Friday, May 29, 2009

The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd: Eye Spy

The London Eye Mystery. Siobhan Dowd (2008).
NY: David Fickling Books. ISBN: 9780375849763.

Once upon a time, a book with narrator diagnosed with any sort of mental disability, such as Aspergers, were unheard of, barring a certain type of book that sensationalized the crazy (cough cough, Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted, I’m pointing at you). Then, along came The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, which crept up beside us (and up the best seller charts) and suddenly, a more positive outlook and favorable portrayal of protagonists afflicted with mental handicaps wasn’t so strange or scandalous any more. Consequently, voices previously marginalized with mental health problems, particularly those with Aspergers, are now being heard more frequently, though not regularly, in popular fiction and literature. Just this year, Francisco X. Stork released Marcello in the Real World, a story told in the first person by a teenage boy with an Asperger-like condition (it’s on my To-Read shortlist, and totally has the most gorgeous cover of the year, in my always right opinion). However, these titles seem to reach a slightly older/teenaged audience, and don’t allow for much crossover to tweens and young teens. Three cheers then for The London Eye Mystery, which safely will amuse tweens, teens, and adults.

Ted Stark is our middle school aged protagonist who also happens to suffer from Aspbergers. He is extremely high functioning and intelligent, is obsessed with the weather, has some self-identified trouble recognizing body language in others, and describes himself as being wired slightly different than most people. Ted and family are thrown for a bit of a loop when his estranged Aunt Gloria and her son Salim come for a quick visit on their way to move to New York City. Salim and Ted bond, Salim shares his unhappiness about having to move and be lonely, and Ted tells us that he now is glad to have five real friends (his teacher, Mom, Dad and sister Kat are the other four). On a visit to the London Eye, Salim disappears, somewhere between getting on, and getting off the ride. Has he been kidnapped? Run away? Spontaneously combusted (one of Ted’s theories)? Kat and Ted are desperate to solve this mystery as the drama of a missing child case fills their lives and causes obvious tension and strain for everyone in the family. Ted, with his mind like a computer, and Kat, his sassy and bossy big sister, may be able to crack the case, but not before Ted learns how to tell a lie, Kat learns how to listen to Ted, and Ted learns a little bit more about how to blend in a world that doesn’t accept him as he is.

I think what I love about this book is that Dowd manages to capture Ted’s voice and alternative thought process in a way that feels both organic and authentic. It doesn’t feel like she’s trying too hard, or that she’s going for any easy, stereotypical cop-outs in creating this interesting and well developed character. She is extremely talented in getting us to see that Ted thinks and feels differently than we do, in his very unique and detached sort of way, but still manages to make him an empathetic, charming, and even funny character. I especially love the ongoing sub-plot within this book, in with straight arrow, logic loving, and 100% truthful Ted begins to see the merit in telling a little white lie every now and then. This story also handles the events surrounding a tragedy like a missing child very skillfully; we see and recognize he agony and the drama, but are somewhat removed from it because our narrator himself doesn’t feel like the others do, though feel the same emotions he does, in his own way.

Best for: Older middle school students (lads and ladies both), probably 12-14, mostly because the American edition of this book still contains a lot of British slang younger readers may find confusing (along with the narrative voice). Adults will enjoy this alter-narrative as well – especially you Brit culture vultures. You know who you are.

Book Talk Hook: I would read either the section in which Salim goes missing, orrrr read the scene of the first time Ted lies. I think the humor and the mystery are the best ways to sell this one to our target tweener audience.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Sea of Monsters, by Rick Riordan: Salute your shorts...or toga

The Sea of Monsters. Rick Riordan (2007).
NY: Miramax/Hyperion Books. ISBN: 978-1423103349

In honor of book 5 aka
The Last Olympian dropping like it's hot AND because there is going to be a movie starring a ton of famous adult actor people (including a Hollywood crush of mine, Kevin McKidd, as Poseidon), I present to you, my pretend audience, my two cents on the second Percy Jackson book. I think I reigned it in pretty well in the review below, but my inner 12 year old fangirl is totally digging Percy Jackson, and I'll let my freak flag fly a little bit here before I start said review. I mean...what's not to love? Greek mythology? Check. Exciting fight sequences? Check. Interesting, personable, realistic protagonists? Check. A sense of humor and mucho jokes? Check.

For a chick who as a middle schooler used to stay in to watch Xena, who attended summer camp well into her 20's, and who still loves D'Aulaires book of Greek mythology, Rick Riordan has struck me with the literary equivalent of Cupid's Arrow. Looooooveeeee. Again, I say much of this below, but my love is not redundant. I love you, Percy Jackson. I'm sorry if that is weird because you are 12 or something. You just can't fight a love like ours, okay?

Just a heads up...if you haven't read The Lightning Thief (aka book one in this series, stop reading now!).

We did a recent election in the Children's Room where I work to coincide with the presidential election. Instead of voting for a presidential candidate, kids were asked to vote for their all time favorite book. Not so shockingly, the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series won in a landslide with kids grades 4-6. Not just a blow to the
Series of Unfortunately Events, this is a book that needs only the fanfare of the first book and the word of mouth popularity that it has generated to convince the majority of kids to read it. I flippin' love this series too, and I can read at well above a 6th grade reading level (not to toot my own horn, kiddies). I'm not sure if the fact that I used to obsessively watch Xena Warrior Princess has anything to do with my chortling over the way Riordan cleverly inserts heroes, monsters and gods into this modern story (Aries looks like he's boss of a biker gang).

The Sea of Monsters is the second book in this awesome adventure series, which is yet unfinished (obviously now it is). Each of these takes on the shape of a Greek epic quest; this one is the Odyssey. Like the first book (The Lightning Thief), the story follows Percy Jackson, the demi-god son of Poseidon and a human woman, who has only recently learned that he's not just your average 7th grader. After the excitement of discovering his true identity, attending Camp Half-Blood, (a summer camp for the children of the Olympian gods) and surviving an ordeal to recover Zeus' stolen lightening bolt with his fellow demi-god Annabeth (daughter of Athena) and bestie Grover (who just happens to be a satyr), Percy has had a fairly normal school year for the first time in his life. Things go awry on the last day when a normal game of dodgeball turns into a fight for his life. Annabeth appears to save both Percy and his new bud, Tyson, only to let them know that things are looking pretty bleak down at Camp Half-Blood too; the magical borders that protect the camp grounds are shrinking. Percy, Annabeth and Tyson are catapulted into an adventure in the Sea of Monsters to save Camp Half-Blood, and along the way, Percy is bound to find out some more shocking things about his mysterious family.

Best for:
Everyone. Even you, old people like me. Basically, if you liked Harry Potter, and you like adventure, and you like or know anything about Greek mythology, you'll probably enjoy these books. As my roommate says, "They're basically New York style Harry Potter." Well said, sage roomie.
4th grade and up for independent reading, but younger children will probably enjoy being read these books as well.

Book talk hook: I'm not entirely sure one is necessary…it is Percy Jackson and all! I think I would probably rather book talk the first rather than the second book, since it is a series that builds on itself, and I don't know that I would recommend just one random book out of it over recommending the whole shebang.

*And when the hard cover complete set of these books drops, I want to be the first to know, Amazon!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ahoy, maties! Here be a review of Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ships Boy, by L.A. Meyer

Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ships Boy. L.A. Meyer, (2002).
NY: Harcourt. ISBN: 0152167315

This book, in a word, is ship-shape! Bloody Jack is the first in a series of books about the adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, an orphan from the streets of London, who assumes the identity of a boy to escape the fight to survive on the city streets. This cross-dressing endeavor is otherwise known to Jacky and her captive audience as "The Deception." Her only skill to speak of is the rare ability to read and write, and more than anything, she fears dying and having her body sold to doctors for medical research, as happens with most street urchins in the London of 1797. She gets a job as one of six ships boys aboard a pirate-fighting naval ship, and thus begins her life of adventure on the open seas…but there is a catch! Since carrying a fair, sweet lass aboard a ship is bad luck, Jacky's got to keep the crew from uncovering "The Deception." Jacky is clever, inventive, and scrappy. She fashions and wears a codpiece, finds secret ship nooks in which to make a lady friendly bathroom (i.e. to pee sitting down), and makes herself useful during squirmishes, earning her the moniker "Bloody Jack." But some things can't be stopped, and Aunties Flow and Curves join her aboard the HMS Dolphin, making "The Deception" all the more tricky, necessary, and complicated when she develops a big ole crush on her fellow ship's boy, Jaime, and a big creepster of a pedophile develops a crush on Jacky. With a big bad French pirate named LeFievre on the loose, Jamie convinced he may be gay, an undeniable talent for sewing, and "The Deception" getting trickier by the day, Jacky certainly has her hands full!

This historical fiction novel doesn't take liberties where it easily could; Jacky isn't a feminist, even though she knows she can do what all the men can do. Meyer sticks with the mentality of the time, even if Jacky herself is an historical anomaly. I can totally get behind the slangy Cockney narrative voice ("Today, after our duties, I'm sitting down with me shiv in my lap and I'm carving a rooster's head on the hilt of it in remembrance of Charlie whose shiv it was original."), which adapts not just to reflect where Jacky comes from, but how far she's come and where she's going, and reflects just what a little character she is. I can't wait to read the next one!

Best for: This would probably be most enjoyed by girl's ages 12-15 who like adventure, historical fiction, and pirates (especially due to that visit from Aunties Flow and Curves). I'd also recommend it to fans of the Tamora Pierce Alana books.

Book talk hook: I'd give a short summary of the plot and then read the bathing scene, Jacky's first major deception as a boy aboard a ship, when the Captain orders the ships boys scrubbed down and Jacky strategically places soap suds to disguise herself below decks.
GET IT? Chortles abound.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang: I have EXCELLENT taste.

American Born Chinese. Gene Luen Yang (2006).
NY: First Second.
ISBN: 978-0312384487

I'm a reluctant reader of sorts, the graphic novel sorts. This is only the second graphic novel I've ever read, while I enjoyed the first, I wouldn't say I was eager to read another. This one caught my eye first, if I'm honest, because it is colorful, and second, if I'm honest, because it's short! By the end of the first section (it is in three parts), I was totally digging it for all the reasons I've avoided graphic novels in the past: the colorful, cartoony illustrations, the teeny thought bubble text, and the crazy emphatic action words. Perhaps it helps that this is a smart graphic novel, disguised as a comic book. This allows some weighty questions about racial identity and acceptance to sneak up on the reader, and not in an interfering way either.

Yang's story begins with three, seemingly unrelated stories: a retelling of the famous myth of the Monkey King, that of Jin Wang, the child of Chinese immigrants, and Danny, a Justin Timberlake lookalike with a crazy stereotypical Chinese cousin named Chin-kee (major play on words and into this stereotype) who is enrolling in Danny's high school during his extended visit. He gives each story ample air time, but the stories really shine when he begins to weave them together in an unanticipated fashion, which is really where the strength of the story lies. While each character has their own problems and challenges (the Monkey King desires equal god status, Jin Wang wants to fit in at his all white school, and Danny just wants to fly under the radar, while still getting the girl), these personal challenges have one common theme: acceptance, both of oneself, of others, and by others.

Best for: This book is fabulous and I highly recommend it. It covers weighty issues with no heavy lifting by employing the graphic and illustrative format, and consequently is an easy, yet sly sell to reluctant readers. This also makes it fun and accessible, and is great for both boys and girls of all YA ages. Also, I found out months after reading this that it won the Prinz in 2007. I salute you, my critically confirmed good taste.
Self high five.

Book talk hook: The beautiful, colorful illustrations are all that I'd really need to sell this book to the audience I'd target for this at a book talk: young male readers. I'd probably do a summary, but since there is so much going on story wise, brevity is a wise choice.
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