Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Masterpiece

By Reviewer Dianne
Title: Masterpiece
Author: Elise Broach
Primary Audience/age group: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction
# Of pages: 290
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Year of Release:
2008
Part of a Series?
No
Rating: 5 View Scale
Recommend? Yes

Description: Marvin, a young beetle lives with his family behind the wall underneath the kitchen sink in a New York apartment. James, a young boy who feels somewhat invisible, also lives in the New York City apartment. After James receives a birthday gift of a pen and ink drawing set from his artistic father, Marvin decides he wants to draw a picture for James as a birthday present. Using the ink which James has left open, he creates a magnificent miniature using his front legs as drawing tools. This leads James’ family to think that James has an artistic gift that he really doesn’t possess. He and Marvin become friends and they find themselves embroiled in foiling an art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Review: Had I realized that the protagonist in this story was a beetle, I more than likely would never have picked it up. After a rocky start with a disgusting trip down a drain to recover a lost contact lens, things improve immensely when young James becomes a key character in the story. From there, the book quickly becomes a mystery story that involves recovering a stolen painting by the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dϋrer. The plan to secure the masterpiece moves quickly with many surprising twists and turns that keeps the pages turning quickly.

Rating: 5

Positive: Both of the main characters demonstrate much caring and kindness toward each other. Family values of encouragement, love, commitment and concern are prominent among the members of the beetle family, leaving you wishing there were more of those same values demonstrated in James’ family. The consequences of lying were discussed and how it is often necessary to create more lies to cover up the lies already told.


Spiritual Elements: None

Violence: None

Language: There was the use of “Oh my God!” two or three times.


Sexual Content: None

Other: One situation that bothered me was the fact the James took credit for the drawings which he did not do, and never confessed the truth to his parents or anyone else (in spite of the little discussion about lying). He never came right out and said that he had drawn the pictures, but he allowed everyone to think that he had. Another drawback I found in this book was the fact that everyone was hoping the art thief would not be caught because he was “such a nice fellow”. In spite of this, Marvin was trying to communicate his thoughts about doing the right thing (which was good). Unfortunately communication between boy and beetle was difficult at best.


Recommendation: Although this book was referred to as “young adult”, I’m not sure that it would appeal to that age group. It seems more appropriate for the 9-12 age group. Perhaps it was placed in the “YA” category because of the references to art and art history. I think this book has a lot going for it, but it might be best to be prepared to discuss the dishonesty issue with young readers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Trouble


By Reviewer: Dianne
Title: Trouble
Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Primary Audience/age group: Young Adult
Genre: Realistic Fiction/Historical Fiction
# Of pages: 304
Publisher: Clarion Books
Year of Release: 2008
Part of a Series? No
Rating: 4 View Scale

Recommend? Yes. Highly recommended.

Description: “If you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you”. At least that is what Henry Smith’s father always said. Henry learned early that there was no wisdom in those words...you can never build so far from Trouble that it will never find you. Henry was from an old established family that had lived on the Massachusetts coast for over 300 years. On the eve of his fourteenth birthday, Henry’s older brother, Franklin was hit by a pick- up truck belonging to Chay Chouan, a Cambodian refugee who lived in a nearby town. And Trouble arrived. The incident sparked racial tension between the residents of Blythbury-by-the Sea and the Cambodian population of Merton. It stirred a fierce anger inside Henry as he watched the decline and eventual death of his macho brother, robbing him of the attempt to prove to his brother that he was his equal. His sister, Louisa withdrew, cloistering herself in her room. His father rarely went out of the house and his mother put on a brave face for the world. Henry determined to continue with plans to climb Mt. Katahdin to prove to himself that he had the guts to do it...something that his brother had suggested that he could not do. He sets out with his dog and his best friend, hitchhiking to Mt. Katahdin. When the improbable happens and they are picked up by Chay, the story becomes one of new relationships, forgiveness and redemption. Each of the characters comes to the realization of truths about themselves and each other that they were either trying to ignore or forget.

Review: I almost quit reading this book after the first chapter because I didn’t think that it would hold a young reader’s interest, but am very glad that I didn’t put it down. I loved this book! The richness of the characters and the complexities of the plot pulled me in after a few more pages and held on until the very end. The growing maturity of those involved in this story provides lessons to benefit all readers. I found myself slowing down as I came to the end of the book because I didn’t want it to be over!

Rating: 4 for violence.

Positive: Henry and Chay both come to grips with the past (and the possibilities of the future). Henry comes to understand that none of us is perfect, including his much admired older brother, and is willing to live with that memory. He learns a lesson in forgiveness as he gets to know and understand the boy he holds responsible for his brother’s death. Chay becomes a person he cares about; a person with integrity and feelings that impact Henry’s life. Chay struggles with the horrors of his past, but realizes that there are people who care enough about him that he can face the future.

Spiritual Elements: Scripture was quoted and prayers were offered at Franklin’s funeral.

Violence: Descriptions were given of what Chay and his family had endured at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Language: None

Sexual Content: None

Other: There was an incident in which two men were drinking beer and let their racial bias against Chay be known as they confronted him.

Recommendation: Yes. This is a well written novel with many areas for contemplation...well worth going back and reading again. There are very few books I will read more than once. I would recommend it for ages 15 and up. I think it is a bit complex for younger readers

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Seer and the Sword

By Reviewer Amy Jane
Title: The Seer and the Sword
Author: Victoria Hanley
Primary Audience/age group: 12+
Genre: Fantasy
# Of pages: 352
Publisher: Laurel Leaf
Year of Release: 2001
Part of a Series?
Rating: 3 View Scale
Recommend? Highly

Description: Princess Torina’s father is a warrior. On his return from conquering a peaceloving country he gives her two gifts: a small crystal ball that shows her the future, and Landen, the son of his slain enemy, as a slave.

She frees the prince and her father allows the boy to train with the boys of his own kingdom. The children form an understanding after Tornia saves Landen’s life, but when he reaches adulthood Landen must flee the kingdom to escape accusations of treachery.

Review: Wonderful story of love and loyalty. There is a distinct emphasis on peacemaking as the first duty of warriors. The first book Haney wrote for this age (The Healer’s Keep, also reviewed here, came next), I was impressed with it's complexity and quality.

Rating: 3 -- for the violence.

Positive: As I said before, I appreciate the emphasis on peacemaking, but also on accepting the need for adaptability in meeting goals.

Landen has many opportunities to kill that he passes over. Until circumstances force him he has never taken a life.

The respect between the young people is evident, and they strive despite isolation to use their various skills in the cause of peace.

Landen's treatment of Torina is always in her best interest.

Torina has a beautiful relationship with her Grandmother, and learns modesty of behavior in her self-imposed exile.

Spiritual Elements: God is referred to numerous times, and “saints” at the end, implying a Catholic-ish faith, but nothing is named or elaborated on. The queen mother turns frequently to prayer to sustain her.

Violence: As a boy with no training in combat, Landen is severely bullied when he arrives in the new kingdom. As an adult he watches a blood match that ends in a quick death. When he himself participates in the blood-sport matches he wins every bout and spares all those he fights.

Arrows and thrown knives threaten and end lives. More than one person is killed by a sword, and assassination attempts have varying success.

Language: I don't remember any.

Sexual Content: Princess Torina thinks on how much she enjoys someone’s kisses. Couples embrace. One man is noted as “always keeping a woman” in secret and she is shown flirting with him.

Other: There is drinking and drunkenness. Concoctions of unnamed herbs weaken their target almost to death before she realizes and begins resisting. She suffers withdrawal symptoms.

Landen creates a bow for Torina and teaches her how to shoot, in defiance of her father.

Much of the plot hinges on Torina’s ability to see in the crystal, allowing her to advise those in authority and even deflect the terror it warns her of; this "seeing" will make some Christians uncomfortable. I group it with the rest of fantasy magic, which generally has different rules and implications than magic in our world.

Recommendation: Full of admirable characters of every rank, I highly recommend this for the fantasy/adventure lovers in your life. The themes of respect and honor (among the good-hearted), along with the accepting of good counsel, endeared this story to me. I admired the tenacity of characters to continue through adversity and sorrow to live the best lives they can. The story was inventive and well carried out.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Ruins of Gorlan (The Ranger’s Apprentice, Book 1)



By Reviewer: Amy Jane
Title: The Ruins of Gorlan (The Ranger's Apprentice, Book 1)
Author: John Flanagan
Primary Audience/age group: 10+
Genre: Fantasy
# Of pages: 272
Publisher: Puffin
Year of Release: 2006
Part of a Series? Yes. 1 of 8, though not all released in the U.S.
Rating: 4 View Scale
Recommend? Highly

Description: (From School Library Journal)Will hopes to become a knight; instead, he winds up as a Ranger's apprentice, joining the secretive corps that uses stealth, woodcraft, and courage to protect the kingdom. His aptitude and bravery gradually earn the respect of his gruff but good-hearted master. When the kingdom is attacked by evil magic forces, Will helps track down and defeat a couple of particularly nasty beasts.

Review: Well done story emphasizing the chance for anyone to be a hero. Written by a father with his son as the first audience you can see the value placed on strong relationships between adults and youths (something lacking in much of YA literature). The story tracks Will's training closely and the other student in knight-school almost as much. You can tell Flanagan has done his homework, but his reserch (and/orexperience) never is the focus-- always the characters. Excellent mix of action and understanding throughout.

Rating: 4. It might be a 5, but that would depend on one’s definition of “mild violence” ;o) So we’ll go with a 4.

Positive: The relationship between Will and his mentor is one of utmost respect. All the adult authority figures are worthy of their posts and guide their young charges well.
(Spoiler:) Rivals become friends and supporters of one another in danger.

Spiritual Elements: None I remember

Violence: A wild boar hunt, and (Spoiler:) the burning of bear-like assassins.
Horace takes non-lethal revenge on the bullies tormenting him.

Language: D*** might be here somewhere. I know I saw them in book 2.

Sexual Content: A single kiss at the end. Rather chaste and out of the blue, in a manner of speaking.

Recommendation: Highly recommended, both because of the emphasis on friendship across “type” (a knight and a ranger in this case), and the value placed on intergenerational cooperation and respect. These both require more focused writing than cheap shots at cardboard jerks or authority figures more foolish than the children whose lives they are making miserable. This is a series I am very eager to peruse further.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Heroes of the Valley



By reviewer Greta Marlow
Title: Heroes of the Valley
Author: Jonathan Stroud
Primary Audience/age group: 15+
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure/Horror
# Of pages: 483
Publisher: Disney Hyperion Books
Year of Release: 2009
Part of a Series? No
Rating: 2 (View Scale)
Recommend: Maybe

Description: (from book jacket) “Halli Sveinsson has grown up in the House of Svein, hearing the legends of the heroes as all his forefathers did. Theirs is a peaceful society, where the violence of the past has been outlawed and disputes are settled by the Council. But young Halli has never quite seemed to fit in with the others. For starters, he is neither handsome nor tall, like his siblings. He’s stumpy and swarthy, with a quick mind and an aptitude for getting into trouble. Bored with everyday chores and shepherding, he can’t help playing practical jokes on everyone, from Eyjolf, the old servant, to his brother and sister. But when he plays a trick on Ragnar of the House of Hakon, he goes too far, setting in motion a chain of events that will forever alter his destiny. Because of it, Halli will have to leave home and go on a hero’s quest. Along the way, he will encounter highway robbers, terrifying monsters, and a girl who may be as fearless as he is. In the end he will discover the truth about the legends, his family, and himself. Jonathan Stroud’s stunning new novel is a funny and epic saga, as well as a surprising look at the real meaning of heroism.”

Review: The reason I read this book is because I liked the cover art. It appealed to me because of the action that was portrayed and because of the style of the artwork, which reminded me of old-fashioned woodcuts. I was thinking I might be picking up an epic saga in the vein of Lord of the Rings (but written specifically for young adults). Well, it was an epic saga…but I can’t quite decide whether or not I liked it. It was definitely an exciting story, with some elements I hadn’t expected. For example, it was sort of refreshing that Halli, the protagonist, wasn’t the stereotypical tall and handsome young hero. I also liked the growth of Halli’s character, from a spoiled brat to a brave and humbled young man. Aud, the “fearless” girl mentioned on the book jacket, is also a delightful character (if a bit of a cliché in today’s “girl power” world). I thought Stroud did very well with building up suspense in the final chapters. However…for most of the first half of the book, Halli is not an admirable character. He plays a trick that is just plain mean, and then he is motivated by revenge to travel miles in an attempt to commit murder. The climax of the book didn’t impress me as much as I was expecting to be impressed after the build-up in those last chapters. (spoiler) It came off as an imitation of Pirates of the Caribbean. I guess that reveals one of my biases; in general, I don’t care for Disney’s products. There’s just something (in my opinion) that’s sort of self-consciously overblown about them in an effort to pander to kids, and that seemed to be the case, at times, in this book. (I hope that didn’t offend anyone!) I’m thinking specifically of the scene in which Halli kicked his brother into a dung pile and of the ensuing chase. It played like something straight out of a movie targeted to kids.

Rating: 2, for violence

Recommend: Maybe for young adults mature enough to follow Halli’s moral growth over the course of the story.

Positive: Through his experiences, Halli realizes that the old “heroic” virtues of revenge, war, and competition between houses lead to big problems, and he eventually rejects those old ways. He becomes a leader when his family’s house is attacked, and he plans to sacrifice himself, if necessary, to save the house and its people. Aud is a loyal friend who shows up to help Halli out of tough situations and is with him in the final fight.

Spiritual Elements: Apparently, the people in this story engage in a sort of ancestor worship. But religion and spirituality aren’t explicitly mentioned. One thing that bothered me a little was the way Halli’s desire to avenge his uncle’s death was presented as “normal.” However, we are seeing the events through Halli as the viewpoint character, so he would, of course, justify it to himself. As the story develops, he begins to develop a more mature sense of what is right and wrong.

Violence: This story had a lot of violence. It starts with the legends of the horrible Trows, stick-thin figures who tear apart any humans who dare to cross the boundary into the moors. One of the ewes Halli is guarding crosses that boundary and is killed during the night. There is a murder that happens before Halli’s eyes, his burning desire for revenge, and two other deaths that Halli is involved in, although he’s not the direct cause. He’s pursued by his enemies with knowledge that they will hang him if they catch him. When the enemies attack Halli’s family’s house, there is some graphic description of the battle. And of course, there is the climatic battle, which is a lot like a horror movie.

Language: There are a few curse words scattered throughout the story, both ones used in our world and those arising from the world of the characters (mainly based on the names of their ancestors).

Sexual Content: There’s some sexual tension between Halli and Aud, which for the most part is not explored. However, Halli’s mother directly asks him at one point if he is interested in sleeping with Aud. There’s also a story Halli’s nurse tells about the effects of crossing the boundary on a man’s “privy parts,” but it’s in “legend” language rather than being explicit.

Other: There are some interesting subplots in the story. One deals with the effect of self-fulfilling prophecies. Halli’s family has always treated him like the “black sheep” of the family because he’s different from them physically, and that plays into his decision to sacrifice himself at the end of the book. A second subplot I thought was interesting was the politics of the valley, and Halli’s observation that the whole judicial process was built on greed and power. I also thought Stroud made clever use of the heroic legends by having one at the beginning of each chapter.

Rating: 2, for violence

Recommendation: I’m not sorry I read this book. There are some things I felt ambivalent about, such as Halli’s early approach to morality and the climatic battle. However, it was an exciting story that teens (especially boys) would like, and that could be used to open conversation on morality, revenge, and the consequences – intended or unintended – of a person’s actions.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dragon Slippers


By Reviewer : Dianne
Title:
Dragon Slippers
Author: Jessica Day George
Primary Audience/age group: 9-12
Genre: Fantasy
# Of pages: 324
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Year of Release: 2007
Part of a Series? Yes, 1 of 3
Rating: 4 View Scale
Recommend? Yes

Description: Creel has been given to the dragon by her aunt in hopes that she would be rescued by a knight who would marry her and then have the whole family move into his castle. Instead, Creel bargains with the dragon and procures a fine pair of soft blue slippers. She sets off to the town of the King’s Seat to seek her fortune. She hopes to employ her seamstress and embroidery skills in establishing a dress shop. She does not realize the mystical link that she has with the dragons that live in the countryside is a result of the blue slippers she now wears on her feet. Creel is thrown into the middle of a plot that could result in the destruction of the kingdom, and those slippers may hasten its destruction or be its salvation.
Review: This is a fairy tale complete with dragons, kings, princes and magic. It moves quickly as Creel makes her way in the world, befriending dragons as she goes along. The dragons actually come off as lighthearted...no sorcery here. I admired Creel’s determination and spunk, even in the most dire of circumstances. It was fun to read as a naïve Creel interacts with a variety of characters...everyone from an obnoxious princess to a gentle dragon.
Rating: 4 for violence. A war between the dragons and the citizens results in the scorching of a number of warriors with dragon fire and the destruction of the Winter Palace where the Merchant’s Ball was in progress. There are no graphic descriptions of the devastation.
Positive: Creel shows a determination to do the right thing, even in the face of a possibly disastrous outcome. She is also ready to reassess her opinions of others when they prove to be otherwise than what she first thought.
Spiritual Elements: Creel prays to their three gods (The Triunity), even though she is not especially devout. Descriptions make them akin to other pagan gods.

Violence: There is some bloodshed as warring kingdoms clash but no graphic descriptions. Two of the dragons die as they plunge into the Boiling Sea.

Language: None

Sexual Content: None

Other: There was one mention of men drinking ale but no mention of drunkenness.

Recommendation: I would recommend this book to those looking for a lighthearted fantasy, especially dragon loving readers. I personally have a hard time reading fantasy as so much of it is dark and evil. This book proves to be an exception. The recommended age range could be expanded to include readers older than 12.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Crooked River


By Reviewer: Dianne
Title:
Crooked River
Author: Shelley Pearsall
Primary Audience/age group: 9-12
Genre: Historical Fiction
# Of pages: 249
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Year of Release: 2005
Part of a Series? No
Rating: 4 View Scale
Recommend? Yes

Description: Rebecca and Laura Carver lived with a harsh, critical father whose temper sometimes turned to violence. As settlers on the Ohio frontier, Indians were regarded as fearsome and savage. The year is 1812 and a trapper was found murdered with a tomahawk in his skull. When Mr. Carver and a few of the townspeople set out to find the offending Indian, they nabbed the first Chippewa they came across. Lacking a town jail, Indian John, as they named him, was held prisoner in the loft of the Carver household until a trial could be held. Laura and Rebecca were terrified at first, but Rebecca came to see the Indian in a different light as they took care of his basic needs. Knowing the prejudice of the townspeople, Rebecca doubted that Indian John could ever receive a fair trial.

Review: Shelley Pearsall based her story on the actual trial of a Chippewa (also known as Ojibwa) who was held captive for two months in the cabin of a setter and eventually convicted of murder by a white jury. This story of an unjust trial rings true as settlers, stricken with fear, do their best to dispense with the danger that they perceive. Told in two voices, Indian John’s side of the story is told in poetic verse that makes use of Ojibwa words and phrases that bring authenticity to the tale. Rebecca Carver’s thirteen year old voice highlights the harshness of life on the frontier. This expertly written story brings to life a glimpse of a different era.
Positive: Rebecca resists the general opinion that all Indians are evil, begins to see the worth of a person and is convinced of his innocence. She determines to do what she can to prevent injustice.

Spiritual Elements: There are references to praying and the Bible. The trial convenes with witnesses sworn in on the Bible. Indian John prays to his gods for protection.

Violence: Pa Carver uses verbal abuse against his daughters and sometimes physically pushes or roughly grabs them. There is a description of the murdered trapper during the trial.

Language: There was infrequent use of h*** and d***. There were also references to Native Americans as Indians, savages, etc.
Sexual Content: None
Other: There were some incidents where alcohol was used.
Recommendation: Most fans of historical fiction will probably enjoy this book...I certainly did! The recommended age is 9-12. I don’t think it is inappropriate for 9 year olds but think that it will be of more interest to those 11 and up.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Coming of Dragons


By Reviewer Amy Jane
Title: The Coming of Dragons: The Darkest Age I
Author: A.J. Lake
Primary Audience/age group: 10 +
Genre: Fantasy
# Of pages: 240
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Year of Release: 2006
Part of a Series? Yes, Book 1 of 3 in The Darkest Age
Rating: 3 violence with blood mentioned
Recommend? Yes

Description: The son of a king and the daughter of a boat captain discover they are the involuntary recipients of unwelcome gifts. Trying to stay alive while learning to live with what they can’t return, the children take what comfort they can from the good their gifts help them do.

Review: Appreciated the book’s pacing and trust in its readers’ intelligence—things aren’t spelled-out as much as they sometimes are for the under-12 set. This book contained an excellent example of respect and balance between the (obligatory) male and female characters: the boy could be both an empath and physically competent (he’s no weakling), and the girl was both strong and understanding—not needing to railroad the boy to prove her “equality.” Equality is more true when it doesn’t need to be asserted, and this book was a good example of that.

Rating: 3 for violence

Positive: I enjoyed the camaraderie of the young pair, and how they allowed their related misfortune to pull them together rather than driving them apart. They are both humble and good-hearted, thinking of others before themselves.

Adults are treated with respect, if caution in proportion to the danger the children are in.

Spiritual Elements: The story is set in the dark-ages time of transition between poly- and monotheism. The characters are remarkably magnanimous about an individual’s preference. Looking at it now it seems about as natural as the Look-I’m-not-racist inclusion of non-whites in minor roles of certain shows and movies. It certainly works, but seems more of an afterthought than integral to the story.

(Spoiler:) The polytheism seems most-supported in the end, because the big baddie is named as Loki, “One of the old gods” imprisoned in the far-North.

Violence: Edmund sees carnage and torture before it happens, and Elsbeth wields a magical sword that can cut through anything. However, the violence is remarkably restrained. The most graphic exchange is at the end when the bad guy is trying to remove the magical sword from Elsbeth, and cuts her ritually, trying with magic to force the sword from her.

Language: I didn’t notice any

Sexual Content: So many books for this age with the unrelated male/female pairs mention how they do or don’t think of each other. This story more sensibly lets us watch them together and draw our own conclusions, mainly that a boy and girl can be genuine friends at this age without having to complicate things.

Other: Everyone drinks ale. Edmund warns Elsbeth the wine will be stronger than what she’s used to.

Magic is part of the reality. Evil magic awakens and calls a dragon from the frozen North, but is unable to control it (as such it could be a metaphor for sin).

Edmund’s gift is being able to look through the eyes of others. As he grows more experienced he can still act independently as he sees outside of himself.

Recommendation: This is a talented piece of writing. The level of tension is consistent as Lake builds the world. I am very curious to see where the story goes in terms of it’s treatment of religion, but the storytelling is going to be worth a lot if little-g gods aren’t off-putting. This was the type of book I could forget I was reading and just soak up the story, and that's worth a lot to me.