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 Reviews #28-30: Song of Ice And Fire Books 3-5

I’m officially on my victory laps after completing my annual half-cannonball. Now it’s just about setting a new personal best. You can keep up with these and all my reviews of other things at my personal blog

The last time I tried to review a book from George RR Martin I was pilloried as a twit who didn’t/couldn’t understand his genius. I freely admitted I didn’t, that I could be wrong and that I apologized for any offense, but all the tumult made me felt excluded, as if only those who adore Martin can review him.

Still, my wife, devoted both to nerdery and (against all odds) to me, encouraged me to pick the books up again. And after the season finale this spring, I did. Rather than write long reviews I’m boiling my thoughts down to one sentence each…may god/Martin-Uber-fans have mercy on my soul.

For those who enjoy saying “What-the-what?!??!?”: Storm of Swords

A dry first half lays the ground work for as thrilling a set of three hundred pages as the series has ever had, with monumental swings in momentum that turns the heretofore expected plot on its ear.

For those who wonder about the role of religion in politics and war: Feast for Crows

A less dramatic but totally riveting look at the depth and complexity of a few key characters (particularly the ladies), including  an incisive look at the faith & belief systems that have rationalized their desires. (These two books get three stars)

For those who are pot committed: A Dance With Dragons

By this point you need to know what happens next–even if several stories are numbingly repetitive, others are aborted mid-book and more seem utterly inconsequential–this book quenches that thirst. (This one gets the two)

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #27: Zorro

I’m officially on my victory laps after completing my annual half-cannonball. Now it’s just about setting a new personal best. You can keep up with these and all my reviews of other things at my personal blog

For those who prefer authorial style to iconic characters: Zorro

I’ve been listening to Blair Brown slowly, almost lovingly, read Isabelle Allende’s take on the famous caballero and off for the past year. Finally reaching a stage where I turned it on double speed just to get through it all.

It’s not dull exactly, there are plenty of humorous adventures and acts of daring-do to keep fans of the masked swashbuckler happy. But it’s much more of an origin story than an epic adventure. Diego De La Vega (the man who will be Zorro) isn’t around for the first quarter of the book–only his parents are–and he doesn’t become Zorro until the final third kicks off. The last disc (which I would guess is about a fifth of the book) is where the action really picks up and all of Allende’s other work pays off.

That’s the thing, with an author like Isabelle Allende behind it, you have to expect that the immensely gifted author is going to make it her own. But with a character as well known as Zorro, you come into the book with a host of preconceptions and expectations. In an ideal world, Allende would use her talents to enhance and illuminate an already beloved character. In the real world, Allende used the character to showcase her talents.

Again, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a pleasure to hear a gifted author’s words brought to life (it certainly seems like Brown favors the description to the action, enhancing this feeling even more). But it’s a trifle disappointing to expect a heroic character’s greatest adventures only to find a beautifully described portrait of life in Post-Napoleonic Spain and her colonies.

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.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #25: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

It’s time for some turbo-charged book reviews, complete with recommendations for those who care for them. They’ve been up here day by day, but if you missed one, or if you want to gorge yourself check out my separate blog

For those who want a particular nerd-itch to be scratched: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

This may well be the summer I rediscovered my love of Rumpole: reading Mortimer’s crusty but benign barrister in London, watching Leo McKern play the rotund defender of justice. But I couldn’t end the summer without reading the Rumpole origin story, the case where it all began, when a young Horace Rumpole defended a boy on two charges of murder alone, and without a leader (as he so often mentions in almost every, single story, ever.

Usually, John Mortimer writes Rumpole stories rather than Rumpole novels. Usually 20-30 pages is enough to recap the initial confusion, the early struggles and the stagger revelation that helps Rumpole acquit (or–sadly–fail to acquit) his clients. But in this case, with so much of Rumpole’s past to explain Mortimer takes 215 pages to tell his tale. It’s all worth it, we find how the hero met his wife, how he got connected with a superb solicitor (the go-between for clients and their lawyers in British law), how he earned the trust of his most faithful clients, and why he decided to always defend even the most hopeless of cases.

I doubt that many non-fans would really care to read this origin story (even if it’s available in radio play format featuring that most tumblr-ed of all tumblr-y hunks: Benedict Cumberbatch). But still, if you have a nerd itch to scratch, what better way to do it than with an origin story? If you want an origin story, what better kind than one that perfectly reflects the poetic style and endearing beliefs of the character you care about?

It’s not a great book (just as Rumpole isn’t great literature), but it’s great for me and for a capstone to my summer of Rumpole.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR 5 Review #24: The Final Four

It’s time for some turbo-charged book reviews, complete with recommendations for those who care for them. They’ll be up here day by day, or if you want to gorge yourself check out my separate blog

For those who wish Matt Christopher wrote about bigger stages: The Final Four

When I was a kid the biggest thing going in boys literature (for those too squeamish for Goosebumps), was Matt Christopher’s interminable series of books about young boys going out for a local sports team and trying to win a local championship and…well…doing it.

I loved books then, I love books now. I loved sports then, and I love sports now. But I outgrew Matt Christopher in about 4th grade. Still, I was intrigued when one of my students cracked open Paul Volponi’s book one day after my class. It had all the trappings of a regular sports novel with a grander sensibility: forget the local kid and the local game and the local problem, let’s deal with the Final Four, let’s deal with money and war and fame and power and romance and the media.

Part of Volponi’s work captures those principles well, in particular his central protagonists (a pair of point guards with tragic histories but totally different mindsets) give voice to a set of sincere concerns about injustices done to “student athletes” and law abiding citizens. It’s clear which of the two most people would root for, but it’s also clear that the less-likable player has understandable reasons for his behavior.

It’s unfortunate, therefore, that the other half of Volponi’s book is given over to “role-player” characters who balance out the stars, but offer very little depth to the situation instead hitting on those old sports book tropes (getting-the-girl and rising-to-the-occasion respectively). Sadder still, the descriptions of the game are accurate but not terribly riveting (despite the fact that the game goes into quadruple overtime).

I admire Volponi’s effort, but I hope that there’s a way to write about those bigger stages without succumbing to the long standing tropes we nerdy sports fans already know.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #23: Days of Blood and Starlight

It’s time for some turbo-charged book reviews, complete with recommendations for those who care for them. They’ll be up here day by day, or if you want to gorge yourself check out my separate blog

For those who love being into things before they’re mainstream: Days of Blood and Starlight

Granted, at least four other writers at the Cannonball Read program (which has been pushing me through more and more reading each of the last three years) have already suggested this, and I’m guessing that many readers have read it. But, while this on-line community of hard core readers has heard about it, other social groups I love to talk about reading with (Goodreads/Chapter and Verse/my students) seem to be utterly in the dark about this series.

I have a feeling that will change soon. And not just because Universal is at work preparing it for a movie, and not just because the cavernous hole of transferring the author’s work into a film version, but simply because in literature, as in all things, quality will out. And the second book of Laini Taylor’s series more than affirms her commitment to quality.

Last year I gushed over how a supernatural novel (with a healthy dollop of romance) managed to perfectly capture the tone of a jet-setting espionage thriller. Now, I’m even more impressed at how Taylor’s invented world of angels and demons serves to guide us through the serious moral ambiguities and serious badassery of a war novel. Conflicted soldiers, renegade assassins, mastermind stratagems, incomprehensible cruelty and a virtuous core all make for a great read. This is what great writing (not great fantasy writing, not great young adult writing…great writing) is all about.

 

I’m glad I found Laini Taylor’s work, and so help me, I’ll restrain my most hipster impulses…or at least…try to.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #22: Cardboard

It’s time for some turbo-charged book reviews, complete with recommendations for those who care for them. They’ll be up here day by day, or if you want to gorge yourself check out my separate blog

For those who love the self-contained and surreal: Cardboard

Doug TenNapel hits the magical fantasy elements right out of the gate. Giving an impoverished father and his devoted son a seemingly 76 cent piece of cardboard you have to expect something wild to happen.

Sure enough thanks to some alien enchantments the cardboard begins to turn into whatever you can make of it (not unlike that totally awesome box that was a prison/X-Wing Fighter/castle turret when I was a kid). It’s only a matter of time before the cardboard falls into the wrong hands and magic becomes a weapon as much as a blessing. Though in time, you’ll no doubt be unsurprised to hear, family devotion and friendship overcomes this intimidating struggle.

Cardboard is a great example of just how far your imagination can fly, and TenNapel’s style of drawing captures the same magic through a style that is both surreal and somewhat uncomfortable. Stylizing the good guys as cleanly drawn and the immoral and dangerous as sallow skinned or jagged tooth, TenNapel doesn’t waste time. But his artistic vision suits the story’s themes and creates a complete, well contained narrative.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #21: Foiled

It’s time for some turbo-charged book reviews, complete with recommendations for those who care for them. They’ll be up here day by day, or if you want to gorge yourself check out my separate blog

For those who love fantasy, fencing or franchises: Foiled

Prolific young adult author Jane Yolen makes her graphic novel debut with this story of a teenage fencing phenom who is coming of age all by herself. As she does so she finds a potential boyfriend and a whole other world in need of her protection.

Yolen has a natural gift for imbuing the work-a-day world with a believable magical undercurrent. So it’s unfortunate that this book takes such a LOOOONG time to get there. It seems unfortunate that you have to wade through seemingly typical teen angst for a few minutes of under-explained fantasy. And while Mike Cavallaro’s illustrations do a wonderful job of selling the contrast between realism and magic, and accentuating the drama of a fencing match. Those who can move beyond the disappointing delay between exposition and conflict will appreciate the set-up for later books. Those, like me, who prefer self-contained stories might like it, but never love it.