Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Big Nate

Titles:  Over 20 including In a Class by Himself; Strikes Again; On a Roll; and Friends
            as well as comic strip collections

Author:  Lincoln Peirce (pronounced "purse")

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
             Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  5th grade and up

After lambasting the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, I thought I should check to if the Big Nate series was any better or worse.  I read books 1 and 2:  Big Nate in a Class by Himself and Big Nate Strikes Again.

I'm happy to confess this series is better: a reasonable substitute for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and not only because it's actually clever and funny.  What sets Big Nate apart from Greg Heffley is his sense of conscience and a certain amount of intellectual insight.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Unknowns

Title:  The Unknowns  (A Mystery)

Author:  Benedict Carey

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  7th grade and up

Here is another "You have to read this, Mom!" recommendation from my 11, soon-to-be-12 year old daughter.  I'm happy she still wants me to read her books.  She reads 10 books a week if we don't give her enough chores, so it seems I am never lacking for material.

The Unknowns is an edgy, contemporary math mystery starring a cast of misfit middle schoolers.  These outcasts live in the unfortunate settlement of Folsom Adjacent, next door to the Folsom Nuclear Site and across the bay from the cooler town of Crotona.

Anyone who has ever felt out of place in junior high, or lived 15 miles from a "real" city, or felt inadequate in math class may find their place in this clever story.  And that would be most of us, including Einstein.

Fortunately, the main protagonists Di and Tom have a caring neighbor lady to walk them through the pitfalls of homework and social ostracism.  The real problems begin when a few Adjacent residents, including their math mentor, Malba Clarke, go missing.

Can Di and Tom unravel the math clue Mrs. Clarke left for them?  Is something illegal going on at the power plant?  Will the bullies in Crotona pound Di and Tom before they can find out?  Will you remember enough math and geometry to follow the plot?  When does 3 + 4 = 5?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hotel Transylvania vs Frankenweenie

Hotel Transylvania, directed by Genndy Tartakovsky
     0 stars out of 3 possible ("D/F," Not Recommended)
Frankenweenie, directed by Tim Burton
     ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B," Recommended)

Audience:  5th graders and up

Hopefully this review will be timely enough for some families who are still headed out to those free summer movies at the park.

I was surprised by these movies.  Initially I thought the black and white Tim Burton offering would be too bizarre while the colorful Hotel Transylvania with current star voice-overs would be both clever and funny.

Exactly the opposite occurred.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Presidential Movies

Titles:  Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, Director; Doris Kearns Goodwin/Tony Kushner, Writers)
           Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell, Director; Richard Nelson, Writer)

Ratings:  ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B") for Lincoln
              Highly Recommended

              0 stars out of 3 possible, "D"/"F" for Hyde Park on Hudson
              Not Recommended

Audience:  Lincoln, PG-13
                 Hyde Park on Hudson, R

America loves its presidents, and sometimes loves to hate them.  I thought it interesting that two of our most polarizing presidents were both subjects of feature films in 2012.

I intended to review Lincoln much earlier.  By now, everyone is already aware of both the quality of the film itself, as well as the performances by most of the cast.  I was initially hesitant, given Tony Kushner as the screenwriter, that one might sense a hidden, liberal agenda.  Every political entity tries to claim some sort of kinship with our 16th president, but this film portrayed him genuinely:  principled, yet flawed; politically astute, yet homespun.

To truly enjoy the film, the audience member should not mind a slower-moving historical drama with significant portions of political discourse.  Recall the film only portrays the last 6 months or so of Lincoln's life.  Was Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Lincoln Oscar-worthy?  Yes!

The Mousehunter

Titles:  #1 The Mousehunter; #2  The Curse of Mousebeard; #3  Mousebeard's Revenge

Author/Illustrator:  Alex Milway

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  5th grade and up

My 11 year-old daughter rates this trilogy with an "A," Highly Recommended.  I would probably put a caution in for some families ("C," Recommended with Reservations).  So we compromised and gave it 2 stars out of 3 possible.

Alex Milway shows a lot of creativity and artistry in planning this medieval mankind/mouse kingdom adventure series.  Just when you think there is nothing new under the sun (so to speak), a talented, clever author/illustrator comes along and does something relatively unique.

After a somewhat grisly opening scene at Old Town harbor (Pirate's Wharf, to be exact), Milway introduces us to Emiline Orelia, 12 year-old mousekeeper.  In Emiline's world, mice and men live cooperatively.  Various sorts of mice are collected and employed in a number of tasks in this seafaring tale of ships' captains, merchants and pirates.  Mice species are as varied and valuable as our modern dog species and Milway has outdone himself, illustrating each chapter with a unique mouse entry from "The Mousehunter's Almanac."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cynthia Rylant

Titles:  Poppleton Series; Mr. Putter and Tabby Series; Henry and Mudge Series

Ratings:  ***  (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
              Highly Recommended

Audience:  Beginning Readers, boys and girls ages 4 and up

While I'm on the topic of Cynthia Rylant, I don't want any family to miss out on her series for preschoolers and young elementary ages.  The number of books available here can keep your Kindergartner well-occupied until he or she is ready for short chapter books, and the illustrations and humor will entertain adults who enjoy reading aloud to their kids.

The Lighthouse Family Series

Titles:  The Storm; The Whale; The Eagle; The Turtle; The Octopus

Author:  Cynthia Rylant

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  Ages 7-10 (boys and girls)

Here is another handy step-up readers series by Cynthia Rylant:  short chapters, simple yet engaging plots, quality writing and vocabulary.

Focusing on relationships, The Lighthouse Family brings together a mild-mannered cat, a helpful dog, 3 mouse "children" and various ocean-faring animal friends for gentle adventures by the sea.  Lovely illustrations by Preston McDaniels add to the attraction for young readers.

The Cobble Street Cousins Series

Titles:  #1 In Aunt Lucy's Kitchen; #2 A Little Shopping; #3 Special Gifts; #4 Some Good News; #5 Summer Party; #6 Wedding Flowers

Author:  Cynthia Rylant

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")
             "Recommended" by me and "Highly Recommended"
              by my 8 year-old!

Audience:  Ages 7-10  (girls)

Imagine how pleased I was when my 8 year-old daughter sat down with new markers over Spring Break and wrote out an impromptu review of The Cobble Street Cousins/Book #2 A Little Shopping!  Here's what she had to say:  (sic)

Jobs for the Cobble Street Cousins:  Tess=Brodway star.  Lilly=Poet.  Rosie=?

Chapters:  3

Chapter 1:  Lilly comes up with a craft witch is makeing a doll house witch is also a flower shop.

Chapter 2:  The cousins bought the supplies they needed and got ice-cream.

Chapter 3:  They make the dollhouse, gave it to their Aunt, and got ice-cream.

Rate:  Five Star Rating *****  (then she drew a big smiley face)

My take?  My daughter (also named Tess) is on the right track.  This series by Cynthia Rylant is just the right size and speed for readers who are ready for short chapter books.  Rylant provides a very nice step-up option with simple topics and gentle plots.

Lily, Tess and Rosie are three cousins who are also best of friends.  They enjoy each other's differences and encourage each other's plans and hobbies.  The series moves through a year in their life with Aunt Lucy whom they hope will soon be marrying neighbor Michael.  Some families may be disappointed that the "winter" book (Special Gifts) only offers a winter's solstice gift exchange, but when late summer rolls along, Lucy and Michael are at least married by a priest.  All-in-all, the books value family and the simple joys of childhood, so I am happy to recommend the series.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Family Hitchcock

Author:  Mark Levin & Jennifer Flackett

Rating:  0 stars out of 3 possible, "D"/"F"
            Not Recommended

Audience:  5th Grade and Up

Here's another book I would really like to recommend.  Smart, contemporary plot, nice family, some challenging vocabulary.  But then I have to ask myself if it's right to compromise on my convictions just because part of the book is well-done.

Written by a Hollywood husband and wife team, the book reads like a fast-paced kid's techie movie (think Spy Kids).  In fact, it would translate well to film, and I'm sure that's exactly what the authors hoped.  The problem is, it's also exactly what Hollywood would like for your kids:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

John Adams

Director:  Tom Hooper
                (based on the book by David McCullough)

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  High School juniors and seniors

This 7-episode HBO series released in 2009 provides a quality look at events that formed our nation--not just war, but the rule of law, the development of our Constitution, and the delicate balance between freedom responsibility.

History buffs and AP students will benefit most from this careful study of John Adams, a frequently overlooked Founding Father.  He suffered bouts of temper and pride, but never wavered in his dedication to the law, public service, and the need for a free people to be guided by wise government.

The Book of the Dun Cow

Titles:  Book of the Dun Cow; Book of Sorrows

Author:  Walt Wangerin, Jr.

Rating:  0 stars out of 3 possible, "D" or "F"
            Not Recommended

Audience:  Youth, Adults

Book of the Dun Cow was the worst book I've read since Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, or Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.  Disjointed, obscure, and slightly bizarre.

Sometimes the Literati bless these things with National Book Awards and rave reviews, but they just don't translate to Joe-Reader and Joe-Reader's children.

I tried hard to like Book of the Dun Cow.  I really did.  I've enjoyed many animal fantasy-allegories.  And I've read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, so you'd think I could make the transition.  But honestly, it was just weird.  And given the small amount of time we have to read with our children, I believe time is better spent on something like the Redwall series or The Hobbit.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Judy Moody and Stink

Titles:  Judy Moody (11 titles, plus tie-in items)
           Stink (7 titles, plus tie-ins)

Author:  Megan McDonald

Rating:  0 stars out of 3 possible ("D" or "F")
            Not Recommended

Audience:  2nd-4th Grades

I've often thought of developing two rating systems in life, even as I talk about movies or restaurants with my husband and friends.  It goes like this:  "Well, if you're a picky person, it was a disappointment.  But if you're not too picky, it was okay."

This is mirrored by my husband's more easy-going temperament.  If you ask him how a particular diner or pub visit fared, he'll usually say, "It was good." or, our personal favorite:  "I enjoyed it."

Not, "it was fantastic," or "I loved it!"

Now, if I'm going to spend my time and money on something, I like to hope it will be at least above average or, hoping against hope, excellent.  Whenever my husband says something was "good," not only do I know it was not great, I probably wouldn't even think it was average!  This works out pretty slick, because I don't have to go to a restaurant or movie until Steve says it was great!  Then I'm pretty much guaranteed a good and possibly great return on my investment.

So, my reaction to Judy Moody and her brother Stink is:  If you're a picky person, you'll be disappointed.  But if you're not too picky, you'll think it was okay.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Les Miserables (book and movie)

Author:  Victor Hugo  (book)
              Tom Hooper  (movie)

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible for the book, "B")
            **  (2 stars out of 3 possible for the movie, "B")

Audience:  16 years and up

First of all, understand the book is almost 1500 pages long and I haven't even finished it! It is divided into 5 sections, each of which is around 300 pages.  A reasonable goal is to read a section every month or so and take a few weeks break before forging on.  Although, I know one of my friends (a mother of 3, including a 9 month old) finished the entire book in one reading, utilizing maximum library renewals and only a 2-day late fee!

Reading the first section will give you a fine background for the musical or movie, as well as insight into Hugo's themes and philosophies.

I liked the movie better than I expected.  It was well-executed, extremely well-acted and reasonably well-sung.  A lot of reviewers seemed ultra-picky about Russell Crowe's singing ability, but I felt he passed.  Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried (young Cosette) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) were outstanding.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter shined as the evil, yet comic-relieving Thenardiers.  Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche was both entertaining and heart-breaking.

The Hobbit (book & movie)

Author:  J. R. R. Tolkien (book)
             Peter Jackson (movie)

Rating:  *** (3 stars out of 3, "A" for the book)
             0 stars out of 3 ("D" or "F" for the movie)

Audience:  6th grade and up

You just knew I wasn't going to like it, didn't you?!  While I fall far short of being a Tolkien purist, I was extremely disappointed in this movie from Peter Jackson.

Orcs.  Not in the book.  Not necessary.  Save them for Lord of the Rings.

Radagast the Brown.  Not in the book.  Not necessary.  I think Jackson found him in some unpublished Tolkien papers.  Leave him there.

PG-13.  Not in the book.  Not necessary.  Overdone violence, beheadings and orcs (see above).  Plus the humor, poetry and general feel of the book was mostly ignored, save perhaps for the initial dwarf scene at the hobbit hole.

Three movie sequence.  A big media ploy and entertainment rip-off.  Two movies I might have fallen for, but not three.  TimeWarner will only get rental income from me for the next two sequels (if they're that lucky)--no full price tickets for this family.

Production Quality.  Outstanding.  That I'll give to Mr. Jackson.  Which only makes a fan more wishful for what might have been.

It's useful to differentiate between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  They are very different books telling very different stories for very different audiences.  The Hobbit is really a wonderful place to introduce your children to the epic journey and epic storytelling.  Full of songs and poems, adventures, maps, description, humor and character development, it stands fine on it's own, or as a prequel to LoTR.  I consider it a "must-read" in children's or youth literature, while LoTR can be reserved for teens willing to further explore the fantasy genre.  Don't misunderstand me:  LoTR is wonderful, but many people are happy to stop at The Hobbit.  Just make sure you stop at your local bookstore, not the movie theater.

City of Ember

Titles:  City of Ember; People of Sparks; Prophet of Yonwood; Diamond of Darkhold

Author:  Jeanne DuPrau  (pronounce "Jean DuPro")

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  Middle School Readers

For this review I read City of Ember and Diamond of Darkhold.  As is often the case, sequels have trouble maintaining the creativity and energy of the original.

I found City of Ember to be an engaging adventure accompanied by a word puzzle to captivate thoughtful readers even more completely.  DuPrau has created an interesting setting and society, as citizens of Ember been underground in their self-sufficient city for as long as any of them can remember.  Unfortunately, their food stores and power systems are beginning to crumble, and as life becomes more difficult, two young teens, Doon and Lina, need to do more than just solve a mystery to save their city.

If this sounds a bit apocalyptic, it's because it is.  In a more gentle tone than Hunger Games, but along the lines of Gregor the Overlander, DuPrau has the reader consider the big questions of life and human conscience.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pippi Longstocking

Titles:  Pippi Longstocking; Pippi Goes on Board; Pippi In the South Seas

Author:  Astrid Lindgren

Rating:  ***  (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
             Highly Recommended

Audience:  1st-3rd Grades

I want to briefly cover these childhood classics, just in case they've been overlooked by someone else, or criticized by modern pharisees.  Also to prove I really do have a sense of humor.

I'm reading these with my kids for the second time and they are randomly delightful.  Pippi is one of those kids we wish we all could be:  irreverent, creative, resourceful, a fast friend with super-human strength, and "rich as a troll."  Her hijinks with Tommy and Annika are adventures every child would wish for:  trips to town and the circus, an island campout, finding treasures in a hollow oak tree, flipping pancakes in an unsupervised kitchen, befuddling adults all over town.  Don't forget Pippi's front porch horse, or her monkey, Mr. Nilsson.

Fortunately, Tommy and Annika are committed students, and when Pippi occasionally visits the school house to learn a little "pluttification," someone always receives a lesson, although it might not be who you expected:

      "That is why we are here, " said the teacher, "to be good and kind to other people."
      Pippi stood on her head on the horse's back and waved her legs in the air.  "Heigh ho," said she, "then why are the other people here?"