Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale

     In a small Russian village, the people live in peace with the nature spirits that help them survive.  However, warring factions for the crown in Moscow arrange a political 2nd marriage for Pyotr to wed Anna.  Anna is able to see the nature spirits but thinks they are demons driving her crazy.  She finds refuge in the church under the watch of the priest, Konstantin.  When he learns she sees things that he cannot see, he believes she is possessed and that he must rid everyone of their blasphemous beliefs in the demons.  Pyotr's daughter, Vasalisa, can also see the spirits, but knows they are anything but demons.  They are the protectors of her people.  She will stop at nothing to save her people from Konstantin's hubris and the villagers' fears that allow the true evil to overtake the forest and kill her people.
     I was so excited for this book because it was marketed as a Russian Fairy Tale.  It is not.  I liked the story, but would have liked it more if I wasn't waiting for a fairy tale.  It is difficult to read until you get to the middle.  The pacing is slow to start, and many characters are introduced that are merely pawns to explain how the main characters came to be in the village.  The Russian names are difficult, which makes it harder to keep track of the numerous characters, especially when they are often called by different nicknames that you didn't know at first.  However, once the evil starts taking over the village, the story picks up and moves at a fast pace.  When the author focuses on the main characters, they begin to be more than pawns and come to life, especially Vasilisa and her brother Alyosha.
     This is a good book if you are a good reader and willing to slog through the first half for the jewel in the second half.  You can tell this is her debut novel.  Had she placed the characters in the story and began to tell it, rather than spend over a hundred pages explaining how everyone came to be there, it would have been an amazing story, rather than just good.  Sadly, I cannot recommend this book to many of my friends because of these difficulties.  However, if you are a good reader, and like Vasya, are willing to fight for the good, you will enjoy this book.    

Friday, October 21, 2016

I Am Pan

     Pan creates pandemonium from the moment he is born.  He tricks the moon into falling in love with him, changes the battle of Troy, and saves everyone from the monster Typhon.
     This book is written in cartoons.  It has awesome colorful pictures, is humorous, and is easy to read.  It is a fun way to learn more about the Greek myths that involve Pan.  

The Shadow Club

     Jared and Cheryl have been best friends for years.  They start "The Shadow Club" for the kids who are second best at everything and are always lost in the shadows of the other kids' glory.  The kids in the club decide to get revenge by pulling pranks on the best kids.  At first it is all in fun, but the pranks become more elaborate and dangerous.  When the club meets to discuss the trouble they are in, they discover Tyson spying on them.  The kids are willing to do whatever it takes to keep Tyson quiet.
      I love Neal Shusterman, but I didn't really like this book.  I didn't like the way the kids didn't have any real consequences for trying to kill Tyson or for the pranks they did.  I don't recommend this book, but you should definitely check out one of his other books, especially Everlost.  

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

     Don't let this book cover scare you away from the book.  This is a fun, old fashioned scary story about a Haunted House disguised as an orphanage.
     Victoria is the perfect child.  She has perfect curls, perfect manners, and perfect grades.  Lawrence is anything but perfect.  He is disheveled.  He struggles in school.  He is lazy.  He drives Victoria crazy, especially the way he is always humming or playing the piano.  Victoria sets out to fix him, but doesn't realize she actually cares about him until he disappears.  His parents claim that Lawrence is at his grandparents' house, but their strange behavior convinces her that he is missing.
     Victoria realizes that everyone in the town is acting very strange.  Children are disappearing without anyone noticing.  The adults are always smiling creepy fake smiles.  Bugs are everywhere pinching and biting.  She knows that there is more than meets the eye at The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, but Mrs. Cavendish will not easily give up her secrets.
     This book is fun, spooky, and unique.  It's great for middle grade kids who love to be scared, but aren't ready for intense scares.  The book is creepy without being gory or graphic.  The only part of the story I didn't like was that the ending was a bit abrupt.  The rest was a perfect choice for Halloween.  

Off Balance

     You may remember Dominique Moceanu as the youngest gymnast on the 1996 USA team when they won gold.  This book is about her life as a gymnast, but also about the sister she never knew she had.  When she was nine months pregnant and finishing college, her sister contacted her, knocking Dominique's world "off balance."
      When Dominique was six, her mother had a baby who was born without any legs.  When her father heard about the cost of the medical care that would be required, he knew that he would not be able to afford to take care of her.  He decided to give her up for adoption.  When Dominique's mom woke up from the anesthesia, the baby was gone.  She never got to hold her or see her.  They never spoke of the baby again until Dominique asked about her sister years later.
     The baby, Jennifer, was adopted by a wonderful family who gave her the perfect childhood.  Although she didn't have legs, she was told she could do anything.  She competed in volleyball, gymnastics, and several other sports.  She never saw herself as disabled or handicapped.
     Although it was a closed adoption, a clerical error allowed Jennifer's parents to see the names on the birth certificate and see the pictures of her birth parents.  Since Jennifer loved gymnastics, the family watched the Olympic gymnasts and saw Dominique's last name.  They thought that was a strange coincidence, but when the cameras focused on Dominique's parents in the audience, they knew this was Jennifer's family.  They waited until Jennifer was older to tell her about her sister.
    In contrast to Jennifer's perfect childhood and family, Dominique shares the difficult life she led with her domineering father and controlling coaches.  They controlled what she ate, physically abused her, and only treated her well when the tv cameras were rolling.
     This is an interesting book, especially if you like gymnastics.  I am looking forward to reading Jennifer's upcoming book "Everything is Possible."

Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me

     After hearing Kim Bearden's touching story at the Ron Clark Academy last week, I had to buy her book.  I started it on the plane and finished it yesterday.    
     Each chapter name is a different lesson that she learned from her students, such as "optimism" and "tenacity."  In that chapter she shares stories about her students that tie in with that lesson and how it helped her become a better person and teacher.  Each chapter ends with a summary of the key points and the homework for you to do as you implement that lesson into your own life.
     I enjoyed the book, but it wasn't my favorite.  The stories were interesting and inspiring, but were not developed fully enough to truly feel for her or the students she wrote about.  I would have liked fewer lessons with more complete descriptions that made them more memorable.  While I liked the stories, I could only retell one or two without needing to look back into the book.  I also disliked the key points and homework at the end of each chapter.  I know she was going with the school theme and helping me internalize the points she made, but it seemed heavy handed.  After the first chapter, I skipped the other pages at the ends of the chapters.
     It is worth reading if you are an educator, fan of the Ron Clark Academy, or of Kim.  But her personal stories are much more powerful when you hear her speak, which I highly recommend.   

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Winter People

     I grabbed this book at the airport because I needed a distraction on the long airplane ride from Salt Lake to Atlanta and back.  It worked well as a distraction, but is not a book I would recommend to anyone beyond that.
     It starts out as an interesting scary story about Sara, a mother, in a rural town in Vermont in 1908 who barely survived losing her baby boy, and has now lost her daughter Gertie.  She learns there is a secret way to bring back the ones you love, but it is only for seven days.  Sara is so desperate for her daughter, she is willing to do whatever it takes to see her again.  When her daughter returns, Sara becomes convinced her husband killed their daughter.  The dad is not sure if his wife is having a mental breakdown, if his daughter has really come back from the dead, or if his wife killed their child and her guilt is making her confess.
     The book moves between modern day and the past.  In modern times, two girls live in the house where Sara's family lived in 1908.  Their father has recently died and their mother has disappeared.  While looking for clues to their mother's disappearance, they find Sara's diary and begin to piece the stories together.
     This is where the book became unbelievable.  It tried to be bigger than the story started and it made the plot ridiculous at the end.  I won't spoil it for you, but the ending was making me laugh out loud instead of being scared.  I wish that it had stuck with Sara's story and the intrigue of wondering if Sara was hallucinating or if her daughter was really here, and who, if anyone, had killed the daughter.  The small scale of the town and time period made it spookily claustrophobic, but when it stretched to modern times and multiple stories coming into one, it lost its focus and its impact.