Monday, November 8, 2010

The Steps by Rachel Cohn

The Steps
Annabel is going to visit her dad over Christmas vacation in Australia and finally meet her steps. Feeling left out and missing her dad over the two years he's been gone, Annabel begins her trip with the idea that she will convince her dad to return to NYC with her. During her stay, Annabel's jealousy slowly turns to friendship and more with her new extended family.

Ideally suited for middle grades readers, I'd recommend it for grades 5 and 6 especially. The Steps portrays the difficulty kids experience when their parents remarry and suddenly people with nothing in common are thrown together as siblings. I found this a solid story, filled with funny episodes in order to make for an entertaining read. Some of the pop references are dated, which may cause some readers to dislike the book. (References to the movie Titanic and the Friends TV show.) My grade? A 'B.'

Friday, November 5, 2010

Written in Bone : Buried Lives in Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland
I must be morbid, because I found the book totally fascinating. The author joined an archaeological expedition in Virginia and Maryland of Colonial-era digs. She explains the entire process to the reader, going through each step of a dig and each expert's job responsibilities. I couldn't believe what details about the lives of the person could be discovered today, based on his skeletal remains, the soil near his remains and so forth. The colorful pictures and illustrations add to the story, and are what make this book exceptional. Those curious about archaeology and anthropology will find this a highly educational insight of what those jobs entail. Written in Bone is highly recommended for all reader, and gets an 'A' from me.

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

The Grimm Legacy
Elizabeth gets an after-school job at the "New-York Circulating Materials Repository," where patrons may borrow items, as one would borrow books from a library. Included at the Repository are several special collections, including the Grimm Collection, which contains magical items from the Brothers Grimm's stories. From some of the other pages, Elizabeth learns that items have been stolen or replaced by fakes in recent months, with no suspects as to the culprit. With the help of her fellow pages, Elizabeth sets out to find the missing items and the thief, each encountering dangerous attacks which threaten his/her life.

I loved the concept of this story -- a repository of magical items from Grimm's Fairy Tales, where the items are being stolen or the magic from them is being stolen. I didn't immediately connect with the characters or the style, but I will say both grew on me. By about 2/3 of the way through, I didn't want to take breaks from reading and I needed to know how it concluded. Readers of fantasy with a strong good vs. evil vibe will want to check out The Grimm Legacy. Since I found myself hooked on the last third of the book, I'll give it a 'B.'

Playing Catch Up, Part 1 - Fantasy

I've been trying to play catch-up with posting thoughts about all the books I've read. It's to the point where I don't think I'll be able to get to them all individually, so I decided to just talk about a group of them at a time in one post. Maybe to make it easier, I should break them down into genres. Today,  it's all about Fantasy books.

I read four of the books in Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series, after reading about how influential her stories were for other fantasy writers. Of the four I read, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Magicians of Caprona, and Witch Week, I found Charmed Life to be the best of the group. It's the first one of the series, and really the best-told story of the bunch. I found Cat easy to like and wanted his adjustment into life at Chrestomanci Castle to go smoothly. I won't give away the big secret about Cat, but I will say that I was somewhat surprised with it. I hadn't expected things to end as they did.  After Charmed Life's richly told adventures, I was disappointed with the others. They just didn't seem to reach the same level of excitement and anticipation, especially The Magicians of Caprona.  This could have something to do with reading them, while not back-to-back, still close together. My grades on these are Charmed Life = A, The Lives of Christopher Chant = B, Witch Week = B, and The Magicians of Caprona = C. 

Another book I read classified as a fantasy is Poison by Chris Wooding. My only other experience with Chris Wooding was reading his book about kids that get trapped in a comic book, Malice. This was quite a bit different. Poison has a fairy tale feel to it, but isn't exactly a fairy tale. Poison is a girl from the swamps who sets out to find her sister who has been kidnapped by the phaeries. She must travel into the world of the phaeries where everything isn't what it seems, and discovers a plot to kill the Heirophant and put another in his place. Surrounded by danger and not knowing who to trust, Poison must carefully find a way to prevent this and save her family at the same time. A little slow in the start might put some off, but those readers that keep at it will be pleasantly surprised. The story really picks up once Poison gets to the land of the phaeries, with one adventure after another. It plays out to a satisfying, if a bit predictable ending. I give it a 'B.'

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pop by Gordon Korman

Marcus has just moved to a new town in the middle of summer, where he knows no one. He spends the summer working out and honing his quarterback skills alone in Three Alarm Park, in hopes that he can make the varsity football team at his new school. His summer takes an unexpected twist when Marcus is joined at his workouts by a man with mad football skills. He soon discovers that his workout buddy is famed NFL linebacker, Charlie Popovich - the "King of Pop," and that Charlie's family is desperately trying to hide a secret about him from the rest of the world.

While at first glance one may think this is just another football book, in actuality it's much more. While plenty of action takes place on the football field, plenty more takes place away from it. The reader gets hints of the difficult relationship between Marcus and his dad, and can infer some of the turmoil of the recent past. There's a fabulous undercurrent of rivalry and jealousy between Marcus and Troy, the star QB for the team and Charlie's son, over football, a girl, and Charlie, that creates a great deal of tension and conflict during the story. Not to mention the central conflict surrounding Charlie's secret and what it adds to the drama.

The reader will laugh, cheer, and cry right along with the characters in Pop and enjoy every minute of this roller coaster ride. I give it a 'B.'

High School Debut, Volumes 1-5 by Kazune Kawahara

High School Debut, Volume 1
Haruna was all about softball while in middle school. Now that she's in high school, she's decided to make getting a boyfriend her top priority. The problem? She doesn't know the first thing about how to attract a guy. Relying on fashion magazines for advice on how to dress and act, Haruna makes a complete fool of herself. That's when she decides she needs a coach to teach her the best way to get a boy, and that coach should be Yoh, one of the cutest and most popular boys in school.

High School Debut is one of my favorite shojo series, because I just adore Haruna. She's full of good intentions, but can't seem to help acting (and looking) foolish. She's so earnest in her quest that I couldn't help but want to see her succeed. Just by the way things are set up, readers know that Haruna is going to fall for Yoh and hopefully he will fall for her in return.

 Girls will especially find this series appealing, not only because of the romantic plot but also because of identifying with Haruna's wish to fit in but not knowing exactly how to do that. I rate it a 'B.'

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams Chima (The Seven Realms #2)

The Exiled Queen (Seven Realms, #2)
I couldn't wait to read this book, having just finished The Demon King last month. TDK was a strong contender to be my favorite read of the year so far, but that was only until I read The Exiled Queen. I think I have a NEW favorite book of the year!

I tend to expect the middle book of a trilogy as the weakest of the three. it's purpose is tying up loose ends from book one and setting up events for book three, so the plot may be weaker than the other books. Not so, here. I jumped right back into Raisa's flight from a forced marriage and Han's journey to the wizard academy at Oden's Ford. Since they were both at Oden's Ford, I knew that Raisa and Han were destined to meet again, and they do, although not as I had expected. The entire time I was reading TEQ, I sensed the inevitability of evil winning this battle. I just wanted to know how Han and Raisa are duped, since you know both are expecting an attack. (And I'm not giving anything away here -- once you start reading, you too will sense impending doom!) So while it does tie up some things from book one and leave you hanging for book three, I don't think it's a week plot at all. Many twists in the story kept surprising me, so that I basically gave up trying to predict what would happen next. I love it when that happens!

Filled with intrigue and the sense of an upcoming betrayal, I found The Exiled Queen a fabulous story, one difficult to put down. Ms. Chima's efforts here has me setting extremely high expectations for the next book of the Seven Realms. It's an 'A' book for me!

Note: The Exiled Queen is the second book in a continuing story. I highly recommend that you read the first book, The Demon King, before attempting this one. Otherwise, you may be completely lost!

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan (The Heroes of Olympus #1)

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)
Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero is the first book in a new series (The Heroes of Olympus) about Camp Half-Blood and demigods, but not really about Percy Jackson. As the story begins, Jason, Piper and Leo are three students at a Wilderness Camp/Detention School on a field trip to the Grand Canyon. Jason has no memories, but everyone else around seems to know him. When they are attacked by a fellow student-turned-monster, the three discover a protector has been watching over them and they are sent to Camp Half-Blood. Once there, the mystery of Jason's past gets even weirder with the reactions of others to him. He learns that Hera is imprisoned and he's been selected to free her. So, with Leo's and Piper's help, Jason battles across the United States and Canada on his quest to find Hera before it's too late.

For all of you that loved the Percy Jackson books, The Lost Hero will not disappoint. Built along the same formula -- three demigods, a quest with the fate of the world in question, and plenty of enemies to battle along the way -- the reader will find comfort in familiar territory. But, that's not to say the story is in any way unoriginal or boring. Even though this series will be closely tied to the Percy Jackson series, I don't think you have to read Percy before reading this one, but I'd probably recommend reading them first. Yes, he's mentioned a lot. Yes, some of the events from Percy's books are talked about. But, I still don't think you will be completely lost in The Lost Hero. You might just appreciate the story more if you know Percy's story. Although the book is quite long (553 pages!), I didn't find it difficult or even slow to read. There's plenty of action-filled excitement to hold your attention and make you want to keep reading.

I think Riordan has another hit with The Lost Hero. It was everything I could wish it to be -- fast-paced, suspenseful, exciting and fun. I give it an 'A.'

The Roar by Emma Clayton

The Roar
Mika lives with his mom and dad in the refugee area "behind the wall" in England. When the Animal Plague threatened human existence on Earth all humans moved to a protected area behind a massive wall around the northern third of the planet. Now, people must deal with massive overcrowding, food shortages, and basically a dismal existence. Mika life is doubly dismal for his twin sister, Ellie, disappeared about a year ago and everyone believes she died. Everyone, that is, except Mika. He *knows* that Ellie is still alive, but can't convince anyone else of the truth. When he government begins a program to improve the fitness of all twelve-year-olds and holds a contest to find the best players of a virtual reality video game, Mika begins to suspect it's somehow connected to his missing sister. He is determined to be among the winners, in hopes of finding his sister, but along the way discovers the truth is more terrifying that imagined.

Okay, there's a lot I liked about The Roar. I'd become so involved in certain sections that I'd read for 100 pages without realizing it. There's a twist at the end that wasn't what I had expected or suspected at all. BUT ... I didn't like feeling so confused or lost through most of the reading. Big sections of the story are devoted to Mika, and we'd get all involved with his story, and then, bam, we're suddenly switched to Ellie and her story. These changes in point of view seemed abrupt and unnatural to me. It took me out of the story, which probably is the reason it too me so long to read.

Overall, I loved the idea behind the story and yes, can see some exciting possibilities in the sequel. My hope is that it's better organized and flows a bit more smoothly. I give this one a 'B.'