Monday, August 31, 2009

The Tomorrow Code, by Brian Falkner

The Tomorrow Code

Brian Falkner

Published by Random House, 2008. 349 Pages

I try to avoid doing reviews for books that push propaganda I don't believe in, but I felt compelled to follow through with this one, since I read it for the express purpose of reviewing it.

So, fair warning to everyone - this will not be an unbiased book review. The text touches on anthropogenic climate change and human self-hatred, both of which irk me to no end. The first, because it cannot be proven by scientific fact (it can be disproven, however, through many geological studies), and the second because I am a Christian and believe that all creatures are God's creation, even humans. The pushing of anthropogenic climate change and the negative view of human beings probably colored my enjoyment of the book. I encourage anyone to read it and decide for themselves what they think.

That being said, please understand that whatever my opinions, I am not trying to incite arguments about either of those things. Just know that if you disagree, you may not like this review.


The premise of this story is that two teenagers receive messages from the future that soon reveal themselves to be warnings and instructions to avoid the mass destruction of the human race.

It sounded very interesting when I read the back. And the main viewpoint was a teenage boy, which intrigued me all the more. As I got into the first part of the story, I was thrilled to find a book which echoed so many from Michael Crichton. I loved that guy! The code-finding and breaking drew me in and I was just as anxious as the characters to save the world.

Tane is the main character in the first act of the book. He is a typical teenage boy with an understated goodness and creativity that allows him to see the world in a mostly positive light. He has a crush on his best friend, gets jealous when she dates his brother, and he truly wants to help others. His voice and development are excellent and well-done in the first half.

Rebecca, his best friend, is out-spoken, highly intelligent and a strong animal-rights activist. She's had a hard road but things tend to work out okay for her.

Together, Tane and Rebecca are a great team, even though the author sometimes uses Tane as a tool to get the science explained to the audience. Rebecca, being the "smart" one, lays out the theories and ideas, hand-feeding them to the reader by "explaining" them to Tane. Instead of being interesting, at times it just feels like the author's crutch to make sure the audience "gets" everything.

As the story progresses, the kids are thwarted in their attempts to save the world from desctruction. They run up against an American soldier who is portrayed as a bully, and a scientist portrayed as a villain who is less intelligent than Rebecca. In fact, most of the adults in the book are shown (if they are shown) to be unobservant and callous.

While there is the need to show the kids as the heroes, there should also be a good showing of adults. Not all adults are the enemy and I believe it's important for readers to see positive interactions between the teenagers and their elders . It was rare to see that in this book.

The second half of the story is basically spent showing the inevitable consumption of all humans besides Tane and Rebecca.

Rebecca finally makes the connection she needs to understand what's happening, but by the time she does, her character is so angry and hurt that she essentially loathes all humans, calling mankind a plague on the earth. She says that the people fighting should just let it happen so the earth can be cleansed.

Her hesitation and anger pave the way for the end of the world. And thus, the end comes.

Of course, the author had to give us several different viewpoints from characters who end up dying horribly, which only serves to detract from Tane and muddle up the plot.

The real issue I have is that, while Rebecca ends up trying to help, we don't really see an acknowledgement of her desire to continue living and her desire to help save her people. She is never given the relief of true sadness and purging of all her fears and anguish. The end leaves off with her broken and destitute, emotionally. I don't believe that she truly thought of her loved-ones as a plague, but the issue is never addressed for her again and it's a shame. It taints her development, and leaves me feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.

I heartily disagree with the sentiment that humans are a plague, and having this character say it and never take it back leaves a bad taste in my brain.

The shining star of the novel, Tane, does not get the time he deserves. His goodness and ability to get back to his Maori roots are what really save the world, but that is lost amidst the death and destruction, the many different points of view, and Rebecca's hateful attitude. The character that should make the most impact is so understated that the twist at the end overpowers him.

Speaking of the twist at the end, I will say that the author did a nice job of foreshadowing. If Tane had been given the appropriate time in the second half, it would've been better, but I did smile when I realized what the author had set up from the beginning.

The science is interesting, as is the "bad guy" Tane and Rebecca end up fighting against. I never would've thought of it, myself.

I can only leave off with saying, "If only..." to most of the story, and not in a good way. If only the author had given Tane the spotlight... If only Rebecca had been given peace... If only the propaganda hadn't been pushed... I might have enjoyed this book. As it is, all I can do is move on to my next literary adventure and hope that I'm left feeling more satisfied.

Until next time, go read something good.

~ Vilate

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Shuster

Pages: 311
Ages: 9 to 12
Awards: National Book Award Finalist, Newberry Honor Book 2009

When I pick up books that are geared for middle readers (children between the ages of 9 to 12), I try to imagine my students reading the book. Would the cover catch their eye? Will the story speak to them in some untold way? Do the characters look like them? But most importantly would they read this book even if I hadn’t assigned the book?

Many of my students are known as reluctant readers. Most are students who are English Language Learners from homes with limited resources, and few adult reader role-models. Despite their life challenges, these students do want to read. The hurdle I face is finding a story that will draw them in and convince them to keep reading without being told to read. So it was with this in mind that I approached Kathi Appelt’s novel The Underneath.

My initial impression of the story’s premise was that it was a tale of friendship between some kittens and a hound. The book summary states “An old hound that has been chained up at his hateful owner’s run-down shack, and two kittens born underneath the house, endure separation, danger, and many other tribulations”. So far sounds like a typical children’s book centered on animals. When you flip open the front cover flap, it states “…Appelt spins a harrowing yet keenly sweet tale about the power of love – and its opposite hate – the fragility of happiness and the importance of making good on your promises.” How harrowing can a children’s story be?

Within a few pages of starting the story, the author tells the story of a child who has been severely beaten by his father who then passes out drunk and who’s mother abandon’s him. The child takes his father’s rifle and leaves home. He grows up to be a bitter, unpleasant man who abuses animals, has a penchant for rum, vodka, and gin and a score to settle with a king alligator. After I got over my initial shock of the description of violence and excessive drinking in the first several chapters (this is a children's book), I hoped that the story would improve and I could find several redeeming qualities about the book.

As I continued, I found myself frustrated with the initial pacing of the story and the style of writing. The slow development of characters and the meandering between the tale of a pregnant calico cat who give birth to twin kittens and befriends Ranger, an abused hound dog, and Grandmother Moccasin (an ancient snake shape-shifter), and then Gar Face the violent, abusive owner of Ranger made it difficult to settle into the story. I had to force myself to keep reading and not put the book down. I kept hoping that the book had a redeeming element. Finally about 100 pages into the story, I had become interested enough in the tale of the kittens and the hound and had the basic premise of each of the parallel stories to propel me forward. Yet when I thought about my students, I knew they never would have continued with this book unless I forced them to read it. If a children’s book takes me 100 pages (out of 300 pages) to finally grab my interest in it, then I know my students aren’t going to hang in there long enough to care about what happens to the animals. The sad part is that I am not even sure my 9 year old niece who is a very competent and enthusiastic reader would hang in there for the first 100 pages.

Appelt’s story weaves together the themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, anger, abandonment and loss as she works to intertwine the three separate stories into one. However, the story’s heavy narrative and cumbersome prose burdens this allegorical tale, especially at the beginning. Though the ending does have an element of redemption for Grandmother Moccasin and hope for the kittens and hound, it was not enough to balance out the heavy themes and descriptions of all the characters lives and sorrows. The periodic simple pencil drawings of illustrator David Small do little to enhance the story.

Though I am not one to ban or challenge a book because I do believe that children need to be exposed to a variety of topics, this is one book that I would cautiously recommend. I doubt that my students would be shocked to read about physical abuse towards children, or alcoholic parents or even abandonment; their lives are filled with every day realities of abuse and neglect. What the story fails to do is provide enough hope and redemption to balance out such heavy themes as abandonment, and betrayal. Additionally, the descriptive violence against the animals in the book might actually be more troubling to children who tend to care deeply about these creatures.

Despite The Underneath having been given the 2009 Newberry Honor Book Award, I would reluctantly recommend the story and would not encourage my colleagues to use it as part of any mandatory classroom reading list.

Book Club: First Book, How it Ends

We're announcing our first book for Book Club, voted on by our members:

How it Ends, by Laura Wiess

Laura Wiess is also the author of Such a Pretty Girl and Leftovers. We're very excited to read and discuss her work.

If you'd like details on the book club and how to join, please visit our website here.

~ Vilate

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Celebrating Back-to-School Books for Young Readers

I need very little as an excuse to go shopping for books. Some people collect shoes, I prefer to collect books. When a request went out for people to review picture books, I took it as an opportunity to buy some new books. Granted, this addiction of mine is practical, functional even. Hey, it is also the start of the school year. Why not look for some new classroom reading materials???

Though there are literally 100’s of books to choose from, here are some of my new finds:

I Am Too Absolutely Small For School (featuring Charlie and Lola) by Lauren Child
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Pages: 32
Grades: Pre-K – 2

In this third official (there are a series of Charlie and Lola books that tie into the TV show but were not written or illustrated by Lauren Child) installment of Charlie and Lola books, the reader is once again drawn in by Charlie’s narrations of his younger sister, Lola’s quirky behaviors and thoughts. This time Lola is espousing the benefits of staying at home rather than going to school. When Charlie tells Lola “And what about learning your letters, Lola? If you know how to write, you can send cards to people you like”, Lola responds in her typical fashion “I like to talk on the telephone. It’s more friendly and straightaway.” The story continues in this manner with Charlie trying to convince Lola that it is good to go to school and Lola refuting his claims. Eventually, Lola brings up her imaginary friend Soren Lorensen and his fears about going to school, not having any friends, and struggling with learning to read. As Charlie seeks to find his sister on the first day of school, he becomes concerned when he can’t find her anywhere. He then sees her “hopping home with someone else”. Parents and teachers will recognize in Lola’s projection of her fears on to her imaginary friend the behavior of many young children as they seek to cope with a new experience.

There are so many reasons why I love this story that I don’t know where to start. Whether it is the easy banter between Charlie and Lola or the creative mixed-medium illustrations and quirky writing, this is a must have in any collection of “going to school for the first time” books.

(*)My Rating: :) :) :) :) :)

How Do Dinosaurs Go To School? By Jane Yolen, Illustrated by Mark Teague
Publisher: Blue Sky Press
Pages: 40
Grades: Pre-K – 2

Fans of Yolen/Teague’s How Do Dinosaurs series will not be disappointed with this offering. Through a series of questions, the story explores everything from how a dinosaur would get to school to how a dinosaur would behave in class. Teague’s animated and larger than life dinosaurs manage to entertain without overwhelming the page or the illustrations of actual children. Teachers will enjoy the small attention to details related to every day classroom actions such as a dinosaur with a tooth that fell out or another dinosaur using one hand to hold up his other arm. As the story progresses, the questions change to statements that tell of what kind of appropriate behaviors a dinosaur would have.

I really enjoyed this book and loved all the little details and immediately thought about how I could use it with students on the first day of school. Charming illustrations and enthusiastic writing makes this a great classroom read aloud for any primary classroom. It allows both teacher and students to discuss appropriate class and playground behavior by examining the actions of the dinosaurs in the story.

(*)My Rating: :) :) :) :)

First Grade, Here I Come (Paperback) by Nancy Carlson
Publisher: Puffin Books
Pages: 32
Grades: K-1

In this follow-up to Look out, Kindergarten, Here I Come!, Nancy Carlson continues the adventures of Henry as he begins first grade. The story unfolds when Henry’s mother asks him “How do you like first grade?” At first, Henry seems to indicate that he didn’t like first grade because it wasn’t the same as kindergarten. Through a series of questions from his mother, Henry shares with her the negatives about first grade. However, soon, he discovers something positive to go with each negative. By the end of the book, Henry has decided that even if it is different from kindergarten that it is okay because he is a “real first grader now”.

This is a fun stand out in a field where there are many similarly told stories. Carlson’ bright, primary infused illustrations bring Henry’s description of first grade to life. The story can be used by teachers or parents as a read aloud. Independent reading level is mid-first to second grade. Additionally, First Grade, Here I Come is a nice story for parents to read with their child before starting school to help calm those first day jitters.

(*)My Rating: :) :) :) :)

Homework by Arthur Yorinks, Illustrated by Richard Egielski
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Pages: 32
Grades: K–2

In Homework by Arthur Yorinks, Tony ignores his mother’s pleas to do his homework and instead falls asleep while reading his comic books. While asleep, his pencil comes alive and decides to help by writing Tony’s essay. Eraser joins in and before long the two are sparring over the writing process which awakes all of the other items on the desk including a ball point pen, a fountain pen, book, ruler, cup and more. In their excitement to help, the fountain pen accidentally squirts “splotches” of ink on the paper generating a new idea for their story. Eventually the verbal dispute between the anthropomorphous objects wakes Tony who decides that it is time to do his homework. When Tony sees the paper with splotches of ink, crossed out words, erase marks, he crumples the paper and throws it out. He then writes his own tale of planet Splotch.

I really enjoyed this creative twist on homework and the writing process. Yorinks’ story will be a particular hit with students in the 2nd and even 3rd grades who are struggling with the writing process, especially in brainstorming ideas and the revision of thoughts. The dialogue between the writing tools mimic that of most playground banter though teachers may not necessarily want to encourage their students to call one another “stinkeroo”, “jerk”, or “nincompoops”. Egielski’s illustrations are fun though somewhat cluttered.

(*)My Rating: :) :) :)

The New Bear at School (Hardcover) by Carrie Weston, Illustrated by Tim Warnes
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 32
Grades: Pre-K – 2

For teachers seeking ways to help children empathize with the new child in the class, Weston’s The New Bear at School tells the story of Boris the bear. Miss Cluck announces to the students in class that there will be a new student. All of the animals try to guess what type of bear Boris will be. There is even a reference to Paddington Bear that children will discover. However, “Boris wasn’t a teddy bear, He was an enormous, hairy, scary grizzly bear!”

Boris’ attempts to fit into his new class, though humorous to the reader, frighten his new classmates who promptly reject him. In one more attempt to fit in, Boris greets a group of rats who were bullying the other animals causing them to run away. Boris has unwittingly become the class hero when he was actually attempting to make friends. Despite his confusion, the other animals cheer him on as their champion. The following day the animals share with Miss Cluck how Boris rescued them and has now become a favorite of the students.

Young readers will enjoy the delightful illustrations, repeated words and phrases and laugh at Boris’ attempts to fit in. However, Weston’s tale fails to truly teach about acceptance of one’s differences and not to judge someone by their appearance. Unfortunately, even the teacher in the story does not address the students’ rejections of Boris in a way that would help children learn how to accept a new student. I enjoyed the whimsical illustrations and the overall theme, but in the classroom, I would suggest using the book as a discussion starter and not as the main focus for teaching children how to welcome a new student.

(*)My Rating: :) :)

So, what are you waiting for…grab a book, find a kid and start reading…
- Aly B

*Rating Scale:

:) :) :) :) :) - it was amazing, definitely recommend it
:) :) :) :) - really liked it, recommend it without reservations
:) :) :) - liked it, recommend it
:) :) - it was okay, recommend with reservations
:/ - didn’t like it, don’t recommend it

Thursday, August 20, 2009

WWII Novels

With the new podcast episode up (The Book Thief), I thought it might be appropriate to highlight a few of my favorite novels set in the time of World War II.

Though it was an era of very difficult times for millions of people, out of that, we get a few gems - teaching us about humankind and evils alike. Most of us don't know what it is to suffer like those who were persecuted and killed in WWII. My grandpa was there to see it firsthand, as was my grandfather. Grandpa served in Europe and spent time with the "clean-up" after it was over. It wasn't a pleasant experience and he rarely spoke of it. When he did, though, it was always with sadness and respect for those who fought.

We tend to learn best and sympathize most when we are told stories, which is why fiction and tales based on fiction are so popular. The effect that war stories have on us tends to be stronger than other fiction stories. Reading about the heroes helps us all reach inside ourselves to be better people.

One of the first novels I read set in WWII was Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I read it when I was still very young and had a difficult time understanding why people hated other people so much that they started a war. It had a big impact on me, however, and I still find this a moving piece of literature now that I'm older.

Number the Stars tells about a young girl and her family who hide a Jewish girl from the Nazis. It's a story set in Denmark, where a nation of heroes tries their best to help in the war effort. Readers will not only be engaged in the plot, but also in the friendship of the girls and the heroism of the family and nation around them.

Another book I read while still in elementary school was The Endless Steppe, the story of Esther Hautzig and her family. It's been a while since I've re-read this one, but it is particularly moving knowing that it is a true story of how one girl and her family survived the harsh Siberian steppe. I blame this book for my fascination with Siberia! ;)

Esther and her family were arrested out of Poland and taken to work in the potato fields of the steppe. For five years, they struggled through hardships. Esther's father was forced into the army. This is a fascinating glimpse into one of WWII's stories that ended on a happier note than we usually get to see in novels from the time period.

There is also The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss. This is another one I read when I was young.

The story is the author's account of what she went through as a child hiding with her sister. Besides being shunned by her once-friends, and not being allowed in school, Johanna was forced to leave everything she knew behind so she'd be safe from the Nazis. This book has a very strong feeling of reality where The Endless Steppe always felt more like a fiction novel to me.

Of course there's the Diary of Anne Frank, a classic that still saddens me when I think of it.

I can't recount all of the WWII novels here. These are just a few of my favorites. If you've got any you'd like to share, please feel free to leave us a comment and tell us about them.

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Kiss in Time, by Alex Flinn (spoilers!)

From Harper Collins, April 2009.

You can find her website here:
Alex Flinn

A Kiss in Time is the first book that I've read written by Ms. Flinn. Once my busy reading schedule lets up, I'm planning to read Beastly since I enjoyed Kiss.

The book is a play on 'Sleeping Beauty' giving it a twist by bringing the beauty, and her kingdom, into an unknown modern world. Talia falls to the spell of the witch and 300 years later, Jack stumbles into her sleep and kisses her awake. Then we get to read about what happens afterwards.

I enjoyed the idea of bringing the entire kingdom forward in time. As plot goes, the classic 'Beauty' doesn't follow logic very well. Regardless of the time period in which the story is told, no one really seems to notice that a kingdom suddenly appears and the story generally stops as soon as the kiss is performed. So we never know what happens to the kingdom after discovering it has woken up in an unknown time.

Kiss brings the ending of the story in focus and tells the tale well. What happens when the girl wakes up? Well, they're thrown into chaos. Their land doesn't exist anymore. Over the past 300 years of our history, we've made significant advances and countries have risen and fallen. Reading this book, it highlights those changes quite a bit. I felt sorry for these people who have no place anymore in the world of power and country. Ms. Flinn questioned what they would do and I felt that, in a magical universe, her answer was more than sound and logical.

The book alternates between the points of view of the two main characters, Jack and Talia, so we get to be inside both heads while the story unfolds. I usually dislike this type of format when reading, but it works in Kiss and I felt no unnatural flow issues while I read. It was nice to watch both characters develop throughout the tale, growing into their opinions and their friendship.

Talia starts off as one might expect: spoiled. However, I did feel kind of sorry for her on more than one occasion. The poor thing never had a chance to be a well-rounded individual until she made the "bad" decision to follow her spoiled inclinations. When she is introduced into our modern world, she proves that there was nothing inherently flawed in her personality and that she could learn and grow like anyone else. I loved seeing a character that I could loathe and pity grow into someone I admired.

Jack is also spoiled in his own way. He starts out very self-absorbed and he feels as though everyone dumps on him all the time. Finding and waking Talia shoves him into a protector's srole, even though he doesn't want it, and it proved that he is capable of change and growth. He shows that he can care about others and, with Talia's help, he becomes closer to his family and to what he wants out of life.

For me, the one flaw in the book was the witch. I felt like her story was predictable and she didn't turn out to be a real villain, either. She was just a disgruntled employee. It almost nullifies the entire journey of the two main characters for me when, at the end, all is forgiven and the "witch" is invited back into the arms of the court which rejected her. I don't feel like I can relate to her. Why would you want to be around people who despised you for so long and accused you of something so heinous? Even if she did forgive them, it didn't make much sense to me for her to join them again. It would have been better if she'd forgiven them and then disappeared to live in peace from then on. It makes the plot seem more Disney than it should be.

In spite of my issues with the "villain" of the story, the overall flow and pacing is good and the end wraps (most) things up nicely. The logic behind what to do with this suddenly-there kingdom is present and it sets up the rest of their lives.

The writing, while cheesy in some places, is fairly tight. The dialogue between the characters is believable and natural. The story flows easily from one situation to the next and the plot is done well.

While there's not much deeper meaning written in, it's nice to find an entertaining story that is hopeful and highlights the growth of its characters. I'm looking foward to reading more from Ms. Flinn.