Book Review: Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane

My son and I ripped through this second book in the Gregor the Overlander series (by Suzanne Collins). Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane kicked up the story a notch, as Gregor is called on yet again to the save the Underland. This time, the threat is a white rat named The Bane and the prophecy seems to suggest that the killing of the rat will save the odd humans and allies who live in the land beneath the surface. The story begins with the kidnapping of Gregor’s baby sister and for much of the story, he is driven by revenge for her death (which doesn’t quite turn out to be true).

Collins nicely begins to reveal more of Gregor’s character and situation. Here, he learns he is a “rager,” or a creature with innate fighting abilities. Ragers are feared in the Underland for their indiscriminate fighting powers, and Gregor loses all control of himself when he is put into a raging situation. The moment when Gregor finally confronts the white rat — with his rager instincts almost in full gear — Collins throws a twist into the story (which I won’t reveal) that gives Gregor more complexity as a character than we had seen previously.

So, now we venture into the third book of the series: Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods.

Collins does a lot right with this series. Although the initial scenario has been done before (a world below), she really gives you that claustrophobic feeling, and provides tension at every corner of the adventure. She’s not afraid to kill off a character and the use of giant spiders, cockroaches, rats, bats and more are enough to give you the shivers at times. And her use of prophecies to guide the plot is wise, since the interpretations and misinterpretations give just enough twists to keep you on your toes.

My son and I are hooked and along for the ride with Gregor, although the action here can get a bit violent at times.

Peace (in the Underland)


Comic Book Review: I Smell a Pop Quiz (Big Nate)

Big Nate is great.

I mean, as a teacher of sixth graders, the lead character in the Big Nate comic and books is like a collection of quirks from my own students (in a smaller body). This collection — I Smell a Pop Quiz! —  from creator Lincoln Peirce is another funny look at school through the eyes of Nate, who seems immune to most criticism, engulfed with big ideas that rarely pan out, and engaged with his odd assortment of teachers whose patience is continually tested.

Every now and then, I make copies of educationally-related comics and put them up anonymously through the areas where teachers go: in the copy room, in the mail room, etc. Hopefully, it generates a little levity with my colleagues.  I have a few panels from I Smell a Pop Quiz earmarked and ready to go. If you are a teacher, you can find plenty to laugh at here. And your students will enjoy this collection, too. While Peirce has also tried his hand at making novelized versions of Big Nate, they don’t work so well, in my opinion.

Big Nate belongs on the very small stage — in those three or four panels of funnies where the confines of the writing actually brings out the very best in Peirce’s writing and art.

Peace (in the panels),


Top Ten Things I Heard People Say About My Nerdy Book Club Sweatshirt

Yesterday was dress-down day at our school, where staff can dress casual and donate money into a fund to support families and staff of our school who might need a little extra help. Normally, I just wear jeans and a dress shirt. But yesterday, as we were about head into February break, I decided to put on my Nerdy Book Club sweatshirt. (For those not in the know, the Nerdy Book Club is an online collection of teachers, librarians, writers and others who like books. There is a blog website and a #nerdybookclub hashtag on Twitter. You can join, too. You just did. That’s how simple it is.)

I got a lot of interesting reactions to wearing the sweatshirt, which I had hoped would generate some conversation. Here are some of them — from students and colleagues.

  • What books are they reading? They don’t really have titles.
  • Nerdy Book Club? Where does that meet? In a library?
  • That’s my husband… right …. there. (points to the Nerd in image)
  • Let me get this straight. You’re all teachers. You love books. And yet, you are nerds? That’s so weird.
  • Those kids look pretty happy on your shirt, Mr. H. Must be good books.
  • I think my mom is part of that Nerdy Bookie Club. Or, she should be. She reads, like, all the time.
  • Do Kindles count for your club?
  • No offense, Mr. H, but I don’t think I’d want to be in that club. Sitting around, reading? No thanks.
  • I get the nerd part. That’s you, Mr. H. But how do books fit into it?
  • There’s a stain there, Mr. H. Looks like you spilled juice or something.

Peace (in the nerdiness),

My Pile of Books to Be Read

Kevin's Books
Over at the Nerdy Book Club, there was a call recently for photos of our piles of books “to be read.” Here is mine. Some of these have been there for a few months, but most are fairly new to the pile. I am currently reading Larry McMurty’s The Berrybender Narratives and may wander into I Walked with Giants or the William Gibson essays next. Not sure.

Peace (in the piles of books),
PS — and the video compilation of all of the Nerdy Book Club TBR books was released yesterday, too.


Book Review: Horton Halfpott

I’ll be the first to admit that it took me about halfway through Tom Angleberger’s humorous novel to really get the flow of it. But I didn’t give up — partially because my son (whom I was reading it to) needed to know what would happen to Horton Halfpott and partially because, well, I was having fun reading it out loud (even though the Old English inflections and difficult vocabularly at times made me stop to explain a few things to my son). I should probably pause here, dear reader, to give the full title of this book, since it says so much about the tone of the book:

Horton Halfpott: Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset

Horton Halfpott himself is a kitchen boy in a castle who falls in love with an heiress, and all sorts of mischief abounds — from the above-mentioned “loosening of the corset” to a world famous detective come to find some missing objects to shipless pirates caught up in a kidnapping, and more and more craziness. But the story is told in a very formal tone, with addresses to the reader at times, and other odd narrative twists that take some getting used to.

But stick with it.

The book kicks into full gear about halfway through and steams right to the end, complete with a scene involving pickle eclairs that will do doubt have you laughing as hard we were. What more can you ask of a book than that?

Peace (in the mire),
PS — this is an odd book trailer.


Book Review: Best Music Writing of 2011

Alex Ross is the guest editor for the 2011 version of Best Music Writing, which collects and highlights some of the most interesting magazine and journal articles about the music scene. The Best Music Writing of 2011 is a fantastic look at music from multiple angles, and (give Ross’s involvement and his role in writing about classical music for the New Yorker) the focus shifts from classical to jazz to heavy metal and beyond. Topics from Lady Gaga to the use of the vocoder device in music (from its origins in the spy services) to the plight of making a living as a wedding singer in the days of the DJ are like touchstones of the music world. These pieces move beyond our expectations of what music is and how music affects us. Ross has done a nice job of culling out intriguing topics.

This genre-jumping is right up my alley, and although I find some articles I just skim, I am always apt to stumble into interesting pieces that I would have otherwise missed. The article in here that remains fresh in my mind is one that explores one night at the Fillmore when Miles Davis and Neil Young performed on the same stage, on the same night (not together, though, but Davis opened for Young). Both artist were in the midst of change, and exploration, and I just had that “wow” reaction to thinking what it must have been like to hear Davis just as Bitches Brew was to be released and Young with the original incarnation of Crazy Horse on the same stage.

If you like music, and if you like reading about music, this collection is a keeper.

Peace (in the music),

PS — I am reading now that the publisher of the series has pulled the plug. But series editor Daphne Carr is pushing ahead with a plan to raise money and publish next year’s collection independently. I’m in!


Book Review: Steve Jobs the book vs Steve Jobs the comic book

At the holidays, I received the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. And while the story was familiar — I already knew much of Jobs’ history from other books and profiles — I still found it pretty fascinating. Let’s face it: if Jobs were our boss, we would have strangled him. If Jobs were our principal, we might have revolved against him. His temperament and lack of emotional connections, and drive to create his vision or else, made his companies at least very interesting to watch. But I would have hated to work under him.

The bio does a nice job of peeling the outer layer off Jobs, though, and allows us to understanding him a bit more through the very personal interviews that Jobs granted Isaacson. For me, I was most fascinated by his intense desire for design, and how that need for intuitive design elements shaped all of the products he would be putting into the market — from the devices that hold music to the stores that sell machines, and even in the layout of the Pixar offices. Design considerations also went into the insides of devices — things most people would never see. So much of what we see is so ugly, but not Apple products.

Isaacson nicely explores this area of Jobs’ life, and how that need for perfect design affected his dealings with other people. (And it is also so intriguing the parts where we see Jobs and Bill Gates interacting, and how different their approaches were to technology – particularly around design: Gates could not understand the fuss and Jobs could not comprehend how one could not fuss over it. That dichotomy could be a whole book in itself. I’d love to see a bio on Gates that goes as deep as Isaacson goes here, but somehow, I doubt that will ever happen. He’s not that kind of person, as far as I can tell.).

Two weeks ago, I got a comic book biography of Jobs. Needless to say, Steve Jobs: Co-founder of Apple by Bluewater Productions was a lot thinner. But the comic book bio touched on some important moments of Jobs’ life, and accomplishments, and does not quite skirt his explosive personality, but doesn’t dwell on it much, either. Reading the comic book version after Isaacson’s version was like watching a highlights real. I suppose if you have students interested in Steve Jobs, and the biography is just too much, the comic book version might be worth putting into their hands. You can tell, though, that the publisher rushed to get it onto the market to ride the wave of interest following Jobs’ death and Isaacson’s book. I found a few proofreading errors, and the writing is weak at times.

Both of these books give a view of Jobs as someone who has made a mark on modern life, and you can’t argue against that.

Peace (in the bio),