Saturday, February 25, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan
By Katherine Applegate
Harper, 2012. 305 pgs. Middle Grade Fiction

Ivan is a gorilla who has spent 27 years in captivity, living in a cage at The Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. For most of his life, he's been content with this. His "domain" isn't too bad--he can do artwork and watch TV and talk to his friends Bob (a dog) and Stella (an elephant). He's had little chance to be a true silverback, the head gorilla who protects his family. But when Ruby, a baby elephant, becomes the newest attraction, she opens Ivan's eyes, helping him see that made his domain isn't all it's cracked up to be. Soon, Ivan is finding out what it means to be a silverback as he tries to make things better for Ruby.

Awwww cute! Let me say that again--AWWW! I loved this one. It's actually one of those books that I absolutely can't wait to read with my children. I love Ivan! He's so sweet, and Ruby is an adorable little friend for him. Besides being beautifully written (and includes great illustrations, too), this book manages to carefully consider the issue of animal imprisonment, while not becoming didactic. It's thought-provoking and sad and happy and hopeful and I love it! Great choice for fans of Kate DiCamillo.

5 stars. Clean read.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Return to Virtue

A Return to Virtue
By Elaine S. Dalton
Deseret Book, 2011. 141 pgs. Teen/Adult Nonfiction

Elaine S. Dalton, Young Women General President for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, invites people, both young and old, to reevaluate the importance of virtue and to reinstate it in their lives. Comparing this return to training for a marathon, Dalton takes readers through their "orientation", training, etc., all the way to the finish line. She calls for a return to modesty in attire and in behavior, describing how this outward reflection of our inner understanding invites the Holy Spirit to be with us. She talks about mothers' responsibility to set the example that will protect their children.
She counsels us to do a few simple things that will make a big difference in our lives: (1) work hard and study things out, (2) focus and don't become easily distracted, (3) be obedient and don't procrastinate, and (4) consistently do simple, doable things.
She also talks about making our homes a place of refuge, where children can be safe from all the negative voices in the world, places where they can find peace and know that they are enough and they are loved for who they are. We also need to provide opportunities for them to "be still" and find God.
She notes that "Never has there been a greater need to rightouse motehrs, mothers who bless thei children with a sense of safety, security, and confideance about the future. Mothers who teach their children where to find peae and truth and that the power of prayer is stronger than any other power on the earth." (p. 107)

This book is jam-packed with good information, along with invitations to specific actions that will help those who want to reexamine and recommit to a value that is increasingly declining in our society.
4 stars. Clean read.

Midnight in Austenland

Midnight in Austenland
By Shannon Hale
Bloomsbury, 2012. 272 pgs. Adult Fiction

Charlotte Kinder, freshly divorced, takes a vacation in Austenland, hoping to find the same sort of comfort there that she finds when she reads Jane Austen's book. However, she finds herself unsettled by the man who is supposed to be her romantic match for her vacation: Mr. Mallery is handsome but unnerving. At the same time, she's certain that she felt a dead body in a hidden room, and as much as she tries to convince herself that this murder mystery is all part of a game, she can't help but wonder if something sinister is going on.

Fans of Austen spin-offs will probably like this new addition to the field from Hale. Charlotte is a likable character, and the mystery adds a fresh element not found in Austenland (Hale's original Austen effort). It's not overwhelmingly amazing, but it's a fun way to pass an afternoon. Probably tamer than a lot of adult fiction; does have some drinking and language and little behavior that would have been frowned on in Austen's day.

3 stars.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lemonade and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word

Lemonade and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word
By Bob Raczka
Roaring Brook Press, 2011. 43 pgs. Middle Grade Poetry

This is a collection of poems all formed using letters from a single word. For example:
crave a

However, the poems are arranged in order of how the letters appear in the word order:
cr a     ve
  r     t

I like the idea here; it's fun to see poems developing from a single word. However, sometimes the arrangement made it hard to know where one word ended and the next word started. Granted, there is a wider space between words than between letters that just go onto a second or third line, but it's not quite as clear as I'd like to make it a smooth read. However, on the page following each poem, there is a line-by-line, easy-to-read version of the poem.

3.5 stars. Clean read.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Instructions for a Broken Heart

Instructions for a Broken Heart
By Kim Culbertson
Sourcebooks Fire, 2011. 295 pgs. Teen fiction

After catching her boyfriend Sean in a compromising situation with another girl, Jessa and some classmates (including, unfortunately, Sean and the other girl) go to Italy for a school trip. Jessa's best friend, Carissa, knowing that Jessa will be completely freaking out, sends along twenty envelopes, each with instructions for how Jessa can get over Sean and get on with her life. With her friend's instructions, as well as a good book and Italy itself to help her, Jessa not only deals with her broken heart but finds out that there's more to her than she realized.

Although there were moments when Jessa seemed a little overly dramatic(which is probably completely realistic but not entirely fun to read) and when the book started to drag a little bit, overall, readers who enjoy stories of surviving your first heartbreak will come away satisfied. I didn't fully understand why Jessa would follow all of Carissa's instructions or why Carissa would give all of them. I don't think we got a good feel for Carissa and her personality (we're pretty much told, rather than shown to any degree that they're friends), and that made it a little difficult to connect with the story sometimes.

3 stars. A little bit of language but otherwise a clean read.

For a work project, I made a quick little Google Search story to use as a simple booktalk. Check it out.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

There You'll Find Me

There You'll Find Me
By Jenny B. Jones
Thomas Nelson, 2011. 314 pgs. Teen fiction

After her brother Will's death, Finley Sinclair fell apart, but now she's determined to put her life back together and find her faith again. She's following in her brother's footsteps, spending her senior year in Ireland in an exchange program. She's got her brother's travel journal and is trying to find all of the places in Ireland that touched her brother's heart and helped him see God all around. She also thinks that as she traces his steps, she'll be able to finally find an ending for the composition piece that she's hoping will get her into the New York Conservatory. So, she doesn't want anything to do with Beckett Rush, who is staying at her host family's bed and breakfast. A teenage vampire movie star, he's the hottest thing out there--and Finley is the one girl who isn't swooning over him. But when he offers her a position as his assistant in exchange for helping her find all of Will's landmarks, Finley finds she can't refuse.

I really liked this book until about three fourths of the way through, and then it just got a little too heavy. I loved seeing Finley's struggle to rediscover her relationship with God, and the dialogue between her and Beckett was funny. However, the author added in Finley spiraling into anorexia, and I think putting that in just made for one too many problems, and there wasn't really enough time to wrap everything up well enough, and it somehow seemed to throw off the balance of the book. Finley had plenty going on without the beginnings of an eating disorder, and while I can see that being realistic in light of her grief over her brother's death (and even her feelings of inadequacy with other girls fawning over Beckett), but it made the book too heavy for me to fully feel the hope at the end that I think the author intended. Still, I think readers will enjoy it for the most part--and will be wishing they could hop on a plane to Ireland. It was on its way to being a 5 star book for me, but I think I can only give it 4, because of the overcrowding of issues.

4 stars. Clean read.


By Pat Schmatz
Candlewick Press, 2011. 226 pgs. Middle grade fiction
Travis is just starting eighth grade at a new school, having been forced by his grandfather to move. With no parents, Travis's one comfort in life has been his dog Rosco, but when he turned up missing, Grandpa made him leave him behind. Travis, who struggles with school and his temper, isn't looking for friends, but Velveeta, a girl in some of his classes, won't leave him alone, constantly asking questions and trying to find out Travis's secrets, even while she's trying to hide a few of their own. Her quirky personality, combined with an insightful teacher, might be just what Travis needs to get his life back on track.

This is one of those books that is sad and sweet and funny all at the same time. I loved watching Travis's progress, and Velveeta and other characters really added to the story. A little language, but it was realistic and of the milder variety. A good choice for tweens who are reluctant readers.

3.5 stars.

All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky

All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky
By Joe R. Lansdale
Delacorte Press, 2011. 227 pgs. Teen fiction

Jack Catcher's life has taken a turn for the worse--living in the Dust Bowl, when "all the earth is thrown to the sky" and money is tight because of the Depression, is bad enough, but when his mother dies and his father, unable to deal with his grief, kills himself shortly after, Jack is suddenly all alone. So when Jane Lewis and her brother Tony stumble onto his land, en route to "borrow" an automobile from a dead man and take off to Texas, that sounds like a decent enough plan to Jack. Once they set out, though, they manage to find themselves caught up in a little more adventure than they'd planned on, since they're waylaid by gangsters making a getaway after a bank robbery.

This book seemed slightly far-fetched to me--these kids have a knack for getting into trouble with big-name crooks right and left--but it was still a good read. Lansdale did a good job showing the adventure and fun stuff but balancing it out with the harsh reality of life, and the language was spot on. I really enjoyed Jack as a narrator. Great choice for anyone interested in historical fiction or just a good example of storytelling. A very little bit of language, but not enough to bother most readers.

Just a few examples of the language that I enjoyed so much:
"It wasn't a big life, but it was a good life." (p. 8)
"I wasn't at all certain is was the right thing to do, but I was pretty certain it was the only thing to do." (p. 24)
"I decided then and there that Jane was about as big a blowhard as there was, but at the bottom of her buck there was something real." (p. 134)

4 stars.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Watch That Ends the Night

The Watch That Ends the Night
By Allan Wolf
Candlewick Press, 2011. 466 pgs. Teen fiction

As the Titanic prepares to make her maiden voyage, the owners, architects, crew, and passengers think they're embarking on a dream. With luxury surrounding them, and even third class passengers having better conditions than they're used to, and a mild spring, the trip is sure to be splendid. Except, little do the passengers know, but an iceberg is heading for them, ready to claim the lives of all it can, and they soon find that their dream trip has become a nightmare.

This verse novel gives voice to a range of characters, from the famous Molly Brown and John Jacob Astor; to the captain and crew members including the postmen and one of the telegraph men; to second and third class passengers, and even the ice itself. Even though readers undoubtedly know how things will turn out, they will be drawn into the story, waiting to see which people survive and which don't, and until the fateful moments arrive, they'll be delighted by the little details that make this voyage seem so real.

4 stars.

The Ranger's Apprentice series

The Ranger's Apprentice Series
By John Flanagan
Teen fantasy/adventure.
(I'm going to review an entire series here, and I'm not going to put in all the lengths and publication dates and stuff.)

A bit of back story on the books: there is a fictional kingdom of Araluen, where at age 15 (or so), kids are apprenticed out to various future positions, such as diplomacy or battle school. There is an elite core of King's Rangers, who are sort of spy/enforcers/strategists/generally intimidating awesome people.

General disclaimer: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS, because in the nature of describing what happens in later books...or, you know, sometimes, just writing at the title, some stuff is going to be given away. I'm not going to mark the spoilers, so continue at your own risk.

Book 1: The Ruins of Gorlan
Will, at 15, is an orphan who has been raised in his baron's castle along with the other orphans from the war. He is desperately hoping to be selected for battle school. However, he's rejected and devastated, thinking that he'll be condemned to a life of drudgery as a farmer, but then Halt, the intimidating, famous Halt (hero of the war) suggests that Will might have what it takes to become a Ranger. Halt starts training him, putting him through the strenuous training it will take for him to be successful. Will's skills will be put to the test sooner than expected, though, as a deadly threat enters the country.

Book 2: The Burning Bridge
Rebel Morgarath is raising his army preparing for attack, threatening the entire kingdom. Halt and Will have to figure how to keep the kingdom safe from him and his invading Wargol army. With cunning Morgarath's intrigue and stratagems, they must figure out what the rebel lord is up to before it's too late.

Book 3: The Icebound Land
Will and Evanlynn, the servant girl who isn't exactly who she said she is, have been captured by Erak and the Skandians (who were mercenaries for Morgarath) and are desperate to find a way to escape so they aren't forced into a life of slavery. Meanwhile, Halt and Horace (Will's former ward mate and current best friend) are determined to find Will and Evanlynn, but face a major obstacle along the way.
This was a little harder to read than the other books, because the characters are stuck more than in the other books; they don't accomplish as much. (Plus SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Will is drugged so we lose him mentally for awhile, and it's hard to lose your main character like that.)

Book 4: The Battle for Skandia
Will and Evanlynn have escaped the Skandians but soon, Evanlynn is captured by a Temulji raiding party. When Halt and Horace show up to help save the day, they encounter Erak and his Skandians and, fearing that if the Temulji succeed then they'll turn their sights on Araluen next, they must all work together to defeat the Temulji. I thought the final battle in this book went on a little long, but I also liked how we really got to know some of the characters better. It's so hard to pick a favorite character!

Book 5: The Sorcerer of the North
Will has just started his official assignment as a fully trained Ranger when he is sent on a special assignment; at Castle Macindaw, Lord Syron has mysteriously taken ill and word is spreading of a dark sorcerer being at fault. Will must figure out what is going on--and who is behind it.

Book 6: The Siege of Macindaw
Will is still at Macindaw, having retreated to the forest as Lord Keren has usurped the throne. As he and Malcolm (the alleged sorcerer who is really a healer) and Horace, who as arrived to provide help, devise a plan, Will's friend Alyss is being held prisoner by Lord Keren, and they realize that Keren is in league with the Scotti warriors, who want to use Macindaw as a means for invading the country. (Side note, loved the book, but at this point, I got really tired fo the words "cloak," "cowl," and "mottled".)

Book 7: Erak's Ransom
This book goes back in time before book 5, which could be jarring for some readers, but I didn't mind (of course, I also had been warned by a friend ahead of time, so I knew that was how it was going to work). Halt, Gillan, Will, and Evanlynn set out to rescue Erak, who has been captured by a desert people. However, things turn a little more complicated when Will sets out on his own to find his missing horse and when Erak is captured by another tribe.

Book 8: The Kings of Clonmel
Halt, Will and Horace set out for Hibernia where they must try to keep a phony religious group from overthrowing the king. On the way, Will and Horace find out that there's a lot more to Halt's past than they realized. Once in Hibernia, they have to track the phonies, protect the innocent Hibernians being preyed upon, and convince the weak Hibernian king that he needs to act against the phonies.

Book 9: Halt's Peril
Chasing the fake religious tribe as they cut back into Araluen, Halt is shot by a poisoned arrow and Will must race to Macindaw to find the one person who might be able to save him, the healer Malcom.

Book 10: The Emperor of Nihon-ja
Horace is visiting Nihon-ja on a diplomatic mission, when a group of warriors set out to overthrow the emperor. As Horace tries to help the emperor, Evanlynn, Will, Alyss, and Halt set out to find their missing friend and become embroiled in a fight that will determine the fate of Nihon-ja. This book was interesting in the sense that we don't see Araleun. Granted, that happened when they were in Skandia and Hibernia, but those are at least neighboring countries, whereas Nihon-ja is around the world. And maybe I noticed it more because the book ends with them at sea and they don't make it back, and that's kind of a strange way to end a series, since their careers and their lives are so vitally tied to their homeland.

I loved this series. It's full of action and adventure and witty lines (ah, Halt and his dry humor) and lovable characters and a touch of romance (Okay, I could have done with a bit more of the romance.) It's an easy one to recommend to readers. I listened to all but one of the books (simply because it was checked out and I couldn't wait for it to come back in!), and John Keating does a great job narrating...although I do recommend picking up a book or two at some point just to figure out how things are spelled.

Extra Book: The Lost Stories
In 1896, an archaeology student in the Republic of the Aralan States uncovers a collection of lost stories about the legendary Rangers. In a collection of short stories, readers come to find out more about (among other things) Halt's background, Will's parentage, and what happened after the tenth book in the series.
Reading this was a little bittersweet for me. I loved the chance to see my favorite Araluens one more time and to find out a little more about them, but this book didn't have the same captivating power that the others did. There wasn't as much action, and since the stories weren't necessarily connected to each other, they didn't create the same pull to devour the book to find out what's going to happen. There was, however, a story that made me cry, something I wasn't quite prepared for after reading the ten others dry-eyed. Overall, it isn't quite as wonderful as the rest of the series, but it's definitely something fans of the series should read.

I'm so sad this series is over! Overall, I'll give it 5 stars. There are some books I liked better than others, but it's all rip-roaring good fun. There's a little bit of language, of the milder variety, but otherwise clean.

Just Your Average Princess

Just Your Average Princess
By Kristina Springer
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011. 197 pgs. Teen fiction

Jamie has grown up on a pumpkin farm in Average, Illinois, and she loves it. The only things that could make life better would be if Danny, who Jamie has been crushing on for years, would finally ask her out, and if she gets selected as this year's Pumpkin Princess. But then her cousin Milan, the daughter of two Hollywood stars, comes to visit, and Jamie's life takes a turn for the worse. Milan is nothing but snotty to Jamie and soon she's taken over Jamie's beloved pumpkin patch, is running for Pumpkin Princess, and even seems to have her eye on Danny.

This light-hearted chick-lit novel is a good choice for those looking for clean reads and country settings. Jamie is the sort of character lots of readers will be able to relate to, and they'll enjoy hating Milan along with her. At the same time, they might not be able to suppress their frustration with how her parents are so easily taken in by Milan and don't express any appreciation for Jamie. Even if they're trying to make Milan feel at home, shouldn't they make some effort to make sure their own daughter doesn't feel left out? That part really frustrated me--and the fact that they don't really acknowledge it, either. (There is an explanation for why they're trying so hard with Milan; there's no real reason give for why they aren't sensitive to Jamie's feelings--especially with Milan's bullying of her--and that left me somewhat unsatisfied.)

3 stars. Clean read.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Adventures of Mark Twain

The Adventures of Mark Twain
By Huckleberry Finn with considerable help from Robert Burleigh and Barry Blitt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, c2011. 1 volume, unpaged. Middle grade nonfiction

One of Mark Twain's most famous characters, Mr. Huckleberry Finn himself, takes readers through a brief synopsis of the famous author's life. Complete with Huck's customary speech, readers get a feel for both the author and Huck. This is a funny, albeit really brief, biography, but the idea of a character describing his author's life is amusing and the content could be enough to make readers want to learn more about Twain. The language is fun and will have readers chuckling--or even wanting to make up a few new phrases themselves.

One small piece of nudity.

4 stars.