Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Warrior Heir

by Cinda Williams Chima

Ever since he had heart surgery as an infant, Jack has had to take a spoonful of medicine every morning. For 16 years he has never missed a dose, until one day, when he is running late for school. Jack remembers about half-way through the school day, but can't get a hold of his mother, and the principle will let him go home only if he will accept a detention and miss soccer try-outs. Because he feels fine, Jack decides to risk waiting to take his medicine until after the try-outs. As the day progresses, Jack not only doesn't feel the affects of not taking his medicine, but he also feels better and more alert than he's ever felt. However, at the soccer try-outs, Jack gets angry at another player and something goes wrong, nearly killing the other player. Thus Jack finds out he is actually a warrior, member of the weir (a group of Wizards, Enchanters, Sorcerers, Warriors, and Soothsayers that live amongst the Anaweir (aka muggles)), that the English War of the Roses never really ended, and throws Jack into a world of dueling wizards and a battle for his life.

While The Warrior Heir is definately fantasy, it has a very "real" feel to it. Jack lives in Trinity, Ohio. While I don't actually know of there is a real Trinity in Ohio, it feels like small town USA as you read it. I just moved away from a very little town and could picture a lot of the things Jack talks about (how everyone knows everyone, when new people move in they are viewed as "fresh meat" etc).

On the whole, I enjoyed the story a lot. Jack was a fun character to follow and root for. He goes through a large range of emotions, particularly when he finds out that his aunt has been lying to him (and his mother) for years about his heart surgery, but it's all done in a way that wasn't too whiney. He grew and developed and was really fun to cheer for. As a result, I was so relieved at how the book ended.

The supporting cast was just as fun. Aunt Linda, Will, and Fintch were hilarious, and I enjoyed their interaction. It was nice to have friends that didn't just go with the flow, but actually made an effort to help Jack - even when he wouldn't allow them. I also really liked Leander Hastings. I was glad that his story was fleshed out by the end; the whole time I was reading, I wanted to know more about him.

There is a lot of action, sometimes quite violent (though never graphic) throughout the story. However, the action never overtook the story, and for the most part, actually added to the storyline. I thought the author did a good job of balancing the two.

My only real complaint is that I wish that the caste system of the Weir (pronounced "ware") was a bit better explained. The Wizards control everyone else and that is about all we know. Do the other groups (non-wizards) get along? In the hundreds of years since the tournament was established has no one really tried to stop it? and various other questions about the world.

On the whole, I really enjoyed the story and would highly recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 26, 2008

Walk Two Moons

by Sharon Creech

Salamanca Tree Hiddle (Sal) is driving across the country with her eccentric grandparents in an attempt to find and bring her mother home. In an effort to prevent her grandparents from talking about her mother (and to keep Sal's mind off of her grandfather's erratic driving), she tells them about her friend Phoebe Winterbottom and the lunatic. As the story progresses both Sal and the reader learn that weaved into Phoebe's story is Sal's own story of love, loss, and new beginnings.

There are MAJOR SPOILERS in this review. Sorry, I just don't know how to do it without them.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it is a really moving story about a little girl (well, a 13 year old) coming to terms with her mother's very untimely death, compounded by the fact that her mother left unannounced to "find" herself. I think some of the feelings and emotions expressed by Sal are feelings that any youngish person would feel in her situation, and I think if I had been in the same boat, this book would have really meant something to me. The scene in Lewiston was particularly well done.

On the other hand, the story is just so random. Particularly the story of the Winterbottom's and the supposed lunatic. The entire time Sal was telling the story, it just felt so melodramatic and frustrating. What era was the story supposed to be set in? Are there any mother's today that are really in the same position as Mrs. Winterbottom? Especially someone who didn't appear to be overly religious, her predicament just didn't make sense. And the scene where Phoebe's mom kisses the lunatic grossed me out. I had to return the book I borrowed, so I can't look it up, but the impression I had was that Sal saw them kiss, like lovers, instead of a kiss that would have been appropriate for a birth mother to her long lost birth son.

Overall, I did enjoy the story, and I really do think that it might be comforting to a young person who has lost someone close to them. It was just a bit dramatic for my tastes.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Beekeeper's Apprentice

by Laurie R. King

Mary Russell is merely fifteen years old when she nearly trips over Sherlock Holmes in the Sussex Downs. Holmes, who has been retired for several years, quickly picks up on Mary's keen intelligence and invites her to his home. Eventually, Holmes begins tutoring Mary in the art of detection, scientific discovery, among other thins. After a few minor cases, Mary (called Russell throughout most of the book) is eventually taken on as a full apprentice, and helps Holmes find the daughter of an American Senator who was kidnapped in Whales. Mary then heads off to Oxford until both of their lives are threatened by and unknown attacker.

I am a huge fan of Mary Russell. I think she is very funny and I love her interactions with Holmes. Their relationship grows and changes a lot throughout the story: first she is just someone who runs into him; then she is someone that it interesting to talk with (she is very smart after all and can keep up with him); eventually she becomes his apprentice; and finally she becomes an equal (on some, but not all levels) with him. I love the development of the relationship and their brutal honesty with each other.

The bad guy (I'll call the bad guy bg) isn't really seen throughout the story. For the most part, bg pays other people to do the dirty work. Yet, bg is also always present because bg is always there taunting Holmes and using his own methods against him. Bg is truly a clever and deadly foe.

The one thing I don't necessarily like about this book (or the original Holmes' books for that matter) is that the reader is never really given all of the information that she needs to have a chance at solving the case. It's much more of an intellectual mystery where you are given lots of interesting facts about the world, mathematics, etc, but unless you know what to do with them (ie. how to use base 8), they really don't help you much in solving the case. Sometimes it's fun to pretend that you are an armchair sleuth, but in this case, I had no chance of putting it all together.

That being said, I think that King does a fabulous job of creating a story that draws you in and keeps you reading. There are 8 other books in this series, and other than one or two near the middle, I like and recommend them all.

4.5 out of 5 stars

picture taken from Laurie King's website.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Heart of a Child Challenge Complete

Well, I had hoped to finish this challenge before we moved, and I made it. Yay for me.

I did kind of cheat though. First, I read Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. However, I don't own a copy and it turns out my library doesn't own a copy either. So, I improvised and went to Wal Mart and read their copy. I actually felt kind of clever about the whole thing.

As to the book itself, it's short and simple. The pictures are rather ugly, but I remember spending hours reading that book with my dad and finding the mouse in all the pictures with the bedroom. I'm the oldest and my dad still talks about how smart I was as a baby finding the mouse every time :)

Next, I wanted to read Best of Enemies a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys super mystery. However, my copy is at my parents house (far far away) , and my library didn't have a copy. So, I went to the local used bookstore and bought the only super mystery I could find: Out of Control by Carolyne Keene.

I have a soft spot for Nancy Drew. She was my reading staple for a very long time, and I would read her mysteries when I was too stressed to function in college. They are pretty cheesy, but there is something to relaxing about going back to an old friend and that's what all of her books are to me. Even the ones I haven't read (although not the ones published since like 2000 or something when her focus turns to fashion) all feel so comfortable to me.

So with that huge disclaimer out of the way, I will admit that I really enjoyed this story. I remember reading it before, so the mystery itself wasn't that big of a deal, but I enjoyed re-reading it. I can better understand why my mom thought I should be reading "real" literature in middle school (when I only wanted to read Nancy), but I still love her and will encourage any future female offspring to read her as well.

The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams

This book was the last one on the list, and it took forever for the library to get it in (someone turned it in 2 weeks late), but it's a nice short story. One of my friends says she was terrified of this book as a child, but I remember being fascinated by it. Particularly the idea that toys could become real. Though, I will admit that every time I got sick I would stress about all my toys getting burned.

Overall, this has been a fun challenge, and I am really glad I gave a challenge a shot. There are tons more out there that I am interested in doing, so hopefully this won't be the last challenge I do.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ranger's Apprentice book 4: The Battle for Skandia

by John Flanagan

I don't really know how to talk about this book without giving away spoilers for the first three books, so before I talk about it I would like to sing praises to this series in general.

The first book, The Ruins of Gorlan, was published in the States in 2005. The cover is really dark and kind of creepy looking. I looked at it a bunch of times, but never bought it - I don't like dark or creepy books. However, my mom took my shopping and let me pick any book I wanted, so I decided to take a risk and picked this one out. It is fabulous and not at all dark or creepy. Well, there is a creepy bad guy, but everyone else is not creepy. There's no magic and it's full of adventure.

The story follows young orphan Will, who desperately wants to be a warrior, but is too small to be chosen as one. Instead, a Ranger takes Will under his wing and teaches him the skills of a Ranger. Ranger's are kind of an elite guard of the kingdom. They are loyal to the King and report to him, but they do not necessarily have to report to the King. They are quick with a bow, sneaky, and often used as spies. Simply put, they are awesome.

The next two books The Burning Bridge and The Icebound Land take place relatively soon after the first book ends. However, I should warn you that The Burning Bridge leaves an awful cliffhanger ending. So bad that my husband almost spent $50 to have the third one shipped in from Australia. The third one definately leaves room for the fourth, but isn't quite as heartbreaking to end on.

There are currently 7 books in this series published in Australia. Book 4 was just released in the States in March, and (according to Amazon) the 5th will be released in November. I am happy that the next one is coming out so soon since the first three were released a year apart.

Now on to the fourth book. From here on out, there may be SPOILERS relating to the first three books...

The Battle for Skandia starts near the end of the winter that began in The Icebound Land. Will and Evanlyn are realizing that they must soon leave the cabin they've been staying in soon so the hunters that use the cabin won't find them and return them to slavery; Halt and Horrace arrive at the Skandian border to find that all the border guards have been slain; and Erak (who I was pleased to see had a more prominent role in this book) has been sent by his ruler to collect some back taxes. Through a series of events (that worked out a bit too perfectly) everyone meets up and together they discover that Skandia is under attack by the Temujai. The Rangers (and Evanlyn and Horace) help the Skandians with some war strategy and the battle is on.

I (of course) really liked this book. There were a few little things that bothered me about it - like how quickly the after affects of the warmweed wore off. He was very weak at the beginning, but it just seemed to kind of go away when it was necessary. Also, it seems like a drug that was that addictive would have had some sort of mental consequence, but maybe not.

However, I enjoyed the adventure, and I loved that Will and Halt were in the same scenes again. I love them both and they are the best when they are playing off of each other. It was interesting to me how much braver Will was around Halt though - he seemed to be much more willing to stand up for himself and butt himself into things than he was in the first two books. It was nice to have Will back as a character though, and maybe more initiative was an after affect of the warmweed?

I am happy to report that this book ends well. The loose ends are tied up. The author's web site says that this story arc is complete. The next book takes place 5 years after the conclusion of this book when Will is a full Ranger.

Overall, I highly recommend this entire series.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 9, 2008

I am SO excited

no release date yet (at least on Amazon), but I think the fact that they have the cover art means the end is near!!

UPDATE: Barnes and Noble says it will be out October 7.

It's already been released in Germany, and I actually considered learning German to read it :)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Water for Elephants

by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants follows the story Jacob Jankowski. When the story opens, Jacob is either ninety or ninety three (he can't quite remember) and in a nursing home. The story then flashes back and forth between present day Jacob and a much younger Jacob, who after his parents die runs away to the circus.

I have looked at this book for months. Picking it up, reading the back, and putting it back on the shelf. It just didn't quite draw me in enough to buy it (my library doesn't have a copy), but my boss loaned it to me, so I gave it a shot. I really liked this story and the writing. I really haven't had much time to read lately, but I found myself so drawn in to the story that I was able to finish it in just a few days. I thought Jacob was interesting, and the prologue drew me right in. The circus story line kept me interested, and I loved the details that were thrown in. I would actually be interested in doing some research on train circuses during the depression. I also really liked the present day Jacob. He was a grouchy old fart, but I found him hilarious.

However, there is a lot of sex in this book. Most of it is near the beginning (maybe chapter 3 or 4?), and I actually skipped most of that chapter. It was COMPLETELY unnecessary to the plot and could be summed up like this "Barbara stripped" or something. I almost quit the book at that point, but decided to give it another chapter or so. There wasn't too much sex after that until near the end when there is a fairly graphic sex scene as well, which I again skipped. There's also some language, not as much as Tithe, but enough that it made me uncomfortable.

So, basically, I don't know how I feel about the book. It really did keep me interested, and I thought the writing was fabulous. However, I can't recommend it to anyone because I would be way too embarrassed. I am mostly reviewing to give people with it on their TBR list a heads up because it caught me totally off guard.

April Book List

Picture Books
Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, by Mo Willems
The Library Mouse, by Daniel Kirk *
The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, by Chris Van Allsburg
Little Bird Biddle Bird, by David Kirk
The Very Quiet Cricket, by Eric Carle *
Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Suess
Once a Mouse, by Marcia Brown
Ashanti to Zulu, by Margaret Musgrove and Diane Dillon

Middle Readers
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett *
Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz
The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil, by Wiley Miller
No Talking!, by Andrew Clements
Out of Control, but Carolyne Keene

Young Adult
Hatchet, by Gary Paulson *
100 Cupboards, by N.D. Wilson
The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt *
Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin *
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen