Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: Zan-Gah by Allan Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah is eager to become a man but his journey towards adulthood is perilous. The story opens with an exciting lion hunt which captured my attention right away. Later we learn that Zan’s twin brother, Dael, is missing and Zan-Gah is determined to find and bring Dael home. Like most quest stories the object sought is less important than journey. Zan’s travels test his strength and wisdom as he crosses the borders of hostile clans and landscapes.

The novel left me wanting more. I enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape and liked watching Zan survive harsh environments. Yet I wanted even more description. Sometimes I felt the plot moved too quickly, skimming over things I wanted to know more about, like Zan’s time with the Wasp people where he spends a year which is briefly mentioned in one sentence. Shickman’s writing was clear and never confused me. The tenor of the prose gave me the feeling that the story is very old which is fitting since the subtitle is A Prehistoric Adventure. Yet the simplicity of the prose, and its many well-used figures of speech, again left me wanting more.

The story has a lot of action and brief but strong violence which kept my attention. It also has some great themes like learning to forgive and asking for help. I was a little surprised at the ending. Shickman chose to end the novel talking about Dael, and not the hero Zan-Gah. I found this a bit anti-climactic. Though he fit into the storyline, Dael was a bit of a downer character and since it’s not a story about Dael I was confused why it ended talking about him. There is a sequel, Zan-Gah and The Beautiful Country which I suspect will fill in some of the blanks and looks like it will continue the twins’ story.

While reading, I kept thinking about Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Personally, I enjoyed Zan-Gah more than Hatchet but they are very similar in that a boy is on his own surviving in the wilderness for a good part of the story. I would recommend Zan-Gah to middle school boys who enjoy survival stories. This text counts towards the PoC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Earthshaker Books, 2007     Pages: 148
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Received for free from the publisher. Thanks, Earthshaker!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

On the bottom of Matt’s foot a tattoo states: “Property of the Alacrán Estate.” He is a clone, an exact replica of a powerful drug lord, El Patrón, who rules Opium, a small country between the U.S. and what was once Mexico. While El Patrón dotes on Matt, the rest of the Alacrán family is openly hostile save for one girl, Maria. Everyone seems to know something Matt does not. Who can he trust when everyone seems to be hiding something?

The story is constantly changing direction. As Matt grows up, and his understanding of his situation becomes less fuzzy, his circumstances change – sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Farmer takes her time developing Matt’s character. The chapters are grouped into sections which divide Matt’s life into ages: 0-6, 7-11 and so on. I found Matt’s story gripping, especially the last half. I was reading while riding the bus and I didn’t notice the bus come to stop. I didn’t see everyone get off. Nor did I hear the driver twice tell me the bus was out of service and I needed to get off. (Yeah, I felt a little silly.) That’s how engrossing the story was.

It was exciting and bit scary watching Matt figure out answers to his questions and unearth the dark secrets of El Patrón. Each new chapter of his life required Matt to adapt in order to survive in Farmer’s world. It is an intriguing world with a bizarre political structure, a dangerous drug lord, a psycho family and a resilient protagonist. If you know a middle school or high school reader who enjoys thoughtful science fiction then make sure to recommend The House of the Scorpion.

Publisher: Simon Pulse, 2004     Pages: 380
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Hale's writing is heavy with simple but lovely metaphors. She transports the reader to Miri's village where the mountain dominates their lives until the Princess Academy alters them forever. It wasn't until about half way through the book that I really got into it. I was reading on the bus and had a hard time keeping back tears. Miri's fear of being useless because of her small size was so sad and sweet. I enjoyed watching Miri overcome her fears and develop the self-confidence she needed to help the village and other girls at the academy. If you're looking for a sweet, gentle read with a bit of suspense then Princess Academy may be what you're looking for. This is definitely a girly read great for elementary and early middle school readers.

Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2007     Pages: 336
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Summary: "Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king's priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year's time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king's ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess. Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Books in My TBR Pile

This week's Book Blogger Hop question is: How many books are currently in your to-be-read pile? I have approximately 100 books on my TBR shelf. That sounds like a lot but many are kids/YA books which don't take as long to read as adult books. My pile was higher about a year ago. I haven't bought as many new/used books lately. So, my personal stack is dwindling. I'm thinking about weeding some out, like used Tom Clancy books I bought years ago, and will likely never read. I borrow a lot from the library, too, causing me to neglect my own books. I've been trying to remedy by reading more of my own books but it's not easy!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: The Broken Kingdoms by J. K. Jemisin

Summary: "In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a strange homeless man on an impulse. This act of kindness engulfs Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city. And Oree's guest is at the heart of it. . ."

My interest in the story fluctuated.  I found Oree complex but overall a boring character. The world of Shadow, however, was interesting. The way magic worked for mortals and the social structure of the city, Shadow, helped make up for my disinterest in other parts of the book. It became obvious who was behind the intrigue and why so I wasn't reading to see what happened.

What kept me coming back to the book was Jemisin's writing style. I love the way she describes the world and action scenes. Sometimes I find many writers have difficulty writing concise action scenes that are easy to picture but Jemisin's action scenes were great. The chapters are titled like paintings and we are told with what materials the "painting" is  made. Along with Oree being an painter, the chapter titles gave the book an artistic feel. I liked trying to figure out what the chapter would be about based on the titles.

The Broken Kingdoms continues where the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, left off but does so through mostly new characters. Only a few from the first book made brief appearances. I found the first book to be very heavy on the romance while The Broken Kingdoms focused much more on the "the story."

I'm not sure if I'll read the final book in The Inheritance Trilogy when it comes out. I felt like the story ended with this book but I may read the last just to see it through. I  do suggest reading the first book and not jumping ahead. It will make much more sense who this "homeless man" is and why he acts the way he does if you've read book one. This text counts towards the PoC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Orbit, 2010     Pages: 416
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Public Library

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: Martha Stewart's Cupcakes

Mmm, cupcakes. They're cute and taste good! Who doesn't like a cupcake? The pictures below are of cupcakes I made using recipes and decoration ideas from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes.

All recipes are from scratch. Except for a few decorative candies, the marzipan and fondant, this book will teach you how to make everything in your own kitchen. No box mixes!

While having fancy equipment is nice it's not necessary to make the cakes and frosting. I own a Sunbeam mixer (with a wonky beater) and find I can still make my frosting stiff or fluffy - whichever I need. If you want to do the fun and fancy frosting decorations you will need a piping bag and tips. I bought a 12 piece Wilson set and find I can make everything so far in the book. The frosting is most of the fun and I recommend getting some tips, even if just a few, so you can swirl and peak and make petals. Having an offset spatula facilitates doing frosting like on the book cover but you can always use a butter knife. Picture: White and Devil's Food cupcakes with Swiss Meringue Buttercream in roses and peaks.

Buy the best quality of ingredients as your budget allows because these cakes are meant to be delicious! If you skimp you could run into problems. For instance, I used chocolate chips once instead of baker's chocolate and the frosting was very disappointing. I learned my lesson! If it says use cake flour, not regular flour, buy the cake flour, etc. These recipes are for gourmet (but doable) cake so don't waste your time and money on the wrong ingredients! That being said, I only use imitation vanilla when it calls for the real deal. The only ingredient I've had trouble finding is marzipan. Picture (above): Devil's Food cupcakes with Swiss Meringue Buttercream for grass and marzipan for ladybugs. Tip: don't do frosting with sweaty hands or the frosting will melt in your piping bag and refuse to form well. Also, these were outside in June so, the "grass" looks dewy. Picture (left): Banana-Pecan w/ Swiss Meringue Buttercream (chocolate version gone wrong) and fondant monkey faces.

The instructions are thorough and easy to follow. I am never left guessing. The writing is clear and there is a helpful section, The Basics, in the back on baking tools, ingredients, cookies, frosting, presentation ideas and templates, ingredient sources, and an index. The recipes are grouped as follows: Swirled and Sprinkled, Filled and Layered, Piped and Topped, Birthdays, Holidays, and Celebrations. Each has at least one full-page color photo of the finished cupcakes and several other photos show how to make frosting and decorations. Picture: One-Bowl Chocolate cupcakes with Swiss Meringue Buttercream as beetles and butterflies. Cake not recommended for humid days. The wings were difficult to cut, with lots of crumbs, as the cake was super moist.

Total times for making these cakes ranges from two to six hours depending on the complexity of the cake and frosting and how many you make. There is truly a cake for every occasion. I began baking not knowing what I was doing and am getting better with each try. There's really no reason to be intimidated by any of the recipes. It is totally possible to make parts at a time - bake the cakes and refrigerate/freeze them one day then make the frosting the next.

I'm not a Martha Stewart junky at all. I've only seen parts of her show. Yet, I've enjoyed baking these cakes and will keep making more from this book. The cakes are always a big hit. You won't go wrong with Martha Stewart's Cupcakes!
Picture (above): Applesauce-Spice cupcakes with Brown-Sugar Cream-Cheese Frosting. Picture (right): Yellow Buttermilk cupcakes with Swiss Meringue Buttercream as pigs. Picture (below): Black Forest Cupcake with sweet pastry cream (inside), cherries and chocolate ganache!

Publisher: Clarkson Potter, 2003     
Pages: 352
Full Title: Martha Stewart's Cupcakes: 175 Inspired Ideas for Everyone's Favorite Treat
Source: Christmas Gift
Rating: 4.5 Stars     

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Finally, I've read Harry Potter! Wow, what great characters! I loved Hagrid, the giant "gamekeeper," who befriends Harry and sees him through his first year at the wizards' school, Hogwarts. Harry's story as "the boy who lived" is so endearing yet sometimes I found him dry... that is, until he meets Ron and Hermione and they get into some close calls while tracking mysterious happenings at the school. Need a plot summery? Click here.

The interactions between characters felt so real and there was some great dialogue. Despite the fact that they have magical abilities, it felt like I was reading about otherwise normal kids who worry about wearing hand-me-downs and meeting expectations. The professors were equally as interesting. I liked never knowing what to think about professor Snape - is he good, bad? Don't tell me! I want to read the books without spoilers!

The Hogwarts world is very creative with it's own candy, newspaper and sport, quidditch. Reading about the quidditch tournaments was a little boring for me but they worked into the plot of the story so well that I was soon happily reading again. I enjoyed the academic environment of Hogwarts and got a chuckle out of the library scenes with magical books and a very old-fashioned librarian guarding them.

There were a few dark moments (that unicorn scene, ick!) but that's the nature of fantasy. In order to have an epic tale of good vs. evil there must be dark moments. I didn't find the dark parts too overwhelming for young readers.

I'm glad I made time for Harry Potter. I'll slowly make my way through the series. Has anyone listened to them on CD? Are they any good?

Publisher: Scholastic, 2008     Pages: 330
Stars: 4                                          Source: Public Library

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

My library's summer reading slogan for children this year is "One World, Many Stories." I've been trying to read a few titles off our book list so I can be helpful when kids or parents ask about them. So far, I've read The Breadwinner and now Number the Stars.

Summary: "Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her best friend, Ellen Rosen, often think about life before the war. But it's now 1943, and their life in Copenhagen is filled with school, food shortages, and the Nazi soldiers marching in their town. The Nazis won't stop. The Jews of Denmark are being "relocated," thus Ellen moves in with the Johansens and pretends to be part of the family. Then Annemarie is asked to go on a dangerous mission. Somehow she must find the strength and courage to save her best friend's life. There's no turning back now."

Historical fiction comes in many forms. Some texts strain for historical accuracy while others take liberties for the sake of an engaging story. Lowry creates an engaging story while adhering closely to actual events. Readers will gain an appreciation for the Danish resistance during WWII while being swept away by Annemarie's bravery. My great grandfather was from Denmark so I had fun picking up a bit of Danish history. If you know an elementary or early middle school reader who likes historical fiction I highly suggest Number the Stars.

Publisher: Yearling, 1990     Pages: 137
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Author I Want Most to Meet?

This week's Book Blogger Hop Question: Who is the one author that you are dying to meet?

I have this fear about meeting authors. I worry they will fail to meet my ridiculous expectations and I will never be able to read his or her books ever again. I've heard/met a few authors and this has never happened... but it could. And then I couldn't read them anymore!

For instance, what if I had the good fortune to walk into a cafe, sit at the counter, and there next to me, sipping coffee like a cool cowboy, was the ever private Cormac McMcarthy? First of all, what would I say knowing he values his privacy? I think I'd go with the librarian bit to try and earn brownie points:
"Hey, I'm a librarian and I love your books"? That sounds dumb. 

And what if he did talk to me - Cormac and I chewing the fat as we dip our fries in chili - and he turns out to be a total douche? I don't think I could handle that. Like I said, I've never had a negative encounter with an author before. They've been very exciting and positive experiences. But meeting them just makes me nervous!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Parvana lives in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. When her father is taken prisoner, it falls to Parvana to keep the family alive. She sheds her tresses and chador and dresses like a boy to move freely in public and make money by reading for those who cannot.

Parvana's story is a page turner. I was fascinated by her struggle to be a young girl who loves to play and learn but who also shoulders a heavy and dangerous burden. Living in a one-room apartment created tension within the family especially since women could not go outdoors without a male escort. The bickering between Parvana and her older sister, though sometimes funny, was mostly heartbreaking since each knew she shouldn't add to the other one's suffering. It was exciting to watch the family cope and make the best of their situation. The realities of living in a war-torn country are harsh but Ellis creates dynamic and captivating characters who shine through the darkness. The Breadwinner, the first in a trilogy, stands well on its own and is a great read for 5th-7th grade readers. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Groundwood, 2001.     Pages: 170
Rating: 5 Stars     Source: Public Library

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline goes exploring in her new house where she finds a door that opens to a brick wall. Little does Coraline know that she's opened a portal to a strange and eerily similar world. When the bricks disappear, Coraline steps through the door to find a house identical to her own but with fantastic toys and wonderful food. But there is another mother and father and the "other mother" intends to trap Coraline forever.

Gaiman's writing was fantastic. I kept thinking this guy can write. The story reminded me a lot of Alice in Wonderland -- there was even a snobbish cat. While I enjoyed Coraline it did not evoke much of a response from me; however, I think kids who enjoy fairy tales and those who like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will appreciate this book. There is a movie out, too, which I plan to watch. I think it looks good. Have your read or watched Coraline?

Publisher: Boomsbury, 2002     Pages: 176
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Public Library

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Wordless Books Review: Shadow and Wave by Suzy Lee

Shadow begins as a young girl enters a garage full of tools and junk. Using her imagination, and aided by her shadow, the girl creates a wonderland to play in. The text is laid out so that the pages flip up like a calendar. On the top page is the real world and the bottom page displays a mirror of shadow images which show the reader what the girls sees in her mind. As the story progresses, the real world and shadow world begin to blend showing how the girl becomes immersed in her imagination. I recognized myself in the the text's little girl as I was often happily lost in my own fantasy world at that age. If you notice children playing by themselves, who are completely immersed in their play, and wonder what it is they are seeing, I recommend reading Shadow to find out.

In Wave, a little girl plays in the ocean's surf. It begins with her charging towards to water and timidly testing it with her toes. Soon she is splashing away, scaring off sea gulls and collecting sea shells. It is a cute story in which the girl learns the exciting power of the sea. As she leaves with her mom, the girl looks back over her shoulder and waves goodbye to the ocean.

A book without words can still tell a story. In Shadow (2010) and Wave (2008), Suzy Lee captures childhood in its simplistic glory. The plot of each story is less important than the overall experience conveyed. The stories' brevity remind me of a haiku in that they capture one moment in an exquisite manner. Here is a link to the Suzy Lee's website. These books count toward the POC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2010 and 2008     Pages: 44 and 40
Rating: 4 and 3.5 Stars     Source: Public Library

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

Reading Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There was a new step for me as a reader. I have entered the realm of the travelogue. As my first read in the genre I cannot readily compare this book to others like it nor have I read Bryson before. There were things I liked and things I loathed about this book so bare with me.

The text starts out strong, as Bryson explores Hammerfest, Oslo and Paris. It was a rough start to his journey and for these fifty pages I was laughing out loud. Actually, I read this section aloud to my mom. Bryson’s journey to Hammerfest revived memories of our foreign travels and we cracked up to Bryson’s sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humor.

The next seventy pages were pure tedium as Bryson recounts mostly negative experiences and impressions while visiting several Germanic countries. The text also gravitated towards lewd jokes based off Bryson’s observations of trashy magazines, porn and such which simply did not interest me. Naked people can be found anywhere. One needn’t go to Europe to find them. This paired with his negative impressions caused the middle to drag.

Finally, Bryson breaks his route early and heads to Italy where his experience and the text became much more enjoyable. I enjoyed his Roman holiday having spent a week there myself. It was fun reliving some of the sights through the text and makes me want to go back.

The book is nearly twenty years old and while the ancient splendor of Europe remains some things have changed. For instance, the Euro has replaced country-specific currency which Bryson used. So, if you’re looking for up-to-date information this book is not what you need. Yet, if you want a feel for what an average American might experience while traveling in Europe, Bryson’s book may be for you.

Publisher: Perennial, 1992     Pages: 254     
Rating: 2.5 Stars     Source: purchased copy