Book Review- Jack Gantos- Dead end in Norvelt

What if your summer vacation started by being grounded for the entire vacation?  In 1962, that is precisely what happened to Jack Gantos.  His only respite from his punishment occurred when he was allowed to assist his arthritic older neighbor, Miss Volker, in her chores.  For most kids this would have been the vacation from hell but Jack Gantos was able to find the humor in this unique situation.

Young Jack actually enjoys helping Miss Volker; besides learning about the town’s history and improving his typing skills, he begins to mature as a person and understand some of the unusual dynamics occurring in his town.

This story is told from the younger Jack’s viewpoint; I think any age readers will enjoy seeing the town through his eyes.  I found myself laughing out loud over some of the situations Jack experienced.  I especially loved him secretly sneaking into an elderly woman’s house to see whether she was alive while dressed in his Halloween costume as the Grim Reaper.

The book is for Middle School readers on up through adults.  Basically it is for anyone who has survived being 11 years old.

Jack Gantos.  Dead end in Norvelt.  Farrar Strauss &Giroux, NY, NY. 2011

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Book Review- The Giant Rat of Sumatra or Pirates Galore by Sid Fleischman

The title of this book is what first caught my eye.  I have always wanted to know about the untold story of the giant rat of Sumatra that Sherlock Holmes never revealed to Dr. Watson.  Fleishman has done a good job of creating a story worthy of the title with plenty of excitement and strange twists and turns to surprise the reader.

Shipwreck is a cabin boy on a pirate ship but he is not destined to remain on board the ship for long.  Instead the pirates come ashore in 1846 San Diego at a time when the U.S. and Spain were at war.  Shipwreck yearns to return to Boston but first he must help the pirate captain and crew as they attempt to settle down on a ranch outside of San Diego.  The adventures in this story span the range from the high seas to the Wild West; throw in assorted cattle rustlers, highwaymen and the war over possession of California and you have lots of room for excitement.

This story is worth reading just for all the unusual bits of history that Fleishman tosses in along the way.  The story is fast paced with intriguing characters that will keep the reader engaged. Fleischman’s unique sense of humor is evident in this tale, if you found his other works amusing you will probably like this also.

Audience- Grades 4 on up to High School.

The Giant Rat of Sumatra or Pirates Galore by Sid Fleischman.  Greenwillow Books, NY,NY. 2005, 194pp.

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Book Review- Passport to Narnia : A Newcomer’s Guide by George Beahm

I think of this book as the cheater’s guide to Narnia.  If you haven’t read the books or need to quickly get up to speed with the tales, this is a good way to do it.  Speaking as a parent, I did not have the time to read everything series my daughter found interesting; this book would have come in handy to give me a rough idea of what the series was about so I could ask intelligent questions.  Even if you are well read in C.S. Lewis’s work there is plenty of background information about the author that will enhance your reading experience.

This book is good for all ages from middle school on up and especially for adults unacquainted with the Chronicles of Narnia.  Somehow I missed out on reading the Narnia Chronicles so this book helped to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge.  George Beahm has also written guides to the Harry Potter books and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Passport to Narnia : A Newcomer’s Guide by George Beahm. Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, VA 2005, 197pp.

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Book Review- Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preuss

This is based on a true story about a young Japanese boy and his companions who are shipwrecked on a Pacific island. Before Japan became open to the Western world, any Japanese citizens who left the country or had contact with an outsider risked death. When the group is rescued by an American whaling vessel passing by the island, Manjiro and his friends must choose to adapt to life on board ship with its alien language and ways or try to return to Japan. Manjiro chooses to stay with the American captain and experience life in New England while his friends are left off in Hawaii. The knowledge Manjiro accumulates during his years in the West stands him in good stead when he ultimately decides to risk returning to Japan in the hopes of reuniting with his family.

This book would be good for school units dealing with racial prejudice, life in 19th century America, or Japanese culture. Manjiro’s difficulties in the Western world are clearly depicted allowing the reader to feel empathy for him. The story is simply told and easily carries the reader along from each new event Manjiro experiences in his life. I greatly enjoyed this story; I was amazed at how Manjiro continued to learn while in a foreign land and then use that knowledge to improve conditions back in his home country. I especially liked the relationship between Captain Whitfield and Manjiro; the Captain was a strong, positive male influence that should appeal to many readers.

Age Range: Middle school readers on up, both boys and girls.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preuss.  Abrams Publishing, NY,NY. 2010. 301pp.

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Book Review- Disappearing Act by Sid Fleischman

This is the third book I have read by Sid Fleischman and he stays true to form.  Fleischman seems to enjoy throwing strange twists into his stories,  something to catch the reader unawares.  In Disappearing Act, siblings Kevin and Holly still reeling from having lost their archeologist mother to a cave-in in Mexico must now flee for their lives because they are being stalked by a man in a white suit.  Kevin and Holly end up in Venice, California where they change their names to Pepe and Chickadee, dye their hair and try to blend in with the street performers.  The story has a wackiness to it that I have found in other Fleischman tales.

The main characters in this story manage to survive by using their wits, relying on friends and luck.  I found the crazy story line intriguing and rather enjoyed the unusual cast of characters found working the beach scene.  If you are looking for an  offbeat story, one that keeps you a little off balance then this book is for you.

It takes a little while to become accustomed to Sid Fleischman’s sense of humor but once you get the hang of it, his stories are fun.  Do not go looking for the tried and true or a story that wraps up in a nice tight ball.  Just be willing to roll along with the tale and you will find yourself quietly enjoying yourself.  Age range: Middle school readers on up.

Disappearing Act by Sid Fleischman.  Greenwillow Books, NY. 2003. 129pp.

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Two Book Reviews- Guys Read Thriller and Guys Read Funny Business edited by Jon Scieszka

The “Guys Read” books edited by Jon Scieszka appeal to the young male imagination.  This is not to say that girls won’t find these stories interesting but Scieszka admits he has chosen stories to appeal to the young male reluctant readers out there .  In both collections, the main characters face a world run by grown-ups with rules that never seem to make sense.  The plots are driven by the protagonists  either defying or ignoring those rules  much to their own regrets.

In Guys Read Thriller, the stories are calculated to creep out, frighten or disturb the reader’s  sleep.  The stories range from visits from supernatural apparitions, to a room full of poisonous snakes, to being chased by robbers  to a day in the life of a young Somali pirate.  The book can be read all in one sitting or the reader can pick and choose their way through the stories.  Because of the variety of authors and plots, there is sure to be a story to appeal to everyone. The ghost stories were fun reads, as was the exciting story of two boys trying to save their reporter father from some men trafficking in endangered species.  But the story that was truly frightening to me was about the teen-aged Somali pirate; I suspect this story is very close to the truth.

Guys Read Funny Business is about humor.  More specifically, humor geared towards boys from grades 4 on up.  There is plenty of burping and farting jokes in the stories but there is also some quieter, more thoughtful humor.  Again, because of the variety of authors contained in the book, there are plenty of choices for the reader. The stories range from a hair-brained scheme to win amusement park tickets, to taking dares from the dumbest kids on the block to trying to fake your way through a school assignment.    I particularly enjoyed the letter exchange between a young student forced to correspond with an author and the author’s attempts to spur him beyond mediocrity.

I definitely recommend both books for boys and girls from Grades 5 on up.  I enjoyed both collections; I think Scieszka should be praised for working so hard to reach out to so many different readers out there.  Short stories are a good way to hook in children who do not like to sit still for too long, with all the stories in these two books there  should  something for everyone.

Guys Read Thriller edited by Jon Scieszka. Walden Pond Press, NY. 2011.

Guys Read Funny Business edited by Jon Scieszka. HarperCollins, NY. 2010.

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Book Review- The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

In some ways this story is a mash-up of two fairy tales, the twelve dancing princesses and beauty and the beast.  Twelve princesses disappear every night and return exhausted in the morning with their shoes in tatters; no one knows where they go and the princesses are not talking.  Their father offers a reward to whoever can solve the mystery and release them from the curse.  The problem is anyone caught watching the princesses at night falls into an endless sleep that ultimately results in death.

Enter Reveka who is training as an herbalist, she dreams of setting up her own workshop away from the noise of the castle but to do this she needs money.  Reveka must discover the secret of the princesses and wake the endless sleepers to achieve her dream of independence.  Reveka’s quest will take her deep into the underworld where she must brave death and the possibility of losing her immortal soul.

Reveka is not the typical fairy tale heroine, she has definite views on what she wants to do with her life and doesn’t tolerate things getting in her way.  It is a little refreshing to have such an opinionated character.   I also enjoyed the combination of the two fairy tales with the dynamics of a medieval castle under siege; I think it made the story  more interesting for me.  This story would be good for readers who like their heroines to be a bit unconventional.   This is the first in a series of books  by this author, I am looking forward to her next one.  Age Range: 6th grade on up.

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell. HarperCollins Children’s Books, NY,NY.  2011. 322pp.

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