Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Timeslip Tuesday

 I normally review things right around the date they are published, but this is early for two reasons: I wanted to give people time to read the first book in this series AND to request this from Netgalley. If you are a teacher, librarian, blogger, or other "professional reader" and DON'T use Netgalley, you should definitely check it out. There are always a lot of middle grade and young adult digital ARCs, and it's a life saver when I run out of things to read.

And, of course, summer is a fantastic time to time travel. Charlotte at Charlotte's Library is frequently taking off for other times and places with her Timeslip Tuesday feature.

20613605Barrows, Annie. Magic in the Mix (Miri and Molly #2)
September 16th 2014 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
E ARC from Netgalley.com

Molly has settled in to life with Miri's family having been rescued from 1935, but the two girls still wonder why they seem to be the only ones who realize and remember what has happened. For everyone else, the family has always had three sets of twins. When their father decides to renovate the house and removes a rickety back porch, the girls discover that the door has become a portal to 1918, and the girls meet a younger version of the evil Flo and also Molly's mother. To complicate matters, they also get sucked back in time to the Civil War, which was raging in their area of Shenandoah, Virginia. Their purpose seems to be to save a couple of soldiers' lives, but when their brothers Robbie and Ray travel to the past with them, they become the captives and it is up to Molly and Miri to figure out how to save them, perhaps with help from 1918.
Strengths: This has everything a time travel book could want-- magic, rambling farmhouse; criticial historical juncture, the promise of further travels. Also, what ten year old doesn't want to have a twin? And siblings who are twins? So many good things here.
Weaknesses: Our eighth graders are the ones who study the Civil War, and this cover is not going to appeal to that age group, who might otherwise find that time period interesting.

185116617613196Barrows, Annie. The Magic Half
December 26th 2007 by Bloomsbury Children's Books

I seem to remember picking this up and being surprised that I didn't like it, but I have absolutely no record of this, so maybe I just imagined it. Hard to believe that I wouldn't like this story. 

Review by Charlotte of Charlotte's Library.

Perhaps I didn't buy it because the covers are not good. Time travel books are difficult to get my students to read, and all of these covers are sort of washed out and...meh. I will buy both of these, now because I do think it is a good time travel series, but I wish the covers were more dynamic and appealing.

Monday, July 21, 2014

MMGM- Secrets of the Manor

Confession: When I was in elementary and middle school, I wanted to live in an English orphanage. I liked my parents well enough, but adored Edward's Mandy as well as Carlson's Happy Orphelines, and was sure that an English orphange would be awesome. I hadn't read much about English manor houses (except for the Chronicles of Narnia, and England was NOT the point of those!), but loved Sayers' Lord Peter Mysteries in college. Downton Abbey was a natural progression for me, but now I'm deep into season two of Larkrise to Candleford. I am predisposed to like the following series!

18775448Whitby, Adele. Beth's Story (Secrets of the Manor #1)
June 24th 2014 by Simon Spotlight

In 1914, Beth is looking forward to celebrating her 12th birthday because she will be considered a young lady and recieve an heirloom locket, the twin of which her cousin and penpal Kate in America will get. Another cousin, Gabrielle, and her family are visiting from France for the occasion, but Gabrielle and her snooty maid are causing all sorts of difficulties, especially when Gabrielle's own heirloom necklace is missing. The blame is pinned to Beth's new lady's maid, Shannon, whom Beth pulled from the ranks of housemaids to assist her, even though other maids had more experience. Since Shannon is going to be dismissed unless Beth can figure out what really happened, Beth investigates and finds out what really happened. This is the first book in the series; in the second, Beth travels to America to visit her cousin Kate.
Strengths: This is a short (148 pages), appealing book that girls will be apt to read themselves into... I know I would have! Like the Royal Diaries from Scholastic, this is concerned more with day to day life than larger historical events of the time, but that makes it a good introduction to historical fiction for young readers. The fact that this is a series with books with appealing covers makes this a must have for elementary libraries and a good bet even for middle school.
Weaknesses: Beth is rather overprivileged and worthy of a few light slaps at the beginning, although she does improve. Had this been any longer, I probably would have given up on the book because she was so unpleasant at the beginning.

18722882Barrett, Tracy. The Stepsister's Tale
June 24th 2014 by Harlequin Teen

Ever since Lady Jane Mountjoy's alcoholic father abadoned her family, she and her sister and mother have tried to survive as best they can in their rapidly disintegrating mansion. While food and fuel are scarce, Jane's mother seems oblivious to this and insists that they still act like "ladies" even though they are lacking shoes. When their mother goes to town for a week and comes back with a new husband and stepdaughter, the depth of their deprivation is revealed. The husband starts to try to repair the mansion, but soon falls ill and dies, leaving his daughter Isabella behind to deal with his debts. Things become even worse, and soon Jane is depending on the kindness of their impoverished neighbors, exchanging mending for food and firewood. When the prince announces a ball for all the young ladies in the kingdom, Isabella thinks that this might be her way out of her situation, but Jane has discovered secrets about the prince that make this seem like less of a good idea.
Strengths: This is a fresh retelling of the Cinderella tale, deftly switching things up with a new villain. At first, this confused me, because I couldn't tell who was supposed to be evil-- both Jane and Isabella, while both flawed, were sympathetic. Very cleverly done. There's not much happiness here; everything is deprivation and ruined grandeur, which might make this appealing to readers who want problem novels. Our 7th grade used to do an entire unit on Cinderella, so this would be interesting for that, or for a unit on folktales.
Weaknesses: The cover makes this look like a cheesy Gothic romance novel. Especially like the eyeshadow and the well plucked eyebrows. Not how I saw the characters at all!

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday at Anastasia Suen's blog.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just Like the Movies

18018509Fiore, Kelly. Just Like the Movies
July 22nd 2014 by Walker Books for Young Readers 
E ARC from Netgalley.com

Marijke is a track star and has a great boyfriend, Tommy, whom she feels could do so much better than having her as his girlfriend. Her parents were high school sweethearts and are still too lovey-dovey for her taste, so she worries constantly that Tommy will drop her. Lily has a troubled home life with a mother who is a serial dater, and has spent all of her time at school concentrating on her resume for college in hopes of getting a scholarship. She has a huge crush on Joe, who is involved with motocross but doesn't know she exists. A chance encounter between the girls exposes their shared interest in romantic movies, and the two come up with a plan to reenact movie scenes to add more romance to their lives. Prom is fast approaching, and the pressure is on for boys to have spectacular "Promposals", and the girls think they can help orchestrate these. Lily talks Joe into incorporating a raffle for these services into his motocross fundraiser, and Marijke tries to stop being paranoid about Tommy. The girls work together and take a lot of comfort for their new friendship as things go badly in each of their lives.
Strengths: Like this author's Taste Test, this is a light, fun romance book, and I need a lot of those. The movies referenced are all well known enough that most readers will have heard of them, or might want to investigate.My readers who like romance books sometimes read one a day, so I will definitely order a copy.
Weaknesses: I thought Tommy was not all that great a boyfriend, and Marijke's insecurities were a bit disturbing. Lily's geekiness is a bit overdone, as is her makeover, but I'm an old person with no patience for romance. Middle schoolers are not yet as jaded as I am and so won't mind these things!

17375024 Wettersten, Laura. My Faire Lady
June 3rd 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers

When Rowena's boyfriend dumps her, she decides to look into a job doing face painting at a Renaissance Faire. She's also glad to live away from home and her parents, who are pressuring her to apply to high powered colleges so she can get a good job. Wearing period costumes and working with small children is a small part of her life at the site-- there's also plenty of romance. She is attracted to  Christian, who does the jousting demonstrations, but makes a good friend in Will, who travels the fair circuit with his parents. She knows that Christian is trouble, but he's so dreamy that she ignores Will's attentions. Working with Suze, Rowena also doubts her college plans, and decides that she would rather follow her bliss and major in art that to follow her parents' directions.
Strengths: Very fun look at life at a Renaissance fair, and I can see older high school readers who are struggling with college choices really enjoying this. The romance is decent, too, and Will and Rowena, as well as Suze and some of the supporting adult characters, are very fun. A good choice for a high school library.
Weaknesses: Think I will pass on this one for middle school. There's too much drinking and too few consequences, too much talk of college, and the romances are too angst ridden. Also, the whole "I want to be an artist" message is a bad one for anyone of any age. No bliss following! Gainful employment! And I say this as a Latin teacher who was out of work for nine very long years!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Annika Riz, Math Whiz

18263464Mills, Claudia. Annika Riz, Math Whiz
May 13th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) 

Annika's family are all interested in numbers, and Annika prefers math to any other subject at school even though her friends don't feel the same way (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen is book one in this series). When she finds out that the public library is having a Sodoku contest, she really wants to enter, but fears that classmate Simon will beat her. The class is also preparing for a school carnival, and the third grade is in charge of cookies. Annika and her friends bake several batches but first don't put in enough baking soda, and then too much, resulting in less than optimal cookies. In the end, though, Annika is able to save the day using her math skills to make sure the group makes money on selling refreshments rather than losing it.
Strengths: This is a fun series for elementary school students; I'm looking forward to taking a peak at Izzy Barr, Running Star to see how big a role running plays in the book!
Weaknesses:This is too young for my middle school students.

13722228Mills, Claudia. Kelsey Green, Reading Queen
June 4th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Kelsey loves to read, and frequently gets in trouble for reading her book during math class, which also explains why she is having trouble with fractions. When the principal, Mr. Barr, announces a whole school reading competition, Kelsey is hugely excited. She not only wants her class to win the pizza party and Mr. Barr to shave off his beard when the whole school reads 2,000 books, but she wants to beat Simon and get her name on a plaque as the top reader. Simon is reading a ton of books, and Kelsey thinks he may be cheating, or at least not reading all long books. One of her classmates, Cody, isn't reading any books, and Kelsey is nice to him and works with him to read Henry and Mudge books in order to help the class. She manages to read a lot of books, but will it be enough to beat Simon?
Strengths: Have to admit that I really liked this one! It also had very good points about reading competitions, though. How can they really be fair, if Kelsey is reading The Secret Garden, but other students are getting the same credit for Sarah, Plain and Tall? That said, I do get very carried away with this kind of contest, and DO follow the rules! When we had to read a book out loud in first grade in order to get a feather in our politically incorrect Indian headdress, you can bet I read every single one of the 109 books I got feathers for to my long suffering parents! The only competition we have in my school is based on Accelerated Reader points. We have one student at least who had over 1,000-- I managed to rack up 500.3 before completely losing interest.
Weaknesses:Again, too young for my crew, but a great series!

Warning: Rambling!

And yes, I really do read a lot, and I read quickly. I have trouble remembering some fantasy books, but in general, I remember enough to write reviews, even if I have skimmed a bit. Things like #bookaday and #throwdown get a little confusing for me to keep track of, because I no longer post books the day after I read them. I try to post reviews close to the publication date unless I am getting the book from the public library, so what I am reading and what reviews appear are very different.

For example, on Monday, June 30, I went to the library and got out The Killer Detail (a photo essay book about fashion icons), Wetterseten's My Faire Lady, Barakiva's One Man Guy, Kelsey Green, and had Harper's Dreamer, Wisher, Liar to review for Young Adult Books Central. In addition, I ran, took the dog to the vet, got a hair cut, did laundry and hung it out, cooked mashed potatoes and chicken for dinner, did normal tidying of house and consulting with girls and my parents. Probably put in about five hours of reading total. 950 pages, not counting the photo essay book. I would only have gotten 2 AR points, though, since the other books are so new, but decently lengthy and probably about 8 points each.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Guy Friday: Video Game Experts

One of the interests that my students put on a beginning of the year interest inventory is frequently "video games". Oddly, there are very few books that even mention video games, Kincaid's Insignia being an exception. Interestingly, that book, as well as the two following, all begin with the same assumption: if you get really, really good at video gaming, you will, in fact, be approached by the armed forces or another entity to use your awesome skills to defend the World As We Know It.

If my lack of success at DinoPark Tycoon is any indication, I don't have to worry about being recruited.

18222839Wesselhoeft, Conrad. Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly
April 8th 2014 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Also reviewed at Young Adult Books Central.

Arlo lives in a dying New Mexican town with his sister Siouxsie, who has Huntington's disease, and his father, who is barely functional. There are reasons-- not only was Arlo's mother killed in a convenience store robbery, but Arlo's father lost his job as editor of the local newspaper, which folded. Arlo survives by immersing himself in motorcycle riding and in planing war games where he manipulates drones. His skills are such that he comes to the attention of the Air Force, who want Arlo to come and try his hand at operating drones. He does well enough that the Air Force wants to train him, but Arlo is leery of the military, especially when they want him to operate a drone that will take out an evil leader. He is torn, however, because the Air Force promises him a large sum of money and care for his sister as long as it is needed. In the meantime, he hangs out with Lee, a motorcycle riding beauty from Washington state who is living with his mother's best friend while her father is off fighting in the Middle East, and attempts Evel Knievel style motorcycle jumps in order to get on a television program and secure money for Siouxsie's treatments. How can Arlo manage to take care of his family and still be true to his own values?
Strengths: This had so many good elements to it: motorcycle stunts, video games, an adolescent fantasy scenario where the military needs Arlo to save the day, a romantic interest who is cute and shares Arlo's fondness for motorcycles, and an obnoxious dog to add a little vulgarity. Add a strong sense of place, a character with a specific ethnicity (Hispanic) that is important to the story but not the whole story, and a family dealing with grief in a realistic but practical way, and this was a winner for me.

I always enjoy books more when I am rooting for the main character, and Arlo was fully developed, flawed, but tried so hard to help everyone around him while relying on his own coping mechanisms. The supporting characters are interesting as well, and the plot device of having the Air Force interested in Arlo because of his skills is handled in a way that made me believe it could actually happen. 

Weaknesses: I kept waiting for an explanation of the sister's name. I know it was a southwest setting, so probably more Native American oriented, but all I could think of was Siousie Sioux and the Banshees!

Mr. Wesselhoeft replied with the following comment on Goodreads.com, and I was right about the rock reference-- I just read too fast and missed the explanation. I love when I head from authors about their books!

"Many thanks for the generous and eloquent remarks about "Dirt Bikes, Drones." You're absolutely right about the origin of Siouxsie's name--it's from Siouxsie and the Banshees. At one point, Uncle Sal tells Lee: "Arlo's mom and dad were a little behind the times. They named their kids after a folk singer and a gothic rocker girl."

18850680 Klavan, Andrew. MindWar
July 8th 2014 by Thomas Nelson Publishers 
E ARC from Netgalley.com

Rick has had a tough couple of months. His father left Rick's mother and Rick and his little brother Raider, and shortly after that, Rick was in a bad car accident that broke his leg and effectively ruined his football career, so he's been spending his days in his darkened bedroom, playing videogames. When he finally leaves the house and goes for a walk, he gets jabbed with a tranquilizer, kidnapped, and recruited by the government to work on MindWar because of his skills. An evil doer named Kurodar has melded himself with a computer and is trying to mount a cyber takeover of America through the Realm, and Rick is supposed to go into that realm. It's tremendously dangerous; he can only stay for short times, and anything that happens to him there affects his actual body, even though in the Realm he does not have a broken leg. Kurodar has an agent, Reza, who is a former terrorist who considers Kurodar his god, and who is trying to take down Rick in the game. Rick is helped by two people, Favian and Mariel, who appear to be fading badly and whom he would like to rescue. There's also the Traveler, a scientist who has the code to bring Kurodar down, and his plane is attacked. Rick has to find a way to prevent Kurodar from attacking any more of the US, and many secrets about his family and his involvement in the Realm are brought forth, although I'm sure there will be more in book two.
Strengths: This book was the closest thing I have read to being in a video game. There's lots of fighting in the realm-- crocodiles, dragons, lots of swords. Rick is, of course, a superb athlete as well as a skilled video game player, so there's tons of fantasy adventure appeal in this. Klavan's If We Survive and The Last Thing I Remember Series are very popular in my library.
Weaknesses: I always feel vaguely uneasy about the villains-- Klavan doesn't seem to worry about being politically correct, and The Homelanders series got a little too... right wing for my taste. Are Russians still villains? Why not make the villains Icelandic? That would be innovative, at least. (They are isolated, live in a cool climate, have complicated names, and there aren't a whole lot of them, so I totally see this working!) This seemed okay, but it was one more thing that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Hitch at the Fairmont

18689749Averbeck, Jim. A Hitch at the Fairmont
June 24th 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Jack Fair ends up an orphan in 1956, after the apparent suicide of his actress mother and the death of his father, whom he never met, during WWII. He is given over to the custody of his Aunt Emily, a mountainous, evil woman who lives a pampered life with her pet chinchilla at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. She's not nice to Jack, who misses not only his mother but his friend Schultzie, with whom he had hoped to live. After a short while, his aunt is apparently kidnapped, and a ransom note is left on the sheets of her bed in chocolate. In Jack's panic, he runs into Alfred Hitchcock in the hallway, and begs for his help. This works against him, since the police think that the kidnapping is one of Hitchcock's publicity stunts and refuse to help Jack. Hitchcock agrees to help Jack investigate, and the two come across a lot of family secrets involving blackmail, slavery, and sordid pasts. They must hide the aunt's disappearance from Jack's social worker, which involves Hitchcock impersonating the aunt, adding an element of slapstick to the intrigue and suspenseful chases within the hotel and out in San Francisco as well.
Strengths: This struck a good balance between the CSI style gory mysteries my students want, and the clue oriented mysteries the teachers want them to have. There are too few books set in the 1950s, and this had some excellent details of San Francisco at that time. Introducing young readers to Hitchcock might encourage them to watch some of his classic films. The inclusion of cartoon story boards at the beginning of each chapter may entice graphic novel readers. Lots of interesting elements in this, and it didn't even require me to suspend disbelief too much to think that Hitchcock could have been coerced into helping Jack. That was convincingly set up.
Weaknesses: At 461 pages, this may be a hard sell. Luckily, the cover is a strong one. I've decided to buy a copy, but I do wish that this had come in at about 300 pages; then it would have been very easy to get into students' hands and more of them might discover Hitchcock's work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sahara Special

Sahara SpecialCodell, Esme Raji. Sahara Special
April 1st 2003 by Disney-Hyperion

Sahara is bright and loves to read and write, but after she turns in no work in the fifth grade and her teacher uncovers a bunch of sad letters to her father (who has abandoned the family), Sahara is given a tutor to work with in the hallway, leading the other students to call her “Sahara special”. When the tutor also has to work with recalcitrant and possibly violent Darrell, Sahara’s mother has her moved back to the regular classroom and Sahara has to repeat 5th grade. The children in class seem a little nicer, and the teacher is unconventional (we know this because she wears weird clothes, purposefully doesn’t read student files, and publically acknowledges that textbooks make good paperweights). Sahara still doesn’t do much work, but eventually Ms. Pointy (Poitier) gets through to her and Sahara is on her way to doing better in school and becoming a writer.
Strengths: The only indication we have that Sahara is not a white student is the tiny picture on the cover, but we can still count this as diverse because she struggles in school. There are not too many books that deal with the emotions of being identified as a special education student. Perhaps in the years since this book has been published, both the way students are treated and the stigma involved in educational help have changed, but I’m sure that our students all know what “testing brush-ups” mean. Like school related books such as Because of Mr. Terupt, differences are celebrated and students are encouraged to succeed.
Weaknesses: This book is very slow paced and only mildly funny. It’s the sort of book that teachers seem to like, but which students find less than enthralling. On a personal level, it just kind of annoyed me. Most of the time, in my school, we want students to feel bad about themselves and try everything within our power to embarrass them and make them not succeed. *Sigh*NO!  Does Ms. Poitier know how much effort goes in to writing the reports about students that she refuses to look at?
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