Saturday, March 26, 2011

Blog Links - Homeschooling Carnival

 We turtles are huge fans of both homeschooling and all things green, and wanted to pop in today just to point you towards this month's Carnival of Homeschooling round-up - the Green Edition! Quite an eclectic collection (say that six times fast) of ideas and tips and funny blog posts for homeschoolers, or just parents who want to do something extra to get everyone out of doors for a bit. Enjoy!

P.S. You can see our own little green (and brown. Mostly brown.) monster and his latest project here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What Can(t) Wait, by Ashley Hope Perez

by Ashley Hope Perez
Carolrhoda LAB
Review copy from publisher.
"Another day finished, gracias a Dios."

Seventeen-year-old Marisa's mother has been saying this for as long as Marisa can remember. Her parents came to Houston from mexico. They work hard, and they expect Marisa to help her familia. An ordinary life - marrying a neighborhood guy, working, having babies - ought to be good enough for her.

Marisa hears something else from her calc teacher. She should study harder, ace the AP test, and get into engineering school in Austin. Some days, it all seems possible. On others, she's not even sure what she wants.

When her life at home becomes unbearable, Marise seeks comfort elsewhere - and suddenly neither her best friend nor boyfriend can get through to her. Caught between the expectations of two different worlds, Marisa isn't sure what she wants - other than a life where she doesn't end each day thanking God it's over.
We are seeing some great debut novels this year, and this one certainly ranks right up there. We picked it up to read during our lunch hour, and ended up sneaking time to read all afternoon until we had finished it. It wasn't next in line to get reviewed, but we can't wait to get it into our teens' hands!

There are so many situations in this book that we see lived out here every day - the cultural clashes, pregnant teens, and mostly the difficulty of breaking a family cycle. It can seem so easy to outsiders, who don't understand why young men and women keep making the 'wrong' choices. Perez shows us that things aren't as easy or as black and white as they seem. No preaching here, an authentic voice teens will appreciate, and a realistic but satisfying ending. We give it a

5 out of 5.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Picture Book Mini-Reviews

Random House
Review copy from publisher.
Steve and Carl are ducks. Steve likes cans. Carl likes socks. And WE LOVE Steve and Carl! We want to live in their pond and be their best friends. We also want to read more about them, and soon! Give this one (and what we hope will be some companion books) to fans of Dunrea's Gossie and Gertie books, or Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie. Yes, they are just that cute!

Carolrhoda Books
Review copy from publisher.
Oops! Toss out all those theories about how dinosaurs became extinct - turns out they were just on an interstellar cruise! Now they are back, and you would not believe the laundry that has piled up. Things have changed a bit while they have been gone, though - fun to brainstorm with your little ones how a brontosaurus or two would fit back into your neighborhood!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Virals, by Kathy Reichs

Copy borrowed from library.
Another book saved by the lunch hour. We are physically incapable of just sitting and eating, we must be sitting and eating with a book in hand. Every once in a while we, miraculously, don't have any errands to run during our lunch hour. We settle in to our seat in the lounge with lunch and a book and a don't-bug-me-until-12:59 expression.

Sometimes, the book we have grabbed doesn't live up to our first impression. We might normally set it aside, but that would mean either a) not having anything to read, or b) having to waste precious minutes finding another book. Neither is acceptable, so we usually push on.

At first, it looked like Virals was going to hit several of our Top Ten from yesterday. This could easily have gone afoul of the lack-of-science pet peeve, as well as the extraneous romantic figures. There was also a pet peeve we didn't mention: irritating speech patterns. Not so much when Tory is talking, but when she is narrating nearly every other paragraph ends with a funny 'aside'. Which stops being funny after the tenth time.

Fortunately, our mild irritation and pessimism did not last as long as lunchtime, and we were intrigued enough by the end of the hour to take the book home - and then hooked enough to stay up and finish it. The science was just vague enough to be reasonably plausible - yes, diseases can certainly be mutated, although we don't know of any that cause the host to take on other species' characteristics. Some of the characters were  right out of a stock file - we did not believe in Hannah at all, sorry, and both Jason and Chance were cardboard cutouts - but what looked like an obvious love/hate relationship at first did not materialize, for which we are grateful. Yes, there were romantic interests, but they existed to move the plot in a certain direction.

The ending held a few surprises for us, mostly in what didn't happen. We thought a certain dead person wasn't really dead and was still controlling things, for example. Looks like he's pretty much dead. Of course, there are still plenty of loose ends to make a sequel obvious. Will the character who lost it at the end return to take up where, ah...another character left off? Will that person want revenge? (Trying to avoid spoilers here!) What is Whitney's deal? Why is she with Kit? Is there a point to the whole debutante thing, or is Reichs just throwing that in because she thinks it will appeal more to teenage girls? Oh, that does bring up another pet peeve avoided - minimal descriptions of clothing, also much appreciated.

We haven't read Reich's adult novels, but we know they are popular. As her first foray into YA fiction, she seems to be feeling her way about. We recommend a sounding board of actual teens and YA bloggers for her next attempt - this series has good potential, if it can avoid some common pitfalls-slash-stereotypes. We give this first one a

3 out of 5.

Tory Brennan, niece of acclaimed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (of the Bones novels and hit TV show), is the leader of a ragtag band of teenage “sci-philes” who live on a secluded island off the coast of South Carolina. When the group rescues a dog caged for medical testing on a nearby island, they are exposed to an experimental strain of canine parvovirus that changes their lives forever.

As the friends discover their heightened senses and animal-quick reflexes, they must combine their scientific curiosity with their newfound physical gifts to solve a cold-case murder that has suddenly become very hot–if they can stay alive long enough to catch the killer’s scent.

Fortunately, they are now more than friends– they’re a pack. They are Virals.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Pet Peeves

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.
As anyone who reads a million books a year, we are bound to have a few pet peeves that crop up every now and then. Some of ours, in no particular order:

1. Science fiction that is sketchy on the science. Now, we are not brainiacs, and we don't need detailed theorems and chemical equations. We are also willing to come in with a reasonable "suspension of disbelief". But, it needs to make sense. If we, with our "C" average in all science classes, can spot problems, you have some serious polishing up to do.

2. Cover art that doesn't match the characters. Would the people who design the books please READ THEM first?! recent example: We Hear the Dead. Who exactly is that supposed to be? Demure, ladylike Maggie, or young, innocent Kate? And we won't even start on the whitewashed covers.

3. Extraneous love interests. Nothing wrong with a good romance, if that is actually part of the story. Too often, however, authors/publishers feel they have to throw one in, ruining a book that was just fine on its own, just because said book is for teens. Author Liane Shaw jumped twenty points in our esteem with her comment on this post, and we are still awaiting news on her next title, still scheduled for this fall we hope...

4. Overly hyped books that don't live up. (Across the Universe - need we say more?) Sometimes, dear publishers, your resources would be better spent on editing than on publicity.

5. Book merchandise. Now, this isn't meant to be a sweeping dismissal of all book-related products - after all, our youngest reader's room is decorated in storybook characters, complete with Curious George wall quilt and stuffed Berenstain Bears. Nothing gets our hackles up, though, like reading a Charlie and Lola book in storytime, and hearing someone (usually a parent) exclaim, "Oh, they made a book out of the cartoon!"

6. Permabound books. Not to disparage the company, but you know the covers we mean - the boring, bumpy, usually beige covers that seldom include artwork and retain dirt like a three-year-old. For some reason, a generation of librarians decided these were a much better option than buying a new copy when things wore out. A subsequent generation of readers was less than impressed, and they are slowly being weeded out (we can't even move them off the book sale cart!)

7. Clothing descriptions, especially in 'contemporary' fiction. "cause, guess what? In three years, your book is no longer contemporary. You shot any chance of kids relating to your characters down the road when you spent a paragraph discussing how her leggings matched her headband. Plus, too much focus on clothing = shallow character = I don't care what happens to her.

8. Stupid main characters. I like to feel a little smarter than the protagonist, but not too much. If I figure out who the bad guy is on page three, I'm not going to read past page ten. (Pleasantly surprised by Virals, btw, which I should be reviewing tomorrow).

9. Fact checking. Does that go without saying? If we are publishing nonfiction for kids (or for anyone) can we please make sure the author knows what he/she is talking about? That the pictures match up with the text? That the grammar is better than that of a third grader?

10. Celebrity authors. For every Julie Edwards (loved Mandy!) there is a Madonna (ugh) or a Jamie Lee Curtis (moralistic obvious blech) or a (cringing-at-fingernails-on-chalkboard) Maria Shriver (speaking of books I can't move).

Whew. Looks like we reached ten just as we were getting a little too snippy. Your turn now! What pet peeves do you have about books - covers, illustrations, storylines, anything? Snipe away, and we'll return with a more positive post tomorrow:)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Thirteenth Princess and A True Princess by Diane Zahler


A True Princess by Diane Zahler: Book Cover
Review copies from publisher
As we have mentioned countless times, we love us a good fractured fairy tale. Many of those we have seen lately, however, are more suitable for young adults - great for them, but that leaves out the large number of upper elementary-age girls who love a good fairy tale of any sort.

Both of these by Zahler, fortunately, are perfect for that age group. The traditional fairy tales - The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Princess and the Pea - are fleshed out enough to satisfy the reader who wants some questions answered (WHY do they have to dance all night?), yet still light and full of enough romance and beautiful dresses to satisfy the girly-girl. Characters tend to be fairy-taleish (we are making up words this week) in that they are either all bad, all good, or have one particular flaw that their character must overcome. In a serious YA historical fiction that would bug the shells off of us, but for these it works just fine.

Recommended for elementary or middle school libraries, we give these a

4 out of 5.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

by Thanhha Lai
HarperCollins Publishers
Copy provided by publisher for review
No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.
For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.

Told in very short free verse diary-type entries, this is a quick read. As such it may serve as an easy introduction to the issues of immigration, loss, clashing cultures, etc. Sensory descriptions are richly done, making for some vivid impressions in the middle of brief snapshots of events. At times that brevity seemed to mirror Ha's own struggles with the language, and we didn't always feel we were getting the full picture.
This is one where we would have liked to see the secondary characters more developed. We get to see Ha's inner thoughts and feelings, but just catch glimpses of the rest of her family, as well as the people she meets in the United States. The family's sponsor, his wife, and the neighbor who befriends them remained very two-dimensional, and the story would have been much richer if their characters had been made real to us. The struggles of her mother and brothers are only briefly mentioned, and might not sink in with younger readers.
Recommended for upper elementary/middle grades, we give this a
3 out of 5.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

We Hear the Dead, by Dianne K. Salerni

by Dianne K. Salerni
Sourcebooks, Inc.
Copy received from publisher for Cybils consideration.

I began the deception when I was too young to know right from wrong. Only with the passing of time did I come to understand the consequences of my actions.
I do not believe that I have ever intentionally deceived anyone. Maggie has a different understanding of the events that have happened. To her the spirits were always a game. For me they were my life's calling. I have no regrets.
It starts as a harmless prank...then one lie quickly grows into another. Soon Kate and Maggie Fox are swept into a dizzying flurry of national attention for their abilities to communicate with the dead. But living a lie is sometimes too much to handle, even if you have the best intentions. Based on a true story, We Hear the Dead reveals how secrets and lies can sometimes lead you to what's real and what's right. And how sometimes talking with the dead is easier than talking with the people around you.

We had heard of the Fox sisters and were vaguely aware of their roles in the rise of spiritualism, but didn't know many specifics of their life story. There were times when we itched to hit the internet and find out how much of the story was historically accurate, but we didn't want to ruin the ending for ourselves. Of course, a little foreshadowing gave away the basic parts, but we wanted to let the details unfold by themselves. We were not disappointed, and the story held our interest to the end.

The topic of teens getting caught in a web of lies is not a new one to YA fiction, but the end result here is a bit different. There is no huge disastrous event where the heroine is caught in her lies, followed by a chapter or two in which she must make amends and regain everyone's trust, having learned her lesson and repented. In other words, this story is a bit more realistic (go figure, since it's based on a true one!) There is some exploration of whether some lies are better than others, or why they might be seen that way. Differing viewpoints are given on the same subjects, leaving it to the readers to make up their own minds. The girls' deception leads to both positive and negative consequences, and again the readers will have to decide which outweighs the other.

A note about the cover. While it does catch they eye and convey the sense of charlatanry (is that a word?), there is no way Maggie or Kate, as they are portrayed in the book, would have been allowed to dress like that. Kate is constantly put forth to the public as an innocent girl, Maggie as demure and ladylike. The brown roots showing through the red hair are, artistically, a nice way to illustrate looking beneath the surface, but again, this does not match up with either sister.

A very nice first novel, and we are adding Salerni to our list of authors to watch.

4 out of 5.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Secret Journeys of Jack London: The Wild, by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

HarperCollins Publishers
Review copy furnished by publisher.
Hmm. It's hard to review a book when we aren't sure what we have to say about it. This series has potential...but we're not sure for what. This is definitely a niche book - one that will appeal to a select group of readers rather than to a broad spectrum. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but it isn't clear what niche the authors are going for. Boys who like adventure and semi-romantic ghost stories equally? Is that a niche?
The world knows Jack London as a writer who lived his own thrilling, real-life adventures. But there are parts of his life that have remained hidden for many years, things even he couldn’t set down in writing. Terrifying, mysterious, bizarre, and magical —these are the Secret Journeys of Jack London.

We meet Jack at age seventeen, following thousands of men and women into the Yukon Territory in search of gold. For Jack, the journey holds the promise of another kind of fortune: challenge and adventure. But what he finds in the wild north is something far more sinister than he could have ever imagined: kidnapping and slavery, the murderous nature of desperate men, and, amidst it all, supernatural beasts of the wilderness that prey upon the weakness in men’s hearts. Jack’s survival will depend on his ability to quell the demons within himself as much as those without.

We enjoy Native American legends, which would include the Wendigo who appears in this story, but the adventure/survival parts felt to us like they were stuck in between and didn't fully develop. Character development had a great deal of potential, but also wasn't fully explored, or plausible where there was some.

After we read it, we gave it to a patron who loves mountain man stories, and would have been quite happy trekking through blizzards in unpopulated wilderness areas with Jack London. He reported the adventure parts were "okay", but wasn't crazy about the fantasy bits, which ended up being most of the last half of the book.

The series is marketed as juvenile fiction, but the voice seems to be aimed much more towards adults. We may just not have found the right reading audience for it yet, but for now we're going to have to give it a

2 out of 5 - with room to prove us wrong in a sequel!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Because of Mr. Terupt, by Rob Buyea

by Rob Buyea
Delacorte Press

It’s the start of fifth grade for seven kids at Snow Hill School. There’s . . . Jessica, the new girl, smart and perceptive, who’s having a hard time fitting in; Alexia, a bully, your friend one second, your enemy the next; Peter, class prankster and troublemaker; Luke, the brain; Danielle, who never stands up for herself; shy Anna, whose home situation makes her an outcast; and Jeffrey, who hates school.

Only Mr. Terupt, their new and energetic teacher, seems to know how to deal with them all. He makes the classroom a fun place, even if he doesn’t let them get away with much . . . until the snowy winter day when an accident changes everything—and everyone.

Technically, turtles don't cry. We do have tear ducts, contrary to rumors, but they are just used occasionally for health reasons. So, we were definitely NOT crying when we read this book. Nor were we sniffling. We just...had water up our noses.

Humans, however, may want to have a tissue or two on hand. It's not as if you aren't warned in the description, after all - but things didn't play out exactly as we expected. All we can say there is, yeah for James!

We were a little concerned about the number of voices - it can be difficult to keep two voices distinct in the reader's mind, how would Buyea do with seven? While there is quite a bit of personality overlap - particularly in the girls - their stories help keep them separated. An ambitious undertaking for a first novel, so we won't be too hard on him this time:)

The story itself moves along quickly, and everyone will wish they had a teacher like Mr. Terupt. His excitement is so infectious, it doesn't just affect his students, it carries over to his readers as well. We are itching to start experimenting with the plants in our tank! While parts may have stretched credibility, it wasn't enough to ruin the reading. We give it a

4 out of 5 and recommend you go pick it up next!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Great Family Project!

When disasters like the Christchurch earthquake happen, and our kids catch wind of it through TV, adult conversations, what-have-you, they often want to help out in some way. (Kinda humbling to the adults who shake our heads and then switch the channel, isn't it?) The challenge can be finding something they can do that a) is really helpful, and b) is tangible enough to make sense to little ones.

Zoe over at Playing by the Book has put together an awesome program that does just that. You can visit this post and have your family matched up with a Christchurch family that has lost everything. You will be given ages of people in the household, and asked to send NEW books you think they might like.

How fun is that?! Picking out presents, especially books, for other people is always a great way to spend an afternoon (and you know if you start browsing in a book store it's going to take the whole afternoon). Your kids will experience the joy of sharing favorites, and reinforce the idea that books are awesome gifts to both give and receive. More details can be found at te link, so stop reading and head on over there!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Draw the dark, by Ilsa J. Bick

by Ilsa J. Blick
Carolrhoda Lab
"The things I draw: They tend to die."
There are things the people of Winter, Wisconsin, would rather forget. The year the Nazis came to town, for one. That fire, for another. But what they'd really like to forget is Christian Cage.
Seventeen-year-old Christian's parents disappeared when he was a little boy. Ever since, he's drawn obsessively: his mother's face...her eyes...and what he calls "the sideways place," where he says his parents are trapped. Christian figures if he can just see through his mother's eyes, maybe he can get there somehow and save them.
But Christian also draws other things. Ugly things. Evil things. Dark things. Things like other people's fears and nightmares. Their pasts. Their destiny.

There's one more thing the people of Winter would like to forget: murder.
But Winter won't be able to forget the truth, no matter how hard it tries. Not as long as Christian draws the dark...
If you are looking for a good spooky/creepy/chilling story with more than a bit of mystery, this one should do the trick! The book begins with Christian waking from a bizarre dream and discovering that overnight he has not only apparently painted some strange things on the wall of his room, but over the entire side of a barn across town, which he has never even seen before. The pace and the strangeness do not slow down from here on out.
Christian has the ability to literally "draw out" people's deepest fears. After some early incidents ended in disaster, he tries to avoid using this ability, but is finding he no longer has any control of it. Toss in some good character development, historical tidbits we weren't aware of (we stopped in the middle to look up POW camps in America), and enough mysteries and twists to make your head spin, and you have something for everyone!
We give it a 5 out of 5.