Book Review: The Technologists

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl is one of those books that I kept thinking, I’m getting bored here, and then suddenly, the novel would open up to something interesting and I would be hooked all over again. This cycle happened two or three times. So, I stayed with the story until¬† the end, particularly because I loved how Pearl used the city of Boston in the late 1800s as his setting and how he used the creation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and its political battles against Harvard) as the backdrop for a mystery story just as technology and science were taking hold in culture.

I’m not sure what kept putting me off. I think it may have been Pearl’s writing style, which intentionally sought to bring the reader into the diction and pace of Beantown in the years after the Civil War as society began to move into the Industrial Age. Science and technology were viewed with suspicion, even as electricity and other inventions were completely changing the world around people. So, maybe it is not Pearl’s fault that I kept wanting to push the plot along. The plot was interesting: a rogue scientist bent on destroying Boston by using their scientific and technological skills to create havoc and mayhem.

The Technologists are a secret group of brainy, geeky college student at the new MIT who are bent on finding and stopping this madman, even as they themselves as the target of suspicion because of their very technological prowess. The last section of the book comes alive with a number of twists and action events that had me racing to get to the end, just to find out how it all ends. I’m happy that I stayed with it. And I may never look at the Back Bay of Boston again without thinking of Pearl’s book, and the way that MIT slowly and controversially came into existence (a helpful note by Pearl at the end of the novel explains his research and origins of the story, which I appreciated).

Peace (in the tech),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Belly Up

It was the cover that caught my eye.

A blue hippo, dead, floating on some water. (I knew it was dead because of the X on its eyes). The back cover showed the hippo’s big blue butt. I was hooked. I didn’t pick up Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs at the time I saw it in the bookstore, but I noticed how close it was to the Carl Hiaason display, and I couldn’t help notice how similar the cover art seemed to be to Hiaason books. Yeah, I thought, they are trying to ride some marketing coattails here.

Later, though, I kept thinking of the dead hippo. I ordered Belly Up, knowing in the back of my mind how many of my students loved reading Flush. This might be another book to press into their hands. I was not disappointed.

Belly Up is a sort of Hiaason-inspired story arc, with a 12 year old kid (Teddy) who lives in an animal park called FunJungle trying to solve the murder of the ornery and violent Henry the Hippo (the park mascot who fires poop at anyone and everyone) and uncovering some other nefarious deeds being done by some odd characters who inhabit this story.

Gibbs packs a lot of adventure and humor into the book, and I spent a lot of time puzzling over the “who done it” part of the story. The story unfolds at a quick pace, too. Teddy is a likeable character, and his first person voice as narrator is nicely done. Teddy is caring but full of smart-aleck observations about adults. He also meets Summer, the daughter of the FunJungle park, but he wonders about her motivation to uncover the truth about the murder of the hippo. There are interesting narrative detours into the marketing of a park like FunJungle and the impact of pop culture overexposure (the press follow Summer everywhere).

Gibbs peels the cover back on the inner workings of the animal park (including some fun maps in the inside covers). I thoroughly enjoyed the ride with Belly Up, particularly as I was reading it while awaiting Hiaason’s new book, Chomp (which arrived last week and promptly disappeared into my middle son’s room. He proclaims it the “best” Hiaason book yet.)

Peace (never goes belly up),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Brooklyn Nine

I spent the last week feeling like a cranky book reviewer. Maybe I just dove into books that didn’t quite fit my mood. I don’t know.

But I was quite happy to come across The Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz just as our Little League season is about to start up. The book languished for a few months with my son, who never got around to reading it, and then in my classroom bookshelves, where none of my students picked it up. On a whim, I grabbed it early last week after finishing The Genius Files (one of my cranky reviews) and immediately got hooked.

On the surface, the book reminds me a lot of Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx. That book follows an accordion through historical periods, as the instrument changes hands and stories unfold. In The Brooklyn Nine, Gratz tracks the history of baseball through much of the 20th Century as first a hand-sewn baseball, then a bat, and then more objects make their way from one generation of a family to another, ending up in the present as a disgruntled teenager finally learns the value of the stories of history. It’s a story of nine innings, told in nine chapters.

As Gratz nicely points out in an excellent Author’s Note at the end: “Baseball, more than any other sport, has a magical way of connecting fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, and ancestors back down the line.” And as one character in the book notes, “I suppose that’s all we ever have in the end. Stories about the people who are gone and a few mementos to remind us that they were here.”

The characters are finely drawn, from the teenage girl breaking into the all-women’s league to the young boy hoping to get a black pitcher a chance in the big leagues to the boy on the mound in the midst of pitching a perfect game. The writing is superb, all around. I’m excited to have found this book and heartily recommend it to anyone with the love of baseball in their heart and soul.

Peace (in the field),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Gregor and the Code of Claw

Cover of: Gregor And The Code Of Claw by Suzanne Collins

And that wraps up the adventures of Gregor the Overlander.

My son and I finished the very last book in the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins. Gregor and the Code of Claw kept up the pace of action and violence of the other books as the humans who live underground in the city of Regalia are engaged in a brutal war with the rats. Gregor, the 12 year old warrior, is a key piece of the puzzle for victory, as is his younger sisters, but Collins nicely develops his character so that he comes to loathe war and relish peace.

If my son had not been so interested, I probably would have stopped at the first or second book in the series. It’s not that the story is not interesting, and it’s not that the characters (particularly Ripred the rat) are not intriguing, but I have to admit that I continued to be put off by the war scenes (which echo our own history). The Code of Claw did bring a lot of plot lines to a close – including an unusual peace agreement between the humans and rats who did survive — and Gregor emerges from the underworld as a scarred, changed and more fully developed person than when he first dropped down through the grate in his laundry room so many books ago.

My son asked if there would be more Gregor books but I suspect Collins has her hands full right now with The Hunger Games and no doubt, some huge publishing contract has landed on her desk for another series. As for me? I am done, Gregor the Overlander. Fly you high! (a phrase that those who read the books would know)

Peace (in the overland),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Genius Files

the-genius-files-mission-unstoppable

I suppose The Genius Files: MIssion Unstoppable will appeal to some core readership. Probably boys who value action over anything else. Dan Gutman has set in motion a kid spy novel series (featuring twin brother, Coke, and sister, Pepsi) that mines the genre thoroughly. Danger? Check. Killers after our heroes? Check. A cross-country adventure? Check. Lame parents who are clueless to the activities of their spy children? Check. An evil villain? Check.

Exhausted by the tropes? Check.

I was hoping for more, particularly since my son recommended this one to me. (He has read the second book in the series, too.) I guess I could not get into Gutman’s style of writing. What hooks me into novels are writing that flows, vocabulary that enhances the storytelling, characters who grow and whom I can believe in, and something that will keep me hooked right the very end. With The Genius Files, I was wondering when the book would end, not what would happen to Coke and Pepsi.

That’s not a good thing to be thinking as a reader.

I did like the geography connections. As the family goes on a cross-country trip in their RV, they take detours to strange places in America (Mom is a blogger who writes about the bizarre tourist sites in the country), and Gutman provides information in the margins of the book on how to use Google Maps to follow the adventure. As Gutman notes in an author’s note, the places referenced in the book are all real places in America. That’s a good point to make for young readers.

Gutman puts out a ton of books and a lot of those books appeal to our boys, so I don’t want to be too harsh here. There is an audience for this kind of book. And I hope that readers of this series will be intrigued enough by the genre to move to other spy novels and other mystery stories, and maybe even other Gutman books. For the reluctant boy reader, The Genius Files might be a hook to keep them reading.

Peace (in the book),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Transitions

14 Feb

A few months ago, a teacher friend down in Maryland with whom I have had a collegial partnership with over the years (see The Longfellow Ten for one of our collaborative classroom adventures) told me that his students had created and published a book of stories, and would I be willing to pass it along to some of my sixth graders? He hoped they might review the book. I did, and the few who read it really enjoyed it.

The book of stories is called Transitions, and it was written and illustrated by eighth graders in George Mayo’s class. It is only now that I have had a chance to spend some time with the book, and it is wonderful. The introduction by Zoe sets the stage for the stories to follow, as she explains that the theme of the writing was to capture characters in transition. “Life is full of obstacles,” Zoe writes, and the stories show how characters learn to overcome or at least deal with those hardships.

My favorites were “The Little Clouds That Could” (about friendship); “Jungle Friends” (about acceptance of differences); “Topler” (about doing the right thing); and “Everything Is Going to Be Okay” (about divorce). The stories were strong, the characters were interesting, and the theme rang through over the course of the collection.

Oh, I should mention the artwork, too. Wow. I was blown away by the detail and the quality of the drawings that go along with these stories. The colorful hand-drawn pictures make this book a real pleasure to read and experience. These young writers should be proud of what they accomplished, and I would highly recommend a copy of “Transitions” for any elementary and middle school classroom.

Peace (in our transition),
Kevin

PS — here is what one of my students wrote about the book:

I just recently read the book Transitions. I really enjoyed the creativity and was astounded at the fact that it was written and illustrated by an eighth grade class. I liked the book because it had answers to real life situations and made you look on the bright side of your life. Also, it was broken into 7 different stories witch were all different so , many questions were answered. In the end I think that the book was fantastic and that the class did a great job. Read to find solutions if your life takes a scary, bumpy road and you will be brighter.

– Rowan, sixth grader

Book Review: Dead End in Norvelt

I’m not sure what to make of Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos. On one hand, it’s an interesting story of a small town in Pennsylvania with deep history coming towards an end of something. On the other hand, I wasn’t all that smitten with the writing, even though I wanted to like the main character — Jack — and I wanted to be drawn into the shenanigans of the town.

I know Dead End in Norvelt won the most 2012 Newbery Award, but I’m not quite convinced it was the best YA book out there.

Still, Gantos weaves some funny lines and paints a descriptive picture of the small town nurtured by Eleanor Roosevelt herself (she hovers in the distance like some fairy godmother) as the original members of the town of Norvelt start to drop like flies in the summer of 1962. Jack, grounded for the summer after shooting a hole in the town movie screen and destroying his mother’s corn crop, is only released from his “captivity” (of reading history books) to help an elderly woman (Miss Volker, an oddball character full of life and history and perspective) write the obituaries of the elderly citizens when they kick the bucket.

A mystery ensues, and Jack is caught up in it all.

Jack’s voice as the narrator is dry and funny, and his interactions with his mother and some of the elderly people around town are amusing. But his constant nosebleeds turned me off (I still don’t quite understand the purpose of it) and I never really connected to the character of Jack’s dad, who desperately wants to leave Norvelt for Florida.

Again, I have mixed feelings. I don’t feel like I wasted my time with Dead End in Norvelt, but I was left feeling like I wanted something more out of Jack and his story of the summer when everything seemed to change. Gantos, who grew up in Norvelt and whose main character is Jack Gantos, doesn’t quite deliver.

Peace (in the small town),
Kevin

 

Audio Book Review: My Weird School Daze

My Weird School: Books 1-4 (Audio) ~ David Gutman (Author) Cover Art

My seven-year-old son and I have had some good laughs while listening to an audio version of Dan Gutman’s My Weird School Daze. With titles of the four books such as Miss Daisy is Crazy and Mr. Klutz is Nuts, how can you go wrong?

Gutman’s sense of fun and voice of character (always a hallmark of his writing) comes through in this series for young readers, and listening to John Beach bring it all to life (not easy, given the crazy characters) was enjoyable. There’s not a whole lot of depth to the stories, which made it perfect for the car, where we could go days between listening and still easily catch up. And I didn’t realize just how many books there are in this series until I was googling around a bit. That man is busy.

The “story” behind these books is about the young narrator, AJ, who doesn’t like school all that much but begins to notice that his teachers and principal are a bit nuts. That at least makes school interesting for him and his friends. Of course, what AJ doesn’t realize is that while he never thinks he is learning, he is. His teachers are pretty wily, and imaginative. I was reading some of the comments at Amazon, and some people were offended by the “I hate school” sentiment of AJ, but I didn’t mind all that much.

We all have those AJs in our classroom, and maybe you and I and our colleagues are a little nutty at times, right?

Peace (in our weird schools),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Gregor and the Marks of Secret

 

Regular readers here (hi, you!) know that I am reading the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins with my youngest son. We have just finished up the fourth book — Gregor and the Marks of Secret — and are now starting the final book in the series, Gregor and the Code of Claw. The Marks of Secret has been the darkest of the bunch, no doubt about it. A quick summary of the series: Gregor is a 12 year old boy who falls through a grate in New York City, finds an entire underworld of humans and creatures below the surface, and is hailed (and feared) as the Warrior of various prophecies carved into a wall.

The rats emerge as the clear nemesis in this fourth book. Collins also alludes to the Holocaust in no uncertain terms, as the rats (the gnawers) are driving the mice (the nibblers) to their death by forcing them into a volcanic area known as the Firelands where the poisonous gasses are killing the mice by the hundreds. Gregor and his friends are on a mission to the stop the rats, and save the mice. There is no resolution of that storyline in the fourth book, as Collins is clearly setting up a confrontational plot line for the end of the series.

I think I mentioned last book: I am ready to leave the Underland, but my son isn’t, so I am staying with it. The writing is fine, and Collins does a decent job with character development, but the dark overtones of the setting and story weigh on me as a reader.¬† The death of characters in each book is sad. And although the book has not crossed any lines for the young ears of my son, I worry about it. He seems fine, though, and is rooting on Gregor and the good guys with all of the enthusiasm of a good listener/reader. And so, I keep going.

Peace (in the overland),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Baby’s in Black (and the Beatles)

This upcoming graphic novel from First Second Publishing provides an alternative look at the early days of The Beatles. Told mostly through the experiences of photographer Astrid Kirchherr and her love affair with the so-called “fifth Beatle” Stuart Sutcliffe, Baby’s in Black by Arne Bellstorf brings us into the club scene of Germany where the future pop stars of the world would begin to hone their skills. Sutcliffe came on as a bass player at the invitation of his friend, John Lennon, but he really wanted to be an artist.

Kirchherr would help him find his muse in the time before his early death, which was probably due to some brain hemorrhage (the exact cause was never fully determined). Strains of the cover songs that The Beatles were playing filter in and out of this love story, told entirely in black and white graphic illustrations. There’s a sort of melancholy feel to the story, as Sutcliffe is tired of playing music, drawn into his love for Kirchherr (a photographer who tastes fame herself with her images of the band), and ragged from an unknown illness that eventually takes his life.

Most of us music fans know parts of this story from the Lore of The Beatles, but Bellstorf does a nice job of keeping the graphic novel lens on Kirchherr, and we see German youth through her interactions with her friends, one of whom is a diehard fan of The Beatles who drags as many friends as he can to the bars to see them play.

I have a friend my band who is a crazy Beatles fan. I’ve passed this one along to him and he was very interested. He even knew who he was going to pass along to once he was done with ut. (It looks like the graphic novel gets published sometime in May, by the way.)

Peace (in the music),
Kevin