Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sweetly Book Review

Author: Jackson Pearce. Release date: 2011. Publisher:  Little Brown and Company. ISBN: 9780316068659.
Annotation:  Brother and sister Ansel and Gretchen are thrown out by their stepmother and find that memories of the sister who was stolen by a witch in the woods years earlier haunt them even in their new home across the country.
Personal thoughts:  I am a huge fan of fairy tale spin-offs and this is definitely one of my favorites. The whole concept of the creature lurking in the woods, waiting and watching really creeped me out, but also increased my enjoyment of the novel even more. Pearce really knows how to set the stage for a dramatic climax in the story. I also found myself genuinely caring about the fates of Ansel, Gretchen and Sophia, which made the novel that much more engrossing. I hope Pearce continues to write novels like this! I will certainly be reading them!  
Plot summary: One sunny afternoon in the forest turns into a nightmare for Ansel and Gretchen when Gretchen’s twin sister is stolen by a witch. When the girl never returns, Ansel and Gretchen’s parents both eventually die from grief, leaving them to the care of their stepmother who throws them out of the house shortly after Gretchen turns eighteen. Not sure what the future holds, the pair head cross country in hopes of starting a new life. When they make it to South Carolina, Ansel’s Jeep gives out, and the pair find themselves in the town of Live Oak with only a few dollars to their name. Soon, they find themselves working for Sophia, a beautiful and charismatic candymaker who’s house and shop are on the outskirts of town. Ansel and Gretchen are useful in the chocolatier, and the three become fast friends. Gretchen is still haunted by the memories of her sister, however, and is plagued with fear of the woods surrounding Sophia’s house. Her fears are worsened when she learns that Live Oak has a terrible secret that seems to involve Sophia, a secret that sounds eerily similar to what happened to her sister years before. Could the witch have followed Ansel and Gretchen to their new home in Live Oak?
Review: This clever spin-off of the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel makes for a very entertaining and unique read that is scary at times but always enjoyable. The novel opens with Ansel and Gretchen as children playing in the woods with their sister, Gretchen’s identical twin. When their sister is stolen by a witch with golden eyes, Gretchen is haunted not only by memories of the terrible incident, but with guilt over the fact that she survived but her sister did not. When the pair wind up in Live Oak, South Carolina, the author does an excellent job of slowly building up the suspense over what will inevitably be another encounter with the witch from their past. One of the major ingredients in the sense of foreboding that the novel invokes are the forests surrounding the small town. Anyone with any sense of trepidation over forests will undoubtedly find what lurks within the trees unsettling and sometimes downright creepy. Pearce does an excellent job of taking the novel to some scary places, but never pushing it over the edge into pure horror. Overall, an original take on an old tale that readers are sure to enjoy.
Genre: Fairy Tale/Horror
Reading level: Grade 8+
Similar titles: Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, Entwined by Heather Dixon.  
Themes:  Hansel and Gretel, siblings, death, witches, werewolves, small towns, candy.   
Awards/Reviews:  Positive reviews from VOYA.
Series Information: Companion novel to Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, but not a sequel.
Discussion questions:
- This novel is a spin-off of the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel. What is your version of the old tale, and how would you create your own spin-off?
- Why do you think Ansel was not as consumed by the loss of his sister as Gretchen?
- Do you think that Sophia was the “patron saint of candy” or the “sign of Live Oak’s last days”? Did your perception change throughout the story?
- Why do you think Gretchen was so afraid of the woods? Was it more than just her fear of the witch?
- Were you surprised to learn the truth about the witch?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lark Book Review

Author: Tracey Porter. Release date: 2011. Publisher:  HarperCollins Children’s Books. ISBN: 9780061122873.
Annotation:  After sixteen-year-old Lark Austin is brutally murdered, her friends, Nyetta and Eve, have difficulty coping with her death, especially when Lark’s ghost begins to haunt Nyetta.
Personal thoughts:  Wow, this was definitely not a fluffy YA book by any stretch of the imagination. I was very impressed by how Porter managed to include so much in such a short novel, and think that it shows something about her literary prowess. I had difficulty reading portions of the novel, especially those describing Lark’s murder, but think that this book is a very important read, especially for teen girls and anyone who has been affected by the loss of a friend.  
Plot summary: Vivacious sixteen-year-old Lark Austin is brutally murdered in the woods near the neighborhood she grew up in with friends Eve and Nyetta. After her death, Nyetta is haunted by the ghost of Lark who believes she will turn into a tree, the fate of other girls who were murdered in the woods. Eve is also haunted, but only with memories of Lark and the experiences they had growing up as best friends. Nyetta becomes more and more upset when it seems that she will not be able to help Lark escape her fate of being trapped in the forest for eternity. Will the two friends be able to cope with Lark’s murder and help her soul rest peacefully?
Review: Told in alternating voices between Nyetta, Lark and Eve, this short but powerful tale manages to accomplish quite a bit for its length. The gamut of emotions are present in this story: horror at the rape, brutal beating and murder of Lark, despair in the mind of her friend Eve who must cope with the death, mystery at what exactly is happening with Nyetta and Lark’s ghost, and hope that the friends, and town, will eventually be able to move on following the tragedy. Porter also includes some very tough issues in Lark besides the murder, including divorce, sexual assault and molestation. These themes, however, are not over-the-top and serve to help the reader understand how an entire community can be impacted from the loss of a promising and vivacious girl. Overall, Lark is a very moving and, at times, difficult read that is original in its telling and memorable.
Genre: Drama/Ghost Story
Reading level: Grade 9+
Similar titles: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.
Themes:  Murder, death, loss, friendship, ghosts, divorce, sexual abuse.  
Awards/Reviews:  Positive reviews from School Library Journal and Horn Book.
Series Information: N/A  
Discussion questions:
- What would you say is the primary theme of Lark? Why?
- Do you think that Nyetta was truly haunted by the ghost of Lark, or was this the result of her difficulty in coping with the loss of her role model?
- How did the concept of the “girls in trees” make you feel? What did you think the author wanted the reader to feel when considering this idea?
- Why do think that Eve had trouble kissing or being physical with Ian?
- What steps can you take to avoid what happened to Lark?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tiger’s Voyage Book Review

Author: Colleen Houck. Release date: November 2011. Publisher:  Splinter. ISBN: 9781402784057.

Annotation:  Kelsey’s adventure, and romance, with her two tiger princes continues in a nautical journey to the mysterious Seventh Pagoda.
Personal thoughts:  I was a bit hard on the second installment in this series, but was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed this third novel quite a bit. I still find some elements of the story to be a bit on the melodramatic or cheesy side, but I think that, overall, the author does a good job of mixing romance with adventure. I really grew to like Kelsey more in this novel, and think that Houck has done a good job of developing the characters. I am really looking forward to the next novel.
Plot summary: After Ren’s memory loss following his rescue in Tiger’s Quest, Kelsey must work to make the prince fall in love with her all over again if she is going to keep her growing feelings for his brother, Kishan, at bay. Matters are complicated when Mr. Kadam unravels the next portion of their journey: retrieving Durga’s mystical pearl necklace located in the mysterious Seventh Pagoda. In order the reach the Pagoda, the group must travel by sea, seeking instruction from the five dragons who know how to reach the necklace. The journey will become increasingly more risky, but not quite as dangerous as the growing tension between Kelsey and Ren as she becomes closer to Kishan.
Review: As is often the case with series, some installments are better than others. This third book in Houck’s best-selling Tiger’s Curse series is, in many ways, the most enjoyable yet. The characters have already been firmly established and Houck has done an excellent job of acquainting the reader with the setting and ins and outs of the often complicated journey of Kelsey, Ren and Kishan. Although the next phase of the quest to break the centuries long curse is even more elaborate than in the previous two novels, it is also more original and entertaining. The love-triangle between Kelsey and the two princes is really at the forefront of the storyline, and Houck does a good job of creating a growing sense of tension throughout the novel. Coping with Ren’s memory loss was an excellent way to keep the romance between Ren and Kelsey interesting. Houck also introduces other characters that compete with Kelsey for Ren’s affections and vice versa, adding another layer to the thickening plot. Overall, this third installment in the series greatly improves upon the second, and leaves the reader with a cliffhanger that will surely keep anticipation for the fourth novel running high.  
Genre: Adventure/Romance
Reading level: Grade 7+
Similar titles: First and second installments in Tiger’s Curse series by Colleen Houck.  
Themes:  Romance, relationships, magic, India, curses, China, diving, yachts.
Awards/Reviews:  Third installment in best-selling series.  
Series Information: Third installment in Tiger’s Curse series. Other novels in series: Tiger’s Curse (2011) and Tiger’s Quest (2011).  
Discussion questions:
- How does this novel compare to the first two in the series? Did it meet your expectations? Why or why not?
- How did you feel about Ren’s memory loss and aversion to Kelsey? Do you think that is realistic? Why or why not?
- Why do you think Kelsey is torn between Ren and Kishan?
- Which of the dragons was your favorite? Why?
- This novel ends with a cliffhanger. Describe what a cliffhanger is and why it is often used in series novels.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Attack of the Vampire Weenies Book Review

Author: David Lubar. Release date: 2011. Publisher:  Tor Books. ISBN: 9780765323453.
Annotation:  Prepare to be creeped out with this collection of spooky (and funny) tales.
Personal thoughts:  This is my first experience with the "Weenies" books, but I am now officially a fan! The stories were all very clever, and could easily be read aloud in a classroom, or enjoyed individually by tweens, teens and adults alike. I look forward to picking up more of Lubar's creations!

Plot summary: This installment of Lubar’s popular “Weenies” collection features 33 short stories. Many of the stories have to do with vampires, but most of them feature simple plots that are clever, creepy and, at times, hilarious. Some of the stories include “Not Another Word,” featuring a mime who has a particular reason for donning that white face paint, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” about a rollercoaster that seems to have a life of its own, and “Cooties,” which explains what really happens when someone says “no returns.” Most of the stories are only 2-3 pages long, with only a few over 5-10 pages.
Review: Lubar’s “Weenies” collection has sold, according to his website, over 1.7 million copies worldwide, and it is obvious why after reading Attack of the Vampire Weenies, the latest installment. Although the stories are quite short, they are full of clever, creepy and funny characters, plots and situations that will keep tweens, and adults, reading. Some of the real stand out stories include “Not Another Word,” “It’s Only a Game,” “Rapt Punzel,” “Cooties” and “The Cure for the Uncommon Vampire.” All of the stories are very entertaining, however, and readers of all ages are sure to enjoy experiencing their favorites again and again.
Genre: Short Stories/Scary Stories
Reading level: Grade 5+
Similar titles: Other titles in David Lubar’s “Weenies” collection, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz.
Themes:  Short stories, scary stories, irony, humor, vampires.  
Awards/Reviews:  Positive review from Booklist, School Library Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and Detroit Free Press.
Series Information: Part of “Weenies” collection by David Lubar. Other titles include In the Land of the Lawn Weenies, Invasion of the Road Weenies, The Curse of the Campfire Weenies and The Battle of the Red Hot Pepper Weenies.
Discussion questions:
- Write your own weenie tale.
- Which of the stories in Attack of the Vampire Weenies was your favorite? Why?
- What do you think is important to include in a collection of short stories? What elements make the stories enjoyable?
- Have you read any other of the Weenies books? Which ones? How do they compare to Attack of the Vampire Weenies?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Vixen Book Review

Author: Jillian Larkin. Release date: 2011. Publisher:  Ember. ISBN: 9780385740357.
Annotation:  It’s 1923 and anything goes for seventeen-year-old Gloria, her best friend Lorraine and her cousin Clara as they try to infiltrate Chicago’s underground scene of speakeasies, flappers, gangsters and Jazz.
Personal thoughts:  I am a very big fan of historical fiction, and Vixen had just the right mix of history and romance for me. The 1920s has never stood out as one of my favorite periods in history, but after reading this novel, I grew to like the world of flappers and speakeasies much more. One of my favorite parts of the novel was the alternating voices that Larkin used to tell the story. Each of the girls is very interesting, but switching between their perspectives kept the plot moving forward. I definitely look forward to reading Ingenue as soon as possible!
Plot summary: Told in alternating voices, three beautiful seventeen-year-olds navigate the tumultuous world of speakeasies, flappers, gangsters and jazz in 1923 Chicago. Caught in an engagement she’s not so sure about, Gloria Carmody can’t get the handsome and charismatic piano player from the Green Mill, Chicago’s most notorious speakeasy, off her mind. The problem with Jerome, however, is that he’s black, and Gloria’s upper-crust family, along with the rest of society, would never understand or accept her feelings for him. Lorraine Dyer, Gloria’s best friend since childhood, is tired of being an afterthought in Gloria’s perfect existence, and especially wishes Gloria’s good friend, the dashing Marcus Eastman, would give her a moment’s notice. When Gloria’s cousin, Clara Knowles, arrives in town, Lorraine is even more concerned that Clara’s goody-goody ways will rub off on Gloria, making her even less likely to join Lorraine in Chicago’s speakeasy scene. What Gloria and Lorraine don’t know is that Clara is far from the virginal and modest girl she pretends to be, and is, in fact, escaping a whirlwind, and at times dangerous, existence as a flapper in New York City. As Gloria, Lorraine and Clara’s lives become more entwined, will they be able to survive in the world of gangsters, liquor and jazz?
Review: This first installment in the Flappers series acts as a combination between a historical fiction and romance novel, resulting in a very engaging and pleasing plot and set of characters.  It is obvious, as well as stated in her jacket bio, that the author is a very big fan of the 1920s. The attention to detail in describing the setting, clothing, hairstyles, society, and even the slang of the period really stands out. This is a setting not often used in young adult novels, and one that lends itself really well to creating an interesting story. Larkin also does an excellent job of creating interesting leading ladies in Gloria, Lorraine and Clara. There are certainly elements in each character that readers, especially teen girls, will be able to identify with. The method of telling the story, in alternating voices between the three, makes the novel very fresh and allows for different perspectives on the events of the story, as well as the time period. This is certainly a very promising start to a series with a great deal of potential. The recently released second installment, Ingenue, continues to stories of Gloria, Lorraine and Clara, and will, hopefully, prove to be just as enjoyable.
Genre: Historical Fiction/Romance
Reading level: Grade 8+
Similar titles: Ingenue by Jillian Larkin (second installment in series) and Bright Young Things series by Anna Godbersen.
Themes:  1920s, flappers, speakeasies, gangsters, interracial relationships, friendships.      
Awards/Reviews:  Positive review from Booklist.  
Series Information: First installment in Flappers series by Jillian Larkin, second book, Ingenue, released in August 2011.     
Discussion questions:
- How much did you know about the 1920s before reading Vixen? Research the period and determine if you think the book is historically accurate.
- What reasons do you think Gloria had for trying to avoid a relationship with Jerome? Do you think there are still prejudices in society with interracial relationships? Why or why not?
- Who was your favorite of the three leading ladies? Why?
- Which of the characters did you identify the most with?
- Do you think that Gloria, Clara and Lorraine are all protagonists? Could any of them be described as antagonists? Why?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Nightmarys Book Review

Author: Dan Poblocki. Release date: 2010. Publisher:  Random House Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9780375842566.
Annotation:  What would you do if your worst fears and the things from your nightmares haunted you during the day? Timothy and Abigail must find a way to put an end to the curse that is causing them to be plagued by terror even when they’re awake.
Personal thoughts:  If I’m being completely honest, this book terrified me. As I was reading it, I kept having to remind myself that it is a young adult novel, and therefore not “worthy” of making my eyes dart around and covering my head with the blanket at night. I admire Poblocki’s ability to create a sense of absolute horror with no gore or violence. The idea of the waking nightmare is quite scary, and I would only recommend this book to brave readers. Younger readers are likely to have nightmares themselves after reading this story.  I know I did.
Plot summary: Seventh-grader Timothy July has been plagued by nightmares ever since his brother was wounded while serving in Iraq. These nightmares are terrifying and keep Timothy awake for hours. During the day, he sometimes finds himself imagining horrifying things while he’s awake. To make matters worse, Timothy isn’t sure what to think when he gets partnered with strange and quiet new girl Abigail for a field trip to the local museum. His best friend, Stuart Chen, is his usual partner, and is angry that Timothy unwittingly volunteered to team up with Abigail. Things get even more odd while the class is at the museum. Abigail seems nice, but Timothy can sense something different about her. When the two venture into the museum basement, the horrifying images from Timothy’s nightmares converge upon him, causing him to panic. When he confesses what is happening to Abigail, she tells him that she has also been plagued with terrifying nightmares. It seems that a curse has been placed on people connected with Abigail that is causing the things from their nightmares to torment them even after they wake up. Can Timothy and Abigail determine the origin of the curse and stop it before the terror consumes them?
Review: This truly frightening tale from Dan Poblocki is full of twists, turns, mystery and, above all, scares that will delight brave tween readers. Almost from the first pages of the novel, the reader develops a sense of dread at the horrifying images that seem to be haunting the characters. At the center of the waking nightmares is a mysterious man in an overcoat and hat. Timothy begins to experience these terrors as well, and is determined to fight them, with the help of his new friend Abigail. As the primary protagonists, Timothy and Abigail are very likeable. Timothy is kind to the new girl who everyone else makes fun of, and is also brave in his resolve to overcome whatever is cursing him and his friends. The story contains many different plot lines that converge in the nail-biting finale. Overall, The Nightmarys is an entertaining and terrifying adventure that readers are sure to enjoy.
Genre: Fiction/Horror
Reading level: Grade 6+
Similar titles: The Stone Child by Dan Poblocki, The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall by Mary Downing Hahn.
Themes:  Nightmares, curses, mystery, horror.  
Awards/Reviews:  Positive review from School Library Journal and Booklist.
Series Information: N/A    
Discussion questions:
- Did this book frighten you? What do you think are important elements in a scary story?
- Do you believe in curses? Why or why not?
- What do you think causes us to have nightmares?
- Describe a nightmare that you can remember. Why did it frighten you?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cleopatra’s Moon Book Review

Author: Vicky Alvear Shecter. Release date: 2011. Publisher:  Arthur A. Levine Books. ISBN: 9780545221306.
Annotation:  After the death of her parents, Cleopatra Selene, the only daughter of Queen Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, is exiled from her home in Alexandria, along with her two brothers, and forced to live in the home of her enemy, Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar.
Personal thoughts:  As a fan of historical fiction and Ancient Egypt, this novel was pretty easy for me to enjoy. Despite these personal prejudices, however, I did find the book to be well-written and a really excellent way to make someone who lived thousands of years ago relatable to modern-day readers, especially teen girls. Anthony and Cleopatra are almost a household name, and the thought of Cleopatra’s daughter being just as intelligent and beautiful as her mother makes for an intriguing story. Overall, an excellent book for fans of historical fiction, Egyptian history, or strong women in history.
Plot summary: The romance of Anthony and Cleopatra has been known throughout history as one of the most passionate and tragic love stories of all time. The story not as commonly known, however, is what became of the children of Anthony and Cleopatra, particularly their only daughter, Cleopatra Selene, after their deaths.  As intelligent, strong-willed and beautiful as her mother, Cleopatra Selene is just a girl when Octavianus of Rome, commonly known as Augustus Caesar, conquers Egypt, murders her older brother, and pushes her parents into committing suicide. Soon after, Cleopatra Selene, her twin brother, Alexandros, and their younger brother, Ptolemy, are sent to Rome to be raised in Octavianus’ own household. Cleopatra Selene and her brothers must fight for their lives in Rome, never certain of whom they can trust and always aware that Caesar will take any opportunity to end their lives. As Cleopatra Selene grows older, she begins to realize that, like her mother, she has the power to seduce men with her beauty and intellect. Determined to restore her family to their beloved Egypt, Cleopatra Selene must devise a plan that will keep her and her brothers safe and ensure that their fates are different from their parents’.
Review: Based on the true story of Anthony and Cleopatra’s only daughter, Cleopatra’s Moon is an entertaining and informative novel that holds a great deal of appeal for any reader with an interest in ancient Egypt. Shecter does an excellent job of presenting the history of Cleopatra Selene and the other royal children of Egypt. A character list at the start of the book helps to prevent any confusion about the various people involved in the life of Cleopatra Selene as she experiences the destruction of her family and her exile to Rome. Cleopatra Selene is a very likable heroine, particularly because she actually lived and, based on her life, most likely had as much intelligence, determination and loyalty as Shecter portrays in the novel. In fact, the entire story is very interesting in its depictions of some very famous historical figures. Readers who are not as familiar with the history will, undoubtedly, be prompted to research the actual events and characters in the book, making Cleopatra’s Moon the grounds for a very interesting educational experience.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reading level: Grade 7+
Similar titles: Cleopatra Rules!: The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen by Vicky Alvear Shecter, Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray (novels also about Cleopatra Selene), Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran, Becoming marie Antoinette: A Novel by Juliet Grey.   
Themes:  Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, Cleopatra, loyalty, death, loss, religion.      
Awards/Reviews:  From award-winning author.
Series Information: N/A    
Discussion questions: 
-  Research the life of Cleopatra Selene online. How do the historical facts compare to the novel?
- What are important factors in making a novel about a historical figure interesting for readers? Do you think the author changed Cleopatra’s Selene story to make a more entertaining novel?
- Religion plays an important role in Cleopatra Selene’s life. How do you think her belief in the gods of ancient Egypt influenced her actions? Do your religious beliefs influence your life?
-   How did the statement, “You are not your mother,” influence Cleopatra Selene. Do you think it turned out to be true?
- What do you think motivated Octavia’s actions? Livia’s? Octavianus’?