Friday, December 21, 2007

The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

Summary: Dashti, maid to Lady Saren, are shut in a tower for seven years because of Saren's refusal to marry a brutal khan her father has chosen for her. Saren has secretly pledged herself to the kind khan Tegus. For two years Dashti and Saren must endure the brutal summers and winters in the tower. Then, just when it appears that the food is running out, Dashti finds a way to escape. But when they escape, things get even worse. Dashti quickly learns that Lady' Saren's kingdom has been destroyed and all her family killed. She and the traumatized Saren must wander until they procure work as pot scrubbers in a nearby kingdom - khan Tegus' kingdom. Just as Dashti is thinking things will become easier for her and her lady, they soon learn that the kingdom is under threat from the same brutal khan, and worse, Tegus is about to marry another.

Assessment: Hale is just a wonderful storyteller! Her books are exciting and expressive. Here, she takes an obscure Grimm fairytale (Maid Maleen) and imagined it on the central Asian steppes. Not only is it fascinating to read about the culture and religious beliefs of the time, but you'll be riveted to the fleshed-out and well paced story. What's more, then end is so satisfying you'll want to cheer for Lady Saren who moves from being a terrified mouse to a lady who learns her worth, and especially for Dashti who, while holding completely true to her values, earns her worth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner

Summary: A coming of age story in 16th century London, Coriander beings her story happily, the wealthy daughter of loving parents. But after her mother dies, she sees strange goings-on, strangest of all, her father's marriage to a mean Puritanical mother. When her father is arrested in association with Oliver Cromwell, her step-mother takes in a horrible priest, who rules the family with an iron fist. When Coriander rebels against them, he locks her in a trunk for three years. But instead of dying, Coriander learns of another fairy world where her mother had been a princess and her wicked aunt is trying to seize control. Coriander learns to take control in both her London world and in the fairy world.

Assessment: This is another wonderful book for girls. It is quiet in story, but extremely rich in details. History buffs will savor the flavors of the details of the politics and lifestyles of the day, as well the touch of romance in the fairy world. The novel is beautifully written, well-plotted, and just a delight to read.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Larklight and Starcross by Phillip Reeve

Arthur and his sister Myrtle are expecting a guest on their seldom-visited home of Larklight just outside the moon's orbit. Unfortunately for them, their visitor turns out to be a band of giant spiders who quickly take over their home. The two siblings quickly escape and are rescued by a band of pirates. The pirates turn out to be not as bad as their reputation that precedes them. In a space skirmish, Myrtle is taken to Mars by the fiendish spiders to be rescued by Martians. She ends up in London (only to assault Queen Victoria in a case of mistaken identity!). Arthur, on the other hand, in the search for his sister, finds his long-lost (and believed to be dead mother). Arthur and his mother realize that the spiders are planning something horrible on Earth to bring down the British Empire. Little do they realize that it is not at the Crystal Palace, but the Crystal Palace itself as the celebrated building turns into an enormous machine bent on destroying London.

Arthur, Myrtle, and their mother decide to take a holiday at the famous Starcross resort on an asteroid off Mars. Soon, Arthur realizes that the asteroid has the ability to travel back in time to when Mars once had oceans. While there, they discover that a a band of interstellar creatures called Moobs that seem to have taken on the shape of gentlemen's hats. Myrtle gets stranded with her pirate love interest and a member of the French Legion back in Martian pre-history. Arthur and his mother, on the other hand, have to keep the Moobs from taking over the British Empire.

Assessment: It is 1851 and Britannia not only rules the waves, but Mars, Jupiter, and other parts of the universe as well. Phillip takes a page from Jules Verne with unusual machines and fantastic worlds where life teem and humans don't have to worry about space suits or oxygen, and fuses it with action. The pace is non-stop fun, particularly in the author's ability to portray and parody British sensibilities from the 1800s. For example, Myrtle is absolutely obsessed with dresses she sees in magazines and appearing to be a proper British lady (including her wondering why she can't swoon like the ladies in the novels she reads). Arthur, on the other hand, takes comical views of his sisters silliness (glossing over people gushing emotions and making fun of his sister's bathing costume - a proper Victorian thing with a bustle to hold safety supplies should the wearer be lost at sea). Both books were just tremendous fun to read and I highly recommend them.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dragon Breath by E.D. Baker

Summary: Emma is a young princess who is starting to learn how to use magic. However, before she even starts to get a grasp of what she can do, a neighboring kingdom decides it's a good time to invade. The situation is made even worse because that's the exact time Emma's grandmother decides to distract the Green Witch (the protector of the kingdom and Emma's Aunt Grassina) by turning her true love Hayward into an otter. Emma and Prince Eadric must help Aunt Grassina by gathering three magical ingredients in order to restore Hayward before time runs out - otherwise Hayward will remain an otter permanently and the kingdom will be lost!

Assessment: This is a charming and magical book for girls who might like Harry Potter, but perhaps find them a little too scary. Although Emma faces some difficult and perilous tasks, such as getting a pearl from a sea witch or the breath of a green dragon, she accomplishes these things by seeking out friends, making friends, or using her own cunning and budding magical skills. No one, not even a vicious manticore, is killed. Readers will also enjoy some of Emma's humorous mistakes in learning to gain control of her magic, including the fact that whenever she sneezes, she and Eadric suddenly become frogs. This book is the second in a series. Although I have not read the first one yet (though I hope to soon), I found that despite the fact I hadn't read it, I still understood quite well what was happening, so don't worry if you come late into the series as well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

Synopsis: Kendra and Seth think they're in for a boring summer at their grandma and grandpa's house. But as soon as they arrive at the old manor, they notice a few strange things. First, grandma is nowhere in sight and no one can really give a reasonable explanation as to where she went. Then, they're forbidden to enter the reserve that grandpa is in charge of, but after a little investigating, they discover a beautiful lake with pavilions. And then there's the extraordinary number of large butterflies that are always in the back yard. Intrigued by milk that is always left out for the butterflies, Kendra tries it. Suddenly, she sees beautiful fairies in the place of butterflies and she and Seth realize that there's a lot more to grandma and grandpa's reserve than people are telling them. They soon learn that their grandparents run Fablehaven, a reserve for magical creatures, some good, but some terrible. Kendra and Seth discover just how terrible on Midsummer's night when goblins enter the house and take grandpa and his staff away. Only Seth and Kendra are left to save them, find grandma, and stop an evil demon from reemerging.

Summary: A mysterious organization called the Evening Star wants to take over the magical reserve of Fablehaven. Grandpa suspects that the group is already trying to get Kendra and Seth into their clutches. To protect them, he has the two brought up to his home. But even there they are not safe. Someone from Evening Star has indeed infiltrated Fablehaven and is trying to steal an important artifact kept on the reserve. The only problem is that there is a terrible spirit guarding the artifact that turns anyone who dares enter catatonic. Three people have already turned catatonic trying to get to the artifact, either to steal it or to hide it. Seth and Kendra must reach the artifact in time before the infiltrator does; a very difficult task as the infiltrator can control people in their sleep which means Seth and Kendra must not sleep or they will be in the clutches of the infiltrator as well!

Assessment: Brandon Mull makes an excellent debut with these novels. The problem that I have found with many novels since Harry Potter is that they try very hard to create a magical world, but lack in interesting characters, or fall short on plot. These books do neither. The characters of Kendra and Seth, being brother and sister, have good tension between them. Kendra likes to play by the rules, Seth likes to break them. At times they spar, quite humorously, and at times they are partners in crime. There is something to like in both characters for both boys and girls. The stories are also exciting with such thrilling endings that it is impossible to put the book down. I read the first book in a day and the second in two days. Although the first book starts off a little slow, once the action starts rolling, it doesn't stop and continues into the second. I look forward to reading more from Mull.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Summary: 14 year old Miri just wants to live her life helping her sister and father mine Linder Stone in their far away village home on Mount Eskel. But this is not to be as it is foretold that the prince of the kingdom will marry a girl from Mount Eskel. All the girls are rounded up to attend a school to teach them how to be a proper princess. Hogwarts this school isn't. The academy is run by a cruel woman who punishes them at whim. However, while suffering through the winter at the academy, Miri learns to read. With reading, she learns that, despite what the traders have told them, their Linder stone is actually very valuable. While on a break to visit their families, Miri tells the miners this and thus empowered, the miners are able to extract good prices for their stone for a change. Suddenly, the poverty stricken village is able to see the fruits of their hard efforts. Even more, Miri learns that the Linder stone is able to pass thoughts and messages to other people near the stone. Using this magical "quarry speech" Miri is able to communicate to her fellow classmates without the headmistress knowing, enabling them to empower themselves more in asserting their rights, and especially, when a band of thieves come to kidnap the kingdom's newest princess.

Assessment: Another great one for the girls! Miri is a spunky, intelligent girl who doesn't want to be a princess really (although she is tempted by the fine gown the headmistress tells the girls that the new princess will wear); she mostly just wants to take care of her family. Girls will really enjoy watching Miri grow from a simple girl to one who slowly comes to realize that her village can make some decent money for themselves and that she can silently communicate with others through the "quarry speech." Miri goes from being the most despised girl in the academy to the most beloved through her hard work and determination. This is a great story of girls sticking together and empowerment.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Flip by Paul Lubar

Summary: Ryan and Taylor are twins, but don't look or act anything alike. Taylor is concerned with her grades while Ryan is constantly getting in trouble for his lack of concern for anything. One night Ryan is certain he saw an alien crash and investigates the next morning behind their middle-school. He and Taylor don't find any wreckage, but instead find metal discs, about the size of a coin. They have no idea what they are, but Ryan is determined to find out. While bored one day in school, Ryan discovers their secret and what happens is even more amazing. Ryan learns he can take on the personality of famous people, from Babe Ruth to Albert Einstein to even Queen Victoria. Ryan is having the time of his life living through other people, but for Taylor, things just gets worse. As she's trying to keep their secret, she also has to convince their father that Ryan hasn't gone crazy, and keep her brother away from a bully who is bent on his destruction. Finally, Ryan realizes that he's got to face up to his own actions and decides it's time to behave himself in school, and face up to the bully. He flips the disc that morning and becomes Spartacus rallying the kids to follow him. But when it's time to face the bully, he flips again and becomes not a gladiator, but an even greater hero - Mahatma Gandhi.

Assessment: I discovered this book accidentally in a giveaway pile at work. I found the premise intriguing, but what really captured me was the writing. Lubar does a great job filling in the details of middle-school life: the snobby girls, the bully, the dorky friends, the pressures to be cool, make good grades, and survive teachers and parents. I was amazed at the realism he managed to pack in a sci-fi/ fantasy book. Yet don't get me wrong, it's not a gripping drama. It's quite humorous, and fast paced. The quick chapters make you want to turn the next page to discover what was going to happen next. And usually what happens is quite amusing. However, I recommend it for middle-school readers for it covers middle-school life quite well, including words I usually don't really approve of in children's books such as "crap" and "jackass", but work here with the realism and the characters' personalities.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Skellig by David Almond

Summary: Ten year old Michal should have been having a great time in the new house he and his family just moved into. But when his baby sister falls sick and has to stay in the hospital, his world is turned upside-down. Worried about her, he discovers a strange, small creature in the dilapidated garage. He seems to be human, but is small, covered in dust, and has some sort of strange wing-like structure growing from his shoulder blades. This strange creature named Skellig asks to be left alone to wither away, but Michael and his new friend Mina won't hear of it. Nursing him back to health with chinese take-out, they help change his life, and he, theirs.

Assessment: I actually had the good fortune of meeting the author at a writer's conference and fell in love with the first line. After reading Skellig, I found its beautiful simplicity stayed with me. It is essentially a story of love and the power of the human spirit. Michael and Mina are helpless when it comes to Michael's sister, but they continue assisting Skellig, despite his protests. Skellig almost seems to embody the spirit of the sick baby, telling the children towards the end that babies are weak. But Michael isn't ready to lose anyone, and tells Skellig that babies are strong. This strong spirit of determination brings forth a magical ending for both Skellig and the baby. This book itself is pure magic.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Peter and the Starcatchers and Peter and the Shadowthieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Peter and the Starcatchers

Summary: This is how it all begins. Peter is an orphan boy doomed to serve in the court of a wicked king in another land. Along the journey on a dilapidated ship called the Never Land with several other orphan boys destined for the same fate, he meets an intelligent and intriguing girl named Molly Aster. However, the ship is commandeered by a terrible pirate named Captain Black Stache and shipwrecked on an uncharted island. Thus ensues a fight over Molly's trunk which contains valuable "starstuff"; stuff that Stache is willing to kill for, but Peter and Molly are willing to protect with their lives.

Peter and the Shadow Thieves

Summary: Peter learns that a creature named Lord Ombra, who has the ability to steal people's shadows leaving them in his control, is after the Asters and the "starstuff". Worried for his friends, Peter leaves the safety of Mollusk Island to travel across the sea with his companion Tinkerbell to dirty and poor streets of London. Despite many difficult setbacks including Peter being forced into a gang of thieving urchins and Tink being captured, they are able to meet Molly. Together, they must find her father who has disappeared and rescue her mother from the clutches of the wicked Lord Ombra.

Assessment: I found the first book very entertaining. It had humorous moments and enough action to keep the pages turning. It also followed quite faithfully both J.M Barrie's original Peter Pan as well as the Disney movie, so that if you're familiar with just one, you'll remember who's who. But even if you're not, you'll have no problem keeping up with the characters and story. The second book is even better than the first. It's a little darker and jam packed with action. The characters are drawn more deeply, such as Peter noticing that Molly has grown some while he hasn't, and George Darling's and Peter's antagonism. The 500 pages completely fly by leaving you wanting more of the adventures of Peter and Molly.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Book 1 - Artemis Fowl

Synopsis: Atremis Fowl is the world's greatest 12 year old crook. When his father goes missing, he decides that it's time for the world's greatest caper - kidnapping a fairy named Holly Short and ransoming her for gold. However, he gets quite a lot more than he bargained for when the LEPrechon tries to get their soldier back using any means necessary including high-tech weapons, a flatulent dwarf, and one very nasty troll.

Book 2 - Atremis Fowl and the Artic Incident

Synopsis: Artemis discovers that not only is his father alive, but he's being held for ransom by the Russian mafia. At the same time, an evil pixie named Opal Koboi is planning to take over Haven City - underground home of the People. Instead of fighting, Artemis and Commander Root and Holly Short must help each other to save Haven City and rescue Artemis' father.

Book 3 - Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code

Synopsis: Artemis' father has returned and sworn to live a reformed life. Artemis has voiwed to join him - after one more scheme. Using stolen fairy technology, he creates a device to control the world's technology called the C Cube and devises to sell it to a wealthy Chicago businessman. However, the businessman steals the C Cube leaving Artemis no choice but to ask his old friends from LEPrechon to help him retrieve it.

Book 4 - Artemis Fowl and the Opal Deception

Synopsis: Evil Pixie Opal Koboi has pulled off the ultimate caper - escaping her own death. Garnering shadowy supporters, she kills Commander Root and frames Holly Short for it. In order to clear her name and capture Opal, Holly must rely on her old ally Artemis Fowl, whose mind had been completely wiped, to help her.

Book 5 - Artemis Fowl and The Lost Colony
Synopsis: An island inhabited by goblins trapped in time is fading. When one appears in front of Artemis Fowl, he realizes that this spells big trouble for the People. However, when he tries to help the goblins, he discovers that he may have met his match in a twelve year old girl who steals the very goblin he was trying to help. Now Artemis and the gang must rescue the goblin, an imp known as No. 1, and keep the colony from slipping in time and exposing the People to humans.
Assessment: These books are hot and it's no wonder. Very fast paced, exciting, and with a touch of humor, the Artemis Fowl series are terrific. These books will especially appeal to boys, but girls will also enjoy them. Artemis, despite being touted as the world's greatest criminal, hardly ever does anything particularly bad, apart from stealing a painting from a secure Swiss bank vault, but seeing as the painting had already been stolen, it doesn't strike one as particularly villianous. And at the end of each book he learns to be more selfless, even if begrudgingly. The nadir of the series is the third book Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code. Compared with the first two books, it lagged greatly in plot, pace, and even interest. Fortunately, it picked up with the following book The Opal Deception. The Lost Colony, however, seemed to be an entirely different book itself. There was so much about the new character No. 1 and his culture that I felt it could have been a complete and independent book, except for the fact that the first part of the plot seemed to mirror so closely the first book. I'm a big fan Colfer's style of writing and they wry humor he puts into each story, but after Commander Root died and Holly left LEP, they're just not the same anymore.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Molly Moon Series by Georgia Byng

Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism

Synopsis: Molly Moon is an orphan living in a miserable orphanage eating horrible food. Nothing goes right for the poor girl until one day she discovers a book in the library on hypnotism. She discovers that she has a knack for it and suddenly her life changes for the better. After winning a talent contest, she uses the money to fly to New York City, stays at a posh hotel, and then lands the lead role in a Broadway play. However, she soon discovers that her powers can also have a downside when a crook steals her dog and makes her help him rob a bank.

Molly Moon stops the World

Synopsis: Molly's mentor Lucy Logan compels the girl to go to America because she suspects that an evil advertising mogul named Primo Cell is out to take over the presidential election through hypnotism. It's up to Molly and her friend Rocky to discover his dastardly plot and stop him. Along the way, Molly discovers that she has the power to stop time, and that she may not be an orphan as she had always thought.

Molly Moon's Hypnotic Time Travel Adventure

Synopsis: Molly is kidnapped and taken to 19th century India by the evil time traveling hypnotist, the Maharajah of Waqt. However, Molly refuses to go along with his nefarious plans. The Maharajah realizes that she stands in his way, and kidnaps Molly as a baby, a three year old, six year old, and ten year old. Now Molly must rescue all the versions of herself and conquer time travel in order to get everyone home.

Assessment: It's a sad fact that most boys won't read a book where a girl is the main character because they think it is just for girls, even if the main character's best friend and accomplice is a boy. (If your boy doesn't think this, then never mention it). However, girls will love these books. Molly is spunky, bright, and a typical girl who loves her pug Petula, Qube soda, and ketchup sandwiches. The mood of all these books is light, and should not be taken too seriously. The first book is the best. With the exception of a confusing part in the middle where Molly's friend Rocky reveals to her that he also knows hypnotism (I had to read it twice to understand it), the book flows quickly. I love the quirky humor Byng throws in, such as the name of the play Molly lands, Stars on Mars, or the cook who is hypnotised to love Italian cuisine so much that she starts wearing a t-shirt declaring, "You'd better love Italian food or else!" The second loses some of this with a more serious plot that begins to run a little strained when everything is caused by hypnotism, which everyone seems to know very well. The third falls a little more in that it never really made sense to me why the villain was Indian and why he spoke in Spoonerisms (it got a little annoying after a while). Still, these books are fun to read and I look forward to what Byng has in store next.

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funk

Synopsis: When the dragons learn that man is coming to their hidden valley, they realize that they need to find a new home. One dragon named Firedrake offers to find the mythical Rim of Heaven for them to live. Along the way, he and a brownie discover an orphaned boy named Ben who offers to help them look for the Rim of Heaven, despite the fact that no one really knows the way. To make matters worse, an evil dragon-slaying golden dragon named Nettlebrand is hunting Firedrake to rid the world of all dragons.

Assessment: This book will engage boys and girls with an interesting cast of characters including a homunculus, dwarfs, sand fairies, and a thousand eyed djinni. I found the story engaging and interesting, but not too overly complicated for readers to follow. It is simple and sweet, but I wouldn't recommend it for older readers. I think it is best for younger readers or boys who read Harry Potter, but don't show much interest in any other books.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Warriors by Erin Hunter

Book 1: Into the Wild

Synopsis: Rusty is just an ordinary house cat until one day he meets and cat in the forest and learns about the clans. Although many are not happy to have a "kittypet" enter, Rusty is taken in by the ThunderClan and given the new name Firepaw. Along with meeting new friends and learning the ways of the clans, he must prove to everyone that his heart belongs with them and not with his former "twoleg" masters.
Book 2: Fire and Ice

Synopsis: Firepaw is now Fireheart, a true warrior of ThunderClan with his own apprentice, Cinderpaw. However, after meeting his sister, he begins to wonder where his loyalties lie, particularly after his best friend, Graystripe, falls in love with a cat from another clan. However, after Cinderpaw is nearly killed in a terrible accident, Fireheart begins to suspect that someone in his own clan may be trying to kill the leader of the Clan.
Book 3: Forest of Secrets

Synopsis: Fireheart is given charge of his nephew Cloudpaw while the crippled Cinderpaw learns to become a medicine cat. Graystripe learns that his love is pregnant causing even more friction between him and his friend. Just as tensions run high, floods and a dangerous rogue cat threatens the ThunderClan. And it seems that the cat is getting help from ThunderClan's own deputy.

Book 4: Rising Storm

Synopsis: Clan leader Bluestar is badly shaken by what has happened to the treachery of her own deputy, Tigerclaw. Unable to trust anyone, she makes Fireheart deputy. However, his apprentice Cloudpaw seems to want the comfortable life as a kittypet making the ThunderClan even more uncomfortable with their leader's decision. However, that is the least of their problems when they discover that Tigerclaw is now Tigerstar, leader of the ShadowClan.
Book 5: A Dangerous Path

Synopsis: Bluestar is even more confused. When a dog is believed to be running loose in the forest, she becomes convinced that it is the work of WindClan who wish to steal ThunderClan's prey. Despite evidence to the contrary, she is unmoved. Fireheart must go behind his leader's back in order to prevent an unnecessary war.

Book 6: The Darkest Hour

Synopsis: Fireheart is now Firestar, leader of the Thunderclan. Tigerstar's power has grown even further as he joins the ShadowClan and WindClan together with the aid of city cats. However, when the city cats decide to take over the forest, Firestar must convince all the clans to fight together or the forest will be lost forever.

Assessment: I made the mistake of reading the 6th book first. Whatever you do, do not start in the middle, and especially not the end. While I could follow the story just fine, the characters and back stories were a little confusing. But after I finished the book, I HAD to read the others. I then devoured these books like chocolate. Filled with action, adventure, and even political intrigue, each book is a page turner. Every time I finished one, I was in awe of Hunter's ability to pack so much plot in such neat writing. Although Book 1 doesn't really fully flesh out why Rusty wants to leave his comfortable life so much, by the time he enters ThunderClan, you won't care for you'll be too wrapped up in the thick plot. Readers will be drawn into the complex and well drawn characters that by the end of the series feel that they really know them. Just to give a warning, there is a fair amount of violence in these, either from fighting, natural causes, and occasional murder. However, the deaths are treated with dignity as mournful occasions that should be avoided at all cost. I was actually a little sad to have finished this series. Both boys and girls will love these books.