Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tesla's Attic

Tesla's Attic: The Accelerati Trilogy Book 1
Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman
Disney/Hyperion, 2014 246 pgs  

Grades 5-8

Science Fiction/Adventure

Nick and his father and little brother move from Florida to Colorado into an old family house belonging to the old girlfriend of Nikola Tesla, turn-of-the-century inventor.  Nick and his family are still reeling from the death of Nick's mom in a fire and they move into the house as a last resort/fresh start.  In the attic Nick finds a bunch of "junk" which he sells in a yard sale.  The junk sells super fast, much to Nick's surprise.  At the yard sale Nick makes some new friends, including a creative girl, Caitlin, who becomes a potential love interest.  Slowly Nick and his new friends realize that the junk does amazing and magical things.  Secret agents try to acquire the treasures, eventually playing hard ball.  Nick refuses to help them and eventually finds out that they are part of a secret organization know as "The Accelerati".  Nick and Caitlin run around town trying to collect the stuff from the yard sale before the Accelerti can get it.  The book reaches an exciting crescendo as a foreshadowing of the death of one of the characters comes to pass.  The junk/treasures turn out to be inventions of Nikola Tesla and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.  Nick and his friends are still missing some of the missing pieces.  What will happen when all the missing pieces fit together?  Read the next book in the trilogy to find out!

Tesla's Attic features a lot of fast action, adventure, and excitement.  The plot never slows down and there are twists and turns to keep the reader turning pages.  Shusterman and Elfman offer maybe too many characters for some readers to keep straight, but since they aren't developed and are basically charactatures with broad defining traits, it makes its it easier to follow them.  The book reads a bit like a cartoon, which will appeal to many reluctant readers, and will especially appeal to boys.  What I liked the most about this book was the connection to Nikola Tesla.  Readers will want to find out more about this inventor (I know I did) and they end up learning about him without realizing it. Also, there are some serious elements in the book (Nick's family grieving the death of his mother, Nick's friend's father in jail for a crime he didn't commit, etc) which give it some legitimacy.  Beyond this, the book thinks "outside the box" and encourages kids to think creatively and to maybe invent something themselves.  A major character dies at the end, which was pretty cool that the authors didn't "cheap out" and conveniently alter the prophesy, which usually happens in books for kids this age.  A twist at the end, revealing that an unsuspecting person is part of the Accelerati, will encourage the reader to pick up the second book in the trilogy.  I can definitely see this book being made into a movie.  I would recommend it to fans of Percy Jackson or the 39 Clues series.  Not great literature, but a lot of fun and an easy sell.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Under the Egg

Under the Egg
Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Dial, 2014 243 pgs  
Grades 4-7


13 years-old Theodora (Theo) lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.  Her artist grandfather has recently died leaving Theo with a mentally ill mother and no money to support the family.  Before dying, Grandfather told her to "Look under the egg...for a letter and a treasure".  This cryptic message leads Theo to her grandpa's studio, where his beloved picture of an egg rests over the mantle.  A search through the studio leads nowhere, but after dabbing the egg painting with rubbing alcohol, Theo discovers a hidden painting beneath.  Could it be a lost masterpiece from Italian Renaissance artist Raphael?  Did Theo's grandpa actually steal the paining?   Theo makes a new (and her only) friend, Bodhi, daughter of famous movie stars, and the two girls try to solve the mystery behind the painting.  Their search takes them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Theo is reunited with a friend of her grandfather's with questionable motivations.  Through the help of their local librarian (Yay!) the girls discover the history both of Raphael and Grandfather, eventually leading them through a journey through the Holocaust and Nazi Germany and, eventually, finding the true owner of the painting.

I loved this book!  I love all books that involve New York City and art history.  Throw in a cool librarian, my favorite museum, and a mystery and I'm in heaven!  My all-time favorite book is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and this book reminds me of an updated version: kids on their own, in the Met, obsessed with solving the mystery behind a work of art.  Although that's where the similarity ends for Fitzgerald offers her own unique story.  The author deals with the problem of troublesome parents by making Theo's mother mentally ill and Bodhi's parents busy movie stars, conveniently giving the girls freedom to run around the city.  It is impossible to read this book without wanting to know more about Raphael and explore some of his paintings.  Other art heists and real-life art mysteries are touched upon, encouraging the reader to learn more.  But don't be fooled: this is not just a book art history.  Fitzgerald manages to seamlessly educate the reader about the chemistry behind paints, as well as the Monuments Men, the little know American Army corp designed to rescue and return all the famous works of art stolen by the Nazis.  The treatment of American prisoners of war during WWII, as well as Nazi death camps also come to play in the solving of the mystery.  After a few twists and turns, and an almost too convenient coincidence, the mystery is solved, leaving a little left to the reader's imagination.  This is a book that the reader walks away knowing something new and seeing the world a little differently, all while being thoroughly entertained.  Theo and Bodhi are characters that you feel like you know by the end of the book and their friendship is both realistic and heartwarming.  Life still isn't perfect for Theo, but by the end of the book she is in much better place, both richer in money and community support.  Under the Egg will be enjoyed by both girls and boys and would appeal to a range of ages.  I already plan on using it with my fifth and sixth grade book group in the fall.  The egg serves as a metaphor for new beginnings and Fitzgerald leaves us with a sense of hope and a bright new day.  So far, my vote for the 2015 Newbery...

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 Please Ignore Vera Dietz
A.S. King

Knopf, 2010 336 pgs  
Grades 9+

Vera begins her senior year of high school both hating and mourning her lost best friend.  The story begins with Charlie's funeral and the history of their complicated friendship and eventual estrangement is slowly unraveled.  Present chapters chronicling Vera's senior year are interspersed with chapters from the past, slowing revealing what actually happened to Charlie and the terrible crime he was accused of committing.  As Vera struggles with loss, she makes bad choices (drinking, inappropriate boyfriend, lying to father) finally coming to terms with both the loss of her distant mother and of Charlie, drawing her closer to the one person in her life she can count on: her father.  Vera spends her life as an outsider, often observing people's lives as she glimpses into houses while delivering pizzas.  She becomes a secret drinker and learns to overcome the fate of genetics, choosing not to follow the path of alcoholism as inherited from her father or the path of promiscuity as inherited from her mother.  Vera grows and heals through this book, becoming proactive in her own life,  and we are left with a feeling of hope and optimism for Vera's future, whatever that happens to be.

Please ignore Vera Dietz won a Printz Honor in 2011, and deservedly so.  It was well written, different, and surprisingly non-sentimental considering the subject matter.  In a genre where all the protagonists are noticeable unlikable, I really liked Vera and was rooting for her.  By the end of the book Vera cleaned up the bad decisions she made previously and was heading towards a brighter future.  The actual details of the future were left to the reader's imagination, which I also liked, hating books that are tied up too conveniently.  The father was also likable, yet flawed, and I found myself pulling for their relationship as well.  I labeled this book as a mystery.  It is not a mystery in the conventional sense, but the reader is left to wonder what happened to Charlie and these details are not revealed until the end, so it read like a mystery.  Vera does not search for clues, but she slowly begins to process all that happened, piece by piece, until she can face the whole picture and the reader can see the truth behind Charlie.  The fate of the person who actually committed the crime is never revealed, which was frustrating.  As much as I wanted to see that person get their "just desserts", I think the omission was to demonstrate how over the whole situation Vera actually became.  I would recommend this book to teenagers in high school, especially girls.  I feel like I have read so much teen fiction in the past couple of years where either the main character is dead or a friend or family member.  I thought Vera Dietz would be more of the same, but it really stands out as an exceptional read.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Captain Awesome to the Rescue

Captain Awesome to the Rescue
Stan Kirby
George O'Connor Illust.
Simon and Schuster, 2012 105 pgs  
Grades 2-4

Eight-year-old Eugene McGillicudy moves to a new school midyear.  His fears are realized when he enters his new class and must stand in front of the room and "say a little bit about himself".  To make matters worse, a girl in the front of the room immediately makes fun of him.  Things get better as Eugene makes a new friend, Charlie, who shares his obsession with superheros.  Not the devil he first perceived her to be, his teacher allows him to take the class hamster home for the weekend, where Eugene bonds with the little guy and they have a misadventure with his baby sister.  When the hamster turns up missing from its cage on Monday, a mystery ensues, which Eugene quickly and neatly solves, disguising himself as his alter-ego "Captain Awesome".  The book ends neatly, with Eugene and Charlie forming a Superhero club of two with the promise of more adventures to follow.  A sample of the next adventure Captain Awesome vs. Nacho Cheese Man is included at the end of the book.

Captain Awesome to the Rescue delivers just what it intended; an easy to read transitional chapter book liberally illustrated to appeal to reluctant male readers.  The chapters are short, the font and margins are big and the silly humor abounds.  Illustrations are on every page and are cartoon-like in nature to appeal to the not-ready-for-Wimpy-Kid crowd.  The plot moves along quickly and delivers fun, mystery, and adventure.  The conflicts are relate-able to the audience and the main character is sympathetic.  That all said, its not great literature.  The characters are one-dimensional and there are stereotypical elements to the plot.  (do cafeteria still serve meatloaf aka "mystery meatloaf surprise").  Eugene walks himself to school on the first day and wanders into a classroom (which happens to be the right one).  Captain Awesome also suffers from the "Junie B syndrome": making up words to sound cute, but aren't real words, which is confusing to new readers.  The criticisms I have are all a bonus to young children.  They think made up words are hilarious and prefer a simplification of the plot.  They appreciate unrealistic independence in their main characters and feel secure and confident with formula-tic elements in their stories, which is why series are so popular at this age.  For a more realistic look at the life of a child at this age try The Year of Billy Miller by Keven Henkes, a much better book with much less circs than Captain Awesome.  This series flies off the shelf at my library, which is why I was encouraged to read it.  I would recommend Captain Awesome to new chapter book readers, especially boys who don't like to read.  There is certainly a place for Captain Awesome and I hope his adventures continue.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle

Grasshopper Jungle
Andrew Smith
Dutton,2014  380 pgs
Grades 9+
Science Fiction/Humor

16 year old Austin and his best friend, Robby, go skateboarding and smoking, as usual, behind a dying strip mall in their dying town in Iowa.  They get beaten up by a gang of bullies, who accuse them of being homosexual.  This act leads to a string of events and coincidences resulting in the end of the world.  The end of the world, according to Smith, comes in the form of indestructible giant insects who's only instincts are to eat and breed.  Austin and Robby, along with Austin's girlfriend, Shann, discover a hidden bunker beneath Shann's silo belonging to a long-dead scientist and his defunct research laboratory.  The bunker is called "Eden" and is perfectly conserved from its 1970's conception.  Through watching the tapes hidden in the bunker, the teenagers discover the history behind the development of the insect soldiers and are instructed by the mad scientist to "breed" for they are the future of humankind.  Austin, all the while combating his confusing sexual feelings for his girlfriend, his best friend, and basically everyone with a pulse, must work with the others to figure out a way to kill the insect soldiers and save the earth. 

The Grasshopper Jungle has amazing reviews.  I have to agree with the quality of the writing.  It was one of the best written YA books I have ever read.  I read The Marbury Lens by Smith when it first came out in 2010.  It made me so upset that I had to stop reading it.  Then I became so worried about the main character that I had to pick it back up and finish it.  The whole time I read that book, my skin was itchy.  Once I finished it I thought "WOW!" and vowed to never read another book by Andrew Smith.  The excellent reviews of Grasshopper Jungle lured me back into his web.  This book was much less intense than his first, but was still uncomfortable for me to read, yet amazing.  This book was actually funny.  Not ha-ha funny, but cleaver funny.  It was in the same style as Kurt Vonnegut; witty with overlapping connections, themes, and expressions.  The plot moves along at a quick pace and it is very hard to put down.  My main complaint is that, although it is clearly a book written for teens, I personally wouldn't recommend it for teens.  The main characters are teenagers and the sci-fi action of the swiftly moving plot would appeal to teens.  Yet the complexity and sophistication of the writing would appeal more to college students.  The language was strong throughout.  The book was extremely sexual, mirroring the typical thoughts, I'm assuming, of a 16 year old boy.  I felt it was too over the top for teen literature.  I would never use this book in teen book club or, as a parent, put it in my kid or any kid's hands.  The Grasshopper Jungle pays homage to the 1970's and it feels like a piece of literature that came out of that time, such as books by Vonnegut or Tom Robbins.  Smith does have a handle on the teenage brain.  The lines are blurring in today's teenagers between bi-homo-hetero sexuality and this is reflected in Austin's constant obsessing.  Just when you think there is nothing new to come under the sun, along comes Andrew Smith.  I love that it was a dystopian novel that was so different than the other hundreds I have read in the past couple of years.  I love that it is not part of an obvious trilogy and has a real ending.  I love that Smith respects and challenges his readers and isn't afraid to push the envelope.  I think the book will deservedly win awards.  It was just a little too much for me.