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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Best zoo-based all-animal Shakespeare graphic novel ever!

Lendler, Ian; Gaillongo, Zack  (2014)   The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presnts: Macbeth.  New York:  First Second.

Opening lines:  "Peanuts!  Earthworms!  Ice cold bananas!"  (says an Albatross hawking concessions)
                          "Anyone wanna switch seats?  Please?"  (says a fox seated next to a skunk)
                           "Carrion!  Rotting Carrion! (says an aardvark peddling stinky, fly-infested meats.)

Okay, look, I don't do this often -- but you have got to get this book.  If you teach Shakespeare at any level...  If you have a sense of humor...  If you get a kick out of figuring out clever visual jokes...  If you are alive and have eyeballs and like to read ... buy this.  The story is funny.  The humor works whether you know Macbeth or not (though it is funnier if you know Shakespeare's Scottish play.

Do you really need a summary?  Really?  Okay, so this kilt-wearing lion who is a hero and is beloved by the king (an owl) along with his friend Banksy (Banquo) who is a hyena, meets these three witches (after following a signpost that gives options between humility and honor one way and hubris, homicide and humiliation the other.)  The witches tempt him with power, and soon Macbeth and his wife are plotting the downfall of all who stand between Macbeth and the throne.  Look,  you know the rest.  It is the story of Macbeth.  Only funnier and with zoo animals.

This graphic novel is appropriate for fifth or sixth grade and up (my fifth grade daughter liked it).  It is not exactly like the play.  Here the Lion eats his victims (which, mercifully, is not shown much) and suffers massive stomach aches as a result.  The art and writing are both clever and...

Oh, just go get it already.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Scott Westerfield's Specials -- I didn't read the earlier books in the series, and I didn't read this one either -- but I liked it.

Westerfield, Scott (2007) Specials  Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, LLC

I loved Scott Westerfield's Levaithan series and had been meaning to read his series composed of Pretties, Uglies, and Specials.  I ordered all three from the library, but Specials, the last book in the series came first, and when it came, it came as an audio book.  I started playing it in the car on the way home from work that day, and i was immediately hooked (though I would generally suggest anyone wanting to check out this series should start with the first book.

And so, before I write about what is so great about Specials, let me put in a plug for audio books.  If you haven't ever listened to one, or it has been a while, you should give them another try.  I first fell in love with audio books when I was doing my coursework for my masters degree at a smaller liberal arts college in Northwest Iowa.  It was about an 11 hour drive.  I remember becoming so engrossed in an audio book of Derek Jacobi reading the Robert Fagels translation of The Iliad while on that drive that I put off lunch for three hours because I didn't want to leave the world of the book.

Right.  Anyway, Specials.  So the book opens with the main character Tally.  Tally has been selected and made special.  The specials are a group of people how have been genetically and surgically altered to be hunters after the renegades who are trying to escape the life of the city.  Tally's bones have been strengthened with ceramics, her senses heightened, her teeth and nails turned into weapons, her skin serves as an antenna for a communication system that links her to other specials, and her perceptions have been sped up to the point where she can instantly analyze and respond to any threat.  Like other Specials, Tally has learned to cut herself to bring on this heightened perception.

Tally and her friend Shay, along with a group of other specials, go to a party to find out who is moving some kind of pills that may counteract the bubble-headedness of the pretty caste.  They find the perpetrator, but when they move in, things get tricky.  The gang behind the pills are outfitted with hoverboards.  They lure Tally and her team into the woods and then ambush them.  Suddenly. Tally and Shay find themselves trying to figure out how to rescue two members of their team that have been captured.  In attempted to get the members of their team back, Tally nearly destroys the city, discovers the truth, touches off a war, discovers hope, and finds her true love again (but can she keep him?)

Westerfield's storytelling is amazing.  It is intriguing, edgy, and sometimes violent -- yet he manages to stay authentic and engaging without really including anything that might caused the book to be challenged.  The one complaint I had about the audio book was that the voices of Tally and Shay were described int he book as emotionly flat and kind of metallic (though toward the end of the book, Tally begins to break out of that).  Carine Montbertrand's performace is right on -- but when you read the book, you don't have to listen to that voice in your head in quite that way.  I found Shay's voice in particular to be hard to listen to.

This book is ideal for high school, and probably best suited to English class.   Check it out  (or better yet, read one of the earlier books in the series.  It is a really fun book to read.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

You could call this book pre-post apocolyptic or pre-distopian, or you could just call it a honking good YA novel!

Doctorow, Cory  (2008) Little Brother.  New York: Tor

Opening Lines:  I'm a senior at Cesar Chavez High in San Francisco's sunny Mission District, and that makes me one of the most surveilled people in the world.  My name is Marcus Yallow, but back when this story starts, I was going by w1n5t0n.  Pronounced "Winston."

Marcus is a high school student who likes to do some computer hacking in his spare time. He messes with the school's ID Card monitoring system, plays some live action computer games with his friends in the city, and though he often gets summoned to the principal's office, he never gets into trouble because he is very good at covering his  tracks.  When Marcus and his friends are in San Francisco playing a complicated problem-solving, live-action game, there is a terrorist attack on San Francisco and Marcus and his friends get herded up and detained.  Marcus is separated from his friends, including a buddy who has been injured, and then threatened and tortured.  When he is released  after several days.  He emerges into a world when technology is being used to track all citizens and many civil rights that Marcus takes for granted are being eroded.  Marcus needs to decide whether to play it save, or take on the system.  What follows is a novel that is smart, action-packed, and the sort of book where you will find yourself deeply rooting for Marcus and his friends.  The ending is satisfying.

What I love most about this book is that, although it does not take place in a future distopian world where everything is out of balance and only dim memories remain of out way of life in 21st century, it does many of the things that distopian novels ought to do, but don't.  The story takes one or two aspects of our life today (the increasing degree of technological surveillance and the eroding of civil rights in a world terrified of terrorism) and pushes them just the littlest bit, then shows how that would play out in our world.   It makes for a book that is easy to get into, that raises important issues, and that sticks with you for a good long while.

This book is probably best for high school and could be used in the English, computer science, math, or Social Studies classroom (especially Government class), but I need to pass on some warnings.   First, there is a fair amount of vulgarity.  Marcus and his friends talk like many teenagers.  There are also a couple of sexual scenes (though they are quick and really not very explicit.

Read the book and see what you think.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Another excellent, funny, young adult fantasy novel from Jasper Fforde!

Fforde, Jasper (2014)  The Eye of Zoltar.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Opening lines;  "The first thing we had to do was to catch the Tralfamosaur.  The obvious question, other than 'What's a Trafalmosaur?' was 'Why us?'"

I have never read a Jasper Fforde book that didn't cause me to laugh, smile, care deeply for the character, laugh, and go running to friends to recommend that they read it.  The cheezily named Eye of Zoltan is no exception. 

Jennifer Strange, 16-year-old orphan indentured servant manager of Kazam Mystical Arts, has been tasked by the King of Snodd to seek the mystical Eye of Zoltan in the terrifyingly unsafe Cambrian Kingdom (where they do a brisk business in fatality tourism) and to take his recently body-switched daughter with her.  Along with her companions (including a dragon who has been recently transformed into rubber, a wizard who wants to date her, and a fearless travel guide) all Jennifer has to do is find the Eye of Zoltan, defeat the invisible army, avoid countless dangers, return the princess intact, negotiate for the release of her friend, expose the evil corporation, and return home.  Along the way we get to see a civil war between two competing railroads, the princess use her financial acumen to talk her way out of certain death, super-fast messenger snails, and much much more.  It is a wry, thoughtful, and utterly enjoyable book.

Exceptionally bright sixth graders could like this book, but it is more on a high school reading level. There is nothing really objectionable here except maybe references to magic -- but only for the most sensitive -- no potions or sacrifices, this is more like say-the-magic-word kind of magic.  I recommend this (and the earlier books in the series -- The Last Dragonslayer and The Song of the Quarkbeast) with great enthusiasm.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Just a typical Boy-meets-girl, boy-develops-the-power-to-disassemble-machinery-with-his-mind, girl-turns-out-to-be-a-reporter kind of story..

Law, Ingrid (2010) Scumble.  New York: Scholastic

Opening lines:  "Mom and Dad has known about the wedding at my Uncle Autry's ranch for months.  But with the date set a mere ten days after my thirteenth birthday, my family's RSVP had remained solidly unconfirmed until the last possible wait-and-see moment.  We had to wait until my birthday came and went.  We had to see if anything exploded, caught fire, or flooded before committing to a long-haul trip across four states in the minivan."

Ledger Kale has problems.  Like the rest of his family, he will develop powers when he turns 13.  His Mom has the power of persuasion, his Uncle can talk to insects, and Ledger's dad is convinced that Ledger, already a track star, is going to develop the ability to run fast.  Instead, however, Ledger develops the uncontrolled ability to cause machinery to disassemble -- sometimes violently.  And when Ledger accidentally destroys a motorcycle in the town near his Uncle's ranch, Sarah Jane Cabot, a normal kid who hopes to be a reporter some day, thinks she has found the scoop that will finally get her noticed. 

What happens from there is a wonderful weaving of plot twists and turns, romance, humor, excitement, and a collection of really interesting (and mostly likable) characters.  This is a fun book to read.  It may also have something to say about family and community, but it is probably best not to point that out to young readers until they have finished reading it.

I can think of nothing in this book that would cause it to be challenged.  It would be a good choice for a classroom library.  It might work for small group study as well.  I am not sure there is enough here to support an entire class focusing on it, but it is a fun book to read.

I would say this is probably the best fit for fifth graders and up.