Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review: The Queen's Progress: An Elizabethan Alphabet

The Queen's Progress: An Elizabethan Alphabet
The Queen's Progress: An Elizabethan Alphabet by Celeste Davidson Mannis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully illustrated alphabet book about Queen Elizabeth. I am not a huge history buff, but this is actually quite interesting for someone who likes her history in small doses.

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Review: Counterfeit Son

Counterfeit Son
Counterfeit Son by Elaine Marie Alphin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that I started reading and then just didn't put down until I finished it. It isn't classic literature, but it is one heckuv an exciting read. And, I will say, it seemed to get the mentality right for this kind of a victim. I can't be sure, since I have never had that experience, but it sounded authentic.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Counting by 7s

Counting by 7s
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this to be a very touching book. The main character is an extremely intelligent girl, probably in the profoundly gifted range. Because of her interests and oddities, she has never fit in, especially at school, but until her parents are both killed in a car crash, she was able to deal with the world on her own terms. After the accident, her world is completely destroyed. The odd assortment of characters that eventually come to her aid are fully realized and believable.

One of the most interesting of the lesser characters for me is the rather disgusting Del Duke. He is the ineffective counselor of both Willow and Guang Ha. (Since I only have the audio version, that is probably spelled wrong.) Del Duke's characterization is a fascinating depiction of failed mediocrity.

Willow herself seems to have some of the characteristics that I would associate with Asperger's syndrome. She is obsessed with certain things and has a very analytical way of dealing with other people. She is able to analyze everyone's behavior, but dealing with people doesn't come naturally to her. The book is a description of how she gradually comes back to a life with people who care for her - just as she is.

And a comment about the audio version of the book. I think the reader of the book, Robin Miles, does an excellent job with Willow's voice - probably a lot better than I could have done, if I had read it silently to myself. I wonder how much of my understanding of Willow (see previous paragraph) is colored by Ms. Miles' narration. I generally write my review of a book before I read other reviews (if possible) and will be interested to see what others thing about Willow.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although my rating for this book is the same as my rating for the first book in the series (this book is a prequel to the first book), for some reason this book resonated with me more. I liked the first book because of the diverse set of gifted kids. I liked this book for Nicholas himself. I am still trying to puzzle out why this book worked so much better for me than books 2 and 3 of the series and even more than book one, too. I think part of the reason is that, by focusing on Nicholas, you really got to know him. With the other books, your attention is split between the different children. Yes, there are other characters in this story - lots of them, but the focus is always on Nicholas.

If I have any quibble with the story, it is that the mysterious Mr. Harriton is never satisfactorily explained. I would like to accept Nicholas' assessment that there are simply a few people who are genuinely good, without need for justification, but that seems a bit skimpy for reasoning.

I nearly skipped this book, since, as the fourth book written in this "world", I feared it would be just more of the same, like books 2 and 3. I am happy to say that this wasn't true for me. I enjoyed this book. A lot.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why I Don't Read as Much YA as I Used To

I must admit, I really dislike the vampire and zombie books. I have changed my reading patterns a lot, based on the fact that a lot of the YA stuff is just not appealing to me any more. I LOVE coming of age stories, but not the ones that involve vampires, zombies, and other aspects of the horror genre.

I also do not like it when YA stories use sex to resolve a growing up issue, e.g., to decide whether a character is or is not homosexual, or whether the character can commit to a relationship (of any kind). Sex doesn't prove that anyway and, to me, it is a cop out for real maturation and growth.

No, I am not trying to censor any of the authors; yes, I understand that kids want to read about some of this and at least they are reading.  But I am mostly reading books now because I enjoy them, since I no longer teach full time,  and I simply don't enjoy the above mentioned types of books.  

Thus, I am reading a bit younger books than I actually prefer.

Review: Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet In Spanish And English

Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet In Spanish And English
Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet In Spanish And English by Alma Flor Ada

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been thinking lately that we do not honor the people who work hard doing manual labor. Things like repainting our house, replacing the roof (damaged by hail), landscaping and green area maintenance, even child care. In fact, it seems that we reserve our honor more for people who make a lot of money, rather than people who do good, honest work, day in and day out, not just manual labor, but work that simply isn't paid well. This book may not remedy that, but it does honor, and beautifully, the farm workers, especially those from Mexico.

The paintings are the first things you notice with this book - deep rich color. Palette-wise, these are not my personal favorites, but you can't help but love and appreciate the quality of these pictures. The second thing that I admire about the book is the parallel arranging of the Spanish poems with their English translations. I know a bit of Spanish - enough to puzzle out the meanings of some of the poems and then check myself by reading the English words. The translations are not always completely parallel - sometimes, the phrasing is inverted, in order to avoid awkward constructions in English, but I appreciate the effort involved in making the wordings comparable.

But, the strength of the book is really in the respect shown towards the work, the workers, and their families. It is an honor to read this book.

Recommended especially for schools that have students with Mexican ancestry or significant numbers of Spanish-speaking students. But really, just about any children could benefit from seeing this amount of respect shown to farm workers.

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Review: Revelations

Revelations by Allis Wade

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a didactic book wrapped in a story and needs to be evaluated as such. It is not classic fiction, but it does convey the teaching messages in a interesting format. Realistic situations arise and the children work them out, using information they have learned and are taught about Dabrowski's overexcitabilities. The way the children talk is a bit stilted, but it works OK. This is the second book in the series and there are still some unresolved issues at the end, so I am expecting a third book at least. The parts of the story that work best for me were the explorations of how feelings work into academics and social experiences, but I have the emotional OE, so perhaps that is why I gravitate to those parts of the story.

There is at least one quibble I have, though. When Everett takes an Intensive Class in music, he is given various mouthpieces to try and then is eventually assigned to the clarinet as the best instrument for his mouth. He is also shown a video on how to read music. After this one class, he concludes that he doesn't have extraordinary potential in music. First of all, one class on mouthpieces and reading music is WAY TOO restricted for a view of music. There are loads of instruments that do not use mouthpieces and these aren't mentioned at all. Reading music is hard and even gifted kids wouldn't be expected to pick up music notation in one class. The "class" sounded like a single long session - maybe three hours. This is simply a far too simplistic conceptualization of discovering musical talent. I understand following your interests, but concluding that you aren't interested in pursuing music further, on this limited basis seems to actually devalue one of the things that the book is advocating: learning persistence. I am sorry, but one music class is just not enough to let him get away with this self-assessment.

Still, I think this book would be valuable to gifted classes, ranging from 4th through 8th graders. Younger profoundly gifted children might also be ready for it. I like Dabrowski's conceptualization of the sensitivities of gifted children and it is an interesting method of teaching about them.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: Pennies for Hitler

Pennies for Hitler
Pennies for Hitler by Jackie French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has been quite a while since I enjoyed a book as much as I did this one. Perhaps it was because my own background has had some similar elements. Georg is German and at the age of 10 has been told he has the perfect head dimensions of a true Aryan. He is patriotic and very proud of Der F├╝hrer. Until everything goes wrong. Although his father did not consider himself to be Jewish, unbeknownst to Georg, his father's grandfather was Jewish. Since Jewish inheritance is matrilineal, Georg's father thought he was fine living and working in Germany with his German wife. But Georg's father is attacked at his university and Georg has to be smuggled out of the country to England to live with his aunt. When London is bombed and his aunt can't keep him, he is sent to Australia to live with a family there.

My similarities: I grew up in a conservative and religious family and then went to Germany as a foreign student. It is a challenge to see a lot of your values and personal convictions completely changed by experience. In the US, my parents supported the Viet Nam war, so I did, too. In Germany, though, the people I knew were both intelligent and well-informed, but also were very strongly against the war. Religion was not important to them, either. Good, moral people, but not religious - how could that be?

With the background of the war and Georg's own disillusionment and angst, you see Georg gradually come to understand morality and the choices that one has to make - all with eyes wide open for the effects of one's choices. Love of country, love of family, both important, but needed to be understood through the complexity of humanity.

One of the things I love about a lot of the books I read from Australia is the fundamental love of family that comes shining through. This book has so much of that and it is both sweet and painful. The love of the land also comes shining through. From the first glimpse of the Nullarbor Plain to Melbourne, then Sydney, then to a small village called Bellagong, you can almost see and smell the gum trees, the cattle, and the rambling house.

Great book.

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: The Adventures of Superhero Girl

The Adventures of Superhero Girl
The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not a huge fan of graphic novels, but I am a collector of comic art and comic strips. This book is sort of a combination of the two. The art is very much of the quality of graphic novels - detailed, complete frame-by-frame colored art work. And it is appealing.

The story lines are more like comic strips. There is some continuity - of characters, their relationships, and the main idea of the strips, but the stories are mostly contained in individual pages. The ideas of each of the pages are generally good. Some are quite funny; some are very touching; some are depressingly true to life. The only thing that prevents me from giving this more stars is that I wish there were more plot. There are times when several of the pages combine to make a more complete story. These are the times when I feel like I can almost taste what is missing.

I am, as a reader, very focused on the characters, their reactions, their interactions, and their growth. This strip is good enough to make me care about what happens, but not quite good enough to leave me satisfied with what took place. People who are less focused on plot and are looking for good art, and shorter-term enjoyment will probably like this a bit more.

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Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Alice, I Think

Alice, I Think
Alice, I Think by Susan Juby

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

OK, first off, I have to say that I am abandoning this book. It is funny and off the wall, but for me, that doesn't last long enough to get me through the book. The voice of the MC is clear. She puts down just about everything; she is bizarre, just for the sake of being bizarre. But I need more than that. Normally, when I find that I am getting annoyed with a book that just doesn't seem to be going anywhere, I look ahead and see if I can find something that will hook me in again. But, by sampling pages here and there, I didn't find any change in the MC. She is still sarcastic and bizarre. Maybe there is some growth there; I am not going to stick around to find it.

Interestingly, though, I can think of 3 former students of mine who I think would LOVE the MC. So, don't be put off by this review. There are some people who love this book; I am just not one of them.

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