January 28, 2010

Juvenile/YA Book Reviews, Pt. 2

Posted in 1 tagged , , , , at 9:03 pm by suepenkivech

Dead is the New Black and sequels) by Marlene Perez

Can’t get enough of Twilight?  Check out the Dead is a New Black series.  No traditional vamps so far – but it’s got werewolves aplenty, a ghost, dopplegangers, and an energy vamp – and a mystery in each book, which psychic Daisy Giordano and her sisters have to solve.  This is what Twilight could’ve been – action and adventure mingled in between the romance.  You don’t want to miss it!

Recommended:  Middle and High School aged girls, but content appropriate for lower ages as well.

Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

This one was recommended to me this week by one of my fifth graders, and is a great book for historic fiction fans.  Mattie Cook lives in Philadelphia in the late 1700’s, during the yellow fever epidemic which decimated the city.  The book begins with one of Mattie’s friends dying of the fever, which everyone considers a fluke – until more and more people fall ill and die as well.  I was fascinated by the accounts of quarantine, of then-contemporary medical treatments, of the death carts reminiscent of the black plague in Europe – and by Mattie’s story and how she tries to keep up hope, even as life as she knows it disintegrates.

Recommended:  4-8 grades.  Despite the female protagonist, boys might just like this one as well.

Bobby vs Girls (Accidentally) by Lisa Yee

Poor Bobby.  Being in fourth grade is tough – especially when your best friend is a girl (and is starting to act like one!), your father’s a former football star turned stay-at-home Dad (who calls himself a PTA mom and who insists on baking inedible cupcakes for your bake sale) and your sister sets your hair with rollers while you’re on a nebulizer (petting that dog was not a good idea) and you can’t escape.

It only gets worse when your best friend comes in while you’re being tortured with curlers – and tells one of her friends.

Who tells all her friends.

This means one thing.  War. 

Unfortunately, the war escalates into a full blown battle of the sexes, with Bobby and Holly caught in the middle.  Will one of them cross the lines and save their friendship?  Only time – and a class president election – will tell.

Recommended:  3-5 graders, both sexes.  Wonderful, amusing story of friendship and misunderstandings – and overcoming the latter when the former’s at stake.


January 26, 2010

Juvenile/YA Book Reviews

Posted in 1 tagged , , , , at 2:54 am by suepenkivech

It’s been a long time since I did one of these posts, but thanks to the third grade at our school and a reading contest that requires me to tie-dye my hair if they outread me, I’m on a roll with the books!  So, without further ado…

Shredderman: Secret Identity by Wendelin Van Draanen

Shredderman tells the story of Nolan, a 5th grade boy who’s better known as “Nerd” thanks to Bubba, the class bully.  He gets an assignment to do a project on something he feels strongly about – positive or negative.  After weighing a few options, he decides to do it on Bubba.

Unfortunately, Nolan realizes that if he turns it in as his project, he’s going to be exposed as the one who Did it – which will only result in more abuse.  So he adopts the identity of “Shredderman” and creates his own website – complete with pictures and videos he took with a hidden camera in his backpack.

Creating Shredderman.com not only gives Nolan the confidence to stick up for himself, it’s a huge hit with his classmates – who gain the confidence to defend themselves as well.  Moreover, the school officials finally have evidence of the bully’s activities.  While Bubba Bixby doesn’t change his ways, he no longer has the same amount of power over the school that he did.  All thanks to the amazing Shredderman.

Recommended:  Wonderful book for 4th – 6th grade boys (girls too!)  It’s an easy read, only 138 pages long, but Nolan is easy to identify with and the attitudes of his classmates are pretty much dead-on for the age group. 

The Dog Days of Charlotte Hayes by Marlane Kennedy

Charlotte isn’t a dog person.  She likes dogs – doesn’t run from them, doesn’t mind if they come up to her, isn’t allergic – but she’s just not a huge fan.

Unfortunately, she’s stuck taking care of the St. Bernard her dad brought home and then lost interest in. 

Unpredictably, this isn’t a “dog book” – it’s not the touching story of a girl who decides she loves the dog and convinces her family to do the same.  It’s about a girl who realizes that maybe they aren’t the best family to be taking care of Beauregard, and earns the money to buy the dog from her father; not because she wants to keep him, but because she wants to give him to a rescue group so he’ll be placed  in a better home.   In the process, she learns a lot about responsibility – and ultimately realizes that while a St. Bernard might not be the best choice for their family, a different dog might be.

Recommended: 4th – 6th grade girls.  It’s not brilliant, but it’s a good story.


Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez

Since Lina’s mother died the previous year, life just hasn’t been the same.  Her father, a high school English teacher, has buried himself in his books.  Lina’s grades have dropped, at least partially because instead of reading Watership Down  she’s using the chapter tests as a creative outlet and writing a story of her life using rabbits as characters.  Her best friend’s more interested in her boyfriend than she is in her – and her friend’s mother is having difficulty with her recent divorce and pouring all her energy into making confetti eggs. 

Confetti Girl tells Lina’s story, and how she comes to realize that while maybe things won’t ever be quite the same, with a little effort on everyone’s part they just might be ok.  Great story about the grieving process and how it affects different people in different ways. 

Recommended:  4th – 8th grade girls, or anyone who’s recently lost a loved one.

And finally…

Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

What do you get when you combine a dystopian future, gladiator games, and reality tv?

No, the answer isn’t Gladiator Meets American Idol – though that would be interesting.  It’s the world of the Hunger Games series.

Seventy four years ago, in what was once the United States, thirteen districts rose up against a corrupt central government.  After the fighting was over, twelve districts remained – and the Capitol decided to make sure they never rebelled again.

And so, each year, each downtrodden district must pick by lottery a boy and a girl between 13 and 18 to go to the Hunger Games, a reality tv show broadcast nation-wide.  If one of the contestants from their district wins, the district is given everything they’ll need to survive another year.  If they lose – well, it’s a fight to the death. 

Sixteen year old Katniss isn’t chosen this year for the games.  Her thirteen year old sister is.  Knowing that the kindhearted Prim doesn’t stand a chance, Katniss volunteers to take her place, despite knowing that no one from District 12 has won in nearly 25 years. 

Sounds dark, right?  It is, and it’s not.  The focus isn’t on a bunch of kids killing each other; it’s on Katniss’s reaction to the situation, the alliances and relationships she forms, and the points where, despite knowing she’s risking it all, she says, “This is wrong, I won’t do this.” 

And, because Katniss dares to take a stand, other people do, too.

Recommendation:  Wonderful book series for middle and high schoolers, both boys and girls – and their parents.  Like Harry Potter, this isn’t a series just for kids; it’s a well thought out universe that will appeal to anyone who enjoys a fantasy setting and spectacular characterization.  While romance is present, it’s understated; there’s nothing that’ll jump out and scream “Girls’ book!” to male readers, whose interest will be piqued by the non-stop action and fast-paced story line.

August 16, 2009

Review: 39 Clues #5, The Black Circle

Posted in 1 tagged at 11:42 pm by suepenkivech

THE 39 CLUES BOOK 5 – THE BLACK CIRCLE by Patrick Carman

When Grace Cahill died, she offered her heirs a choice – either accept a check for a million dollars, or choose to take a clue and be part of a hunt for the secret to the Cahill family’s fame and fortune.

Her grandchildren, Amy and Dan, chose to take a clue. With the help of their au pair Nellie, they’ve travelled the world, collecting further clues and dodging their scheming relatives, each of whom is determined to be the first to acquire the secret.

In this chapter of the series, Amy and Dan are awoken by a hotel clerk with a telegram, and thrown into yet another adventure. An unknown agency identifying itself only as NRR is guiding their steps, forcing them to leave Nellie and Saladin behind and giving them a deadline to follow a series of instructions to track down the next clue – in Russia. Realizing that it will be impossible to meet the deadline on their own, Amy and Dan select an unlikely ally; their cousin, Hamilton Holt.

Unfortunately, while the Holts are cooperating, the Lucian teams are united against them. The Kabras and Irina Spasky will do anything to keep them from uncovering some of Russia’s – and by extention the Lucian branch’s – darkest secrets.

Each of the 39 Clues books deals with a specific period in history, and THE BLACK CIRCLE is no exception. While Amy and Dan hunt for the clue, they learn the stories of the Romanov massacre, the monk Rasputin, and the legend of Anastasia, the Russian grand duchess whose body was never found after the massacre.

Recommended for ages 8 – 14, but adults will enjoy this series, too!

March 25, 2009

Book Reviews

Posted in 1 tagged at 3:58 am by suepenkivech

Castle of Mirrors by Margaret Peterson Haddix

If you’re looking for your traditional fairy tale story, this isn’t it.

Cecelia’s grown up in a remote town. Her life is as dull as everyone else’s – she cleans, gets the cow from the pasture, goes fishing with her friend Harper – until the sun’s gone down.

That’s when her studies begin. Because unbeknownst to her peasant neighbors, Cecelia is the true princess of the kingdom, raised in disguise to protect her from whatever enemy killed her royal parents. Only her nanny, the knight who tutors her in etiquette and government, and her friend Harper know the truth.

But is it true? The “decoy princess” in the palace has a different perspective, as do the girls already in the palace dungeon, who tell stories remarkably like Cecelia’s. But if she isn’t the kingdom’s real princess, why are forces gathering against her?

Every Soul A Star by Wendy Mass

Recipe for a great book: Pick the three most dissimilar people imaginable – a home-schooled astronomy buff who’s spent her entire life in the middle of nowhere, an A-Clique princess whose dream is to become a supermodel, and an overweight sci-fi fan/artist with a mile wide inferiority complex.

Toss them together on a campground preparing for a solar eclipse, and mix well. Let both the insecurities and strengths rise to the surface, and toss in a situation that forces them all to work together. What do you get?

A really great juvenile/YA story. If this one doesn’t win an award, I’ll be sorely disappointed.

39 Clues: The Sword Thief by Peter Lerangis

Amy and Dan’s quest for the clues takes them to Japan this time, searching for clues left by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of history’s greatest warriors. But this time, outsmarting their relatives isn’t enough – they need to cooperate with them!

March 14, 2009

Review – Les Miserables, as performed by St. Catherine’s High School

Posted in 1 tagged , , , at 12:00 pm by suepenkivech

Something different today, as reviews go. Instead of a book, I’m feeling a need to gush over the performance of Les Mis I saw tonight at St. Catherine’s High School in Racine, Wisconsin.

Now, I’m a long-time fan of Les Mis, as some of you probably know. I’ve gone through two copies of the 25th Anniversary Concert CD, I have the DVD, and I was fortunate enough to see a professional live performance a few years ago in Milwaukee. So, when my daughters came home from school and told me St. Cat’s was performing the play this weekend, I immediately checked the calendar and asked if they wanted to go. Even the “School Edition” as performed by high school students promised to be a real treat for them, though I’d expected a “compressed” version of the original play.

Surprisingly, my older daughter, who enjoys performing in live theatre, declined in favor of watching Wolverine and the X-Men on TV (Sadly for her, this proved to be a rerun, so I imagine there will be regrets expressed tomorrow). My younger daughter begged to go anyway, so we rushed through dinner and headed off to the theatre. Unfamiliar with the School Edition, I’d thoroughly expected to see, at best, the highlights of the regular stage performance.

I was wrong.

There were parts cut from the play, granted – mostly some of the back and forth between Javert and ValJean, which no one who hasn’t listened to the CDs for years were likely to miss. Second verses of certain songs were lost as well. But the performances themselves – I had to keep reminding myself that these were high school students. Alex Krummel did an amazingly convincing performance as Jean ValJean, which I can’t think would be a role easily played by your average high school senior. He has an incredible voice, and if there were any notes he missed, I didn’t notice.

As for Zena Mengesha, who played the part of Eponine…

Eponine is my favorite character in Les Mis by far, and I absolutely adored Lea Salonga’s performance on the concert DVD. The professional actress whom I saw years ago impressed me far less in the role than the high school student who performed tonight. Eponine’s death scene, as performed by Dominic Diehn (Marius) and Zena Mengesha, was easily my favorite part of the play, and the next scene had begun before the audience stopped applauding.

The play was 3 hours long, including a 15 minute intermission – an ambitious undertaking for a high school. I have a great deal of respect for everyone involved in the show – all of the performers, the orchestra, the directors, whoever was responsible for the amazing backdrops. They’re performing again on Sunday at 2pm, and if you’re in the area, I strongly recommend catching the show.

March 5, 2009

Reviews – “I, Q” and “Skeleton Creek”

Posted in 1 tagged at 11:53 am by suepenkivech

Am I writing? Yes. But it’s the beginning of the new bookfair season, and I’ve got a stack of books to read – it’s much easier to booktalk if you’ve actually read the books in question. And so…

“I, Q” by Roland Smith

One of the best books of the season thus far, and a must-read for kids who are into action, adventure, and espionage. “I, Q” has has all three – in addition to likeable, believable characters, enough gadgets to make James Bond jealous, and a fast-paced plot. Step-siblings find themselves mixed up in a battle of espionage agencies from various countries, all of which have one goal – to find out whether or not the girl’s “deceased” mother, a former Secret Service agent, is actually dead. Highly recommended for ages 8 (if a strong reader) – 14.

“Skeleton Creek” by Patrick Carman

Technically, I shouldn’t be reviewing this book yet, as I’m only on page 30. On the other hand, I’d hate for anyone to miss out on this, just because I got busy with other things and I haven’t finished it yet.

You know the creepy music that plays in horror movies? The kind that starts quiet and sort of sneaks up on you, building the tension despite the fact your conscious mind doesn’t even acknowledge it’s playing at first?

The mental equivalent of that creepy music began playing on page 1 of “Skeleton Creek”. On the surface, it seems innocuous – a pair of teens decided to find out why their town had been renamed back in the 70’s. It’s clear that their curiosity has landed them in trouble, though – there was some sort of accident, and the main character is confined to his room, writing laboriously in his journal. His best friend is still out there, though, with her video camera – and sending him the footage, which you can watch right along with him via the internet by typing in the codes in the book.

As multimedia book experiences go, I’ve got to say, the concept is unique. I’m looking forward to getting back to the book soon, because I want to know what’s going on – and what’s already taken place.

Recommended highly to middle and high schoolers. Possibly younger with a high scare tolerance.

Forthcoming review: “39 Clues: The Sword Thief”, probably later this week.

December 11, 2008

Review – “The 39 Clues”

Posted in 1 tagged , at 11:44 am by suepenkivech

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – The 39 Clues is the coolest concept in juvenile literature that I’ve ever encountered.

What is The 39 Clues, you may ask.  Is it a book series? A new collectible card craze?  An on-line game?

Actually, it’s all of the above.

The 39 Clues is a brand new book series by Scholastic.  The first book, “The Maze of Bones”, was written by New York Times bestselling author Rick Riordan (of the ever popular Percy Jackson series), who is also responsible for the overall plotting of this ten book mystery/adventure series.  It’s newly released sequel, “One False Note”, is written by kid-favorite Gordon Korman, who will also be writing other installments.

Reminiscent of the movie “National Treasure”, The 39 Clues takes its main characters on a tour of the world, garnering clues from historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Marie Antoinette, and others, all of whom are purported to be members of the infamous Cahill family.  The protagonists are seeking the secret to the family’s fame and fortune, while dodging other, less scrupulous family members intent upon sabotaging their efforts. 

What’s unique is that the readers are invited to be part of the plot.  Each book contains clues in the story, as well a set of six collectible cards (more cards are available in a separate packet).  The readers collect clues along with the characters while they read, and get others from the cards and the 39 Clues website.  They can then create their own characters and play along on the internet, becoming part of the story. 

And, incidentally, learning a whole lot about history, geography, and science in the process.

Intended for ages 8-12, “The 39 Clues” will appeal to a much broader audience, in the same manner that Harry Potter did.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and the online component attracts the “reluctant readers”.  In addition, given that the writers are rotating, new installments are being released at three to six month intervals – short enough that the average pre-teen reader won’t lose interest in the series.

The next book, “The Sword Thief” by Peter Lerangis, is scheduled for release on March 3, 2009.