Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This Dark Endeavor

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel is a "prequel" to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It is going to be impossible for me to discuss the book independent of its source material, particularly as I just finished rereading and analyzing Frankenstein in preparation for teaching it this fall. It is certainly a testament to Oppel's work that I thoroughly enjoyed it right on the heels of the original novel.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In this prequel to Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, Frankenstein, 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein begins a dark journey that will change his life forever. Victor’s twin, Konrad, has fallen ill, and no doctor is able to cure him. Unwilling to give up on his brother, Victor enlists his beautiful cousin Elizabeth and best friend Henry on a treacherous search for the ingredients to create the forbidden Elixir of Life. Impossible odds, dangerous alchemy and a bitter love triangle threaten their quest at every turn. Victor knows he must not fail. But his success depends on how far he is willing to push the boundaries of nature, science, and love—and how much he is willing to sacrifice.

This Dark Endeavour delves into the idea of dual natures, one's tame side and one's wild side. Konrad is an addition to the story, a source of Oppel's own imagination, but he provides a contrast to Victor. The idea being identical twins are two halves of one whole. Victor is the younger brother, and feels continuously inferior to his twin who learns faster, is better at sports, and has won the affection of Elizabeth. He loves his brother though and will go to any lengths for him. Oppel made no attempt to make Victor likable. He is conniving, jealous, selfish, and reckless.  Yet there is something about him that makes him sympathetic. Maybe it is his love for his brother and his relationship to Elizabeth and Henry. They keep him human. 

The whole idea of the dual nature is also evident in Elizabeth. She is pious, devout, and practical. But she has a wild impetuous side too. And yes, this leads her to have conflicting feelings for the two brothers. She is attracted to Konrad's steady devotion, yet Victor's wildness also draws her, though she is more wary of this. As she says at one point, "There is a passion in you that scares me." So this book has a love triangle. Sort of.  I'm usually opposed to love triangles, but this one didn't bother me so much. I don't know if it was the male point of view or just how Oppel presented it. I do like how Oppel added color to Elizabeth. Victor is recognizable from the original, Elizabeth is not. I don't consider this to be a bad thing.

 I enjoyed the banter and dialogue between the four friends and how it developed their characters so well, such as in this conversation about their futures. This is only one little slice of a greater whole that set up their characters perfectly for the story that lay ahead:
I thought a moment and then said, "When I see the stars, I think of the planets that must orbit them, and I would like to travel among them. And if we could do so, would we not be gods?"
"A modest goal, then," said my twin. "Victor just wants to be a god."
Laughing, I elbowed him in the ribs. "I'm imbued with high hopes and lofty ambitions. And if I can't travel between planets-"
"Always good to have a back-up plan," Henry interjected.
"-then I will create something, some great work that will be  useful and marvelous to all humanity."
"Yes, perhaps,"I said, thinking more seriously now. "An engine that will transform the world-or a new source of energy. It seems scientific discoveries are being made every day now. In any event, I will be remembered forever."

There is a fair bit of foreshadowing there too. Oppel used foreshadowing quite a lot in the course of the story. He also used dreams and letters as integral parts of the plot, giving a nod to the original novel I quite enjoyed. The plot is action packed and fast paced keeping the reader completely engaged. 

I think this is a book that would appeal to both boys and girls and is a good read whether you have read Frankenstein or not. Almost everyone is familiar enough with the story for it to resonate. 

The sequel, Such Wicked Intent, is due out August 21. 


Friday, July 27, 2012

Favorite YA Novels

When I did my Favorite Picture Books post and my Favorite Children's Novels post, I thought it would be an excellent idea to tackle Young Adult novels too, even if there was no poll being currently conducted for them. Then lo and behold NPR decided to conduct one Go here to vote on this poll. (Sounis-the ultimate meeting place for all Megan Whalen Turner fanatics-also conducted a more unofficial one.) There was a problem with these in that they limited the number of selections to five. Five? I had a hard time limiting my other two lists to 10. So, here where I make my own rules I am giving you my Top 10 (and a link to a bunch of others that didn't quite make the top 10).  

If one book from a series is here, you can count the whole series as being represented. Some of these book (ie Chime, Saving Francesca) SHOULD NOT be judged by their covers. In no particular order, here are my top 10:

Three of my favorites didn't make the NPR list so I had to vote for others in their place. Here you can see the rest of my beloved YA books.

What are some of your favorites?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley is a book about an entirely unremarkable girl. In fact, the full text on the cover of the book reads: Welcome to the Town of Remarkable Where Every Day in this Remarkable Place Filled with Remarkable People is Positively Remarkable for Absolutely Everyone Except Jane. A bit much? Some would say so are the contents of the book.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In the mountain town of Remarkable, everyone is extraordinarily talented, extraordinarily gifted, or just plain extraordinary. Everyone, that is, except Jane Doe, the most average ten-year-old who ever lived. But everything changes when the mischievous, downright criminal Grimlet twins enroll in Jane's school and a strange pirate captain appears in town.
Thus begins a series of adventures that put some of Remarkable's most infamous inhabitants and their long-held secrets in danger. It's up to Jane, in her own modest style, to come to the rescue and prove that she is capable of some rather exceptional things.

Jane is a character I can see young readers identifying with. She feels vastly inferior to everyone around her. She is the one always left out. No one pays attention to her and nothing ever happens to her. And what kids doesn't feel like that a whole lot? The interesting thing is Jane is fairly unremarkable and really the least memorable character in the book. Even her grandfather, who is supposed to be so unremarkable that he's very near invisible, is more interesting. However, everything that is going on around Jane does make for a wild crazy story.

In this book you have: 5th grade juvenile delinquents, a town full of geniuses, a war over jelly, a lake monster, and pirates. And yes, I thought it was all a bit much. A little too quirky and over the top for me, however I can see kid readers, my own daughter included, loving it. Loving the zany antics of the townsfolk and the over the top badness of the delinquent twins. If you have someone in your life with a fondness this type of story, Remarkable is a good one to add to their collection.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sorcery and Cecelia

Regular readers of my blog may find it astonishing that I had not read Sorcery and Cecellia by Patricia C. Wrede and Carolline Stervermer before now. I love Regency romance. I love magic. Any combination of these two things is enough to make me giddy. And it is an epistolary novel. I love those too.  So what on earth took me so long? My immediate thought upon hearing of the existence of this book was, "This has to be one of the best books ever!" It was closely followed by, "What if it's not?" I have been bouncing between a wild anticipation to read it and nervous fear that has kept me from it ever since. I finally decided enough was enough.

Turns out my first thought was right on the mark. The book consists of the correspondence between two cousins, Kate and Cecelia. Kate is in London for her debut into society. Cecelia has been left behind. Their aunts think they get into too much trouble together. Turns out they can get into quite a lot of trouble apart as well. Kate is very nearly poisoned by a witch mistaking her for the Mysterious Marquis. Soon Kate finds herself faking a betrothal to said Marquis in an attempt to thwart the witch. In the meantime Cecelia is being spied upon by one of her neighbors and when he is not spying on her he is being surly and suspicious of her. The girls find themselves deeply embroiled in a plot involving stolen magic, evil neighbors, and, of course, love.

Kate and Cecelia are absolutely delightful characters. Each girl's letters were written by a different author and the result is they both have very different voices and personalities. The epistolary format gave color to their personalities and story. It also brought all of the secondary characters to life in wonderful ways. The letters are written as if the reader knows exactly who and what is being spoken of , which is exactly how epistolary novels should be written as, of course the reader is supposed to know, and need not have things explained to them. Reading this book is like coming across someone's long forgotten correspondence and reading it. I loved it.

It should also be noted that I was very fond of both Thomas and James as well. The romances in the book were done just right. They are typical Regency romance fare and that is a-okay by me because I like to have my expectations met. I enjoyed the Kate/Thomas interaction the most and felt more invested in their part of the story. I loved Cecey and James almost as much.

This is a perfect book for anyone, young or old, who is looking for Regency era books that are romantic and fun.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Jake and Lily

I'm always on the lookout for fun and new sibling stories which is why I snapped up Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli as soon as my library. Not only are Jake and Lily siblings, but twins, and the book switches between their perspectives.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
This is a story about me, Lily.
And me, Jake.
We're twins and we're exactly alike.
Not exactly!
Whatever. This is a book we wrote about the summer we turned eleven and Jake ditched me.
Please. I just started hanging out with some guys in the neighborhood.
Right. So anyway, this is a book about
goobers and supergors
true friends

things getting built and wrecked and rebuilt
and about figuring out who we are.
We wrote this together
(sort of)
so you'll get to see both sides of our story.
But you'll probably agree with my side.
You always have to have the last word, don't you?

Jake and Lily are different, whether Lily wants to do admit it or not. Jake is organized and doesn't like to get in trouble. Lily is temperamental and is often in trouble. They do have a special connection to each other that they have only told one other person about. Every year on their birthday, they both have the same dream and sleep walk to the train station where they wake up. They can often read each other's thoughts and sense each other from large distances. I wondered at this element since it seems so terribly stereotypical, almost fable like, something everyone believes twins can do, but how many can? Despite this there is a really good story here of family, friendship, and the ties that bind people.

Jake and Lily have very distinct voices. Lily is dramatic, Jake anything but. Jake wants his own room, Lily is horrified by the idea. Lily thrives on her twinhood, Jake...not so much. When Jake starts spending time with other people he has good reasons for it, but it tears Lily apart.
Jake: What does she want? Does she want me to spend my whole life with nobody but her? Oh look, there's Jake and Lily. They're seventy-nine years old and they still play poker and ride bikes together. They still play poker and ride bikes together. They still hear each other five miles away. Still sleep in the same bedroom. You can't tear them apart. Aren't they adorable? Twinny-twin twins.
Lily: Jake looks like he's having the time of his life, and I'm not a part of it. Things were great for a while, after we shared the snow fort bruise. That got him off the we're-different kick. But now it's back, worse than ever. Some of me is stunned. Shocked. Like I've been walloped by a two-by-four. The rest of me is sad. My heart hurts.

Jake has a point, they need to be with other people. But Lily has one too, because Jake is experimenting with punkhood and there were times I wanted to smack him upside the head.  Yet I definitely had a preference for Jake. His voice seemed more genuine to me and far preferred his struggle to Lily's, though it too was very real.  They are both endearing characters, as are the host of supporting characters that come with them.

This is a solid realistic fiction book that would appeal to both boys and girls.


Thursday, July 19, 2012


Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey is a book about a kingdom in strife. With faeries. And dragons. OF COURSE I wanted to read it. I rather enjoyed it too.

Synopsis (From Book Jacket):
Wilde Island is in an uproar over the recent death of its king. The uneasy pact between dragons, fairies, and humans is fraying and the royal witch hunter begins a vengeful quest to hunt down girls with fire in their hearts and sparks in their soul.
Strong-willed Tess, a blacksmith’s daughter from a tiny hamlet near the mysterious Dragonswood, wants more for herself than a husband and a house to keep. But in times like these wanting more can be dangerous.
Accused of witchery, Tess and her two friends are forced to flee the violent witch hunter. The journey is bleaker than they ever imagined and they have no choice but to accept when an enigmatic huntsman offers them shelter in the dangerous Dragonswood. Staying with him poses risks of its own: Tess has no idea how to handle the attraction she feels for him—or the elusive call she hears from the heart of the Dragonswood.

Dragonswood doesn't do anything with faerie or dragon lore that hasn't already been done, but it does do it all well. I liked the history of the ruling family and their connection with the dragons. The dragons in the book are the most interesting characters even though they aren't in it much. The faerie folk are exactly as they should be for a story with this setting. I liked that. I liked that the world I was in felt familiar and like I knew the rules. It was comforting.

Tess was a difficult character for me to connect with, but she was one I could sympathize with. Terrible things have been done to her. She carries a burden of guilt for dragging her friends into a terrible mess. Garth, the huntsman, is a fascinating love interest for Tess. I would have liked a bit more sizzle in their relationship, but the lack of it coincides with Tess's insecurities, fears, and unwillingness to acknowledge her feelings.

 Tess's friends, Poppy and Meg, provide good foils for her and bring out more of her character though don't add much in their own right. I loved that Meg was married and had a toddler. The time period for the book is the 12th century and this was realistic.

The way the witch hunt unfolds is also realistic, showing how the mob mentality works and how people can be made to turn on their friends and neighbors.

I would recommend this to anyone who is looking for a good solid fantasy read. The author wrote a previous book that takes place in the same kingdom called Dragon's Keep. You don't have to read it to read this one. I hadn't read it, but I will now.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Tale of Time City

I will write it again: Diana Wynne Jones is a genius. Really was there any limitation on what she could write? Her ability to bring to life all manner of ideas from her most amazing mind leaves me awestruck. A Tale of Time City, I confess, is not my favorite of her books. Still. Saying one of her books doesn't live up to its fellows still puts it above almost everything else out there.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Time City is built on a patch of time and space outside history. It is full of wonders and haunted by "time ghosts," but it is nearly worn out and doomed to destruction.
In September 1939, Vivian Smith is on a train, being evacuated from London, when she is kidnapped by two boys from Time City, Jonathan and Sam. They mistakenly think she is the mysterious Time Lady disguised as a child. Only the Time Lady can wake the founder of the city, Faber John, from his age-long sleep, and only he can save the city.
Vivian wants to get home; Jonathan and Sam want her to help them in their quest through the ages of history to save Time City. Meanwhile, someone seems to be tampering with history, changing it over and over, complicating everything. When Faber John is at last aroused, Time City's and Vivian's dilemmas are resolved in ways that are as satisfying as they are unexpected.

Some of my aloofness toward this book may come from my love/hate relationship with time travel stories. (love=Connie Willis; hate=end of Prisoner of Azkaban)  There was a lot in the underlying concept about time travel that reminded me of Willis so it definitely falls more toward that end of the spectrum.  There just seemed to be way more details given at times, and not enough at others. That is never a complaint I have had about DWJ novel before. The end also wrapped up FAST.

However, I did enjoy the characters, particularly Vivian and Jonathan. I loved the way all three of the kids interacted. Sam and his obsession with butter pies was endearing, as was his typical 8 year old behavior despite being a genius. (By the way: I really want a butter pie now despite not having a clue what one is. DWJ's writer skills at work.) I always enjoy these sorts of stories where the kids have to band together to save the day because the adults are running around pretending nothing is too amiss. I liked how the kids ended up messing up as much as they saved and that there were going to be consequences (though none too horrible) mixed in with their rewards.

When I ordered the re-released DWJ titles I was expecting to like this one more than Dogsbody, but that turned out to not be the case. I like it that the books can still surprise me. This is a vastly entertaining read and, I think, one that would probably appeal more to the MG reader.

Friday, July 13, 2012

This Year's School Books

Yes, it is time for me to turn my focus to school.  Many of you may have stopped reading already, too busy enjoying your summers to want to read about, hear about, or think about school. Here in my house it is inescapable. Our school year begins on Monday. Yep. I said it. Monday. One of the lovely things about homeschooling is that, for the most part, you make your own schedule. The kids get a good 6-7 weeks off in the summer, but we always start up again by mid-July. It is only a month before the public schools here go back and it is too hot to actually do much outside during July and August. We prefer to save our time off for the fall and spring when the weather is more conducive to fun.

I thought I would share a little preview, because I'm EXCITED about what I get to teach this year.

Bit will be in third grade. This year her history curriculum focuses on Ancient Greece and Rome and includes a host of excellent non-fiction. Many of her literature units also follow this focus. Here are some of the books we will be studying for that:
 Here are some of the non-history unit related books she will be reading:

Some of the books I will (most likely-her choices come into play some here)  be reading aloud to her (so you know what BIt reviews to look forward to):
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilosn

This will also be the year I begin teaching Little Man how to read. He is only four so we will NOT be tackling writing. Just reading. And I think it is high time he was introduced to our friend, Winnie the Pooh, and if that read aloud goes well we will tackle Charlotte's Web.

In addition to teaching my own kids I am teaching two classes at the homeschool co-op we are a part of.

Just as I did last year I will be teaching a 4th-6th grade literature class and this is what we will be studying:

I am also going to be teaching a 10th-12th grade Literary Analysis class (I'm super excited about this.) We only meet once a week so will only have time amidst all the short story reading and essay writing to read four books and they are:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (Cause I can. ♥)

Now I ask you: How could I NOT be excited about getting to teach all these amazing books?????

Can I just say? I love my life.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

No Crystal Stair

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the  Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson won this year's Horn Book Award for Children's Fiction. I can understand why. It is a unique and original book in so many ways. Format. Content. Genre. It is also a fascinating story.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
"You can't walk straight on a crooked line. You do you'll break your leg. How can you walk straight in a crooked system?"
Lewis Michaux was born to do things his own way. When a white banker told him to sell fried chicken, not books, because "Negroes don’t read," Lewis took five books and one hundred dollars and built a bookstore. It soon became the intellectual center of Harlem, a refuge for everyone from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X.
In No Crystal Stair, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson combines meticulous research with a storyteller's flair to document the life and times of her great-uncle Lewis Michaux, an extraordinary literacy pioneer of the Civil Rights era.
"My life was no crystal stair, far from it. But I'm taking my leave with some pride. It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. I'd say my seeds grew pretty damn well. And not just the book business. It's the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning."

If you read the synopsis you may come away thinking this is a non-fiction biography. I did. I was thoroughly confused when it won the Horn Book Award for FICTION. Lewis Michaux was a real person, the great-uncle of the author as a matter of fact. His bookstore was a real bookstore. There is pictoral and documented evidence to support this story. However, the author found some contradictory accounts of his life and places where there were no accounts at all and she extrapolated., making it a work of fiction. The most well documented and sourced work of fiction in history. No lie. There's a bibliography, and not a short one either, not to mention the list of quote sources. It is so well done and clearly straddles a fine line between non-fiction and fiction. I very much admire the author for calling it fiction since there were places she had to make assumptions. At the same time I am glad to have discovered this slice of American History I knew absolutely nothing about. Even without the narrative extrapolations it is clear that Michaux lived a fascinating life and did an extraordinary thing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Above World

I was a little hesitant to pick up Above World by Jenn Reese despite the numerous glowing reviews and comments for it I had read. It sounded dystopian, and I don't like dystopian. Finally all the praise had me curious enough to pick it up. (Also it has a beautiful cover.) Yes, it does have some shades of dystopian, but this is a book that is so much more than that. Reese sets her story in a futuristic world that is so foreign that it could be another world entirely. Into this she added myths and legends for the peoples she created. All of these elements combined with engaging characters to make an adventurous tale of bravery, loyalty, and friendship.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Thirteen-year-old Aluna has lived her entire life under the ocean with the Coral Kampii in the City of Shifting Tides. But after centuries spent hidden from the Above World, her colony’s survival is in doubt. The Kampii’s breathing necklaces are failing, but the elders are unwilling to venture above water to seek answers. Only headstrong Aluna and her friend Hoku are stubborn and bold enough to face the terrors of land to search for way to save their people. But can Aluna’s warrior spirit and Hoku’s tech-savvy keep them safe? Set in a world where overcrowding has led humans to adapt—growing tails to live under the ocean or wings to live on mountains—here is a ride through a future where greed and cruelty have gone unchecked, but the loyalty of friends remains true.

 I was extremely impressed by the world building. Extremely. Reese created a future world in which pockets of humans submitted to technological changes in their biology to adapt them to live in places humans normally couldn't inhabit. High altitudes, the desert, underwater. Centuries have passed since the pioneers of these colonies started them. Their descendents are reliant upon the technology that changed them and now that technology is failing. From the underwater home of Aluna and Hoku to the sky residence of the Aviars to the wild forests of the land, Resse did a phenomenal job describing them all and bringing them to life.  She also gave just enough background to make the place believable and to demonstrate the motivations of those long ago pioneers who brought this world into being. I found it particularly interesting that, while this is a futuristic story and the civilizations in it rely on extremely advanced technology and science, the pocket groups that live in the various places have developed their own myths and legends for their people over the intervening centuries. 

Aluna and Hoku are contrasting characters, and this story  belongs to both of them. Aluna is a brave warrior who often leaps in before she thinks. Both in action and words. Hoku is cautious and strategical in what he does often to the point of inaction. Together they make a great team because they force each other to be less extreme in their personalities. Aluna's leaving Coral Kampii causes Hoku to leave as well. He may never have been moved to action but for her rebellion. At the same time Hoku's critical thinking saves Aluna from her own reckless heroics more than once. I loved this part when they were being pursued and cornered by enemies:
"Then I'll stay," Aluna said. Besides if anyone was going to sacrifice herself for the greater good, it was going to be her.
"How about none of us stay," said Hoku.
He then proceeds to create a distraction that enables them to escape. This short interaction perfectly sums up both of them and how they work as a team. I really enjoyed the fact that their relationship was 100% a friendship. Not that there is no hint of romance. There is, just not between the two of them. They meet in their journeys Calli, a young Aviar, and Dash, an exiled Equine, who provide them with romantic interests. I felt this was yet another strength of the novel. This is a MG novel and the characters are 12-13 (Dash may be a little older-I'm not sure) and Reese did an excellent job of describing the innocent giddy stirrings of young love and-all its confusion-experienced at this age:
She hobbled over and sat a foot or so away from Dash, close enough but not too close. At least that's what she hoped he would think. Had he wanted her to sit closer? 
He sat next to Callli, grateful that she never seemed to mind. Her hand rested on the ground just  a few millimeters from his. And yet...those millimeters meant everything. Would he ever be brave enough to cross that distance.
 These feelings of young attraction and romance are kept to a  minimum and never overshadow or detract from the greater conflict playing out. And Calli and Dash are both interesting characters with fascinating backstories in their own rights, separate from their romantic functions. They are both important members of this team that has formed and bring their own strengths to the quest to save the Kampii.

 The conflict faced by Aluna and Hoku started out small as the world they came from, and grew bigger as their world grew bigger and they realized the importance of needing and working with others. There is a lot of food for thought about ethics in technology and bio-engineering here. The story does not force this on the reader, but a thoughtful reader will certainly have much to chew on after reading this. 

Most of all it is an enjoyable adventure about kids who are brave enough to challenge their world and fight for the future and hope.  I'm very excited to see where the story will be going in the second book, which is called Mirage and is expected to be published in 2013. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Featuring Bit, age 8

Bit was pretty much counting down the days until summer vacation because I had told her we could start reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling. Forget about swimming, beach trips, and no school. Harry Potter is what it's all about. I made her wait until break because I knew she would want to stay up late reading more chapters at a time.
The Story
 Harry is having strange dreams, waking him up with his scar hurting. But who has time to think about that when there's the Quidditch World Cup to look forward to? Then strange and scary things happen at the Cup. Who conjured the Dark Mark that has everyone terrified? Soon though Harry, Ron, and Hermione are back at Hogwarts and caught up in the excitement of the Triwizard Tournament being hosted at Hogwarts. Until Harry is chosen to compete that is. He suddenly goes from a fourth year navigating his first crush to a competitor in a deadly competition against students older and experienced than himself. It will take considerable help from his friends and all his wits to stay alive and discover who made sure he was in the competition.-and why.

Bit's Thoughts
I like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire because it is very exciting. There are sad parts and happy parts. It's really scary in some parts. I like scary sometimes. I think the Triwizard Tournament is interesting. There are lots of twists and turns in the story. I was really surprised, especially at one part but I don't want to give it away. My favorite part was the Yule Ball.  I really want to read The Order of the Phoenix.

My Thoughts
There has been much discussion over the years about how this volume is where the editing started to go awry. I agree with this. There are several places where there are massive info-dumps of back story from the other books that were entirely unnecessary. There are overly descriptive phrases and sentences that take the reader on unnecessary tours instead of simply going from point A to point B. These flaws become more obvious when you are reading it aloud. Still it is a marvelous tale. There is so much about the book that makes it exciting. The tournament, the mystery, the changing dynamics among the trio. All of it good stuff.

Yes, I'm making Bit wait for book 5. I like the breathing space between books. She can look forward to Christmas break all the more now. And so can I. This was the first time I found myself wanting to go directly into the next book with her. That's probably because book 4 and book 5 seem to go together. Also because it's my favorite.

What Bit and I are reading now: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dragon Castle

It's a week of dragon books! It was accidental, but it works.

The two words in the title were all the encouragement I needed to read Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac.  Where there are dragons and castles I shall go. I was taken by surprise by how greatly entertained I was in reading this. It was the perfect mix of light and dark, peril and humor.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Young Prince Rashko is frustrated with his family - no one does any thinking but him! The kingdom and castle seem to be in the hands of fools. So when Rashko's parents mysteriously disappear and the evil Baron Temny parks his army outside the castle walls, it is up to the young prince to save the day. But there is more to this castle and its history than meets the eye, and Rashko will have to embrace his ancestry, harness a dragon, and use his sword-fighting skills to stop the baron and save the kingdom. Along the way, he realizes that his family is not quite as stupid as he always thought.

Rashko is a bit arrogant and pompous, but no  more than most kids are at the age of 15. He makes up for these flaws by being delightfully snarky at the same time. He is convinced that all other members of his family are severely lacking in intelligence. Intelligence he, of course, possesses in abundance.
Why, I sometimes wonder; am I the only one in our family who ever seems to entertain a thought as anything other than a transient visitor? Why is it that when our lord and creator Boh was handing out brains, my parents and my brother apparently got in line behind the hummingbirds? If it were not for my taking charge, nothing would ever get properly done around here.
As the story progresses Rashko begins to see his family members in new and surprising ways and learns to appreciate that their strengths are greater than he realized. As are his weaknesses. This is what I enjoyed most about the book. It isn't just a hero/quest story with dragons and castles and a Dark Lord, it is a story about family and brotherhood. 

Rashko's story is intertwined with the legend of his several greats grandfather Pavol. The more the reader and Rashko learn about Pavol the more interesting Rashko's present circumstances get. The fantasy elements are well done and perfect for the reader who enjoys the lighter side of a story. There are moments of peril, battles to be fought, evil to be overcome, but there is just enough hint of the sightly absurd  to keep it from being too serious. The dragon is ferocious and vastly entertaining simultaneously.  It takes a writer with skills to do that.

Dragon's Castle is a perfect read for anyone looking for a fun adventure story.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Top Ten SLJ's 100 Children's Novels Poll

 Betsy Bird revealed the top 10 books slowly, drawing out the anticipation. They are finally all revealed. And I two days after #1 was revealed have finally gotten around to  posting this. There is not a lot I have to say about these books that hasn't been said by thousands of readers already, but I can't leave this unfinished. Also, I used almost every single one in my classroom when I had one.  So here they are, links as always to Fuse 8's original posts.
School Library Journal is generously creating PDF forms of both 100 lists, chapter book and picture book. For information on how you can register for these go here

10. The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
I have mixed feelings on this one. I loved this book as a child. I loved it when I reread it in my children's literature course in college. Teaching it changed that somewhat as I watched four years worth of fifth graders have lukewarm reactions to it at best. It is a wonderfully crafted novel (and short!), and while I have yet to personally encounter a modern young person who enjoys it I keep holding out hope they are out there somewhere.

 9. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Now this book my fifth graders loved. I did this as a read aloud every year, letting the students play along with the characters trying to unravel the mystery. Many of them took notes to keep up with the clues. None of them ever figured it out. Which is, of course, the point. And the brilliance of the narrative. This book has a unique narrative, a vast range of characters, a murder mystery, and a contest to inherit millions of dollars. What's not to love?

 8. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgromery
Oh Anne. My love for this book is vast. I read it so many times between the ages of 9 and 12. I haven't read it since though. I think I'm half afraid I won't like it as much now as I do in my memory so my memory is where I'm happy to leave it.

 7. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
This is quite possibly the perfect book to read with a group of 5th graders. The characterization is perfect. The sibling relationship is portrayed realistically. The plot is pretty much every child's dream runaway scenario.

 6. Holes by Louis Sachar
This was the first novel my class read together every year. I introduced it on the second day of school. There is no better book for ensnaring a room full of 9-11 year olds into the joys of reading. I'm teaching it again this year for the first time since I left teaching in a traditional classroom. I couldn't be more excited.

 5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The book that has had countless numbers of children hanging out in their closets desperately hoping the back would drop off at some point. It is magical in every sense of the word and opens up the imagination in extraordinary ways.

 4. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Dystopian children's literature before it was a thing. In fact, one could argue (and many have) that all the currently popular dystopians owe much to this book. It is the best of the genre you will find. All the others, in my opinion, don't even come close. It is marvelous. It was a challenged book in the school I taught. Decisions to remove materials from our library came before a committee containing one teacher per grade level plus the librarian. I was the fifth grade representative, which was fortunate because I was the only person in the room that day who had read it and the parent challenging it had made it sound evil enough that the librarian had pretty much decided to pull it and was only showing it to us as a formality. I made that meeting a little longer than she expected it to be.

 3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
I confess I didn't start reading HP until after my daughter was born and I was no  longer teaching. We were not allowed to use the HP books in our classrooms for literature circles or read alouds. They could be in our classroom library, but even that was sort of frowned upon. There were so many books out there to read that I could use in the classroom I was busy with those. I was sort of thankful for that as I started reading the series after The Half Blood Prince was already out and so saved the years of anguish and waiting.

 2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
This is the book that shaped my late elementary and middle school years more than any other. I wore out more than copy and read all the other books in the series as well. I can understand why it is #2 given what #1 is, but I really wanted it to take over that top spot. I'm a little sad it didn't.  I also taught this book to my AG students and it was wonderful to witness how it sparked their imaginations. I had some really great discussions with those kids.

1.  Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
Of course. Even if I was sort of hoping it would be unseated and drop a space, I fully understand why it still reigns supreme. It is a beautifully written story of friendship and life that appeals to people of all ages and generations and still speaks to children today.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


All I knew when I went into Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was that it was a book with dragons. Imagine my delight when I began reading and discovered that the book had plenty of other elements to love. Mystery. Political Intrigue. Awesome Heroine. Yes, this book has all of that. Plus the dragons.  I haven't read a high fantasy I enjoyed this much in a looooong time.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.
Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

The world building here is excellent. There are several countries being dealt with that have a complex history. They have a religious system (also complex) and an intricate class structure. None of this is explained to the reader, the story is simply rich with the details of the world the characters live in. There is a bit of explanation given here and there, but the way Hartman wove these parts into the story made sense in the narrative and worked for the characters. The concept at the heart of the story is unique and interesting. After years of war dragons and humans have a fragile peace that has lasted 40 years. The dragons take human form and are permitted to live among the humans. The rules are strict on this and some dragons are better at "passing" as humans than others. Some are so remarkably good at it they form forbidden ties with humans and no longer wish to assume their dragon form. The peace is a fragile one because many of the dragons who fought in the wars are, of course, still alive. And there are humans keen to stoke the embers of fear and hatred for the "beasts" who killed their grandparents in their fellows. There are interesting themes explored through this of what humanity is and it how it operates. I found the contrast between the dragons' lack of emotional connection, the idea that they were beyond such things and therefore above humans, and the human's belief that the dragons lack of emotion meant they were all heartless and bloodthirsty to be interesting.

Of course the important thing in all of this is the people it's affecting. Our characters, most importantly Seraphina. I really loved Seraphina's voice and empathized with her from the first. Her story starts out slowly and she is not forth coming with details. At the beginning of the book Seraphina is a girl in conflict. She has secrets she is ashamed of and must hide. She is lonely, and thinks alone is what is best, and yet she craves companionship. Her walls are up. As the story progresses and she begins to make connections with the people around her her story also opens up. The book really is the process of getting to know her. This one girl who is "prickly" (as the Princess calls her). There were many aspects of Seraphina's character I appreciated. She is not rash. She tries to think every situation through. She manages to avoid most unpleasantness by trying to tell as much truth as she can. At the same time she is crafty, using other people's assumptions of her and situations to gain the advantage she needs in to do what she must in the moment.

Seraphina comes with a whole host of fascinating supporting characters as well: her father, Kiggs. Orma, Dame Okra, Lars, Viridius, Abda, Estar, Princess Glisselda, Comonot, These characters are royalty, musicians, acrobats, dragons, and all interesting in their own right. To top it all off there is a fascinating villain and they are never sure exactly where or how he is operating.

The story is action packed and the last 100 pages or so are nail biters.

I do believe there will be more to come of this world and its characters. The end certainly seems to set that up. At the same time I would be satisfied with the questions left unanswered and the ending just as it is. Hartman struck the perfect balance here.

This is one of my favorite reads so far this year and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys good stories of intrigue or is looking for an inventive take on dragons.

I read a copy most excitedly received from the publisher via NetGalley. Seraphia is on sale July 10.