to grow up, and I liked her overall. Peter wasn't as well developed. He had a pretty big chip on his shoulder (why don't my parents love me?) and he didn't seem to develop as much. That being said, based on the ending, I think there is a good chance that Peter will grow a lot in the second book.

The evil Tar Man was also really interesting. The author gave him quite the developed back story. I look forward to learning more about him. I suspect there is a lot more than meets the eye.

It appears that the author did a lot of research into the lifestyles of people in 1763 England. She included it in a way that was funny and entertaining as opposed to "educational" feeling. For example the word "bottom" was used for courage in those days. Throughout the story phrases like "I want you all to show some bottom on this adventure" popped up. It might be the 10 year old boy in me, but I thought it was hilarious. I do wish the King's Evil (or Scrofula) had been explained a little better. I finally looked it up online; it usually refers to a form of TB that people in the middle ages thought could be cured by a royal touch.

This is the first book in a trilogy. The ending makes it clear that a second book will be written (it's out now, called The Time Thief), so it might not be satisfying to all readers. It wasn't a true cliffhanger, but it definitely made me want to get my hands on the sequel. I look forward to more adventures from Kate, Peter, and Gideon.

PS. My husband liked the book based on one line on page 11, "Bossy pants, bossy pants, Katie is a bossy pants." :)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Leepike Ridge

By N.D. Wilson

When a teacher from eleven year old Tom's school proposes to his mom, Tom runs away. Actually, he doesn't run away, but he leaves to try to get himself together an ends up sucked underground and into a series of caves under the mountain where his house sits. In said caves he finds a dead body, a dog, a live man, four graves, and the adventure of a lifetime.

You wouldn't guess by reading this blog, but I never read fantasy until I got married. I can literally count on my fingers the fantasy books I read before then (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter (1-5), and A Wrinkle in Time); it just wasn't my thing. However, it is my husband's thing and I have since read a ton of fantasy and have come to enjoy it overall. But lately I've been really looking for a good old fashioned adventure story - no fantasy elements needed. Leepike Ridge exactly fit that bill.

There's a young protagonist, some particularly vile bad guys, a tragic back story, and a lot of good clean (well, muddy) fun. I loved Tom. His temper tantrum in the beginning seemed realistic (who would want his mom to marry a teacher?), and the adventure on the styrofoam raft, while improbable, reminded me a lot of Huck Finn's adventure down the Mississippi, though a lot shorter. He handled himself so well in the caves, and that first night when he found something to do just to keep the light on seemed like something I would have thought up.

I liked the sub story of buried treasure and the evil men who were willing to do anything, including take advantage of an emotional mother, to get it. The men are vile and rather violent for a kid's book, but most of the violence is off screen.

I also really liked Reg. I figured out who he was pretty quickly, but he was just so good. He was a great leader for Tom and he had a lot of really sage advice like "...our bellies aren't big enough for revenge. It turns sour and eats you up." (p 137) A very true sentiment that most people need to remember nowadays. I loved that he took care of the bodies, all of the bodies, he found in the cave and the general respect he had for what he found down there. And, the hot pink he wore for the final adventure was a great detail. I giggle just trying to picture it.

The ending seemed to come together a little too nicely, but at the same time, it worked really well. So, I don't actually have a complaint about it. I just wish we learned where the entrance Ted found was! And why Tom's mom even put up with Jeffrey; she didn't seem to like him much.

Highly recommended to lovers of great adventure everywhere.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My First Reading Challenge

Heart of a Child Challenge

hosted by Becky of Becky's Book Reviews

The basics:

How many? Read 3 to 6 books

When? Between February 1, 2008 and July 14, 2008

What? Books and authors that you discovered, loved, or adored as a child.

Here's my list (though it's not required):

The Amusement Park Mystery, by Gertrude Chandler Warner
This was the very first mystery I ever read, and it cemented forever my love for mysteries.

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
My dad read this to me when I was in 2nd grade (or thereabouts).

Best of Enemies, by Carolyn Keene
Oh, how I loved Nancy Drew. She was even better when she teamed up with the Hardy Boys!

Hatchet, by Gary Paulson
This was my favorite book in 5th grade. My dad even bought me a hatchet for Christmas that year.

The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams

I have fond memories of this book, though I remember being scared to death of getting so sick that all of my toys had to be burned afterwards.

Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd
This is still one of my favorite books.

It was kind of hard deciding which books to read. I made an initial list then spent the weekend thinking up more books that I could add. So, I will read these for the challenge, but I will probably end up re-reading more books from my early days.

This is the first reading challenge that I have signed up for, but I think it should be very doable. And, I am excited to re-read some of these books! I will post some sort of update regarding all of these books, though I am not sure I will do a formal review for them or at least all of them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Shadow Thieves

By Anne Ursu

Greek myths are in right now. This is the second series that I have picked up where the Greek gods feature prominently (the other is Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan), and I have to admit that I've enjoyed both of them a lot.

The Shadow Thieves follows Charlotte and Zee (short for Zachary). Charlotte is a quick talking, mopey adolescent. She thinks well on her feet, but she has a difficult time dealing with the human race. Her mom calls her "prickly." Zee is Charlotte's cousin who was raised in London and insists on calling soccer balls footballs. After Zee's grandmother dies, all of his friends become very ill; they are unable to get out of bed or do anything, but no one can figure out what's wrong with them. Eventually, Zee decides that it must all be his fault, so he talks his folks into sending him to live with his cousin in America. Unfortunately, once he arrives, Charlotte's friends start falling ill. Charlotte and Zee must figure out a way to save their friends.

I have a love/hate relationship with books where the language is super informal. It really rubs me the wrong way, yet I almost always like the story, and because the language is informal, there are usually a lot of funny lines throughout. That was the kind of relationship I had with this book. The language is pretty informal, and at times the author talks to the reader ("You thought your name was bad" p 1) which drives me crazy. But, I really enjoyed the story and thought it was hilarious. Here are some favorite passages: (all pages refer to paperback ed)

"That day the topic of conversation was, not surprisingly, Charlotte and her attitude. Said topic was a particular favorite of Charlotte's mom's; no one in the history of the world ever liked to talk about anything as much as Charlotte's mom liked to talk about Charlotte's attitude" (p 8)

"Okay, so not the truth, exactly. To Charlotte, truth was a flexible instrument, one that could be readily shaped to fit her needs." (p 24)

Charon (the guy that rows the dead across the River Styx) describing a typical day at his job: "He spends his day rowing back and forth along the Styx, listening to the dead freak out because they're dead and that they had so much to live for, blah, blah, blah and where the heck were the pearly gates anyway?" (p 228)

Or when describing the underworld's crazy bureaucracy: "The underworld wasn't supposed to be like shouldn't be run like some two-bit provincial government. Bureaucracy isn't even a Greek word." (p 125-126)

Okay, maybe that last one will probably only appeal to a Political Scientist (ie me), but I laughed out loud when I read it.

Other than the informal language, I really enjoyed this book. I found Charlotte clever and funny, and she reminded me a lot of me when I was younger (though I never knew what to say). I struggled a bit more with Zee. He seemed like a nice enough kid, but he was so busy being stressed/feeling sorry for himself that he never seemed to grow as a character.

I loved that the Underworld was the setting for a lot of the book. The Underworld isn't all that bad unless you end are sent to Tarturus (very rare), though it's not necessarily the heaven most people are looking for. It was original and different. I also really liked the character of Hades; he didn't fit a single myth that I had ever read about him, but he seemed kind of realistic. The bad guy (err, um Evil Genius) was hilarious, and while I am glad he was soundly defeated, I enjoyed his chapters quite a bit.

I am sure there will be comparisons to Percy Jackson, but this book stands well on its own. The stories aren't even similar other than the Greek myths being real thing. It's the first of a series (the second book The Siren Song, is available in hardback) but the ending should satisfy (I hate cliffhangers!). I look forward to the next installment.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Crooked Kind of Perfect

By Linda Urban

Ten year old, Zoe Elias wants to play the piano at Carnegie Hall. In order to achieve this goal, she first needs to take up the piano; unfortunately her father buys her an organ. But determined to eventually reach the glories of Carnegie Hall, Zoe faithfully begins lessons on her organ, and eventually gives a grand performance at the annual Perform-o-Rama.

My description of it makes it sound lame, but it really isn't. Please don't judge an amazing book by my lame description.

I heard about this book through various blogs that all praised it highly. Due to said praise, I really wanted to get my hands on a copy. But, alas my library, does not have a copy, and the local bookstore never seemed to have one in either. So, finally, for Valentine's Day, my husband bought me a copy of this book. I read it in a couple of hours one Saturday afternoon and loved it.

This book is hilarious and sweet and amazing all in one little bundle. I found myself reading my husband entire chapters. His mother is a gifted pianist, so he found a lot of the humor in it that I did. My favorite chapter is one called Maestro. It is just fabulous; Zoe is being so serious in describing something I am sure she daydreamed about regularly, but I couldn't help laughing. Here's a brief sampling:

"My piano teacher was supposed to be a sweet, rumpled old man. ...
'A prodigy,' he would say. He would discourage me from practicing too much and spoiling the spontaneity of my play. ...
Soon, Maestro would come to think of me as the granddaughter he never had. ... And then one night, just as I am about to walk on stage, he would hand me a velvet box and it would be a diamond tiara and I would put it on and he would weep for joy." (p 20)

Don't you just love him?

I love Zoe's sense of humor and her ability to look passed the flaws of people around her admirable. She is an only child, and her father stays at home working on courses from "Living Room University" with such intriguing classes as "Bake your way to the bank: turning cookies into cash" for which he got a diploma declaring him a Biscotti Hottie. Her mother is more or less a work-a-holic, who doesn't really have time for the things that Zoe finds important. Or at least, any time she does have will be dropped at the first sign of trouble at work. Her friendship with Wheeler is cute with the perfect level of "romance" for a book targeting this age group. It was kind of hinted at, but basically non-existent.

The ending is sweet and fit the story well. I highly recommend A Crooked Kind of Perfect to anyone out there who's ever had a dream of becoming something greater than they are.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Who do you love the most?

Don't you just love when you "fall in love" with a character in a book?

It might be your knight in shining armor: my roommates from college would all love to meet and marry a real-life Mr. Darcy. Most of the members of my bookclub think that Edward Cullen walks on water (though there was one vote for Jacob in the mix). When I was younger (probably early middle school), I had a huge crush on Frank Hardy; I thought he was amazing.

Or someone that you would just really like to be friends with: my little brother desperately wants to be Harry Potter's best friend; my husband would love to hang out with Bartimaeus from Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy; and I wouldn't mind spending an afternoon with the Weasley twins or having a friend like Leslie Burke (though preferably one that didn't die).

Possibly it's someone you wish you were like: I would love to be Meggie from Inkheart. She is brave, clever and smart. Plus, she has a dad who can read characters out of books! I wouldn't mind being Meggie's aunt Elinor either. She is a cranky old coot with piles and piles of books. How fabulous. I think if I had read A Crooked Kind of Perfect when I was younger, I would have wanted to play the piano and have the quirky life (and the sense of humor) that Zoe has. My husband would love to be an evil genius like Artemis Fowl or a smooth talking thief like David Eddings' Silk.

Or maybe it's someone you wish to meet to see if they really are as horrible as they are described: I wouldn't mind meeting Snape to see if he really has greasy hair. Maybe he just woke up late one day and didn't shower. While he would have had yucky hair that day, it doesn't mean it was true all of the time. Maybe the poor guy just had a bad day.

Some characters just seem to have a realistic feel to them, a character that draws you to them, and you continue reading in hopes of getting to know them better.

Movies do horrible things to this little love affair though. I conjure up distinct images in my mind and they simply can't be met by most actors. I was thoroughly disappointed with the way that Sirius Black looked in the movies - he simply wasn't the dashing fellow that I pictured. And, I know my friends are really picturing Colin Firth when they talk about Mr. Darcy. Oh well, everyone knows the books are always better.

So, who are some of your favorite characters? Is there anyone you would like to meet in real life if you could?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Tithe: A Modern Tale of Faerie

By Holly Black

Tithe is the story of Kaye, a teenager with a fairly messed up life. She dropped out of school at 14 to work full time at a Chinese restaurant in an attempt to earn some money. She follows her punk-rock wanna be mother from place to place and gig to gig. Eventually, they end up at Kaye's grandmother's home where Kaye discovers she is a pixie.

The story of Tithe itself is fairly straightforward. I thought it flowed pretty well, but it certainly wasn't groundbreaking. I thought Kaye should have shown some more emotion when she learned of the betrayal of her friends. ** SPOILER ** Honestly, they tried to have her killed! but she just seemed to take it in stride. She got a little angry, yelled a bit, Roiben was made King, the end. It just didn't seem to be a realistic response ** END SPOILER **

The world of the fey is parallel to this world, so it was easy to get into the setting without anything feeling too foreign. Kaye is an interesting character that seems really developed on some levels and completely flat on others. She cleans up after her mother when she gets too drunk/drugged out to do so herself; drops out of high school to work full-time for the money; etc. Yet, she obsesses over boys that she hardly knows to the point where it becomes an infatuation. She bewitches another the be in love with her simply to see it happen. Maybe she is mature where she has to be (ie trying to survive) and completely immature everywhere else and that's what came off as flat? It was just kind of odd. For some reason, I really liked Roiben. He was a jerk, and fairly flat - a lot of his character jumps were pretty convenient and unrealistic - but I liked his conflicted soul, and he turns out ok in the end.

There is a lot of gratuitous swearing in this book. It made me really uncomfortable. I guess the author was trying to be "realistic" or something, but it just came off as annoying and unnecessary. So, while I enjoyed the story overall (maybe 3 stars out of 5), I wouldn't recommend it, and I definitely won't be reading the sequels.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

February 2008 Booklist

Picture Books

Tuesday, by David Wiesner *
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein *
June 29, 1999, by David Wiesner
Kitten's First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes *
Hurricane, by David Wiesner
Mei Li, by Thomas Handforth
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton
The Three Pigs, by David Wiesner *
Shadow, by Marcia Brown
Stone Soup, by Marcia Brown
A Story A Story, by Gail E. Haley
My Friend Rabbit, by Eric Rohman *
Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen
Jacob had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback *

Early Readers

Dulcie's Taste of Magic, a Disney Fairy book

Middle Readers

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick *
Frindel, by Andrew Clements (audio book) *

Young Adult Books

, by Stephenie Meyer
M.C. Higgins the Great, by Virginia Hamilton
Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones
River Secrets, by Shannon Hale *

Adult Books

The Redemption of Althalus, by David and Leigh Eddings *
Magician: Apprentice, by Raymond Feist
Magician: Master, by Raymond Feist
Silverthorn, by Raymond Feist *
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

* = a favorite.

Is it bad that so many of the books that I read were favorites? I do try to avoid books that I know I won't like, so maybe that's the reason? Either way, I would recommend any of the "favorites" listed above. Actually, I would recommend most of the books listed above anyway, though with some sort of intro like "it wasn't my favorite, but..." The only book that I probably would never recommend was M.C. Higgins the Great, which I only read in my attempt to read all the Newbery winners. I found it rather boring - but I don't think I understood the message the author was trying to portray (or something).