Booknotized

A place to think, reflect, and talk (mostly to myself) about books I love…and a few that I don't.

Series Review: The 39 Clues February 27, 2012

Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: 2008 – Present
Series: The 39 Clues 1-10; The 39 Clues: Vespers Rising; The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers 1-3+
Age Group: 9-12
Genre: Action-Adventure
Pages: various (from 150 – 327)
Source: provided by publisher as reference for freelance work (see below)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 5★; Execution 3.5★

Amy and Dan Cahill are just two regular kids. Amy’s shy and quiet; Dan’s rowdy and hilarious. Except for their grandmother, Grace, they have no family—that they know of—and when she dies, it seems they really are on their own…
 
…until Grace’s will reveals that not only are they part of a larger family, but it’s, well, HUGE! (Not to mention the most powerful in human history.) But before Dan and Amy can get too cuddly, they also find out that there’s a family feud stretching all the way back to Gideon Cahill and his quarrelsome kids in the 1500s that splits the Cahills into four branches. What’s more, they discover that a secret formula lies at the root of the feud—and it’s up to them to find all of the clues before anyone else can.
 
Book 1, The Maze of Bones  by Rick Riordan, sets the siblings off on a globe-trotting trek to uncover Gideon Cahill’s greatest secret. Filled with action, adventure, geographic thrills, and spine-tingling chills, the series continues in the 9 following volumes, each written by a different author (incl. Gordon Korman, Patrick Carman, Jude Watson, Linda Sue Park and several more).
 
Dan and Amy’s story picks up again in series two, Cahills vs. Vespers, with an intermediate novel to bridge the gap, Vespers Rising. I recommend beginning with series one, book one, and working your way up. So far, only two books have been published in the Cahills vs. Vespers series, with book three, The Dead of Night, due out March 6.
 
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I was first introduced to the 39 Clues when I was asked to participate in the creation of some materials for a webcast featuring Ruth Culham—with whom I worked closely on the Scholastic Traits Writing program—and the 39 clues. (You can find the materials I helped generate here.) The webcast and worksheets were designed to get kids examining text and excited about writing by introducing them to the Traits and helping them discover in favorite/familiar books models and mentors for their own work.
 
While I didn’t have to read them all, after book one I found I had quite a fondness for Dan’s quirky character and Amy’s burgeoning sense of self-confidence. Their characters are really lively and well done—and despite the variety of authors, surprisingly consistent. I wound up reading 6 of the 10, and was pleased to revisit their world in the second series this past January when I was asked to participate in another related project.
 
The idea is really stellar and complex (despite some implicit/inadvertent eurocentrism) and the adventures are fun—the pace is nothing if not quick. Historical figures, bits of world cultures and geographic trivia are laced innocuously throughout. I was surprised myself, after the fact, to reflect on how much I had accidentally learned from the series about peope, places, and things I had thought I was quite knowledgable about. Coupled with the interactive website, there’s a lot for unsuspecting reluctant-reading minds to glean.
 
The writing is simple, fairly transparent, and there’s a somewhat “Nancy Drew” quality to Dan and Amy’s sleuthing and often predictable resolutions (which is one reason I didn’t press on to read the final four titles). But the series mixes it up – not always allowing Dan and Amy the spotlight OR the victory outright. Because the Cahill family is so large, there is a vast cast of multicultural characters to meet (though none of them is ever very deeply developed) and the 3rd-person perspective switches up regularly, providing lots of twists and turns.
 
Not deep or heavy by any means, often overly simple for the older reader in me, these are nonetheless fun, light, catching reads that could serve for the kid-at-heart as a good buffer between dark apocalypses and epic fantasies. Something like Spy Kids meets Carmen Sandiego turned print—though generally less cheesy and far more complex. The books had me clue-hunting right along with the Cahills, curious to find out how it would all wrap up in the end.
 
I definitely recommend these book for the 9-12-ers—who I’ve witnessed can get really NUTS for these things!—as well as for the adventurous 13+(+++)-er.
 

 

Working With the 100: An Epic Adventure January 9, 2012

 
Now, I know how it looks. I’ve been fairly quiet over the last two months.
 
But that’s only because I’ve been consulting on what was probably the most exciting project ever: Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids feature.

I knew when I took the job that it might mean I had to stay quiet on the blogging front for a little while, but, I mean, who could turn it down?
 
For several solid months, I got to spend my nights and weekends reading, thinking and writing about my absolute favorite topic—books for young people (which I would have been doing anyway…shhh!)—as I worked to curate the list with the expert contributors and amazing editorial team at P&C.
 
In short, I had a blast.
 
While this took up most of my extracurricular reading time, I also couldn’t really post about it: it was TOP secret. Well, at least until the website went live! (At which point I collapsed into a heap and was transported unconsciously to the land of turkey and gift wrap.) Hence my (unusually) un-loquacious state.
 
Despite my tardiness in posting, however, I couldn’t be prouder of the final product. Not only does it cover 100 of the best books written and in print for Ages 0-12 (culled from a list of over 500 titles suggested by literacy experts, Scholastic editors, and parents!), but the website is a TON of fun to play with!
 

Check out the interactive website where 10 books will be revealed every week in the countdown to the mysterious #1!

Be sure to investigate all the widgets and enter for a chance to win a copy of 1 of the titles every week.

 

 
 
You can sort by Fiction/Nonfiction (and fiction type), Age Group, Award Winners, and more. Once you have your list, click on the book covers to find out more about each individual title.
 

 
As an added treat, the magazine editors and I chose 10 books throughout the list that grabbed our attention for various reasons, such as “Best Bedtime Book,” “Most Exciting Ending,” and “Favorite Fantastic Setting.”
 
Click here to find out more about the 100 Greatest Books for Kids feature: why we did it, how we did it, what’s up next, and more.
 
Then, be sure to subscribe to P&C asap if you want to receive a print copy of the March issue that will contain all of this and more.
 
 

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * GIVEAWAY! * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

 
Now, I want to hear from you. Let me know: what books would YOU have put on the list? What would have been your number one? Be sure to include your email address with your answer! (Or leave a comment on this post.) One lucky winner will get a copy of one of the books from the list in their age group of choice. (Book to be supplied by moi, and this giveaway is in no way affiliated with Parent & Child.)
 

 

 

 

Guest Review: No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve October 20, 2011

I always love getting recommendations for good books, especially when they are as ebullient as this one.

Shortly after finishing this title (part of my growing Philip Reeve collection – he’s pretty awesome, btw), that I had not even cracked yet, my husband Sorin, all but bubbling over with excitement, began to regale me with tempting snippets of the story line. As he recounted and gesticulated, I began to suspect that he was doing so as much to relive the story himself as to talk me into reading it. Since that’s exactly the art of book reviewing (at least for me!), I invited him to contribute a post of his own here on Booknotized.

A native of Romania, Sorin came to the US (where he met me) via Montreal, Quebec. Currently a computer science masters candidate, he recently completed his first novel, I, Pirate, which was a young adult division quarterfinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards competition. Reading and writing are his passions, though I know I fit somewhere in there as well. I hope you enjoy this, his first (but hopefully not last!) review.

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: September 1, 2010
Age Group: 9–12+ (some mature intimations; graphic violence)
Pages: 186

★★★★★

Before Johannes Von Brock arrived at the inn and asked for a child to follow him as squire, Ansel wasn’t worth much. So little, in fact, that his father didn’t even consider him a candidate. But the man liked the fact that the boy couldn’t speak, for he had secrets that he’d like kept that way…

For starters, “there are no such things as dragons.” Just spend a couple of days on the mountain, come back, tell the people you killed it, get paid, and go on to the next place. In a time where superstitions rule the mind of man, where mythical creatures roam the earth, in a time when legends are born, people need their savior. They expect it. And our brave knight is there for them.

But as they arrive in a tiny mountain village, plagued by a man-eating, sheep-stealing “worm,” neither master nor squire can imagine the turn that their lives are about to take.

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I must confess, when I started reading this book, I had fairly low expectations. Jaded by same-subject movies, disappointed by the books, I anticipated a story where either dragons are more implied than actual (as the title suggests), or if present, then display human-like traits (sentience, emotion, etc). But, boy was I in for a surprise! A couple of pages in and I found myself caught in the beautiful, poetic, yet straightforward, language. I couldn’t care less for dragons. Or the action. Just give me more of those beautiful descriptions. It made me realize that it had been a long time since I read a well-crafted book. So long, in fact, that I’d gotten used to the mediocre ones.

And when the real action started, I couldn’t put it down. But I had to. It was 3 AM. I dreamt of dragons and brave little boys. No, not in that way, you perv. Because, you see, you think you know who the dragon fighter is, but… That’s all I’ll say.

The characters are wonderfully forged. Even the dragon. (Whoops!) The boy, Ansel, is one of few heroes in the plethora of modern young adult books who doesn’t have any superpowers. Wait, you say, he doesn’t have any superpowers? Not even a magical pinky, or a fairy godmotherslashuncleslashmaybedog? He doesn’t drink blood? Or perhaps a bit of power-enhancing, magic-awakening juice?

No, no magic. He’s mute, and that’s all, which certainly doesn’t help when being chased by a crazy-eyed dragon. Or when you’re hungry. But, in my opinion, he has more going for him than 275 of the other heroes put together. To make the right decision, when facing a killer beast is hard even for a man, but for a malnourished child? A hero is not made or born. One becomes. Will Ansel become a hero? I won’t tell you. Just read the book!

Truly, Philip Reeve accomplishes in 186 pgs what many others haven’t in a full series of 400 pgs each: to write an inspiring yet entertaining book, one that reaches deep inside and tries to change you.

I think No Such Thing as Dragons will make an exhilarating experience for any book-loving, adventure-craving kid. I know it did for me.

 

Book Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick October 11, 2011

Release Date: September 13, 2011
Publisher: Scholastic
608 pgs

★★★★★

It’s 1977, and somewhere in the quiet woods of Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, lives Ben Wilson. His mother has just died, and though his aunt and uncle welcome him in, he just cannot seem to feel at home. Something is missing. When he finds a 12-year-old clue about his father, Ben decides that the search for that mysterious man is the answer to all of his empty longing.

Flash back to Hoboken, New Jersey, 1927, where the story of a young girl is depicted only in pictures – or is it? Rose lives her life shut away in her home, and she, too, is longing. Longing for something . . .

The collision of their worlds will leave you speechless.

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Summary is not something that suits this book, really, so apologies for my somewhat cryptic attempt above. That’s because the storytelling in Wonderstruck is utterly unique. I did not realize, when I sat down to read it, that I was embarking on a sensory journey that would leave me mystified and in awe. Needless to say, the book’s title was chosen well.

Subtle and unobtrusive, it nevertheless defies all of the rules about reading that I – unwittingly – have always taken for granted. Text is text, right? Pictures are pictures, right? Wrong.

Selznick has created a masterpiece wherein the line between letter and sketch gradually blurs into one unified experience.

Like its similar, but intrinsically different sibling, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (movie directed by Martin Scorsese out Nov 23!!), Wonderstruck is a revolutionary publication. (I can’t quite bring myself to call it a “text.”) It will alter the way you look at and define “books.”

So much more than a picture book, this story can’t simply be read: it has to be experienced. I highly recommend.

 

(P.S. Don’t be daunted by the page count – the balance of text and illustrations make it a fairly quick read.)

 

Book Review: Restoring Harmony, by Joëlle Anthony September 26, 2011

Publisher: Putnam
Release Date: May 13, 2010
Pages: 320

★★1/2

It’s the year 2141, but Molly’s world looks anything but futuristic: living on a farm; raising crops, livestock, and siblings; and playing her fiddle “Jewels,” keep her too occupied to really notice that the civilized world is – well – not so civilized anymore. Since 2031, when the unchecked shortages of oil caused world economies and governments to irrevocably collapse, her family has lived in relative comfort. They were lucky enough to be insulated from the worst of the crisis by the water that surrounds their small Canadian island.

But, all of that changes when they receive a frightening letter from Molly’s grandparents in Oregon, and no one but Molly can be spared to go and find out if they are still alive. Armed with nothing but her fiddle, she sets out on a journey that will change her forever.

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I enjoyed this book on one level: it provided a dystopian perspective that I really haven’t seen before. For once, the protagonist’s family lives comfortably apart from the disaster because of their foresight, planning, and agricultural skill. In a way, the book contains both a warning about what might come to pass in our world if we continue to consume resources at the current rate, and a practical solution to the problem for those concerned enough to listen. I found this intriguing.

However, the narrative itself was otherwise unremarkable. The attempt was made to recreate mid-depression America – where liquor is scarce, the farmers are better off than the doctors, and organized crime has replaced a debilitated and absentee government – but those elements were regrettably “told” and not at all “shown.” Too much time was spent with the minutia of Molly’s days inside her grandparents home (of which I never could get a very clear picture) and not enough on the rest of the world, including the love interest. Complications, perils, and various other twists and surprises jumped out at every corner, but were not very believable. I became quickly jaded to them, and was never able to fully emotionally invest.

The heroine was fairly spunky and likable, but completely flat. Her fiddle, which could have been an interesting prop, got rather annoying by mid-book – mostly because it was named. Hearing “Jewels” over and over again, juxtaposed to rather old-fashioned song titles like “Turkey in the Straw,” just didn’t appeal to me. There’s so much modern folk music being created (I know, I’m a fan and go to festivals and other such geeky stuff), and I wish the titles had given the impression of more sophisticated music. As it was, I felt like I was back in kindergarten, listening to a “Wee Sing” album.

Still, it could have been worse. I appreciate the attempt to harken back to a simpler time and place (as well as the LACK of love triangle), and I did like the closed, feel-good ending to what I hope was a stand-alone title.

 

Books for Sale August 17, 2011

 

It is true, that adage about the early worm.

 

This one just cleaned up royally at the annual “doling of the novels” for the operations department’s
catalog review meeting…for which she magnanimously volunteers her personal time.
 
Only question is…

 

Where should I start???

 

 

Book Review: Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve June 20, 2011

Original Release Date: May 4, 2009
Publisher: Scholastic

★★★★

Natural disasters, civilization-searing wars, a tumult of regime changes, and a host of other catastrophes have resulted in the loss of much of mankind’s technical knowledge. With glaciers slowly moving south, what was once Great Britain is now a host of nomadic tribes, subsisting on plunder as they move from place to place in land barges coupled together from recycled machines of the past.

The people of London (perhaps the greatest remnant of what once was), however, have managed to recreate something of the old world. Salvaging, studying, sometimes reinvigorating, but never reproducing the ancient technologies that lie beneath their streets – computers, engines, ‘lectric lamps, scraps of plastics – they are entirely post-pre-industrial. In the midst of it all, lives young Fever, an orphan (or so she’s told). Brought up by the very rational old engineer, Dr. Crumb, beautiful young Fever shaves her head (hair is non-necessary), spurns emotion, and is always, always reasonable – whatever the situation. After all, it is up to her to prove to the stoic Order of Engineers that female minds are capable of rational thought.

But, when archaeologist Kit Solent appears, requesting her help (an honor she accepts with what a non-rational mind might call “excitement”), more than petty emotions are dredged up: Fever begins to recall an entire existence that she knows is not her own – one filled with grisly experiments; a strangely beautiful, oddly familiar face; perfumes; genetic anomalies; and scenes from London’s most recent regime change, the bloody Skinner riots. Before she knows it, Fever is herself branded a traitor in a battle of old against new, humans and Skinners vs. genetically anomalous Scriven (self-dubbed “homo superior”), and must work to unlock the secrets lodged inside her head – or risk losing herself entirely to someone else’s design.
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In keeping with the style of his Carnegie Medal-winning Here Lies Arthur, Reeve delivers a strikingly dark and different, yet enveloping and fully realized world in this prequel to his Mortal Engines Quartet. Expertly repurposing current-day pop culture with a sly and satiric humor (“That’s a load of blog,” shouted Ted Swiney…”Cheesers Crice!”), Reeve fuses signature steampunk (technomancers who create Stalker armies of ‘lectric and wirework-brained corpses, gingerbread man-type armies made of paper, land barges and fuel-guzzling mono-wheeled vehicles), with what author Scott Westerfeld calls “old-fashioned derring-do,” to create a sometimes-light, sometimes-heavy, always fast-paced tale full of as many twists and turns as the Victorianesque London streets through which it runs.

Suitable for a younger audience (9-12), this book will also appeal to older steampunk, action-adventure, and perhaps even historical fiction/historical scifi fans. A fully-realized, strong female protagonist, Fever’s strength and resourcefulness, coupled with the story’s shying away from the usual romantic angle and touch of raucous battles, will make it a satisfying read for boys and girls alike.

Sequel A Web of Air coming October 1, 2011.

 

 
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