Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 The Matchstick Castle

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What's the worst fate that can befall you as you get ready to enter middle school? Find out that you will be spending the summer with your uncle and his family in the town of Boring, Illinois. And it lives up the name. Poor Brian is sent to stay with his Uncle Gary, Aunt Jenny, and his cousin Nora while his father is off to Antarctica. It's bad enough that he will be away from home, his brothers, his friends, and the soccer tournament he was training for, but Uncle Gary designs educational software and makes Nora and Brian act as his test subjects. School every day of the summer!

Just when things seem really bleak, Brian and Nora accidentally discover the Matchstick Castle and the van Dash family who live in it. Suddenly they have more adventure than they could ever expect. The house sits on old mining tunnels and caves. The house itself is filled with hidden doorways and strange hallways. There is a ship on the roof (in case of flood), a submarine in the tunnels, and a larger than life family who are all famous explorers, adventurers, writers, etc. When a local city planner has the house condemned and schedules it for demolition, it is time to fight back and defend the castle.

This story is fun in many different ways. There are the wacky characters of the van Dash family who are always digging for lost gold, working on a new novel, trying to domesticate wild boars, and other unusual activities. Brian's despair over being stuck at a computer screen studying all summer is humorous, since we are not the ones trapped in that room listening to the animated Dara and Darrell and their annoying computer-generated voices. And the house itself, the Matchstick Castle, is so full of carrier pigeons, doors that lead nowhere, fire poles, and hammocks that it seems to have been designed by the architects of the The 13-Storey Treehouse.

Great for fans of the Treehouse books (by Andy Griffiths) and similar tales. Highly recommended for middle grade readers who enjoy humorous stories.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 The Mesmerist

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It is the time when construction on the London Underground has just begun. Something is stirring up trouble. There is growing tension between the resident Londoners and those who have immigrated to England from foreign lands. A terrible sickness is killing people in the poor quarters of the city. An enemy from the past has reached out, causing Mrs. Grace to fear for the safety of her daughter Jessamine. And in the midst of all this unrest, Jess and her mother have come to London seeking help from a friend named Balthazar. But what can an old college chum of her father's do to protect them?

The Mesmerist is a thrilling mix of historical fiction and urban fantasy. Herring gulls flying over the seaside town of Deal. Charing Cross Station with its circular glass roof. A posh mansion in the West End. A shabby brick house in the East End. Each of the locations is like a window into Great Britain's past full of rag and bone men, ragged boys peddling newspapers, and rich gentry in their glossy carriages. And juxtaposed with signs of the modern age approaching (such as the Underground), there are things of the supernatural realm - ghouls, werewolves, necromancers. 

Readers who have enjoyed stories such as How to Catch a Bogle will find this similar in its dangers, suspense, and the fight between good and evil. There are also the same type of resilient children who choose to face off against the evil forces. Highly recommended for middle grades and up.

I received an advance copy from the publisher for review purposes.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 The Reader (Sea of Ink and Gold #1)

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A world with no books. Or, rather, one book - the book. Imagine an entire world where no one knows how to read. Where nothing is recorded in written form. Where the only history is oral, and once a story is no longer told, it is forgotten. What would people in that world do to make sure their names and deeds will be remembered?

But there are those who can "read" other things. A sea captain might read the waves and find his way to the end of the world. A first mate might read the impressions of the ship's timbers and be able to track all activity on board. Others might be able to read an individual, seeing the events in their life that have led them to the present moment. 

And if it was stolen, what would those who had possessed the book do to get it back? Do the ends justify the means? Can terrible things - torture, murder, kidnapping, war - be used to create peace? Do individuals have the power to act counter to what is in the book, could they defy the written word and rewrite their fates?

Questions like all of these, and many more, are tackled in Traci Chee's new fantasy series, Sea of Ink and Gold. In this first book we meet Sefia, Archer, Captain Reed, and many of the other main characters in the tale. And we watch, with the images coming to us through Chee's writing, as we work our way through the pages of The Reader.

Perfect for fans of epic fantasy, with a detailed world, convoluted motivations, and intriguing characters.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 The Adventures of Bubba Jones: Time Traveling Through the Great Smoky Mountains

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Author and family hiking expert, Jeff Alt, has created a book series that lets kids explore the history of national parks. Bubba Jones and his family have come to the Great Smoky Mountains to hike and camp. His younger sister, parents, aunt, uncle, cousin, and grandparents have all traveled to the mountains for a family vacation and for Papa Lewis to pass on a family legacy to his grandson. Bubba becomes the keeper of the family journal and the power to travel through time. Yes, you read that correctly, travel through time! 

This special ability is passed to every other generation and is a carefully guarded secret. Using that power, Bubba and his family get to see incredible scenes from the park's past, and even times before the park was founded. Imagine if you could read an historical marker and decide to travel back and see the actual event. The Lewis family visits events like the dedication ceremony of the park and also goes back to see when elk and buffalo roamed the area. They also search for Papa Lewis's cousin Will. Papa hasn't seen him in 40 years, since the camping trip when his grandfather passed the journal and his time travel ability on to Papa Lewis.

Combining the present day adventures of hiking and camping with the historical trips gives the reader a wonderful introduction to the park. My students live within sight of the park, so many of the locations will be very familiar to them - names like Cades Cove, Sugarlands, Clingman's Dome, and Gatlinburg will conjure up personal memories of family trips to those spots. But the additional information about the Cherokee people, early settlers, and efforts to create the park will build on those experiences and generate a greater appreciation for our local heritage.

I would recommend this book to families planning a trip to the park, those who are interested in outdoor stories, or readers who enjoy family stories in general. It would also be easy to build a novel study around this book and combine it with research into the national parks or early American expansion across the Appalachians. The author suggests topics of study in the curriculum guide, as well as providing discussion questions and a bibliography. There is also the added benefit of the title being part of a series; if readers enjoy this book, they can reach for the next one and continue on with Bubba to the next park he explores.

I received a copy of the book from the author for review purposes.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 Noah Webster's Fighting Words

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How do you write a story about the man who created the first dictionary of American English and make it interesting for young readers? Let him edit the story for you! As author Tracy Maurer explains in the Author's Note, it felt as if Noah was looking over her shoulder while she worked on the book. Readers will have fun with all Noah's editorial notes. He adds details in some of them, pointing out that he pushed for copyright laws or that he taught at several schools after he graduated from Yale. In other comments he suggests that the author delete or rewrite sentences he doesn't like, such as the paragraph that says he didn't take criticism well. The comments will keep young readers eagerly looking for more, and getting an impression of what Webster's personality was like.

Illustrator Mircea Catusanu rose to the challenge of depicting an historical figure in a way that would hold the interest of today's youngsters. She describes her method in the Illustrator's Note and explains the materials she used, including excerpts from "books, newspapers, and Noah's original handwritten letters." This collage approach gives the illustrations a fresh contemporary feel. Details like the students throwing paper wads in class add humor in much the same Noah's editorial remarks add to the text. One of my favorite illustrations is the image of Noah holding a musket. His figure is larger and is superimposed over a background of many colonial figures holding their weapons. But the barrel of Noah's musket is actually a large pen!

The creators of this book have managed to take what could easily have been a boring explanation of the first American Dictionary and made it as easy and entertaining to read as a piece of fiction. For anyone who may worry that the book does not have its facts straight - there are a timeline, list of sources, a selected bibliography, list of primary sources, and suggestions for more information.

Classes studying dictionary skills, famous writers, or the Colonial period of American history could all benefit from reading this delightful account of Noah Webster and his efforts to make American English separate and distinct from the English of Great Britain. Readers who enjoyed Lane Smith's comical John, Paul, George, and Ben, will find this book similarly appealing.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Fall Reading 2016 Canticos: Elefantitos/Little Elephants


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Elefantitos is based on a counting rhyme in Spanish about little elephants. The original rhyme in Spanish tells the story of 5 little elephants balancing on a spiderweb. First one elephant, then another, and another climb out onto the web. When the web finally snaps there is a big "Uuuuupa! with the break in the web centered over the large U at the beginning of the word (and over the capital O in the English "Ooooops!"). The English version tells the same story, also in rhyme. The illustrations are filled with pudgy gray elephants and a spider that resembles a fluffy pompom with wiggly eyes. 

Families and teachers looking for bilingual books (English/Spanish), have a new resource in Canticos from Susie Jaramillo. Their unique presentation sets them apart from others in that genre. If you have read others, then you are familiar with the different ways the text is arranged. Sometimes the text is written in one language on one page, then in the other language on the facing page. In other books, the languages alternate lines on the page. Both ways can seem a little overwhelming because you feel that you have to read all the words, and that can mean a lot of repetition. But the Canticos books are put together with an accordion fold that lets you read through the story in one language, then flip it and read back through in the other language. There are also interactive elements like flaps to peek beneath and wheels to spin. The text and illustrations form a recipe for fun and educational books for young readers.

I read an ebook provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 Rocket Robinson and the Secret of the Saint

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Rocket Robinson, Nuri, and Screech are back for another thrilling adventure. This time they are visiting the beautiful city of Paris when a painting is stolen from the Louvre. It seems strange that with all the priceless artwork to choose from, the thief took a portrait of an obscure saint. Our heroes hear of the theft the morning after it occurs and are upset to learn that Nuri's uncle is the prime suspect in the crime. Despite warnings to stay away from the investigation, the youngsters begin searching for clues to the painting's whereabouts and the identity of the real thief.

Just as in his earlier adventure (Rocket Robinson and the Pharaoh's Fortune), Rocket seems to be a young Indiana Jones in the making. Narrow escapes from armed criminals, scuffles on board a zeppelin, Nazis with sinister intentions, and his interest in antiquities make the comparison almost mandatory. But with the setting and the link to the Knights Templar, this story also has some Robert Langdon vibes. The good professor would be very interested in the iconography of the saint's portrait, the cryptic clues, and the link to a fabled treasure.

Readers will have a hard time putting this down until they reach the end and see what becomes of Rocket, Nuri, Uncle Turk, and the villains. Is there truly a treasure, or is it all a legend? Will the bad guys escape? Will the intrepid police inspector ever believe that Turk is innocent? And will anyone make it home on time for the dinner Mrs. Mahfouz has cooked?

If you haven't encountered Rocket before, don't be afraid to jump right in. You can always go back and read the first book later - this story stands on its own just fine. And once you read one story, you'll be eager for more!

I received a copy from the publisher for review purposes.