Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Last Dragonslayer

The Last Dragonslayer
Jasper Fforde
Harcourt, 2012    286 pgs     Grades 6-8

Adult author, Jasper Fforde enters the world of middle grade fiction with this first entry in the Chronicles of Kazam series.  Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency and hotel for magicians.  An orphan herself, the book opens with Jennifer meeting a training a new apprentice sent from the same orphanage she is from.  The training allows us to see the running of Kazam in an alternate United Kingdom with all its quirks, eccentric magicians, and magical beasts, including Jennifer's pet; a vicious looking quarkbeast.  Half way through the book Jennifer discovers she is the last dragonslayer and part of an important prophecy from which fulfillment will line the pockets of the king and other greedy business interests.  Jennifer journeys into Drangonlands, meets the aging dragon, and struggles with the fulfillment of her destiny.  All ends in an unpredictable, yet satisfying way and Jennifer continues her work with a new understanding of her place in the world.

The Last Dragonslayer provides "fantasy light", magical elements existing in a world similar to ours. Jennifer has no magical powers and seems unremarkable at first glance.  She deals efficiently and practically with the magical elements around her and her matter-of-factness makes the magic seem very realistic to the reader.  Fforde offers characteristic humor, which helps to lighten the mood of the book and keeps the pages turning.  The Last Dragonslayer never bogs down and offers some twists in the plot which keep the reader on their toes.  This is book that can be enjoyed by both boys and girls and is a great suggestion for non-fantasy readers doing a fantasy book report.  The writing style is similar to that of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams.  It is a clever, fun, and imaginative.  I envy Jennifer Strange for her opportunities and adventures and would love to pay a visit to Kazam.  Luckily I only have to crack into the sequel. The Song of the Quarkbeast, to do just that.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Year of the Dog

The Year of the Dog
Grace Lin
Little Brown, 2006    134 pgs     Grades 2-5

A semi-autobiographical novel, Year of the Dog traces author Grace Lin's life from one Chinese Lunar New Year to the next.  Grace is excited because in the year of the dog you find your best friend and your life's calling.  The new year's prediction is fulfilled almost immediately when Grace meets Melody, a fellow Taiwanese American new to the school.  The two become instant best friends and share adventures and misadventures together through the year.  Frustrated at not finding her place in the world and struggling with her identity and heritage, Grace writes a book reflecting her Taiwanese-American roots.  To Grace's delight and surprise, the book wins a national contest and Grace has found her calling at last.  The Year of the Dog is interspersed with family stories shared by her mother.  Through Grace's eyes, we catch a glimpse into the daily life of Taiwanese-American culture and are thoroughly entertained along the way.  Grace's story continues with Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days.  Try also, Lin's more challenging Newbery honor book based on Chinese folklore; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and its companion Starry River of the Sky.

The Year of the Dog is a very important book.  It presents the Taiwanese-American experience for children in a very relate-able way.  Not too long, peppered with doodles, and filled with humor, The Year of the Dog reads fast and is a lot of fun.  Grace's accomplishments, disappointments, and crazy family are universal and all children, regardless of their ethnicity will sympathize and cheer along with Grace. I loved the little stories offered by mom.  They add to the narrative, teach sublet lessons and are well placed and not confusing.  I was moved by the part where Grace and Melody go to the library to find books about girls like themselves who were Taiwanese or Chinese American and came up empty handed.  Thank you Grace Lin for writing this book so it can be available for young people at the Fair Lawn Library.  Try Lenore Looks humorous chapter books for similar themes at the same age level or try Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee for a slightly older audience.  I will be using The Year of the Dog this month with my Reader's Rock book group to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year, but the story works for any time of year.  This book can be enjoyed by both girls and boys and would be a great suggestion for reluctant readers.  Xin-nian Kuai le!

The Princess Plot

The Princess Plot
Kristen Boie
Chicken House/Scholastic, 2005     378 pgs     Grades 5-8

Unexceptional, Jenna, is surprisingly chosen to star in a movie about a princess.  She is whisked off to the land of Scandia, where it is revealed that she resembles the real-life princess, Malena.  Malena has recently lost her father the King and Jenna is asked by the regent to pose for her to give Melina a break in her grief.  Jenna agrees and slowly discovers that she is actually being used as part of a plot to take over the kingdom.  Further revelations come to light, including Jenna's heritage, he true story behind the missing king, the political plight of Scandia and the supposedly evil rebels.  Jenna comes face-to-face with look-alike princess, Melina and together they uncover the truth and save the day.  The plot twists and turns and the point-of-view shifts, allowing us to see various threads of the story, which eventually all come together.

Originally published in Germany, The Princess Plot offers a real-life glimpse into a fairy tale world.  We relate with Jenna as she experiences the surprise and delight of being chosen to star in a movie, and then to be asked to be a princess.  Who hasn't fantasized about being a real-life princess?  Jenna takes the bait and then discovers the realities and responsibilities behind the position.  The points of view change and the plot tends to jump around a bit, making the book a challenging read.  It moves along rapidly and is never at a loss for adventurous situations.  There are mysteries to solve, which are satisfactory concluded.  The answers to the mysteries are "gettable" but not too transparent.  The book has more depth than it looks and is longer than your typical fiction for this age group.  I would recommend it for more advanced readers who like a challenge.  For a princess book, it was not "girlie". There was not any romance and the two girls had a boy companion and shared adventures that would appeal to both boys and girls.  Unfortunately, even though the cover has a skull on it, it is pink and boys won't read it.  A different cover would broaden its audience.  Those looking for princess books might be put off by the complex and political plot.  Girls looking for stories about ordinary girls turned into princesses would be better served by Meg Cabot and Ellen Levine.  For those who enjoy the book, try the sequel: The Princess Trap.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Scar Boys

The Scar Boys
Len Vlahos
Egmont, 2014     237 pgs     Grades 9-12
Realistic Fiction

Written in the form of a college admissions essay, Harry Jones recollects his life from, childhood through adolescence.  Severely disfigured as a child by the hands of neighborhood bullies, Harry survives isolation, health and drug problems, and further bullying.  Early in his teen years he meets Johnny, a confident and popular boy, and the two become unlikely best friends, eventually forming a punk band together.  The boys graduate from high school and go on a summer tour where disaster ensues and their relationship is stretched to the breaking point.  We get to see the workings of a band complete with the complicated dynamics of its members.  The book is set in suburbia New York in the 1980's and presents a slice of life from that time and place.  The ending offers no easy answers for Harry, but he does finally find peace with himself and embraces the healing power of music.

I'm a sucker for a book about a band.  Combine that with the 1980's New York setting (my generation and favorite location) and I'm in heaven.  Scar Boys brings up many serious issues.  I had a hard time getting through the beginning, where Harry is severely bullied and his life seems hopeless.  Author, Vlohos', humor throughout the book, even in the darkest parts, carried me through to happier days.  The 1980's  references may go over the heads of current teens, but the setting is important to the plot.  It would be a different book at a different place and time.  The other characters and band members are less developed than Harry and Johnny, but that reflects Harry's self-absorption that is typical of any eighteen-year-old.  Scar Boys is a quick read and, once you get past the first part, a lot of fun.  It has a surprising amount of depth, but manages to feel light and never bogs down.  Because of the strong language and content, I would recommend it for high school.  The book would appeal more to boys, but girls would like it too.  A perfect book for artsy "outsiders", any teen will relate to Harry's struggle to find his place in the world.  I love that music is the saving grace for Harry.  Hopefully that message alone will encourage troubled young people to pick up a guitar, or a paintbrush, or whatever healthy outlet at their disposal for their passion and creativity. The book is first and foremost, about the music.  Chapter titles are song titles that reflect the content of the chapters.  I love the chosen songs and hope that maybe young people will be led to listen to some of the selections. Scar Boys made me wish I could have a do-over and really learn to play that bass I just messed around with in high school.