narfna’s #CBR5 Review #103: The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

house of hadesPlot has taken over where character development used to be in Riordan’s writing. I suppose it was inevitable when he started writing two books a year (at least he’s back down to one, now that the disappointing Kane Chronicles series is over with). And actually, the action and the mythology are still really, really fun, I just prefer the old version of this story. The original Percy Jackson series felt intimate and original.

In fact, I kind of hope after he’s done with this series that he moves on to writing about other things besides mythology-is-real books. I think he’s pretty much milked the concept for all its worth at this point. (I say this knowing full well he’s got a Norse mythology series in the works.)

That’s not to say I don’t like this book or this series, because I do. I especially liked this one, which I think is my favorite in the series so far.

It’s been almost two months since I finished it, so details are a little hazy. The action is basically split in two: half of it lies with Percy and Annabeth in Tartarus, and the other half with the remaining demigods as they fight their way to the Doors of Hades from the other side, encountering gods, monsters, and mythological creatures along the way. Frank in particular got some great stuff in this book, after basically being a doormat in the last two. And the mythological tricksters The Kerkopes made me laugh out loud.

But really, my heart belonged to Percy and Annabeth in Tartarus for this one. That whole arc, as they make their way to the heart of Tartarus, is genuinely terrifying, and frankly, kind of ballsy for a middle grade author. The themes they were dealing with down there were super intense. Also, Riordan introduces the Titan Bob, who gets some good stuff out of Percy, and is completely delightful (and surprisingly heartbreaking) in his own right. He almost entirely makes up for the fact that the Titans have been sort of neutered by this series. They were horrifying in the original series, and here they’re barely a concern.

Anyway, very much looking forward to the next book in the series, and I have faith that Riordan can pull it off.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #33 Al Capone Does My Homework

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Newberry Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Al Capone Does my Homework

The central conceit of Gennifer Choldenko’s “Tale From Alcatraz” series, is that a group of youngsters who live on the island prison must navigate a dangerous neighborhood. Naturally, when surrounded by crooks and criminals there is a mystery cropping up on an almost daily basis. Who better to solve those crimes than the plucky group of youngsters?

Choldenko’s been successful with this structure before, her first novel–Al Capone Does My Shirts–won the Newberry in 2004. She goes above and beyond the boilerplate “kid detective” story line by having her protagonist (the thoroughly 30’s named, Moose Flanagan) also spend much of his time protecting his developmentally challenged older sister. Set at a time when children were supposed to be seen, not heard, and when mental challenges were something close to unspeakable, Chodlenko makes sure that the historical nature of her novel enriches the story as much as possible.

That said, there’s still a large degree of “mystery-by-the-numbers” plotting at play here. Awkward teenage love triangles, and sudden startling revelations feel like beats that must be hit rather than genuine slice-of-life moments. A small drama around Moose’s father near the end of the book gets the heart racing a little faster. But by and large Al Capone Does My Homework is an agreeable, if not riveting, youthful mystery.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #32: The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Newberry Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Flora and Ulysses

By Contrast, this is a book, with a plot and everything! [Okay, Ben, let’s ease up on the snark a little bitTale of Desperaux author Kate DiCamillo captures the imaginative adventure of a child with a lot of summer downtime on their hands while infusing it with a dollop of good old fashioned magic/superhero origin story.

By making the superhero a squirrel and leaving our human protagonist as his enfeebled sidekick, DiCamillo makes sure that we appreciate the magic around us rather than fret over our own safety and security. Ulysses is in trouble as often as Flora is, and as he learns to exercise his powers he seems increasingly human.

It’s a little startling to see a biological mother (rather than a step mother) cast as a heavy (or as the book claims an “arch-nemesis”), but it makes sense, particuarly when the central conflict (in her eyes) is to make her daughter more normal, to add a degree of normalcy of every-day life into her weird world. She wants safety, security and familiarity. I can understand that, even if I (and most other readers) will side with our heroes.

KG Campbell’s drawings are good, and they serve a point in the story (unlike many overwrought pseudo-graphic-novels), but the trope seems so overused at this point that you almost wonder if DiCamillo could have made it work on her own, and how it would be just as a novel itself.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #31The Year of Billy Miller

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Newberry Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

The Year of Billy Miller

It’s never a good sign when you pick up a book for an awards discussion and think: “I bet one of my students could do this.”

Such is the problem with The Year of Billy Miller. A story and collection of characters so slight they might just blow away in the breeze. It’s a little refreshing not to have a weighty drama burdening every page with glorious purpose, but it’s also a little like eating a meal worth of cotton candy–airy, transparent and ultimately unsatisfying.

Billy Miller is an average kid, with an average family, going into an average school with an average set of problems. The result is…average, neither remarkable nor horrible, but certainly not very noteworthy. I can easily imagine my students sitting down to write a paper and settling for this simply because it flowed out of them. I doubt I’d be as disappointed if I hadn’t been asked to think of it in relationship to an award, but since I was, it was all the more disappointing.

sonk’s #CBR5 Review #50: Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Ozma of Oz is the third in the Oz series, but, as is generally the case with the Oz books, it’s not that important to read them in order, especially when it comes to the first few. This one harkens back to some earlier events and brings up characters who are introduced in the second book in the series (The Marvelous Land of Oz) but if you’re familiar with the Wizard of Oz, you’ll have no problem picking up on the plot. Dorothy Gale has returned to Kansas and is headed on a voyage to Australia with her ailing uncle. As befits our disaster-prone heroine, the ship hits a storm and Dorothy is swept overboard. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a strange land with a talking hen named Bill, and is quickly caught up in an adventure to rescue the kidnapped royalty of this new world (the land of Ev) that involves some familiar faces (the Scarecrow, the Tinman, the Lion) and some new ones (a thinking/talking/walking robot, Queen Ozma of Oz, and the evil Nome King, among others).

Read the rest of my review here. 

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #62: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

As celebration for passing my Doctoral Qualifying Exam, I indulged in another pilgrimage through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, one of my favorites in the entire series.

Harry finds himself searching for Horcruxes, items that contain pieces of Lord Voldemort’s soul. With only a few hints and a few tools bequeathed by Dumbledore, Harry, Ron, and Hermione try to navigate a world made unfamiliar by Death Eaters, the threat of capture or murder hovering over them at every turn. This is the book where the loose ends are tied up, and the story definitively ends for a resolution that most will find satisfying.

There are several beautiful passages about the nature of friendship, death, and love that make me hope Rowling finds her footing in other writing. Her adult plotting in The Casual Vacancy left me wishing for more, but she hits many right notes in the Harry Potter series, and I’m always delighted to read through them, but always slightly regretful when it’s over.

You may also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #26: Home of the Brave

It’s time for more turbo-charged book reviews. If you’ve missed one of my recent reviews you can cull through this website or see them all in one gorge-able package at my personal blog.

For those whose kids want to know about the world: Home of the Brave

At the start of the summer I attended a workshop on Somali immigrants in the midwest, and the particular cultural elements that affect their education. It’s a tricky business to consider the difference between African immigrants and African-Americans. How a state chock-a-block with the offspring of Nordic immigrants adjusts their long held traditions for their most recent immigrants, is even more interesting.

Home of the Brave doesn’t delve into these issues so much as it reflects one individual experience in trying to adjust to America. A sudanese cattle farmer who makes it to America on his own, young Kek has to learn about an entirely new culture, just as his classmates and other Minnesotans have to adjust to him. Minnesota’s legacy as a refugee have, the nurturing environment of an ESL classroom and the cold indifference of many frosty Midwesterners makes this work well.

It is occasionally awkward to hear in Kek’s voice echoes of Applegate’s most famous creation The One and Only Ivan. Though Applegate excels at giving voice to the voiceless and the culturally estranged, it’s slightly uncomfortable to see a young african boy and a gorilla so stylistically linked.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #58: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

*My apologies, Cannonballers. For some reason, this posted as a draft and was not published. I blame exam stress.

I find Half-Blood Prince to be highly interesting, because it deals with the construction of memory. It takes us to fascinating places in the mind that transcend the castle walls. I had friends mourn that we had moved away from the world of Quidditch and castle exploration, but I didn’t. To me, the series matured as Harry did, and we became immersed into the adult wizarding world as Harry did.

This time, Harry finds a Potions textbook with the inscription claiming ownership by a “Half-Blood Prince,” which he finds fascinating. Simultaneously, he has been asked to take private lessons with Dumbledore, all while trying to avoid being “collected” by new Potions professor, Horace Slughorn. In his lessons, he and Dumbledore travel backwards in time via memory, to figure out the origins of Lord Voldemort, aka Tom Marvolo Riddle, and how best to defeat him.

The novel ends rather shockingly (although I was spoiled to the ending the first time I’d read it, which made me so angry). I won’t go into it here for the handful of you who have not read, but it still takes my breath away. Of course, knowing what I do, little clues have been planted all along to make me marvel at the way Rowling had envisioned her series. Half-Blood Prince sets up the final book quite nicely, and we didn’t have to wait ten years for it, either!

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #57: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Traditionally, Order of the Phoenix has been my least favorite Harry Potter book. But maybe this time around, with exam anxiety looming large, I found myself highly enjoying (or at least amused by) Harry’s A.N.G.S.T.

In short: Harry is a hormonal teenager. He’s angry about the fact that no one is letting him in the loop about the revival of the Order of the Phoenix, the anti-Voldemort league. He’s angry that Dumbledore seems to be avoiding contact with him. Meh, he’s just kind of moody in general (and they say girls are bad!). He keeps having strange dreams, while trying to ward off a threateningly saccharine and disturbing new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. All while trying to stay safe from the returned Lord Voldemort.

There were so many times when I would just snap, “Shut your DAMN MOUTH, Harry,” or “Harry, STOP,” or “Harry, you’re STUPID.” Clearly, if I have boy-children, I am going to be such a loving and supportive mom. Ahem…Harry. My husband believes Rowling got the teenage angst absolutely down (from the male perspective). I just kept. rolling. my. eyes.

I will say that the introduction of Dolores Umbridge was genius. Listen, we’ve all had an Umbridge in our lives. She’s a maddening figure. The girlish laugh, the garish trappings, strange rules, and power-hungry moves. They are frightening in a different way from the obvious evil that is out there in the world. So I found the Weasley twins’ final stand to be completely satisfying and delightful, along with Umbridge’s comeuppance.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #55: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

I consider GOF to be the “transition” book in the series–despite scary dementors and basilisks, there are quite a few childish romps. But here, the end is absolutely gutting.

Harry is about to begin his fourth year at Hogwarts. He gets to go to the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasleys, where somebody lets off a Dark Mark using Harry’s wand. The Dark Mark is the sign that Lord Voldemort used to summon his followers and to show off that he had just done great evil. So…everyone gets nervous.

Then, at Hogwarts, there is a Tri-Wizard Tournament that is going to take place at the school. Two other schools, Beauxbatons in France, and Durmstrang somewhere in Russia or Eastern Europe (based on characters’ names), will participate. One champion of-age from each school will participate. But there’s a kink in the plan–someone enters Harry’s name without his knowledge or permission. So he has to participate.

This book showed me where some of Harry’s intellectual flaws lay. I think he relies too much on his own bravado and doesn’t always follow his head–like Hermione. Maybe it’s that my own career has me in-my-head soooo much that Harry’s brushing off the library or intelligent things just gets irritating after awhile (we won’t even start on Ron).

Of course, it’s hard to disassociate the book from the movie these days, so the Cedric parts always reminded me of a much younger and more innocent Robert Pattinson:


Poor RPatz. You had no idea the Twilight taint would fall so hard upon you.

I found Cedric to be a tragic character, beyond the oh-look-poor-pre-Twilight-RPatz phenomenon. Cedric is honestly just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that’s all I can say, except that the end had my eyes slowly leaking tears for quite a few of the final two or three chapters.

And then, of course, there’s the problem that I am still stuck on Season 2 of Doctor Who because I cannot get THIS image out of my head:


It’s a real dilemma.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.