Friday, March 30, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Henry is a librarian at the Newbery in Chicago and Clare is an aspiring artist. When these two attractive, perfectly cool and Wicker-Parky bohemian arty Chicagoans meet and fall in love, it is practically love at first sight. But is it? You see, Henry has a genetic disorder that makes him slip in and out of time, traveling willy-nilly with no self control backwards and forwards in time. And because they share a great love, his travels have frequently brought him to Clare throughout her life, so she has known him since she was 6 years old. This science fiction-ish premise sets up a novel that contemplates the nature of free-will, of cause and effect, and the power of love across time.

You would think that I'd be pretty pre-disposed to liking this novel. After all, it is set in Chicago (my home town) and I can picture pretty easily almost every setting in the book. One of the main characters is a librarian who graduated from the very same school that I am attending right now. It has a fantasy/science fiction feel to it, and I've always liked fantasy and sci fi. And I DO like the book, even though it indulges in one of my least favorite activities in a book - gratuitous references to outre popular culture so I can tell just how cool and with it the author is. This book club reading is my second time around reading the novel. But as much as I enjoy the book, it just feels like mostly surface to me. Maybe I'm missing the allegory, or I'm not sensitive to the deeper themes, but the book feels like a quality chick flick to me. It is entertaining, easy to digest, with appealing characters, but it for me it just missed being something. It's a frappuccino of a book - more sophisticated than a milk shake, and you don't have to feel ashamed carrying it around - but it still kind of feels a little like junk food....

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine is an original girl - a third grader whose curious mind finds the world around her much more interesting than school - and she is having a pretty bad week. Her best friend's mother is very mad at her, her best friend seems to have a new best friend, she thinks maybe her parents are thinking about giving her away so they only have to raise the "easy one" (her little brother) and she's pretty much been in constant trouble at school. And even though she's the only one in school who seems to notice all the interesting things going on around, everyone is constantly telling her to pay attention. Sigh - it's hard to be 8.

This is a funny, delightful little book. As the parent of a first grader who has attention problems, I just loved this book for the way it shows just how original these children can be, and how delightfully different and interesting their worlds are. It helped remind me that I probably would profit from remembering the strengths of children like Clementine. What I liked most was the way it managed to make Clementine funny without her being bratty. A wonderful little book for the precocious 2nd grade reader or for those about 3rd grade and up, and would make a good read-aloud for just about any age over 6 or so.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Danger Boy: Ancient Fire by Mark London

It is 2019, the climate in the U.S. has gone just a little bit crazy (snow in New Orleans in June), Eli's father's time experiments have attracted the attention of the government, and to make things worse, Eli's mother has disappeared into a time bubble. Against this backdrop, Eli and his dad make a break for a disintegrating winery in California that dad has inherited, but there's no escaping dad's experiments. Before you know it, Eli has unwittingly become a lightning rod for time, and finds himself shifting back to ancient Alexandria just at the burning of the library, in the company of an intelligent descendant of the dinosaurs from an alternate earth. Does it sound like a lot is going on in this book? Well, a lot is!

It seems these days that most children's science fiction is bogged down in the time travel back to historic times genre that became so popular with the "Magic Treehouse" series. It seems like every sci-fi book released for chldren has this time travel theme. Frankly, I'm tired of it. That said, this is a solid read for children who like the genre. It is well-paced, fairly well written, and pretty well thought out. The only annoying part - no real resolution to the story so that we have to run out and read Dragon Sword: Danger Boy Episode 2 (The King Arthur time travel episode - hey, THAT hasn't been done before about 10 times!). I would recommend this book only to children who really like this type of book - otherwise I think it is kind of run-of-the-mill.

Amazon link:

Penny From Heaven by Jennifer Holm

This is hands down my favorite children's book I've read in the past 7 or 8 months. I liked the narrator - Barbara Ann "Penny" Falucci - very much. This is just a very well-written, appealing family story. There is gentle humor, a time period (the summer of 1953) just close enough to seem modern but just far enough to be interesting, and an attractive cast of eccentric family members. The children in the book lead a realistic life (no family of 4 kids with no mom and a gently absent father running wild here) and cope with normal problems. If I had to relate it to popular culture, I'd say its feel is something like "Moonstruck" in book form for kids.

Basically this is the story of one summer and fall in Penny's life. Penny's Italian-American father died when she was just a tiny baby. At age 12, Penny lives with her non-Italian mother and grandparents in the same New Jersey town as her father's Italian family. Penny hangs with her cousin Frankie, schemes to get slightly crazy Uncle Dominick and her mother to fall in love even though Mom has started dating the dorky milkman, chafes against her mother's rules (no trips to the swimming pool - you'll get polio!), roots for the Dodgers, and is generally very much loved by her large family. I'm tempted to say not much happens in this book - but quite a bit does - Penny turns 12, she gets grounded for the summer, she discovers a big family secret, there is a terrible accident. The thing is, there's no "big game" or "huge crisis" to this book. That is the only thing that makes me wonder if kids will like it as well as many of the adults I know who've read the book. That said, I think this book would be very good for the girl reader who likes books about family, books about regular life tinged with realistic though not horrible drama - ultimately hopeful books. I'd say this would be a good book for the "Little House" or "Anne of Green Gables" reader. I truly think this book just might be one of those books these types of readers remember well into adulthood with fondness and happy feelings. For ages about 9-12.

Link to the Amazon reviews:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thumb on a Diamond by Ken Roberts

A cute and funny story about a group of kids from a tiny town on the coast of British Columbia who put together a baseball team because the only way they'll get a chance to take a school board sponsored trip to see Vancouver is if they can play in a sports tournament. The only problem in this tiny town occupying a cove that is ringed in by mountains? There's no grass in the town, no space to swing a bat or play catch, and not one of the kids has ever played. Not to worry, the children hatch a plan to be the league champs (because no other town around has a team or space to play either) and take the trip to Vancouver.

Cute but not too cloying, this is a good book for kids if they want to see how kids just like them live in other places, and how the simplest things - like grass, or a movie theater, or an escalator - can be amazing. Yet the children in the book aren't rubes or bumpkins. A charming little read.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Heat by Mike Lupica

Here's the story of a 12 year old Cuban boy whose family fled Cuba to the USA so that this boy, blessed with "the arm" can play baseball in America, and hopefully make it to the Little League World Series and eventually "the show."

Now, I am the acknowledged baseball book reader in the children's department in the library. I like baseball, I have a baseball-crazy nine-year old who likes baseball books, and I have a tendency to be one of the people who is willing to read the "boy" books. So I've read a lot of kids playing baseball and trying to pull out the big game books. Some of the best - like "The Boy Who Saved Baseball" or Dan Gutman's "Baseball Card Adventure" books - are very good indeed. Some of the others - like Mike Christopher's baseball books - are journeyman formula books that work for their audience. But let's just say the writers struggle hard to get past the whole team in the big game, something happens to jeopardize their chances, they somehow pull it out formula.

Lupica has a twist on the story in that his main character is a preternaturally gifted boy who is dogged by a real-life scandal that could kill his Little League dreams. The book makes several references to the 2001 Danny Almonte scandal. This was when a parent, coach, and others passed a Dominican boy off as 2 years younger than he was in order to play him in Little League. The real-life boy pitcher took his team to the Little League World Series, where he posted the first perfect game pitched in the series since 1957. His records were later stripped from the record books when investigation revealed he was older than his coach and parents insisted. In Lupica's book, this scandal tars Miguel Arroyo while he and his brother work hard to hide another devastating secret.

Lupica is a sportswriter and knows his baseball, even his Little League baseball, and he pretty accurately skewers some of the more obnoxious types of kids AND coaches you find in Little League, but I wonder if he's had much contact with 12-year old boys lately, not to mention 12-year old immigrant boys who are living a supposedly hand-to-mouth existence in the Bronx. In my mind, the book has two big strikes against it - the worst is wooden and unrealistic dialogue and a main character who just doesn't feel very real. The second is repeated scenes where boys who can hardly afford the rent eat brand name foods like Coke and Oreos. Maybe it's nitpicky of me, but the details in this book bothered me immensely. So in the end I guess I'd say while the story is very good, the book itself falls short, and might not be the best pick unless you're giving it to a child who is a baseball nut.