Archive for August, 2010

Review of The Plot Chickens, by Mary Jane and Herm Auch

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

The Plot Chickens

by Mary Jane and Herm Auch

Holiday House, New York, 2009. 32 pages.

There are many books out there where writers try to tell children how to be a writer. Most fall a little flat as far as the story goes. But The Plot Chickens makes me laugh. Perhaps it’s my over-fondness for puns, but this is probably the book I’d reach for if I were trying to teach a class of elementary school students about being a writer.

Henrietta loves books and decides to write one herself. All the other hens are in on the process. I love the way they first jostle to be the main character, but then pull back when Henrietta gets to Rule Three: “Give your character a problem.”

The nice basic rules listed give lots of room for creativity. I like Henrietta’s story, The Perils of Maxine: It demonstrates that the rules do make a better book, and ends up as a story that a child could write.

But the authors are realistic about its chances of getting published. Henrietta sends it off and, “Many, many, many months later, the publisher sent a rejection letter.” Henrietta self-publishes the book.

My favorite pun is when the librarian tells her she should get a review, so Henrietta sends the book to The Corn Book Magazine. (Not that The Horn Book Magazine would review a self-published book with little merit, but I can believe that The Corn Book Magazine might.) The reviewer says “Henrietta lays an egg with her first book. We hope this is her last book. The Perils of Maxine shows why chickens shouldn’t EVER write.”

I like the way the book reveals the emotional turmoil of being a writer when Henrietta takes the reviewer’s words to heart. But the children at her local library story hour vote it the best book of the year. Sometimes critics can hate a book, but you can still reach children. (Okay, so what if the local children hate it, too? But this does make a fun story….)

This is a silly way to give children a glimpse of the writing process and the life of a writer.

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Picture_Books/plot_chickens.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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

Review of White Cat, by Holly Black

Friday, August 6th, 2010

White Cat

The Curse Workers, Book One

by Holly Black

Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), New York, 2010. 310 pages.
Starred Review

“I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air.

“Above me are starts. Below me, the bronze statue of Colonel Wallingford makes me realize I’m seeing the quad from the peak of Smythe Hall, my dorm.

“I have no memory of climbing the stairs up to the roof. I don’t even know how to get where I am, which is a problem since I’m going to have to get down, ideally in a way that doesn’t involve dying.”

If that isn’t a cliff-hanger beginning, it’s certainly a roof-balancing one. Cassel was dreaming of a white cat. So why is there a white cat outside, watching him on the roof? Later in the first chapter, Cassel tells us:

“Don’t be too sympathetic. Here’s the essential truth about me: I killed a girl when I was fourteen. Her name was Lila, she was my best friend, and I loved her. I killed her anyway. There’s a lot of the murder that seems like a blur, but my brothers found me standing over her body with blood on my hands and a weird smile tugging at my mouth. What I remember most is the feeling I had looking down at Lila — the giddy glee of having gotten away with something.”

I had already scanned the first chapter and decided not to turn it back in (because I have too many books checked out), when I met Holly Black at ALA and she talked about her book — and I moved it to the top of my stack of books to read. I was not disappointed. This book was one I had to keep reading once I started.

Cassel’s world is like ours, only certain people are born with the ability to perform curses. You can curse someone by touching their skin with your hands. But cursing is illegal, and everyone in that society wears gloves all the time.

Curses run a wide range. The most common are luck workers, but there are also people who can change memories, or people like Cassel’s mother who can give you whatever emotion she wants you to have. There are even people who can kill with a curse. Most rare of all are people who can transform things into something else.

All the curses have blowback to the person performing them — a strong reaction proportionate to the curse being performed. So if a memory worker changes a lot of memories, he will start forgetting things himself, for example.

However, Cassel is part of a family of curse workers — and also a family deeply involved in the world of organized crime. He’s the only one in his family who does not have the ability to curse anyone, and he’s been trying to lead a normal life at a private school, trying to forget about what he did to Lila, the reigning crime lord’s daughter. (His family covered it up.)

Now, though, with this sleep-walking caper at the beginning of the book, the school isn’t going to let him live in the dorm. He has to move back in with his brothers, which puts him in the thick of things again.

Holly Black has intricately and beautifully spun a world that seems plausible and real, even with those amazing premises. There are plots and counterplots and counter-counterplots, that get tied up cleverly at the end. Along the way, Cassel learns about making friends and trusting them.

I love that this is called “Book One,” because I can’t wait to read more about this fascinating world. This is a skilfully crafted novel that will make you look at gloves in a whole new way.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/white_cat.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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

Review of The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, by Alan Bradley

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, New York, 2010. 364 pages.
Starred Review

Flavia de Luce, appearing in her second adventure, has got to be one of the most memorable and captivating fictional sleuths ever created. Flavia is eleven years old, living at Buckshaw, outside the village of Bishop’s Lacey, having the run of the place on her bicycle named Gladys. She lives with her distracted father, an avid stamp collector, and her two sisters, who torment and are tormented by her.

Flavia has a passion for poisons. She inherited her great uncle’s chemistry lab, and has an exhaustive knowledge of chemicals. Because she’s eleven years old, people don’t realize how much she knows and deduces.

In The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, a BBC puppeteer show has his van break down in Bishop’s Lacey. When the puppeteer is electrocuted during his performance for the village, Flavia does some digging and discovers a connection with a long-ago hanging of a little boy from the village.

The fun of this book, like the earlier The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is the irrepressible character of Flavia. Add to that a fairly intricate and interesting mystery, with chemical details thrown in (I took Flavia’s word for the truth of those parts.), and you’ve got an enchanting book that makes for captivating reading.

“There’s something about pottering with poisons that clarifies the mind. When the slightest slip of the hand could prove fatal, one’s attention is forced to focus like a burning-glass upon the experiment, and it is then that the answers to half-formed questions so often come swarming to mind as readily as bees coming home to the hive.”

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/weed_that_strings.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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