Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stink and the Great Guinea Pig Express by Megan McDonald

Stink Moody’s fourth adventure begins as he and his friends, Sophie of the Elves and Webster, are building the Great Wall of China out of cereal boxes. They only have one little mishap – a battle with Stink’s super-sticky duck tape. All three of them get stuck together! “Don’t worry,” says Stink, “Friends should stick together.”

But then they notice that the great wall is moving. Quivering. Shaking.

And … squeaking?

The three investigators discover three escaped guinea pigs. They decide to talk to Mrs. Birdwhistle at their favorite pet store, Fur & Fangs. When they arrive they find cages toppled! Escaped animals are everywhere! Puppies squeal, parrots squawk, rabbits race, and guinea pigs squeak from every corner of the room.

“Don’t just stand there,” said Mrs. Birdwhistle, “Help me catch them.”

After the escapees are once again corralled, Mrs. B. explains that the guinea pigs were being used in lab experiments, so she took them in, all 101 of them. Unfortunately, now she needs to find families to adopt them or they’ll be put to sleep, and she has no idea how to make it happen.

Luckily for her, she’s friends with Stink, Webster, and Sophie. They go door to door in the neighborhood. One man says he’d take fifty, but when they recognize him as Sam the Snake Man, they wisely decide against it.

That’s when they get the idea for the Great Guinea Pig Express – Squeals on Wheels! – a converted camper that houses the critters and makes a great traveling advertisement. After finding a few adoptive pet owners in a local parking lot, the Fantastic Fur Friends take a trip to Virginia Beach where a friend of Mrs. B’s has started a guinea pig rescue and has agreed to take twenty of guinea pigs. On their trip they stop at various points of interest (ever see the world’s oldest ham or a giant gorilla named Hugh Mongous?) to find more adoptive homes.

Filled with plenty of goofiness, like Stink’s crawling underwear and a guinea pig that looks like Chewbacca, Stink and the Great Guinea Pig Express is another fantastic addition to Megan McDonald’s tales of the Moody Family. Stink and Judy are welcome additions to every middle grade classroom.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer

Jack’s sister, Lucy, is set to play an important role in the village’s need-fire ceremony, a rite intended to leave behind the evils of the old year and move into the new year with a fresh start. And the past year has had its share of evil, as readers will know from reading The Sea of Trolls, the first book in Nancy Farmer’s trilogy.

But when Jack’s father once again gives in to Lucy’s wailing, purposely permitting her to wear a forbidden necklace to the ceremony, Lucy allows old evil to creep into the new year. It spreads. It’s like a contagion, says the Bard, and it must be driven off before it affects everyone.

Giles Crookleg, Jack and Lucy’s father, then relates a story that he has kept hidden for years. After Lucy was born and her mother, Alditha, became sick, Giles took Lucy to the tanner’s wife for care. On the return trip he stopped to pick ripe hazelnuts, and while he was distracted, Lucy was kidnapped. But by some miracle, as he saw it, the child was replaced by another beautiful baby.

When seeking answers at St. Filian’s monastery, Jack’s unpolished bard skills cause an earthquake. In the ensuing chaos, Lucy (the one readers already know) is kidnapped by the Lady of the Lake, a close friend of the Queen of Elfland. The Lady also takes all the water from St. Filian’s well. Jack and Pega, a slave girl Jack recently freed, and another former slave named Brutus embark on a quest. Find Lucy. Find the replacement Lucy. Bring water back.

The second book of the trilogy introduces more mythical creatures. Jack and his fellow travelers encounter kelpies and a knucker hole and girl nearly buried in moss and even dragon poop. There are yarthkins and hobgoblins, including a king named Bugaboo and his Nemesis. And of course they travel to Elfland, meet elves, and learn the secrets behind the elves’ history and current lives.

Jack’s bard skills are growing, but as evidenced in the earthquake he causes, he’s far from being in control of them. Seeing Jack’s growth, both in character and skill, and the relationships he has with Thorgil – yes, she’s back for book two – and Pega, the freed slave girl, is a rewarding part of the book.

Overall The Land of the Silver Apples simply feels like the middle book of a trilogy. Lacking is the fresh shine and newness of the initial book and the anticipation created by an impending conclusion. If readers climbed a mountain in The Sea of Trolls, then The Land of the Silver Apples serves as a bridge to The Islands of the Blessed, where readers will embark on an exhilarating trip down to the (hopefully) fulfilling finale.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough

I wrote the following statement before I saw the movie, but nevertheless, at that time I naively believed my uneducated opinion to be true:

The book is better.

Now I’ve seen the movie and I must, to be honest and fair, revise the previous statement. It now reads:

Why even try? I mean really! To say “the book is better” is like saying “Dillinger robbed banks.” No kidding. The movie is to the book like your little brother’s piggy bank is to the Federal Reserve. Which one gives gangsters the bigger reward?

Yeah, that’s a bit more accurate.

I've been planning on seeing Public Enemies ever since it was announced the John Dillinger movie would be filmed in Wisconsin, and historical sites, including one in my hometown, were scouted as possible locations. Then late last summer I had breakfast at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish, Wisconsin, site of a bungled FBI raid on Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and others. Before my biscuits and gravy arrived, I read the brief history of the lodge and the failed raid printed on my placemat.

But now I’ve read the book, which includes a bit more information than the placemat, and it is phenomenal. Painstakingly researched by author Bryan Burrough and incredibly detailed, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 is much more than another John Dillinger story. Readers learn the truth about numerous criminals of the time. For example:

Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd gained national notoriety due to media speculation after the Kansas City Massacre, a crime he didn’t commit, and by spring of 1933 he had “withdrawn from bank robbing altogether, preferring to spend his days baking pies in his cousins’ kitchens.” (He didn’t, of course, retire as a baker.)

Bonnie and Clyde were far from the glamorized characters portrayed by Hollywood. Their crimes were small compared to their contemporaries – one bank robbery earned them only $80, another attempted job was on a bank that had been closed for weeks. Bonnie nearly died in a car accident, and as they became more notorious, “they gave up bathing and normal hygiene. Their clothes were dirty. They smelled.” Hardly glamorous.

Ma Barker, portrayed by J. Edgar Hoover as the criminal mastermind of the Barker Gang, was more interested in jigsaw puzzles than crime. (But died from an FBI bullet to the head nevertheless.)

George F. Barnes was a dreamer and a joker, a nervous man who sometimes vomited before bank jobs. He and his wife were behind the kidnapping of Charles Urschel and the $200,000 ransom, but he missed the first cash drop, probably because he flooded his car. The most impressive part of his legacy may be his nickname: Machine Gun Kelly.

It has been said that truth is stranger than fiction. Public Enemies shows that truth can be better than fiction. Hollywood would be hard pressed to concoct a cast of characters with stories as interesting and intertwined as those on both sides of the 1933-1934 War on Crime. In fact, even when Hollywood is presented with a golden story in an open vault, it still makes off with only a buck-two-eighty. (For more thoughts on the movie, click here.)

Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 is not to be missed. While the movie includes plenty of high speed chases and shoot-em-ups, the book explains how they managed to rob banks, as Dillinger once said, in “one minute, forty seconds. Flat.” It explains how the gangs were able to repeatedly evade the law, and especially how the FBI, just a fledgling organization being created on the fly to fight the War on Crime, often times made it easier for the gangs to remain free. Public Enemies is an eye-opening view through the bars of a life of crime and into the offices of the men trying to fight it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Traveling? Time to Pack

Summertime means vacation time. New newspaper column today about going away, or more accurately, getting ready to go away.

Make sure you've got everything and the van is properly loaded, the click on over for the article or the printable version.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer

Life couldn’t be more boring for Jack. He helps his father, Giles Crookleg, tend to the farm, wishing his hard work and dedication would be acknowledged, all while listening to his father’s never ending sing-song for his younger sister, Lucy, lost princess of a faraway land.

Right. Jack works his tail off for nary a thank you, while Lucy does exactly the opposite of what father asks with no consequences. Jack’s fortunes turn when the local Bard asks Jack to be his apprentice. After initially refusing, Giles Crookleg grudgingly agrees, encouraged by the Bard’s promise that Jack will have no fun, that he will “work like a donkey in a lead mine,” and that other village boys will come to aid with the farm.

Jack learns from the Bard to see the world differently, the beginning of his study of the life force, and the ability to call upon it for magic. His studies are unfortunately cut short by the attacks of vicious Northmen – Vikings – who kidnap him and Lucy. Jack is to be sold as a thrall (slave) and Lucy is to be a gift for Queen Frith, a half-troll, from Thorgil, a shield maiden seeking the queen’s approval.

Olaf One-Brow, the leader of this band of Northmen, decides to keep Jack as his own when he learns of Jack’s bard training. His own personal skald, a bard to create songs praising his abilities, ensuring his fame will never die.

Eventually, Olaf and his crew, Thorgil the shield maiden, Jack, and the crow Bold Heart are sent on a quest to drink from Mimir’s Well. Drinking the song-mead from the well is the only thing that will help Jack save Lucy. They travel to Jotunheim, land of the trolls, and face giant spiders, dragons, a troll-bear, and a deadly, frozen landscape. Oh yeah. And trolls.

I was astounded at how many times the actions of Olaf One-Brow and his band of berserkers disgusted me, only to find myself liking Olaf, sometimes even feeling sympathetic toward him, and sometimes even in the very next chapter. Then, when once again reminded of Olaf’s true nature, I found myself surprised! At least I shared these feelings with Jack, who, despite his growing abilities as a bard, hasn’t completely grown accustomed to this way of life, seemingly the opposite of that on his sheltered family farm.

Nancy Farmer has created an entire new world, complete with history and politics, all based on real history and legend. In fact, three pages of sources are listed about Norse myths, legends, and history. Readers will be quickly drawn into this historical fantasy world inhabited by characters with names like Ivar the Boneless, Gizur Thumb-Crusher, Einar the Ear-Hoarder, and Sven the Vengeful and creatures like jotuns (trolls), monstors, and various unclassifiables like half-ogres and shapeshifters.

I've had fourth graders read The Sea of Trolls with success, albeit strong readers, and know young adult readers eagerly antipating the release of The Islands of the Blessed, the conclusion of the trilogy. The Sea of Trolls is a remarkable book, with a wide interest level, that should be recommended to fans of the Inheritance Trilogy, the Percy Jackson series, the Wingfeather Saga, and The Lord of the Rings or readers ready to move on from series like the Spiderwick Chronicles and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman doesn't waste time - or words, more accurately - getting to the story of Odd and the Frost Giants, but readers won't miss the missing. Everything needed is there. Only the most talented authors are able to sift through the endless possibilities and present readers with no more than what's necessary. Gaiman fits the description.

In Chapter One readers learn of the boy, Odd. He is not unusual, as his name might suggest. Rather, it is a lucky name, Odd, meaning the tip of a blade. His life, however, has not been lucky. His Viking father had been killed in a sea raid. His mother, herself obtained in a Scottish sea raid, remarries a man named Fat Elfred. Odd permanently cripples his leg in a forest accident, and Fat Elfred has little use for a crippled stepson. That year, as winter hung on longer than usual and people’s dispositions changed for the worse, Odd left. He took his warmest clothes, food, and coals from the fire, and left for his father’s old woodcutting hut. Through it all and despite everything, Odd smiles.

I think that summary is nearly the length of the first chapter.

By the end of the next day, Odd has followed a fox, freed a trapped bear, realized he’s lost, feared his death by bear consumption, met an eagle, and returned to the woodcutter’s hut on the back of the bear. Oh, and he ends up with overnight guests.

It’s during the overnight stay when Odd learns there is more to his guests’ story. The bear, eagle, and fox are actually Thor, Lord Odin, and Loki, respectively. Gods. Inhabitants of Asgard who now find themselves exiles in Midgard, Odd’s world, thanks to the Frost Giants.

Thus the four begin a quest, traveling back to Asgard to free it from the hold of the Frost Giants. But Odd must travel alone to the Gates of Asgard, alone so the Frost Giants won’t learn of the gods’ return. Odd proves that a person’s circumstances in life are not just due to luck, and that gods returning to Asgard aren’t the only ones with a desire to return home.

Odd and the Frost Giants is a short book – the advanced reading copy is 117 pages – but what the story lacks in length is more than made up for in strength. Readers who enjoyed Coraline’s victory over her other mother and Bod’s survival against the man Jack will get similar satisfaction from Odd and his encounters with the Frost Giants.

Watch for Odd and the Frost Giants in September, 2009.