Everything you see is something we've read. No hearsay or rumors to be found! Be sure to check out our "We Recommend" list where we break books down for all types of readers. We love comments, questions, and recommendations, so don't be shy! We promise we won't bite (the internet is a strong preventative barrier).

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Magic And Time Travel--A New Juvie Adventure Begins!

Side note: I just finished Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull, author of the great juvie series Fablehaven. I think Mull has outdone himself, and I cannot wait to read the next installment in this new series! Since Ruby reviewed it a few weeks back, I've added my thoughts to hers--check out this amazing, incredible new fantasy (just released last week)!

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
(Review based on Advanced Reader Copy.)

There seems to be an abundance of strong middle-reader fantasy books lately! John Stephen's debut novel, The Emerald Atlas, has a great magical tingle to it. If you combined the Chronicles of Narnia, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter, Fablehaven, and the Lord of the Rings, to name a few, you would have a really good feel for the spunky fun, adventure, and depth of The Emerald Atlas.

Atlas features three "orphaned" siblings--Kate, Michael, and Emma--who were long ago sent away for safe keeping by parents they hardly remember, and they are still waiting, years later, for their parents' return. Kate and her siblings find themselves shuttled from orphanage to orphanage until they end up in a forgotten-looking mansion in a desolate-looking town with a strange old man as their caregiver. Upon searching the house, they find a magic book that resembles an album, and when Michael puts a picture in it, all three kids are magically transferred to the time and location of the photo!

Suddenly the town is full of anguished parents and kids, separated by a cruel but beautiful sorceress (with the requisite simpering sidekick) who oppresses the people in a search for the very book that brought the children back in time. As the adventure continues, we learn that this ancient, magical tome allows users to alter history and even rewrite the creation of the world as we know it.

Through separation, hardship, and the making of both friends and enemies, the three children find themselves caught up in an adventure 30 years before they were born, trying to prevent disaster, protect themselves, and figure out their own past along the way. They travel through thick forests, down steep cliffs laced with waterfalls, deep underground into ancient magical cities. I found it particularly refreshing to see the space-time continuum used in such a detailed way in a middle-reader book--not to say it hasn't been done before, but in The Emerald Atlas it's done with a specific attention to consequences of actions, changing of events, and responsibility. The deeper they get in the quest they're on, the more involved the siblings become with the magic they've unleashed, and it's up to each of the brother and sisters to learn about it and themselves to survive, all the while unlocking secrets to their past.

The first in the Books of Beginnings trilogy, Atlas is full of intriguing characters, mostly unique, though some generalized through cliche characteristics (the occasional dwarf, for example, though adamantly idolized by Michael, seems a bit familiar from other fantasy tales). Overall the children's adventures make an exhilarating story full of epic battles and snarky, humorous bickering among siblings. The blurb on my galley copy of the book said I would laugh and cry; I did, which tells me that I was emotionally invested in the characters Stephens introduced, a laudable feat. Smart, funny, and full of adventure--it's hard to go wrong with that combination!

The Emerald Atlas hits shelves on April 5th.


Age 8-12
Copyright April 2011
ISBN: 9780375868702
Available as an eBook (at publication)
Image from www.goodreads.com

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Perfect Society" Meets Punk-Rock Action and Thrills

Divergent by Veronica Roth
(Review based on Advanced Reader Copy of book.)

If I could tell you (the adoring public) to read a book and know--absolutely know--that you would pick it up and actually read it, this post would read "Divergent by Veronica Roth comes out in May. Read it. The end."

Sadly, my every whim does not typically get carried out by the rest of the world, so here are some plot points and other fun facts.

The world has changed into one none of us would recognize. In order to avoid wars and the negative aspects of humanity that go along with them, a dystopian American society has broken up into five distinct factions, each one a representative of a virtue that some people think can keep conflict at bay. In Candor, members strive to only tell the truth, hurtful or uncomfortable as it might be. Dauntless is for the brave, the protectors. Amity lifestyle is that of peace, no matter how it is obtained, while Erudites value knowledge above all else. And, lastly, there is Abnegation, dictating a plain, selfless lifestyle, others first at all times.

Having grown up in Abnegation, Beatrice has always lived a quiet, subservient life, though not a bad one. On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, she and her brother enter a simulation, rather like a career test, to tell them in which faction they most belong. Beatrice, though, is Divergent--for her there is no answer, and for her own protection, she can tell no one. Surprising even herself at the choosing ceremony, she walks away from her family and all she knows to join the dangerous, studded and tattooed Dauntless group, the daredevils and action-seekers of her world.

What follows is a dangerous, passionate ride through which our protagonist learns strength, freedom of spirit, and independence as she works to prove herself in a faction that might never accept her for her prior lifestyle. These punk-rocker types jump off of buildings, hurl knives at one another, and face their darkest fears in realistic simulations in order to grow stronger, better, and fearless, and it is a grueling process for everyone, including the reader. Some fellow Dauntless initiates become friends while others become feared opponents, and even their instructor, Four, makes Beatrice's new life confusing as she finds herself both repelled and drawn to his rock-steady attitude and frustrating ways.

Throughout her journey, Beatrice must put up with verbal abuse about her home faction and a steady stream of published insults from one faction to another, and tensions rise throughout the city. Is another war coming, or will everything settle down? What defines loyalty, bravery, and equality? What role will Beatrice play in her new Dauntless family, and is it worth everything she has lost and left behind?

This action-packed, thrilling book is full of interesting characters and intense plot turns. While Beatrice occasionally fumbles and works to deal with her own insecurities, she is a strong female protagonist, working hard to prove her worth, not just to others but also to herself. Occasional cliches pop up--I have yet to read a book without at least one or two--but Roth's writing is such that as a reader, I don't actually care. It's just so good!

Divergent is awesome. Really. If you're a fan of the Hunger Games/Post-apocalyptic/Perfect-society/Science-fiction world, you will enjoy it.

Author Veronica Roth is a 22-year old graduate of Northwestern University, and Divergent is her debut novel, the first in a trilogy. It has already been optioned for a movie (the film rights went to Summit Entertainment), and I expect the entire enterprise to be a runaway hit (and rightly so). Publication of Divergent is expected May 3, 2011.


Age 14+
Copyright May 2011
ISBN: 9780062024022
Available as an eBook (at publication)
Image from www.harpercollins.com

Friday, March 18, 2011

Boys Will Be Boys

Masters of Disaster by Gary Paulsen

This book is a riot!

As Henry Mosely states pompously to his two friends Riley and Reed, "We may be the most boring twelve-year-olds on the planet." Whether or not that's true, the rambunctious trio agrees that something must be done so that they may become "Men of Action and Daring" in order to better "Impress Girls" and "Alter the Course of History."

The first course of action, obviously, is to tie their friend Reed to a bicycle and have him attempt to ride down a neighbor's roof, somersault in mid air, and bounce off of the swimming pool diving board unharmed, all in the name of creating a new world record. (Kids: do not try this at home!) While Reed is amazingly uninjured by the stunt, he does end up deep in a dumpster and smelling pretty gross. (It turns out this is a theme.)

One crazy stunt follows the next as Henry, the architect and the logistics planner; Riley, the meticulous observer-and-reporter of all attempted manly exploits; and Reed, the hapless guinea pig, try their hands at bigger and better things, all followed by Manly pronouncements on Adventure and Fame (from their directing supervisor Henry, of course). Paulsen breaks the chapters down into individual adventures, three of which are based on previously published short stories for Boy's Life magazine. There is an attempt at outdoor survival with only school supplies at hand (and an escaped circus animal), solving a local hundred-year murder mystery (in a haunted house), and being rodeo cowboys at a family ranch (involving a great deal of smelly manure), to name a few.

Masters of Disaster is a great boys-will-be-boys adventure full of slimy, smelly, ridiculous fun that even girls--as they shake their heads in disbelief at the antics of adolescent boys--will enjoy. In fact, I challenge any reader, kids and adults alike, to not laugh out loud multiple times while reading this book.

Masters of Disaster is one of my new middle-reader favorites. Try it out with just about any age group and wait for the giggles and guffaws to begin!

Paperback copies will be available August 9, 2011.


Age 8-12
Copyright August 2010
ISBN: 9780385739979
Available as an eBook
Image from www.randomhouse.com

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Parasitic Vampires

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

... and no, these vampires don't sparkle in sunlight.

Cal is a 19-year-old Texan vampire living in New York City. Okay, so technically he's a carrier for the parasite that makes people into full-fledged vampires, so as far as being infected, he's sane and in control. Cal works for the Night Guard, an organization deep underground that tracks down Parasite Positives or "Peeps" for short (the preferred term for vamps) and medicates them so that they are no longer a threat to society.

Signs you may be infected? See in the dark: check. Start craving extra-rare meat: check. Shun the things you once loved: check. Of course, the eventual cannibalism and lack of conscious communication are pretty good giveaways too. Oh yeah, and the flock of rats, also carriers, that make up your brood. Pretty sexy lifestyle, right?

Cal is following a trail of his progenitor and of those individuals he accidentally turned (the parasite is transferred through saliva, blood, and sex-ed related bodily fluids). Once he tracks down his ex-girlfriends and some tenants who mysteriously disappeared from the same floor in a swanky apartment building, he starts to notice some anomalies: some of these Peeps talk, and some even seem to recognize him, which shouldn't really be possible. Throw in a red-eyed, gloating cat that commands a group of thousands of rats in a subterranean complex and the unmistakable smell of ultimate evil. Then add the fact that only one out of one hundred people are supposed to be "immune" like Cal is, but somehow he finds four in the same contamination group, and Cal starts questioning everything he's ever been told.

Oh, plus there's the enforced-celibacy thing: how is he supposed to deal with Lace, the too-smart and too -interested human who won't let him off the hook? It is, to say the least, kind of distracting.

Part supernatural, part action/adventure, part medical thriller, and part dopey-kid-trying-to-figure-things-out, Peeps is a fun, smart, and compelling read. Westerfeld weaves evolutionary theory throughout the action. Every other chapter addresses the existence of a real-life parasite--it's life cycle, evolutionary strategy, world impact--in a snarky way that makes it both gross and interesting. In addition, Westerfeld includes recommended additional reading (non-fiction!) and a helpful list in the back on how to avoid parasites; here's my favorite:
"If your burger oozes red,
Send it back; them worms ain't dead."
Westerfeld's fun and action-filled style keeps the plot rolling, and twists and turns along the way are smooth and effective. If you're looking for a supernatural/vampire book that doesn't include an over-stressed love triangle, this is definitely a keeper. I really enjoyed it. (Kirkus Reviews agreed with me and gave it a starred review... very wise of them.) The sequel, The Last Days, was published September 2006.


Age 14+ (some mature content, mostly glossed over)
Copyright September 2005
ISBN: 9781595140838
Available as an eBook
Image from www.scottwesterfeld.com

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Power to Kill: Joint Review

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Ruby's take: Katsa was only eight years old when she killed for the first time. She is one of the "Graced," a person who is distinguished by their eyes, which are different colors. She has the Grace of fighting and is used by her uncle, King Randa, to be his "lady killer," to carry out torture and killings to satisfy any wrongs (right or otherwise) done to him.

In order to bring some good from her Grace, Katsa and her friends form the "Council" to help people throughout the seven kingdoms who have been unjustly punished, imprisoned, or abused. Through this secret council, Katsa rescues an elderly man who turns out to be a prince from a neighboring kingdom. His grandson, Prince Po, comes looking for him in the kingdom of Middluns.

Po is also Graced with superior fighting skills and is a welcome fighting partner for Katsa. The two form a close friendship...which turns into more. Both are pulled into a plot that starts with the kidnapping of Po's grandfather and turns into something far more dangerous. Po and Katsa have to rely on each other and their Graces to survive.

This is one of the best books I've read this year. I had put off reading it, but when I found out that a third book (Book 2 is Fire, and the third is tentatively titled Bitterblue) will be coming out later this year, I had to hurry up and read it. Cashore's writing is fluid, descriptive, and utterly delightful. She really knows how to bring the story to life. All the characters are relatable, but the focus of the story is Katsa, and what a woman! Being graced with the ability to fight while controlling her anger is one of the many challenges she faces, but she does so with great courage and strength. Prince Po is definitely a great match for her, as he respects her abilities and who she is. Best line in the whole book: "If there's anyone I wish to stun at dinner, I'll hit him in the face." All in all, a great first novel.


Jenny's take: My turn! I read Graceling about a year ago and loved it. I'll leave the summary bits out for the most part (since Ruby covered it above), but I will say that a vital part of Katsa's struggle is internal as she comes to terms with not only her grace and how to handle herself but also her response to those around her (including those with other graces). Her physical journey turns into an emotional one as she starts, for the first time, to allow others into her heart and mind. And the best part? She kicks butt the whole time. Think of a female gladiator/Robin Hood/progressive princess/avenger/assassin, and you've got a pretty good vision of Katsa.

Cashore has found a way to combine about a billion genres into one fantastic book: action, fantasy, survival, epic journey, romance, and mystery, to name a few. To cap it all off, she did an amazing and fluid job; her writing style grabbed my attention from the start and kept me captivated all the way through. Fans of The Hunger Games trilogy will enjoy the independent fighter Cashore has created, along with the in-depth and beautiful fantasy world that completes the package.

As a follow-up, read Fire, also by Cashore. It's a prequel of sorts, though there is only one overlap character and the story takes place in a different part of the world with monsters and people of an entirely different nature. It makes for another great read!


Ages 13+
Publisher: Graphia (September 2009)
ISBN: 9780547258300
Also available as an eBook.
Image from www.bn.com

Real-life Drama with a Kick

The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones

I picked this book while randomly scrounging the teen shelves at the local library, and I'm really glad I did.

In this emotional, whirlwind drama, Mimi is a spunky film student at NYU who has an affair with a married professor. When she breaks it off, he takes a turn for obsession and Mimi runs far, far away to her father's "house on the snye," a small, unoccupied cottage in Canada. Her plan: work on a new screen play, ignore all calls from her ex, and get some quality alone time. When she arrives, however, she discovers that she is not alone--already living there is Jay, a music graduate student who just happens to be a half brother Mimi never knew she had, another product of her run-around artist father. Despite the emotional tangle, Mimi decides to stay, and she and Jay build a close bond.

All is not well, though, as Jay has been dealing with harassment at the Snye--break-ins, a snake skin on his pillow, a dead bird placed at his doorstep, new inclusions in his music recordings. Enter player three in this dramatic triangle: Cramer, a local, poor, early-twenties guy working overtime to take care of his manic-depressive mother, all the while trying to connect silently with the guy he knows (privately) to be his half-brother, Jay.

Wynne-Jones weaves together the lives of three young people who were born into different worlds sharing the same blood. Wynne-Jones entangles love, hate, fear, lust, affection, and romantic confusion as Mimi, Jay, and Cramer meet each other first as strangers and friends and then as family. Each chapter alternates in perspective, and while this could be confusing, it instead adds to the reader's understanding of each person in turn.

The Uninvited is all set against the beautiful and whimsical background of "the Snye" where Mimi's father started the journey for all of them, finally culminating in tragedy and then rebirth. Sometimes dark, sometimes flirtatious, the characters are thrown into a strange family drama, but this is no soap opera. It's a suspenseful and emotional story with some creepy overtones thrown into the mix. A solid emotional drama that embraces forgiveness, understanding, personal flaws, and overcoming isolation.


Age 14+ (mature content: sexual allusions/curse words/violence)
Copyright May 2009
ISBN: 9780763639842
Available as an eBook
Image from www.tower.com

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ancient Greece from a Porcine Perspective

The Pig Scrolls by Paul Shipton
*Great for fans of Percy Jackson and mythology!*

Here's the thing: Gryllus is a pig. Literally. You see, he was a crew mate for Odysseus on the way back from the Trojan war, and when they hit Circe's island... well, you know the story. The thing is, when all the other guys got returned to human form, Gryllus thought, Gee, snuffling around for food all day? Sleeping? Not working? Now this is the life for me!

Until, that is, the day he was captured by some snot-nosed guys who decided to make some money off of a talking pig. Along comes some hilarious pig-hosted dinner theater, a pimply teenage Homer, and an assistant prophetess from Apollo's temple, Sibyl, who claims that Gryllus is destined to save the world (including those pesky gods and goddesses). Off he goes--kicking and screaming and proclaiming he really isn't that interested in hero duties--on a riotous journey through ancient times with a great cast of characters, some familiar and some a little more unique.

Through Gryllus' narration--cheeky, self-important, and more than a little exaggerated--Shipton keeps the laughter and action going along the whole adventure. Awesome, snarky lines will have kids and adults alike rolling on the floor, such as "puzzlement crossed the big lad's face, like a cloud across the moon on a night when the moon is looking especially puzzled" and "[he] wasn't the brightest--clearly several Spartans short of the full three hundred."

Though history isn't told in complete accuracy (we meet the creator of sliced bread and the splitting of the atom, and the historical figures are mish-mashed as needed, despite the era), it's smart, sarcastic, funny... and, well, really smart, sarcastic, and funny. This is one of those books that somehow got published under the radar and has stayed there ever since, despite its brilliance. Kids who flew through Percy Jackson's epic adventures, along with any other mythological reads, will delight in Gryllus' story and in the way he tells it. Paul Shipton has created a fun read for kids of all ages, grown-ups included. Highly recommended!
Follow Gryllus on additional adventures in his second book, The Pig Who Saved the World.


Age 10-14
Copyright August 2007
ISBN: 9780763633028
Image from www.candlewick.com

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy Birthday to Ruby!

Today my cohort and partner in crime turns... a year older! Hip hip hurray!

Here's to eating too much cake, opening excellent presents, and enjoying the one day of the year that everybody has to be nice to you. Enjoy, m'dear!

And, because no birthday is complete without, here's a link to the Beatles' birthday song.

- Jenny (obviously)

Many many thanks fellow partner in crime! I did have a very excellent day! Thanks for the song. No birthday is complete without it.

-Ruby (obviously)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

First Day of School in Chad

Rain School written and illustrated by James Rumford

The children of Chad rush to the first day of school, excited to learn their letters and to receive notebooks and pencils, to sit at desks. When they arrive, however, they find only their teacher. Their first lesson will be building the school itself. Slowly it forms out of dried mud bricks and thatched grass roofing, with mud desks and wooden stools. Finally Teacher shows them the letter A, applauding their learning and encouraging them each step of the way. At the end of the school year, nine months later, the rains come and melt the school down again, ready to be rebuilt by the children at the start of the next year.
Beautiful crayon and watercolor illustrations cover each spread, showing active children building, learning, and walking to school. Rumford uses many earth tones and warm colors, drawing the reader into the scene. On the last page is a geographical map of Africa as well as a population count and physical size.
Though this book does not stand as an educational tool on Chad, it opens a
 potential window of understanding that kids everywhere, just like you and me, go to school, even if they do it in a slightly different way. Very beautiful, simple, and elegant--personally, I'm going to have to find a space in my collection for this one.
Age 4-8
Copyright February 2011
ISBN: 9780547243078
Available as an eBook
Image from www.goodreads.com

Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function?

But and For, Yet and Nor: What Is a Conjunction? by Brian P. Cleary; illustrated by Brian Gable
When I think conjunctions, I think School House Rock—to me, they are synonymous. It’s what I grew up with, and I still have the song Conjunction Junction on my iPod.
Written in rhyme with wacky, colorful characters, Cleary’s concept is almost as catching and fun as that classic hit. The descriptions are clear and introduced in a fairly straightforward manner, and they are described by their different uses (time, compare/contrast, etc.). Conjunctions used as examples are printed in color to distinguish them, though the author offers a challenge at the beginning of the book: find all the conjunctions not highlighted too! The rhymes used are comical, often achieving extra meaning when paired with the illustrations.
Silly illustrations will have younger kids laughing, while the information will be useful and informative to older grades as well.
And really, with lines like Both and and can work that way as in this next example: both my parrot and my friend would sure like one free sample” (p.20-21), how can you not crack a smile?

Additional books in the series cover nouns and adverbs, to name a few.

Age 7-11
Copyright March 2010
ISBN: 9780822591535
Image from www.librarybooks.com

Am I Kosher Yet?

Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher by Laurel Snyder; illustrated by David Goldin
Baxter is “a curious sort of pig,” so when an old man at the bus stop starts wishing it were sundown, he can’t help but ask why. The old man describes Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, and Baxter thinks it sounds great, so he asks how he can be part of Shabbat dinner. Another man tells him he can’t: he’s not kosher!
Baxter tries everything to be kosher: he eats jars of pickles and loaves of challah; he even tries to be a cow! Nothing works. But then one day, he meets a rabbi, and she tells him there’s been a terrible misunderstanding—he cannot be kosher, but that just means he can’t be eaten! Everyone is welcome at Shabbat dinner!
Each page has a mixed-media illustration, containing both drawings and photographs combined to create a scene. These make for interesting pictures that some kids may find off-putting while others will greatly enjoy. The big, googly eyes of each character keep the illustrations light. A letter from the author at the back gives a brief description of the social aspects of Shabbat, and a glossary of terms—with fun definitions—supports the narrative. Though this book does not cover any religious aspects of Shabbat or Judaism, beyond “mitzvah” (good deeds) and a mention of the Sabbath, it’s a fun and cute introduction to this weekly Jewish occasion. Definitely recommended!
And besides, any picture book that talks about the deliciousness of kugel (a "traditional Jewish casserole of sorts") is a winner for me!

Age 4-8
Copyright February 2011
ISBN: 9781582463155
Image from www.inerfaithfamily.com

An Average Girl with Super Powers

The Candidates by Inara Scott
Dancia Lewis has blending into crowds down to an art: straight B grades, so-so wardrobe, no real friends, no special hobbies. So when recruiters from the prestigious Delcroix Academy boarding school stop by her house, it doesn’t make any sense. Unless, that is, they know about her secret…
Ever since she was little, she found she could make things happen. Drop a tree branch on a bully’s head, knock over a threatening gunman at the ER, blow out the tires in a suspicious chase vehicle… whatever she thinks, it happens. By avoiding friends, she’s successfully avoided the need to defend anyone, thereby hiding her powers—until now.
As Dancia begins her freshman year at the academy, she finds her life changing rapidly as friends work their way into her life and the hot junior she meets seems to take an interest. And then there’s Jack, the moody, insubordinate guy who seems to be average too, unless he has a special gift of his own. Love triangle, anyone?
The Candidates is well paced and well written, and it’s a breath of fresh air to experience a female protagonist in this genre with a will and tenacity of her own. As the paranormal romance sub-genre gains momentum with teen readers, it’s sometimes hard to find a compelling book to stand behind. This one is a good, fun read. Planned as a series, the Delcroix Academy books are sure to grow in popularity once the word gets out, and fans will want to know just what happens next.
Book two, The Watchers, is expected this winter.

Age 12+
Copyright October 2010
ISBN: 9781423116363
Available as an eBook
Image from www.inarascott.com

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Grand Adventure With a Dash of Pepper

The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton
Persimmony Smudge lives on the peaceful Island at the Center of Everything. When she gets lost in the woods, she starts a series of events that will change her life and the life of those on the island.

Persimmony longs for adventure, and with her very active imagination it's hard for her family to understand. Her mother morally objects from everything to using soap to reading books. Her sister, Prunella, is not much different. Persimmony takes after her long missing father, who may have gone off on a heroic adventure of his own...read the book to find out. While lost in the woods, she overhears something about gold beneath the King's castle and how the Leafeaters ("Reclusive denizens of the secret underground city of Willowroot who love ceremonies, hate rudeness, and (ahem) eat leaves.") are going to dig straight to it. From here, Persimmony and her friend Worvil the Worrier find out that the daily rise and fall of the island is actually a sleeping giant and must not be woken lest the island be destroyed...and it's up to her to convince everyone.

This book has a wonderful cast of characters, from Persimmony herself to the playful, happy-go-lucky Rumplebumps, the aforementioned Leafeaters, the quarreling citizens of the island, and my favorite, thirteen-year-old King Lucas the Loftier, who will have you rooting for some and laughing at others. He is full of his own self-importance and obsessed with pepper. This is a wonderful debut from this author, and I hope she has many more tales to tell us. A great read-aloud and hard to put down!


Ages 9-12
Publisher: Dial (December 2010)
ISBN: 9780803733756
Available as an eBook

Holding Out for a Hero: Joint Review

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull (Book 1 Beyonders)

Ruby's Take: Jason Walker lives a very normal life for a 13-year-old boy, but when an event at the hippo exhibit during his volunteer job at the zoo leads him to the land of Lyrian, life is anything but normal. Upon entering this place, he comes across a gathering of people who are watching a suicidal sacrifice of musicians called "The Giddy Nine" on the river and over a very large waterfall. In seeing this, Jason tries to stop it, but may have done more harm than good.
In trying to determine where he is, he stumbles upon the Repository of Learning. He is told by the Loremaster (the librarian) that Jason is a Beyonder. Beyonders are rarely seen in Lyrian, but there still exist portals that connect Jason's world to this one. Hoping for more information, he is forbidden to enter the third floor. Curiosity and the thought that there might be knowledge there that will help him get home leads him to his destiny. In this unused portion of the Repository, he discovers and reads a page, and in particular a syllable that will delay his journey home and set him on another journey. He now has to find all the syllables to a "Word" that will destroy the wizard ruler of Lyrian, Maldor. These syllables are hidden all over Lyrian. With the help of Rachel, a girl from the same place as Jason (although Jason is from California and Rachel is from Washington), they will have to use their wits and each other to piece together the "Word." With Maldor and his minions on their trail, their journey is fraught with peril...from friend and foe alike.
A great new adventure series from the author that gave us Fablehaven. This series has a darker overtone than his previous books, but the adventure is even greater. Jason and Rachel are very likable characters, and I love how stubborn they both are! It will be very hard to wait for Book Two, Seeds of Rebellion, coming out in Spring of 2012, with the final installment in Spring of 2013.


Jenny's Take: I loved this book! I've been a Brandon Mull fan ever since I read the first book in his Fablehaven series--another great adventure series that's good for both boys and girls--and Beyonders exceeded my expectations. Fast-paced and action-packed, Mull creates another world that's full of amazing creatures and sparkling personalities. (And really, any story that starts with a main character getting swallowed by a hippo? Automatically a winner!)

Pulled into Lyrian, a heavy burden falls on both Jason and Rachel as they realize their destinies are tied and they have little hope of survival unless they accept the journey life has thrust upon them. The only surviving wizard, Maldor, rules Lyrian with an iron fist, always increasing his holdings. His only known weakness is a single, six-syllable word, pieces of which are scattered throughout the world in the most dangerous and magical marshes, deserts, and temples. With the support of a fallen royal hero, Galloran, who previously failed the same quest, Jason and Rachel set out to achieve the impossible by piecing together the Word, meeting countless intriguing characters and moral decisions along the way.

If you're looking for strong, stubborn, and interesting characters, look no further. Though their relationship is rocky at first, Jason and Rachel develop a trusting partnership that gets them into trouble and out of it again as they strive to be worthy of the title "hero" in a land not their own.

Full of fun and drama, jokes and tension, Beyonders is a great first-in-series book! I can't recommend it enough to anyone looking for a great read.


Ages 9+
Publisher: Aladdin (March 2011)
ISBN: 9781416997924
Available as an eBook
Image from www.simonandschuster.com

Phobias and Heroism Galore!

The Call by Michael Grant (Book 1 The Magnificent 12)

Mack MacAvoy is an ordinary 12-year-old kid, with a long list of phobias from dentophobia (fear of dentists) to phobophobia (fear of phobias). The one thing that he's not afraid of is trouble. When he saves the life of Stefan, one of the school bullies (there's one for every social group), Mack's life takes an unexpected turn.

Grimluk is another 12-year-old from a very, very, very long time ago. He is known as one of the Magnifica. He and eleven others must defeat the Pale Queen before she destroys the Earth. During the ensuing battle, she is only imprisoned for 3000 years.

Now that 3000-year end date is close at hand, and it's up to Mack to find the other eleven 12-year-olds to bring together The Magnificent 12 and defeat the Pale Queen once and for all. Lots of obstacles stand in thier way, including the Pale Queen's daughter, Princess Ereskigal, and her many many minions.

A laugh-out-loud adventure that alternates the story between Mack in present day and Grimluk way, way, way back when. Michael Grant has created very relatable characters (the human ones at least) and hilarious situations in a great new series. Book Two will be coming out in Fall 2011. If you like this, I also recommend the Nathan Ambercrombie Series by David Lubar or vice versa.


Ages 9-12
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (August 2010)
ISBN: 9780061833663 
Available as an eBook

Mystery, Murder, and Espionage

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

It's 1936, and the effects of the Great Depression are still being experienced by most. Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker is sent to Manifest, Kansas, by her father. They've spent their life riding the rails and doing various jobs throughout the United States. Abilene is mystified as to why her father has decided to send her away now. However, the town of Manifest has more meaning to her father. It's where he lived when he was younger. Abilene decides to make the best of it as she settles in with Pastor Shady. Shady is an apropos name for him because he is also the local whisky maker in a time when Prohibition was still in effect.

In trying to find pieces of her father in this town, she discovers a box with letters and mementos underneath her floor that are from 1918. This will lead her on a journey through the memories of the locals. Some want to forget, and others have something to hide. While doing odd jobs for Miss Sadie, a Hungarian woman who is known as the local diviner (gypsy), she is told the story of Manifest in 1918, and in turn Abilene learns her own story.

This year's Newbery Award Winning novel is a fantastic debut from Clare Vanderpool. As I read Abilene's story, I felt like I was right there with her. I could taste the dust and feel the heat of the Kansas sun. Abilene is a likeable character who is feisty and opinionated. Vanderpool wonderfully weaves a narrative that brings together two different stories that connect seamlessly about spies, murder, love, and bootlegging. This has become my favorite Newbery Winner, just knocked From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler down a notch.


2011 Newbery Award Winner
Ages 9-12
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (October 2010)
ISBN: 9780385738835
Available as an eBook.

One Crazy Summer...Indeed!

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

It's the summer of 1968, and three sisters, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, are shipped off from their Brooklyn home to Oakland, California, to visit their mother, who abandoned them seven years ago. Their father thought it was time for them to get to know their mother. When they arrive, it's not the normal hugs and kisses you would get from a mother, but a a cold indifference. Their month-long California vacation is not off to a good start. No Disneyland. No movie stars. Their mother is veiled in mystery that the girls try to solve. As the oldest (11 years old), Delphine needs to help her sisters make the best of thier situation.

With an uncaring tone that says she can't be bothered, the mother gives the girls money for food (they're absolutely NOT allowed to go in the kitchen) at the local Chinese restaurant and they're sent to the People's Center for breakfast. It is there that the girls reluctantly (on Delphine's part) and happily (on Vonetta and Fern's part) get involved in classes run by the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary organization that fights for Black Power. Throughout the days of their visit, they become more involved than they realize.

The voices and personalities of the three girls come through the most in this novel. Delphine is extremely strong-willed, and being the oldest, she is always the responsible one. Quiet and reserved, Delphine is not one to make waves. Vonetta is the middle child and the one who wants to be the center of attention. As the baby in the family, Fern is happy in her own little world: singing, dancing, and imagining. Despite the differences among these three, they have a way of finishing each other's sentences in a kind of sing-song manner. The story is set during a momentous time in American History. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy are assassinated. Huey Newton (co-founder of Black Panther Party) is still in jail. The Vietnam War is raging, and unrest and radical change predominate. This novel will resonate with you long after you've read the last page.


2010 National Book Award Finalist
2011 Coretta Scott King Award
2011 Newbery Honor Award Winner
Ages 10+
Publisher: Amistad (January 2010)
ISBN: 9780060760885
Available as an eBook.

Unsung Hero of the West

The Legend of Bass Reeves: Being the True and Fictional Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West by Gary Paulsen

Bass Reeves was born in 1838 and is thought to be one of the first African-Americans to be comissioned as a Deputy US Marshal. For the first 17 years of his life, he was a slave "owned" by his master George Reeves (as far as I know, no relation to the George Reeves of Superman fame), a farmer. Just before the Civil War, Bass parted ways with his master and ran to Indian Territory, where he lived among the Creek and Seminole Indians for about 20 years. Later he moved to Arkansas, where he married twice and had 10+ children. There he was approached by the well-known Judge Isaac Parker (aka the Hanging Judge), who heard about his life living in Indian Territory. Bass Reeves spoke many Indian dialects and knew the land intimately. During his time as a lawman, he pursued and caught many a criminal using unique methods for the time. He would go undercover and disguise himself to catch his man. He even had to dress up as a woman at one point. He had to track down and arrest his own son for murder. During his 30+ years of service, he was shot at many times, but never hit. He became a constable at the ripe old age of 81. Bass Reeves was a well-respected and feared lawman of his time. A lot of his history still remains a mystery, but what is know about him is this...he was honorable, steadfast, feared, and respected. Bass was truly worthy of legendary status. In the words of US Marshal Leo Bennet, "He never shirked his duty."

This somewhat fictionalized account of Bass Reeves from age 10 toward the end of his career is a great first-person narrative. Paulsen gives you some historical background throughout, but for the most part you get to see the world through Reeves' eyes. From the 10-year-old boy who still relies on his Mammy to the great man he would eventually become, Bass Reeves is a man to remember. If you are a younger reader interested in Reeves, I highly recommend Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy US Marshal, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Ages 5+).


Ages 12+
Publisher: Laurel Leaf (January 2008)
ISBN: 9780553494297
Available as an eBook.

Welcome to Brambly Hedge!

The Complete Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem

There is a wonderful community of mice that live in a hedgerow called Brambly Hedge. Here, life is peaceful and busy. They spend the spring and summer months collecting nuts, berries, and various fruits and flora for deliciously homemade jams and baked goods. Everything is kept in the Store Stump, an enormous tree stump that has many rooms for everything a mouse might need.

A love of cooking goes hand in hand with the many fun feasts, picnics, and festivals that go on in Brambly Hedge. From birthday picnics to Naming Ceremonies to weddings, the mice of Brambly Hedge eagerly await any opportunity to celebrate.

I read this series when I was growing up, and what I love the most about the stories are the intricate illustrations in each story. The beautifully rendered cross-sections of the houses where the mice live are the perfect place to live. I want to live there!

I consider this collection of stories to be classics that every child should read. However, from what I have found out, they are currently out of print. Even though they may be hard to find, try your local library.


All Ages
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Dreamer and Explorer...

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

Fourteen-year-old Manjiro is full of questions, questions that irritate the elder fishermen. Manjiro must learn his place, but Manjiro dreams of one day becoming a samurai. That dream is impossible though, because he comes from a family of fishermen and that's all he thinks he will ever be.
It is 1841, and Japan is the greatest country in the world, so they say. Stories are told of the horrible beasts that inhabit the West. When Manjiro and his fellow fishermen are swept out to sea in a great storm, they are fearful of not being able to go home and worst of all...meeting the barbarians. They eventually are stranded on Bird Island, so named for the thousands of albatross that nest there. They are stranded on this island for six months, with no hope in sight, until one day a monstrous ship appears on the horizon. The barbarians have come.

Manjiro is more curious than afraid of these strangely dressed and unclean people of the John Howland. They are taken on board, but Manjiro's companions want nothing to do with these people who will corrupt thier ways. Manjiro soon joins the crew and finds out that the John Howland is an American whaling ship. Because he is different and speaks differently, there is prejudice on board; however, most become friends with him. His greatest relationship is with the Captain, who later becomes a father figure to him.

Manjiro travels to America to live with the Captain and his wife. There he meets even greater prejudice, but he has a samurai's spirit and forges ahead, eventually going to school and learning a trade. However, the sea calls to him, as does his homeland. Bound for home on another ship, he makes his way to the growing gold rush in California. From there, he makes his way home after ten years away.

Stepping on the shores of Japan and making his way home to his village is not an easy journey for Manjiro. It will be two more years before he's allowed home because he is a suspected spy. Still regarded suspiciously for the remainder of his life, Manjiro did become a samurai and was instrumental in bringing change to the very isolated Japan.

This is a great adventure from start to finish. The story is based on actual events about a boy named Manjiro, who grew up to be a samurai. He played a huge part in ending Japan's 250-year isolation, with his understanding of the West. His imagination and courage are what caught me the most. You can see the world as he saw it for the first time. Despite what his countrymen thought, he was able to see the world as a bigger, fascinating, beautiful place. My favorite line in the book is what he tells his mother as he gifts her with shells from all the places he's been. "These shells are like the people of the world, Okachan. They come from many different places. They come in many different colors and sizes. But they are all beautiful."


2011 Newbery Honor Award Winner
Ages 10+
Publisher: Amulet Books (August 2010)
ISBN: 9780810989818
Available as an eBook.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Geology Rocks!

The Wonders Inside the Earth by Jan Stradling

A short while back I absolutely ripped apart an introductory geology book because, well, I didn't like it. That is not the case this time around.

The Wonders Inside the Earth explores everything from the external forces of weather and planetary rotation to the geology and hydrology that has shaped the world. Each page spread covers a single concept, breaking it down through images and specific examples and diagrams, almost like a large, expanded glossary. See-through page layers give this book an interactive feel and help to expand the understanding of some terms. The illustrations are large and colorful, utilizing images as well as diagrams of processes to engage the reader. Images of animal life and human interaction—penguins, antelope, clams plus surfers on the waves, sunken ships on the sea floor—give some depictions a fun touch, allowing kids to relate to what they’re seeing. A series of chapters on human relationships with the earth, such as oil and coal usage, is straight forward and non-judgmental—issues such as pollution and global warming are clearly not the intended focus of this book.

Now to the important part: The Wonders Inside is interesting enough to capture the attention span of most students, which is no easy feat. By breaking down concepts so thoroughly, breaks in reading should not create confusion or a loss of comprehension, and terms that students may be fuzzy on are easy to relocate. The facts are accurate and clearly stated in plain language while still utilizing the new terms introduced, and the flow of information is rational. A complete glossary and index are located in the back.

The only flaw, in my humble and non-judgmental opinion (ha!), is a lack of a timeline for earth’s history, though it's a minor complaint as the age of the earth is mentioned in several sections.

I definitely recommend this book for classrooms and libraries, especially for units studying the earth’s systems and geology. Beyond that, though, it would be a great book to keep around the house if interests sway that direction, maybe on the shelf next to The Way Things Work. Definitely a solid addition to the non-fiction library!


Age 8-12
Copyright April 2010
ISBN: 9781571459503
Images from www.silverdolphinbooks.com

Life In A Bomb Shelter Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

The Compound by S. A. Bodeen

Picture this: war is here, and a nuclear missile is forty minutes from striking your hometown.

It happened. The bomb was dropped on Seattle, and now Eli and his family--all but his twin brother and grandmother, who didn't make it in time--are living in a suped-up underground bunker in Eastern Washington, waiting fifteen years before they can leave. It's been six years so far, and every dreary, boring day is just like the last until one day Eli and his sisters realize something just isn't right... and that's when things start to get really strange.

At times thrilling, morally challenging, creepy, startling, and all-around gripping, The Compound is one of my new favorites. I don't want to say too much for fear of spoiling plot twists and awesome reading discoveries, so I'll leave this one short and sweet. Just trust me when I say that everyone from survival and technology geeks to action/adventure lovers will take something away from this novel. Seriously good!


Age 13+
Copyright April 2008
ISBN: 9780312578602
Available as an eBook
Image from www.us.macmillan.com