Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Roman Mysteries

Titles:  Thieves of Ostia; Secrets of Vesuvius; Pirates of Pompeii; Assassins of Rome; Dophins of Laurentum; Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina; Enemies of Jupiter; Gladiators from Capua; Colossus of Rhodes; Fugitive from Corinth; Sirens of Surrentum; Charioteer of Delphi; Slave-Girl from Jerusalem; Beggar of Volubilis; Scribes from Alexandria; Prophet from Ephesus; Man from Pomegranate Street; Legionary from Londinium; Trimalchio's Feast; as well as a travel guide, two quiz books, and a live-action BBC series production

Author:  Caroline Lawrence

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

Audience:  5th grade and up

The Roman Mystery series offers an untapped historical setting for young mystery lovers:  The Mediterranean in A.D. 79.  Meet Flavia Gemina, 12-year old daughter of a ship's captain in Ostia, Italy.  Teaming up with her new neighbor Jonathan, a rescued slave girl named Nubia and Lupus, a mute orphan boy, the four friends eventually travel far and wide through the Roman Empire solving mysteries, including those concerning their own families.

These books are amazingly accurate to historical settings and details.  You can practically hear the slave market, smell the fishmongers, and feel the steamy baths as you follow Flavia around town.  Author Caroline Lawrence has extensive classical background, from archeology and language study to religion, teaching and traveling.  She also spares few details from an era where twelve year olds were on the cusp of adulthood.  There are a few brutal scenes and a few mature themes, but these are historically accurate, not gratuitous as we witness in much media today.

Chasing Vermeer

Titles:  Chasing Vermeer; The Wright 3; The Calder Game; The Danger Box; Hold Fast; Pieces and

Author:  Blue Balliet

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

Audience:  4th grade and up

When my 10 year old discovered these books by Blue Balliet, it was as if a new world was opened up to her.  All of a sudden she was talking about pentominoes, architects, puzzles, artists and Calder sculptures.  (Did you know there's a "Calder" at the public art walk in Seattle?)  This was one of the series she begged me over and over to read for myself.  I finally got around to it when I heard Balliet had published a fourth:  Pieces and Players.

In the first book, Chasing Vermeer, Balliet introduces her nerdy, cross-cultural trio of friends:  Calder Pillay, Petra Andalee and Tommy Segovia from the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago.  Actually, they're so busy being suspicious of each other, they aren't quite friends when the book starts.  As they overcome their prejudices they find they have plenty in common when it comes to solving puzzles and helping their favorite 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Hussey.

Calder particularly likes to trust his pentominoes for clues when solving mysteries.  For the uninitiated, pentominoes are 12 puzzle pieces in varying shapes, each made up of 5 squares.  The 12 different shapes represent 12 letters in the alphabet and can even be fitted together in one large rectangle.  When Calder pulls a "U" pentomino out of his pocket, he wonders if it stands for  "understand," or "under," or maybe "University School."  He tells Petra, "They help me figure things out.... seems like the pentominoes kind of talk to me.  I'll get the feeling that they want to tell me something, and so I'll grab one, and a word will just pop into my head."

Tommy and Calder have also created a pentomino code for their correspondence, which is fun for readers to decipher.  Illustrator Brett Helquist has added a picture mystery for readers as well, so this book engages bright readers on multiple levels.  Kids who wish to make their own cardboard pentominoes will even find instructions in the afterword!

Under the Egg

Author:  Laura Marx Fitzgerald

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

Audience:  Middle School

My second WWII book in a row, Under the Egg plays out like a Monuments' Men for youth, although it is highly fictionalized.

13-year old Theodora (Theo) Tenpenny doesn't inherit much when her Grandpa Jack dies:  a few hundred dollars, a failing townhouse in Greenwich Village, and full-time care of her distracted, unstable mother.  There's also the unusual egg picture above the fireplace mantle and a few family chickens out back.

Grandpa Jack's final message to "look under the egg" finally begins to make sense when rubbing alcohol is spilled on a portion of the egg painting and a new image begins to appear.  Considering Jack's service in WWII, as well as his job as a security guard at the Metropolitan Art Museum, Theo is now faced with perplexing mysteries:  What is the painting?  And who was Uncle Jack?

With help from her friends (quirky, bold, new-agey Bodhi, Librarian Eddie and Episcopalian Reverend Cecily), Theo just might be able to solve these mysteries while preserving her family's way of life.

The book gives a nod to both Buddhist (Bodhi=Buddha's enlightenment) and Christian spirituality, but is primarily neutral in terms of moral instruction.  Fans of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Chasing Vermeer will definitely enjoy this eclectic take on art mysteries.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The War that Saved My Life

Author:  Kimberley Brubaker Bradley

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

Audience:  Middle School

This is excellent historical/WWII fiction.  It's summer, 1939 and London is preparing for German bombardment by sending children off to country families.  Ada and her brother Jamie live in a shabby flat with "Mam," their impoverished and abusive mother.

Ada is 11 or 12 years old, crippled by a club foot and Mam's frequent reminders of her shameful condition.  Ada walks so poorly, she can barely drag herself to look out a window to the street scenes below.  She has never been outside.  Jamie, 6 or 7, has the run of the neighborhood although Ada has informed him he'll be forced into school soon.  Jamie is her eyes and ears, her link to the outside world.

When Ada realizes Mam plans to send only Jamie for country evacuation, she becomes determined to learn to walk so she can escape with her brother.  Upon reaching the Kent countryside, they are fostered by Miss Smith, the unlikely protagonist who provides the siblings with just the right blend of compassion and accountability.

Without revealing more of the unique plot structure, I assure you your family will not miss lessons of empathy, self-esteem, gratitude and forgiveness.  Ada and Jamie suffer many of the same stressors and emotions that foster and/or adoption families experience today, but these events are explored in a safe, positive environment, making this book an outstanding choice for middle schoolers adjusting to contemporary challenges.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Family Romanov

The Family Romanov:  Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia

Author:  Candace Fleming

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

Audience:  High School

While thoroughly enjoying a Russian fantasy/folklore (Egg and Spoon), I stumbled upon this new nonfiction book for teens covering the same turn-of-the-century time period:  The Family Romanov.

Winner of the Orbis Pictus Award (outstanding nonfiction for children) and the Sibert Honor Award (distinguished informational book), Candace Fleming's book satisfies all of one's curiosity about the tragic Romanov family, while providing plenty of 1905-1917 Russian history.

The reader feels both compassion and frustration with the oblivious Romanov family, Russian politics, class struggle, and the destiny of a continent.  The book is an enjoyable way for high school students to collect background knowledge in the perils of imperialism and the risks of revolution.

The book is sometimes advertised for middle school ages, but while the story is fascinating and compelling, it is equally dark and graphic for younger ages.  Few details are spared when the Romanov family is brutally gunned down in an Ekatarinaberg basement.  Their remains are carelessly disposed of by a regime based on secrecy and terror.  Final details are not brought to light until the Iron Curtain falls in the 1990s.  Now, even current events cause today's reader to wonder how Russia can mend the past and prepare a better future for all her peoples.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Egg and Spoon

Author:  Gregory Maguire

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3, "B")

Audience:  5th Grade and Up

This whimsical youth novel by Wicked Author Gregory Maguire defies categorizing:  Part folk/fairytale, part fantasy, part allegory, but full-on creative entertainment.  I had never read anything quite as charming or challenging before.

The overall story is one of mistaken identity, Prince and Pauper-style.  It is turn-of-the-century (1900) Tsarist Russia, and impoverished villager Elena Rudina finds herself exchanging places with Princess Ekaterina ("Cat") on a train bound for St. Petersburg.  Along the way, the reader encounters the harsh realities of peasant life, along with the delightful Russian folklore of Baba Yaga (the wise-cracking, time-traveling witch whose house walks about on chicken legs), the Fire Bird (a Russian Phoenix), Faberge eggs, nesting dolls, soldiers, and an Ice Dragon.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Movie

Production Team:  Disney/Jim Henson; Miguel Arteta, Director; Ron Lieber, Screenplay

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

Audience:  4th Grade and up, PG

I couldn't pass up the chance to help families avoid this weak effort by Disney to adopt a beloved children's book.  My family sat through 80 painful minutes with barely a chuckle, waiting for the storyline to improve, for the actors to improve, for the writing to improve, for the movie to improve.  Really, I feel it is more of a "D" effort, but I gave it a "C" as the family at least comes together in the end to support each other.

It seems like Disney spent all their money on Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner to play the parents, and there was no money left to hire talented young actors to play the kids.  Steve and Jennifer did not have much of a script to work with, but if there are any laughs in the movie, they all belong to Pirate Steve. ("Look!  Me arms are okay!  ARGGHH!")

Perhaps it is cruel to draw attention to a child's speech impediment, but if you want a future acting career, Ed Oxenbould (Alexander), you'd better get that annoying lisp fixed.  Your older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette), and older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) spent most of the film over-acting.  No complaints about cute-as-a-bug baby brother Trevor (played by twin girls).

The storyline was tedious and fakey.  Alexander is the family scapegoat, who wishes everyone else could understand how a horrible day feels.  His wish comes true, and the audience uncomfortably watches as the parents' jobs are jeopardized.  Meanwhile, we can find no empathy in our hearts for the teenage brother and sister who only seem to get what they deserve, after watching their selfish tantrums and immature choices for half the movie.

Crude language and teen attitudes make this a film to skip for most families.  Trust me, you won't be missing a thing.

If, however, your family would like a quality substitution, I recommend a film from 2012:  Parental Guidance, starring Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as grandparents trying to fit in with grandkids they barely know.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

An Abundance of Katherines

Author:  John Green

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

Audience:  High School

John Green, author of The Fault In Our Stars, is the latest, greatest writer to reach our teens and relate to them in all their self-indulgent angst.

Now, my thirteen year old has plenty of unsupervised lunch time at the public middle school and she's plenty old enough to check out her own books and basically read whatever she wants.  But that doesn't mean she always should.  And, she's bright enough to make quality choices.  But that doesn't mean she always will.

So when she brought An Abundance of Katherines home from the county library, a quick perusal of the jacket flaps told me instantly this was probably not a book I could endorse in my home.  First of all, it was all about 18 year old boys on a "find ourselves" road trip.

Wayside School Series

Titles:  Sideways Stories from Wayside School; Wayside School is Falling Down; Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger

Author:  Louis Sachar

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

Audience:  Second grade and up

I was really hoping to find another fun and funny childhood series along the lines of Frindle (Andrew Clements), Soup (Robert Newton Peck), Henry Huggins (Beverly Cleary), or at least Junie B. Jones (Barbara Parker) or George Brown, Class Clown (Nancy Krulik).  Unfortunately, the two titles I read in this series were more ridiculous than funny, and not very clever.  I can handle silly and ridiculous, if there is a measure of clever thrown in.  But without the cleverness, you just have post-modern random-ness.

Of course, this can appeal to a lot of second graders, but parents who are trying to engage their families with more compelling, thoughtful materials might be disappointed.  This is especially true because we know the Louis Sachar who wrote Holes, which was both hilarious and clever/thought-provoking.  So, for your information, Wayside School is not Holes.