Friday, September 25, 2009

Middle-Grade Review: The Cronus Chronicles

Take a couple of ordinary middle-school cousins, throw in an eerie mystery, a bunch of real-life Greek gods, and a great sense of humor and you have Anne Ursu’s exciting trilogy, The Cronus Chronicles. I recently finished reading the third and final book of the series and was riveted right until the end.

In Book One, The Shadow Thieves, we meet eight-grader Charlotte and her British cousin Zee. Back home in England, a very strange thing was happening at Zee’s school – kids kept getting sick with a mysterious illness that sapped their energy and confined them to bed. Zee moves in with Charlotte’s family in the U.S., but soon, the same thing begins happening to Charlotte’s classmates. As the cousins worry about their sick friends and try to get to the bottom of the mystery, they encounter strange, unexplainable things all around them. Here, they try to make sense of what’s going on:

But when Charlotte had first thought Zee was bonkers, on the very first night, it was because he’d kept asking if everyone was sick. And then everyone got sick. If he was crazy, he was awfully prescient, too.

And there was something else. The men. The tall, thin, man-like men in the tuxedos. When Zee was talking about the creepy men on the street, something in her brain had stood at attention, and her stomach rose in her belly.

She could close her eyes and picture those men, just as he had described – the strange, old tuxedos; the grayish-white skin; the freakishly chapped lips. She had seen those men before.

But where?

An involuntary shiver ran through Charlotte. That thing in her brain started to dance around urgently. She regarded her cousin carefully.

“You think I’m barmy?” muttered Zee.

Slowly Charlotte shook her head. “No,” she mumbled. “ I don’t think you’re nuts.”

They soon discover a startling fact – that the Greek mythology they’ve learned about at school is actually true and that Greek gods still exist. Charlotte and Zee set off on a quest to find a cure for their friends, venturing down to the Underworld, which is accessed – much to my amusement – through the largest mall in America.

In Book Two, The Siren Song, a demi-god grandson of Poseidon seeks revenge against Charlotte and Zee, and they find themselves - a couple of ordinary eighth-graders - once again up against the Greek gods. In the final book, The Immortal Fire, Charlotte and Zee are responsible for nothing less than the fate of mankind, and they journey to Mount Olympus for a final show-down.

All three books are exciting and suspenseful and written with Ursu’s wonderful wit. She’s created a clever and imaginative world of Greek gods in modern times that kept me reading late into the night. My 15-year old son is a big fan of the series as well. This is a great trilogy for middle-grade and teen readers (and grown-ups!) who enjoy a combination of humor and adventure. For more information on the series, check out Anne Ursu’s website.

Atheneum and Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon & Schuster)

Accelerated Reader:
The Shadow Thieves: Level 5.1, 12 points
The Siren Song: Level 5.7, 14 points

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Teen Review: Bounce

Natasha Friend’s novel, Bounce, is about making unexpected adjustments – lots of adjustments – when just being thirteen is more than enough for a girl to deal with.

At dinner one night, Evyn’s father suddenly announces to Evyn and her fifteen-year-old brother, Mackey, that he’s getting married. Evyn’s mother died many years ago, and the three of them have been a family for a long time. But having a new mother isn’t the only big change for Evyn. Her Dad’s new wife-to-be has six kids of her own and lives in Boston, so Evyn, her brother, and her father will be moving from their home in Maine to join a whole new family. It’s a lot of change, to say the least.

Here are Evyn’s thoughts, as they pull up to the house in Boston to greet their new family:

I have to admit she looks good for a mother – somebody else’s. But not ours. Not now, not ever.

I know. She hasn’t tried to hug us yet. Smart woman. She’s playing it safe. But wait until they’re married, and she starts planting cheek kisses left and right. I give her three weeks before she says, You can call me Mom now, honey. And while you’re at it, scrub the toilet bowl.

That’s what happened to Tamara Schacter, this girl I know. The minute her dad got remarried, Kiki the Stepmonster took over her entire life and destroyed it.

If anything like that happens here, I will run away, which would make Jules very happy, I can tell you. I would go back to Maine and live with her. I have no clue how I’d get there, since I have exactly three dollars to my name. But I’d find a way, that much I promise you. I would definitely find a way.

Evyn moves into a new room that she shares with two of her new sisters, starts a new school in a new city, and struggles to meet new friends, all the while trying desperately to hold onto her old life, which she liked very much. It’d be a tough adjustment for anyone, and Evyn is also trying to adjust to being a teenager and sharing her father with a whole new family.

I really enjoyed reading Evyn’s story, filled with her own warmth, humor, and anxiety. As you might expect, things don’t turn out to be quite so bad as Evyn expects, but to say anymore would ruin the book’s wonderful ups and downs. This is a coming-of-age story with a twist – lots of them, actually – that teen girls (and older preteens as well) will thoroughly enjoy.

Scholastic, 188 pages

Accelerated Reader level 3.3, 5 points

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Middle-Grade Review: Book of Ember series

A few weeks ago, we watched the movie version of The City of Ember, and I enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to finally read the books, written by Jeanne DuPrau, that my son told me were very good. I wasn’t disappointed. I read Book 1, The City of Ember, and Book 2, The People of Sparks, so quickly that I went out and bought Book 3, The Prophet of Yonwood, for my son’s birthday. Of course, I managed to read it before he did! Now, the hard part will be to tell you about the series without giving too much of the plot away.

The series begins with Lina Mayfleet, a 12-year old girl, and Doon Harrow, a 12-year old boy, who are both residents of the strange city of Ember. Ember has no natural light and relies on a mysterious generator to create the power needed to light Ember and run all of its electric devices. We learn in a brief prologue that Ember was created by a group of builders:

When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the chief builder and the assistant builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak of the future.

“They must not leave the city for at least two hundred years,” said the chief builder. “Or perhaps two hundred and twenty.”

“Is that long enough?” asked his assistant.

“It should be. We can’t know for sure.”

“And when the time comes,” said the assistant, “how will they know what to do?”

“We’ll provide them with instructions, of course,” the chief builder replied.

“But who will keep the instructions? Who can we trust to keep them safe and secret all that time?”

“The mayor of the city will keep the instructions,” said the chief builder. “We’ll put them in a box with a timed lock, set to open on the proper date.”

But over the long years, the instructions are lost.

The story opens on Assignment Day, the day that all 12-year olds in Ember receive their job assignment that marks the beginning of their adult lives. Lina loves to run and explore the city and wants to be a messenger, while Doon wants to work underground in the Pipeworks where the generator is located. The power in Ember has begun to fail, and the increasingly frequent blackouts have everyone scared. Doon wants to try to fix the generator and save his city.

Book 2, The People of Sparks, continues the story of Lina and Doon and provides some hints as to what happened 200 years ago that inspired the builders to create Ember in the first place. It also explores how differences between people can lead to conflict and violence. Book 3, The Prophet of Yonwood, is a prequel that takes place before the city of Ember is built and populated, providing clues as to what led to the creation of Ember, as it tells the story of a small town where one woman sees a vision of the future to come.

The whole series is well written, suspenseful, and imaginative. DuPrau creates a future world that is both cautionary and hopeful, populated with realistic characters that will appeal to both boys and girls. You’ll cheer Lina and Doon on, as they work to save their people. Book 4, The Diamond of Darkhold, was just released at the end of August. I can’t wait to read it!

Random House Books for Young Readers
Yearling Paperbacks

Accelerated Reader:
The City of Ember - level 5, 9 points
The People of Sparks – level 4.9, 11 points
The Prophet of Yonwood – level 4.9, 9 points

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Top Ten Fantasy Series


Things have been kind of quiet at the blog lately - I was sick for two weeks and unable to write much. The good news is I had plenty of time to read and finished two great middle-grade series - Book of Ember and The Cronus Chronicles - plus a good teen book, Bounce. Look for reviews soon!

Meanwhile, I'm turning today's Top Ten list over to my son. Jamie is 15 years old and loves to read, especially fantasy novels. Jamie is an avid reader, and he says there are so many good fantasy series out now that it's hard to choose!

Here are Jamie's picks for Top Ten Fantasy Series for middle-grade readers and teens:
  • The Farsala Trilogy by Hilari Bell
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Last Apprentice by Joseph Delaney
  • Fablehaven by Brandon Mull and Brandon Dorman
  • Tunnels Books by Brian Williams and Roderick Gordon
  • The Icemark Chronicles (starting with Cry of the Icemark) by Stuart Hill
  • The Book of Time by Guillaume Prevost
  • The Books of Umber by P.W. Catanese
  • Maximum Ride series by James Patterson
  • The Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan
I've read The Hunger Games, The Book of Time, and Tunnels and agree with those choices wholeheartedly!

What are your favorite fantasy novels?