Archive for March, 2010

Caught Up!

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Woo-hoo! I’ve finally got all of the reviews on this blog posted on the main site,!

Back in December, I had a huge stack of books I’d read and wanted to review in time to make the choices for my 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-outs. I decided that in order to get the reviews written, I’d just write them on the blog, and wait to post them after I’d gotten them all written.

Maybe I should just give in and make my site only a blog — but I really enjoy having a website as a resource for book reviews, with the reviews organized by category and linked together.

Anyway, since that decision, I wrote at least 50 reviews, and I’ve slowly been catching up with posting them. Yesterday, I posted eight fiction reviews, and with that I finished up! Now everything that I’ve reviewed is posted. Since I’d been trying to get that done since December, it feels very good to get it done.

Of course now again I have a few books waiting to be reviewed. But now I can write the review and post it all in the same day, since I’m not trying to get 50 done.

If you’ve only looked at the blog, take a look at I’m trying to make it a resource where you can find good books to read, depending on the type of book you’re in the mood for.


Review of Num8ers, by Rachel Ward

Thursday, March 11th, 2010


by Rachel Ward

Chicken House (Scholastic), New York, 2010. 325 pages.
Starred Review

For as long as she can remember, when Jem looks into another person’s eyes, she sees a number. A person’s number never changes.

Jem learned what the numbers meant on the day her mother died of a drug overdose. They are the date of that person’s death.

Naturally, Jem doesn’t like to look people in the eye. She’s been in and out of foster homes and she doesn’t have any friends.

Jem introduces herself like this:

“There are places where kids like me go. Sad kids, bad kids, bored kids, and lonely kids, kids that are different. Any day of the week, if you know where to look, you’ll find us: behind the shops, in back lanes, under bridges by canals and rivers, ’round garages, in sheds, on vacant lots. There are thousands of us. If you choose to find us, that is — most people don’t. If they do see us, they look away, pretend we’re not there. It’s easier that way. Don’t believe all that crap about giving everyone a chance — when they see us, they’re glad we’re not in school with their kids, disrupting their lessons, making their lives a misery. The teachers, too. Do you think they’re disappointed when we don’t turn up for registration? Give me a break. They’re laughing — they don’t want kids like us in their classrooms, and we don’t want to be there.

“Most hang about in small groups, twos or threes, whiling away the hours. Me, I like to be on my own. I like to find the places where nobody is — where I don’t have to look at anyone, where I don’t have to see their numbers.”

Then Jem meets another troublemaking outcast called Spider. She doesn’t mean to make friends with him. He smells rank and he never stops moving. Worst, his number is only a few months away.

But somehow they start hanging out together and become friends. Though they seem to get into yet more trouble together, and Jem’s foster mother isn’t happy about it.

Then they go into London and Jem sees several people at the London Eye whose number is that very day. Spider’s been making a scene, but Jem pulls him away and tells him they have to get away immediately.

So when the disaster strikes and people die, naturally the police start looking for the two teenagers who were seen running away from the scene. Jem and Spider don’t show a lot of judgment, and they steal a car and set out on the run. Meanwhile, Spider’s time is running out.

This is a dark book, because Jem and Spider don’t live nice easy lives, and they don’t show good judgment. (And don’t worry, parents, I think any teen reading this book would realize that they are not showing good judgment.) But their characters seem very real, and we completely believe and understand why they would do the things they do.

Ultimately, I came away from the book uplifted, feeling better for having known Jem and Spider.

I like the way this book shows love between two very flawed but lovable human beings. Spider stinks, and Jem won’t let anyone get near her. No sparkles here! But the love that grows between them seems all the deeper for the flaws.

Of course, the whole premise is a lot of fun. What would you do if you knew the date when each person you met was going to die? Before I read the book, I thought I’d classify it as science fiction. But Jem’s ability is the only thing that makes their world different from ours — and it’s seen as just a fluke psychic ability, not based on science or magic. So I’m going to categorize this book as “Contemporary.” It’s got some ordinary disadvantaged kids in an unusual, but tough situation.

And there’s a great kicker of an ending!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Battle of the Books Is About to Begin!

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

It’s that time of year! School Library Journal is hosting the second annual Battle of the Kids’ Books!

Here’s how it works. The moderators have chosen sixteen highly acclaimed children’s books published in 2009. They match them up in tournament-style brackets (in alphabetical order). At each “match,” a distinguished children’s author will judge between the two books.

Last year, I followed this, but hadn’t read many of the books. It was the Battle of the Kids’ Books that got me to finally read The Hunger Games. But enjoying the Battle of the Books got me interested in other School Library Journal blogs, so I followed the Heavy Medal blog, a Mock Newbery blog, and have read a good proportion of these top 2009 titles.

I’ll list the first round and give my favorites. Here’s where I’d like comments. Which books would you choose in these match-ups?

Oh, I forgot a fun twist they’re adding to this year’s tournament: The Undead Poll. Before the battle begins, they are taking a poll of your favorite contender. In the final round, the book with the most votes that has been previously knocked out of the running will be brought back from the dead. So the final round, judged by our new Ambassador for Children’s Literature, Katharine Paterson, will be between three books instead of just two. The vote closes on Sunday, March 14, so choose your favorite and vote now!

Okay, here are the first round matches, with my own comments:

Match One:
Charles and Emma, by Deborah Heiligman
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Philip Hoose
Judge: Jim Murphy, a distinguished author of nonfiction

This one, I am neutral about the winner. I have read Claudette Colvin and not Charles and Emma, but I did check out Charles and Emma and look it over, but simply didn’t get around to reading it. I liked the look of it, though — biography told as the story of a relationship. As for Claudette Colvin, you can read my review of that book, and it ended up, like many of these on my 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-outs. I will be interested to see which book Jim Murphy chooses. For the sake of making a prediction, I’ll guess Claudette Colvin.

Match Two:
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
Fire, by Kristin Cashore
Judge: Nancy Farmer

There’s no question in my mind which book I want to win this round. I read about half of Calpurnia Tate before I got tired of it and decided to read some of the other books clamoring for my attention. There are those who adore that book, but it’s not really my style. On the other hand, I was crazy about Fire, and named it my Teen Fantasy #2 on the 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-outs, which actually puts it higher in my favor than the #1 pick in most other categories.

Since Nancy Farmer writes fantasy, I’m hoping she will also favor Fire. But just in case she or a future judge doesn’t, that book was my pick for the Undead Poll, my favorite of all the contenders.

Match Three:
The Frog Scientist, by Pamela S. Turner
The Last Olympian, by Rick Riordan
Judge: Candace Fleming

This one’s a tough call, because the books are so different. I just tonight read and reviewed The Frog Scientist, because I’d had it sitting in my house ready to read for some time. The Battle of the Books motivated me to finally do it! I haven’t read The Last Olympian, but I read and enjoyed the first Percy Jackson book, so I think I have the idea.

The Frog Scientist is nicely presented nonfiction, with beautiful photographs and clear explanations of the science involved. The Last Olympian is wildly popular fiction. If I were judging between The Frog Scientist and the first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, I would probably pick The Frog Scientist, though that might be because it’s fresh in my mind. The Frog Scientist is an outstanding example of what it’s trying to do — present information. The Lightning Thief, while very good, didn’t stand out in my mind among other fantasy fiction titles.

But who knows what Candace Fleming will pick? For my prediction, I’m going to say The Frog Scientist, swayed by the fact that Candace Fleming writes excellent nonfiction herself, and this is similar with excellent accompanying photographs and excellent details.

Match Four:
Lips Touch: Three Times, by Laini Taylor
The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge
Judge: Helen Frost

I’ve read both of these two, and though both were good, I definitely liked Lips Touch much better, so I’m rooting for it in this round.

Match Five (Second Half of the Brackets):
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Storck
Marching for Freedom, by Elizabeth Partridge
Judge: Gary Schmidt

It’s probably not fair for me to have an opinion on this one, since I haven’t read Marching for Freedom (though I did look through it), but I loved Marcelo too much to want any book to beat it — except for Fire in the very final round! And even then, I won’t feel too bad if it is Marcelo that beats Fire.

Have I mentioned that half the fun of the Battle of the Books is hearing what the judges have to say about the contenders? Gary Schmidt has written the wonderful Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars, and I’m very interested in what he has to say about Marcelo in the Real World.

Match Six:
Peace, Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson
A Season of Gifts, by Richard Peck
Judge: Cynthia Kadohata

I haven’t read either of these books, though I have heard about them. I have read some other Jacqueline Woodson books and enjoyed them, so I’m going to go with a prediction of Peace, Locomotion, winning this round.

Match Seven:
The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan
Sweethearts of Rhythm, by Marilyn Nelson
Judge: Anita Silvey

I’m afraid this is another case where I liked The Storm in the Barn too much to want a book I haven’t read to beat it. The Storm in the Barn presents history, but with a touch of fantasy and a lot of emotion — all in graphic novel format. No matter how good nonfiction Sweethearts of Rhythm may be, Storm in the Barn will be hard to beat.

Match Eight:
Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
Judge: Julius Lester

This one’s a tough choice. I’ve read both books and thought both were outstanding. Both deserve to go to the final round, and both have a bit of the bizarre in the plot. In the end, though, I would have to pick When You Reach Me, because it did win my heart more than Tales from Outer Suburbia, which definitely won my mind.

The commentary from the judge on this match will be extremely interesting. I’ll go ahead and predict that Julius Lester will pick When You Reach Me, but I may not be as surprised as some if he picks Tales from Outer Suburbia instead.

So — there you have it! On March 15, the Battle of the Kids’ Books will begin. Now I’d like to hear from you. Which of these books is your favorite? (Hurry and vote for it in the Undead Poll before the 14th!)

Do you disagree with me on some of these match-ups? Have you read some of the books I haven’t read and have more insight? Have I slighted one of your favorites?

If you haven’t read any or many (like me last year), I can assure you you’ll add some books to your to-be-read list if you follow the battle.

Let me know what you think! And enjoy the arena seats!

Review of The Frog Scientist, by Pamela S. Turner

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

The Frog Scientist

by Pamela S. Turner
Photographs by Andy Comins

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Boston, 2009. 58 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a wonderful book that presents a real-life science experiment and a successful scientist to upper elementary through middle school kids. The stunning, colorful photographs, including many different species of frogs, all nicely labelled, would draw anyone into this book.

The book begins with Tyrone Hayes, the frog scientist, and a group of his graduate students, catching frogs from a pond in Wyoming. The pictures of this show a playful side of science!

As the book goes on, it explains in detail the scientific method and the specific experiment Tyrone is carrying out in order to see if the pesticide atrazine causes male frogs to produce eggs instead of sperm. Along the way, it tells about Tyrone and how he became a research scientist.

I love that Tyrone and his students come from many different ethnic backgrounds. It’s not commented on in the text, but you can see from the pictures that science is definitely not just for white males. I love that this is just assumed and not commented on. I love that kids from minority groups can see someone who looks like them successfully doing science.

But that’s by no means all there is to love about this book. As I said, the pictures will draw the reader in, and this is a nice accessible way to introduce the scientific method in an interesting, real-life experiment that could have repercussions regarding our own health.

The story is beautifully and clearly presented, and will give kids a good look at the job of a research scientist — one they might not have ever thought of before.

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Review of Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Shades of Grey

The Road to High Saffron

by Jasper Fforde

Viking, 2009. 389 pages.
Starred Review

Nobody writes such bizarre books as Jasper Fforde. No, I need to revise that: Few people write such bizarre books as Jasper Fforde. The back cover mentions Douglas Adams, and I have to admit that Shades of Grey does remind me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the same sense of all the normal rules of reality being suspended or bent in bizarre ways.

The first three paragraphs set the stage pretty well and will give you a feel for the book:

It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn’t really what I’d planned for myself — I’d hoped to marry into the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire. But that was four days ago, before I met Jane, retrieved the Caravaggio and explored High Saffron. So instead of enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement, I was wholly immersed within the digestive soup of a yateveo tree. It was all frightfully inconvenient.

But it wasn’t all bad, for the following reasons: First, I was lucky to have landed upside down. I would drown in under a minute, which was far, far preferable to being dissolved alive over the space of a few weeks. Second, and more important, I wasn’t going to die ignorant. I had discovered something that no amount of merits can buy you: the truth. Not the whole truth, but a pretty big part of it. And that was why this was all frightfully inconvenient. I wouldn’t get to do anything with it. And this truth was too big and too terrible to ignore. Still, at least I’d held it in my hands for a full hour and understood what it meant.

I didn’t set out to discover a truth. I was actually sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census and learn some humility. But the truth inevitably found me, as important truths often do, like a lost thought in need of a mind. I found Jane, too, or perhaps she found me. It doesn’t really matter. We found each other. And although she was Grey and I was Red, we shared a common thirst for justice that transcended Chromatic politics. I loved her, and what’s more, I was beginning to think that she loved me. After all, she did apologize before she pushed me into the leafless expanse below the spread of the yateveo, and she wouldn’t have done that if she’d felt nothing.

Eddie Russett is the narrator, soon before he undergoes his Ishihara to discover what colors he can see and become a full-fledged adult. Eddie lives in a society centuries after Something That Happened and drastically changed the world. In Eddie’s world, your social position is determined by how much and what colors you can see. Marriage is tremendously important, in hopes of having children with higher color perception. Greys are the lowest level, the working class.

Eddie’s father is a healer, a “swatchman.” He shows people swatches of color to heal them. At the start of the book, he saves a man’s life before “eye death” occurs. Eddie’s father is also going to the Outer Fringes to replace East Carmine’s former swatchman who died under suspicious circumstances.

Their society lives according to the Rules of the wise Munsell who lived centuries before. Unfortunately, Munsell did not see fit to allow the manufacture of spoons, so spoons are extremely rare and highly valued. In the Outer Fringes, people are a little looser with the Rules, but people like Eddie who ask questions and think about how to improve queues are still regarded with suspicion and live in danger of reboot.

Eddie meets some interesting characters in East Carmine. There’s Jane with the incredibly cute nose who once tore off someone’s eyebrow when he asked her out. There’s Tommo who would sell his own grandmother for merits. There’s Courtland, the son of the yellow prefect who will probably be the yellow prefect himself some day. And then there’s Violet, who needs to marry a strong Red like Eddie in order to be sure that her children will still be Purple. And when Violet wants something, Violet gets it.

But there are some sinister and some odd undercurrents in East Carmine. The Apocryphal Man lives upstairs, but no one can speak about him because the Rules say he doesn’t exist. And Eddie first saw Jane in Vermilion, but she wasn’t on the train, so how did she get to East Carmine? And why does no one ever come back from High Saffron?

I confess that it took me quite a long time to get into this book, and I almost decided not to finish it. I checked it out when my hold came in, and I wasn’t necessarily ready for something that is more of a cerebral exercise in oddity than an emotional story. But I did keep going, and by the end of the book, I was charmed. Eddie does learn the truth, and now I very much want to read the upcoming sequels to find out what he is able to do about it.

Like all of Jasper Fforde’s books, this one is extremely clever and very funny, once you’re engaged in the story. My sons are Douglas Adams fans, and I’m definitely going to recommend it to them.

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