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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hope Was Here

Author: Joan Bauer
Reading Level: 5th - 8th

Pages: 186
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Edition: Hardcover, 2000

I can see that, maybe, some readers will find parts (especially toward the end, when most things turn out exactly right) of this story a bit too good to be true, or even sappy, but I definitely ate it all up! Joan Bauer has the talent to capture many different personalities as only an observant writer would: they are just your every day ordinary people, they sound real, they act not that out of the norm, and yet, each single one of them also carries a little spotlight around that makes you, the reader as audience, see the details defined much more clearly and each of them shines with a glow that makes them a bit larger than life. Reading Hope Was Here, like reading its twin, another excellent book by Bauer, Rules of the Road, inspires the reader to examine the every day life and people with a special lens that captures what's just below the surface that makes every thing and every body that much more special. We become less lazy about what we do and how we feel. I'm surprised that no one has offered a movie deal to turn this into one of the core American Spirit (dare I say Value???), feel-good, summer family movie! It has all: quirky, interesting characters, a mystery to solve, some very witty internal monologues (and food metaphors,) lots of hope and courage, and some romance, too. It's a bit like Sideways, only it deals with the philosophy of Diner Food, not red wine, and it's about a 17-year-old girl, not a middle aged man, of course!

As I read this book that has been quite popular with my 5th graders, I was constantly amazed in wonderous puzzlement: why do my girl readers, who are mostly from well-to-do families, and who has lived the city life all along would find this book so irresistable that they excitedly recommend it to their best friends all the time? What do they see and feel in it that speaks to them so much? The interesting and witty main character (Hope) alone cannot carry the weight of the entire book... what else? I'll have to remember to investigate that one when school starts in a couple of weeks.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Beyond the Deepwoods

Authors: Paul Stewart & Chriss Riddell
Reading Level: 4th to 6th

Pages: 278
Publisher: David Fickling Books/ Random House
Edition: Hardcover, 2004 (1998 in UK)

So. I couldn't wait to finish this book! Not that I was so thrilled by it that I wanted to know how it all pans out. Nope. I basically could guess (there are quite a bit of not very subtle hints throughout the book) how Twig's journey is going to end. I simply wanted the book to end so I didn't have to keep reading chapter after chapter after chapter of descriptions of some form of gross, fantastic creatures who put Twig in mortal danger and, of course, from whom Twig eventually gets away. I even guessed the Gloamglozer part (which just shows how jaded an adult reader can be when reading a children's book.) Their existence serves little to actually advance the storyline but a strong sense of self-indulgent from the co-authors/illustrators.

The writing is solid and fine. The illustrations are definitely fabulous and incredibly detailed: when I skimmed the creatures chapters, they tell me exactly what happens and how each creature looks like. Very helpful indeed.

To be absolutely fair, there are some good chapters and a few unexpected turns: the Banderbear's demise is definitely sad. I can see young readers who enjoy imagining their own creatures find great examples and kindred spirits in the authors. I only wish that the binging of "creature presentation" is either curbed a bit, or serves some better purposes: as part of his self-discovery and growth, maybe? Time passes in the story, but the sense of Twig remains the same from the first page to the last. Even with the loss of his beloved companion, I do not feel that Twig has altered his sense of the world or of himself. It just got tiresome: like eating too much at a passable buffet dinner, just because I have paid and started the meal, not because I savor the many dishes.

I wonder if the following volumes, for this is the first of The Edge Chronicles series, are better or does the super-indulgence continue?

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Homework Machine

Author: Dan Gutman
Reading Level: 4th and 5th

Pages: 146
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

This definitely is a highly enjoyable book -- a lot less funny than I had expected, and the homework machine itself seems a little bit far-fetched, but the characters and their slowly developed friendship are utterly true to life that the whole story simply works, convincingly. This is a quick read. The teacher (Miss Rasmussen)who is neither a heroic figure, nor a villain, is also realistically portrayed. Indeed there is no villain at all, except, maybe Belch the Computer itself and the internal enemies of all: laziness, bad habits, insecurity.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Ask Me No Questions

Author: Marina Budhos
Reading Level: 5th and up

Pages: 162
Publisher: Atheneum, Ginee Seo Books
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

The subject matter is definitely an important one (post-911 mistrust and political mistreatment of Muslim males and families) and there are many moments of heart-felt and hard hitting impacts. Not that I want the Hossain family to fail in their struggle, but the few plot twists that turn the event around seem a little too easy. I wonder if the success of their appeal almost undercuts the untold stories of those who were sent back to their countries and denied more chances in the States. True, the Uncle's story is told on the side, which is a story of someone's spirit being broken, but it was such a small aside compared to the main tale. Maybe the narrator (who uses present tense) sounds a bit more like the writer behind these words than the 14-year-old who does not quite excel in anything except for being patient and preceptive at moments of distress -- some of the poetic descriptions seem a bit out of synch with the character.

That said, I will not hesitate giving this story to many young readers who will find both the topic and the perilous situations absorbing.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Illustrated Mum

Author: Jaqueline Wilson
Reading Level: 5th and up

Pages: 282
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Edition: Hardcover, U.S., 2005 (1999)

So, after a year of hearing little exclaiming squeals from the library's young readers (4th to 6th grade girls, mostly) telling their friends how amazing this book was and how much they loved, loved it -- I finally got around to read it myself. Yes, indeed, the urgency, the dire situation that the two girls, Dolphin and Star live under (with their obviously very unbalanced, irresponsible and artistic mother,) and the sense of danger and injustice all contribute to a transfixing read.

However, mid-book, suddenly, the realism gives way to incredible coincidences. Incredible here means: not credible, not believable. And the ending leaves me quite puzzled. Is there a message that says, do not ever put your trust in the males in one's life? Even a mother who needs to go through serious psychiatric treatment is better than the fathers who can offer more stable lives? What does the story wish to celebrate? or condemn? There is a hidden message there somewhere, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it! I don't know what I actually expected, not quite like these TV-soap-melodrama twists, for sure. (I wonder how teachers in 4th grade think about Miss Hill who seems so clueless about the situation that Dolphin is in while there are so many outward signs that anyone working with 10-year-olds with some basic training would have picked up on right away -- in Real Life.)

I guess there is the literary licence, and Wilson definitely uses it quite freely. Oh, I sound as if I did not enjoy the read or won't recommend it to young readers. Not so, not so. I quite liked the book and I now know why my students like it, too!

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More on Bartimaeus

What I found quite remarkable about this trilogy is how Stroud actually crafted three structurally very complete stories and yet at the same time maintained the arc of a grander scheme. It took me a while to pick up the second volume. After reading The Amulet of Samarkand last summer, I thought, "What would I find in the second volume, but the same old repeated story (think Harry Potter II) since the first volume ended in a way that’s so satisfying and whole. I was wrong. In the second volume, there is so much character growth and thickening of the plot/situation, that it is not a repeat of the first at all.

And yet, though the main conflict was resolved quite satisfactorily for Golem’s Eye , there is enough left to be puzzled over: what will happen to Kitty? who is really the mysterious benefactor? how will Nathaniel go on living now with the knowledge and new found admiration and gratitude toward Kitty (and Bartimaeus)? These questions serve as appetizers for the 3rd book but they did not detract from the sense of completion of the actual volume. And, then, of course, there is the much grander story revealed in the 3rd book and gives so much more depth and meaning to the trilogy.

I feel thankful and priviledged to have had the chance reading this trilogy and I know that Bartimaeus, Nathaniel, and Kitty will be memorialized on the little “character museum” in my heart that houses statues of other “people” such as Lyra, Will, and Sara Crews.


Ptolemy's Gate

Author: Jonathan Stroud
Reading Level:

Pages: 501
Publisher: Hyperion
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Warning: Plot Spoiler Below

I'm still trembling minutes after finishing the final scenes of this ever-better trilogy. Shed much tear at the end. The nobility of the three main characters, growing more obvious as each moment passes, is both so cleansing and so real. My mild delight at seeing Nathaniel becoming more like his old, idealistic self in the middle part of the book turns into the gigantic admiration toward the end, when he calmly sacrifices himself and protects all that he loves. I'm still in shock! Stroud is gutsy in constructing this unexpected and utterly convincing ending. No wonder so many readers have told me how great this book is. Indeed.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

A Damsel in Distress

Author: P.G. Wodehouse
Reading Level: Adult

Duration: 9 Hours
Publisher: Blackstone Audio Books
Edition: Audio, narrator: Frederick Davidson, 2001 (1919)

I absolutely enjoyed this light-hearted drawing room comedy. This is my first Wodehouse title and maybe I'll try some other writings by him in the future. Some of his humorous observations on human emotions can be so dead-on that I laughed out loud while listening to the competent reading by Davidson (although I didn't quite like his high-pitched, soft-fake tone of all the female characters). There were even a couple of tender romantic scenes that touched my heart! (I know, I'm a sap!)

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Friday, August 11, 2006


Author: Neil Gaiman
Reading Level: Adult

Edition: Paperback

-- copied from old journal--

Keeping to the same grim, weird, dreamy, and at the same time breezy and light vein, this is yet another entertaining gothic fantasy. I don't know why I'm simply not that affected by the images so gross in nature or the pains so extreme. Maybe it is because English is still my second language and I might never become fully immersed in its effects? I can't judge whether I should be shocked, grossed out, or frightened -- and all I felt was largely amusement at Gaiman's imagination.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Golem's Eye

Author: Jonathan Stroud
Reading Level: 5th and up

Pages: 562
Publisher: Hyperion
Edition: Hardcover, 2004

I couldn't put this down half way through this intriguing story. The narrative definitely gains momentum midterm, when the Resistance's efforts prove futile, when Nathaniel's situation becomes more dire, and when Bartimaeus shows his concerns for Nathaniel's waning integrity. Stroud definitely did a fabulous job joggling three points of views, flashbacks, and excitement and humor (sarcasm, mostly.) Although there are other books piling on my desk, waiting to be "evaluated" for my other commitments, I am going to be super indulgent and finish the Trilogy with Ptolemy's Gate, eager to see how Nathaniel's heart turns out and how Kitty's fate intertwined with that of Bartimaeus'.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return

Author: Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh
Reading Level: 8th and up

Pages: 187
Publisher: Pantheon Books, Random House
Edition: Paperback, 2005 (2002 - 2003)

This 2nd installment (which was the 3rd and 4th Persepolis comic strip collections originally) does not have the same impact on my psyche as the first, the story of a childhood. In the first collection, the juxtaposition of the extreme cruel suffering of the Iranians and the ultimate innocence of a young child creates at once a surreal and truly clear view of the society. The somberness interjected with the accute humor made reading Persepoli 1 an unforgetable emotional rollercoaster ride. This one, although is as honest and intelligent, lacks both the anguish and the childlike clarity. It nevertheless allows readers a glimpse of the contemporary (up to 12 years ago) Iranian life and to ponder the meaning of "freedom."

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River Secrets

Author: Shannon Hale
Reading Level: 5th and up

Pages: 290
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Edition: Galley, 2006

This is the third installment in the series started with Goose Girl and followed by Enna Burning. I put down everything else I was going to read because I so enjoyed the first two books. I liked this one, but was slightly disappointed that the water magic (after wind and fire, water is a natural element to follow) is not as prevelant and powerful in this one as the other two in the previous volumes. It is also less satisfying that the main character is not the one who learns and wields this power -- I missed the passages that would have been there to describe the sensation and emotion of the process of calling, forming, and controlling water, if Razo has been the water-speaker.

The characters are definitely well defined and likable; the secrets and the final revelation didn't come to me as a total shock but made the read entertaininig; the puppy love is so sincerely and deftly presented that I had to smile at Razo and his love. There are a couple of holes in this "detective" story that should have been addressed (for instance, the girl who baked the tart was never questioned after the accidental death of the poisoned dog...)

Shannon Hale is a wordsmith, just reading these sentences made me happy: "People opened their doors and shutters, pulled chairs and tables outside, and gossiped with neighbors as they ate, serenaded by a crooked moon." "Warehouses crammed together, elbowing for a bit of river side." "The Ingridan autumn air was pleasant and cool and carried with it a round feeling like something complete -- a full moon, a full plate, the end of a good day." Many many more vivid imageries and poetic descriptions. Maybe some readers find this slowing down the pace, but I just enjoyed reading them.

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