Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Samurai Shortstop

Author: Alan Gratz
Reading Level: 6th - 8th

Pages: 280
Publisher: Dial (Penguin Putnam)
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Every scene is necessary in this tightly written and thoroughly researched historical novel. The events unfold as the momentum gains and as Toyo's self-understanding grows - subtly but with such forces that I could not put the book down. The opening scene of detailed Seppuku (suicide by cutting open one's own stomach) ritual and some of the High School hazing methods are definitely not for the faint of heart. Yet this is not a book about violence, but about honor, loyalty, teamwork, inner strength, and physical strength, as well. All the necessary components of a successful baseball team.

To link the spirit of Bushido (Way of the Warriors) and baseball presents such a fresh look on the American's National Pasttime that will inspire many young readers to think about the sport they love more deeply and meaningfully. This is an amazing and perfect book!

Note on Cultural Inaccuracies: My suspicion was confirmed by a Japanese friend that since Gratz is not Japanese, nor is he an expert in the Japanese language, some cultural inaccuracies occur in the book. The most glaring problem for me is the use of first names of anyone elder. It simply is not done -- not then, and not even now in the 21st century. A son will never call his own father by the first name - no matter HOW much he detest his own father. When calling an upper classman, one will always use honorifics: -san and -sempai attached to either the first or last names; and when the younger students are addressed, the older ones might use -kun. These can be easily researched -- even a simple google search or any entry level Japanese language text book can reveal the correct usage of these honorifics. Since it IS still an integral part of the Japanese culture, the ignoring of such practice shows a certain mentality from the author and the publisher. What a shame!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Titan's Curse

Author: Rick Riordan
Reading Level: 4th - 6th

Publisher: Hyperion
Edition: Hardcover Galley, 2007

Reading the 3rd installment in the Percy Jackson series is now like drinking a can of regular soda - there is the sugar rush and the addiction! It's fun, it's full of fast paced actions, it's familiar, and it does leave you wanting more - especially with Percy having a new enemy and Luke might not be all that he seems! Although it will not be considered exactly the healthiest choice by "reading dieticians" (this term here refers to the literary purists who think reading only exists to improve one's literary taste and heighten one's intelligence or humanity).

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City

Author: Kirsten Miller
Reading Level: 5th-7th

Pages: 250
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

The concept is so intriguing: a shadow city 70 feet underground of Manhattan, with entrances from a cemetery, a bank vault, a Chinatown counterfeit factory, etc., and a group of super-girls who each possesses a singular special talent: a master disguiser, an expert researcher, a mad chemist, a skilled mechanics, a talented forger, and Kiki Striker, the enigmatic mastermind. Their goal to save New York City is lofty and Kiki Strike's hidden agenda is not as sinister as one is led to believe. And, yet, and yet... I could not thoroughly enjoy this book. Actually, I felt a bad taste at the back of my throat throughout the reading of this otherwise ingenious novel.

Kiki Strike made me realize that I partially read for characters. I enjoy a good, intriguing plot with lots of twists and surprises the next eager reader. However, all the clever plot twists, the inventiveness, and the suspenseful mood could not make me forget, or forgive, the cattiness of each of the members of the Bank Street Irregulars (as the six-girl squad is so named.) Their relentless sarcasm and taunts toward each other, even when done in good humor, have the underlining nastiness that cannot be wiped clean from my mind; the author also opted to insert cynical commentaries and gratuitous violent scenes whenever possible (the walk-on characters of grade-school aged sisters seen in their home garden strangling each other until both turn blue over a petty matter, for example.) After a while, the initial sense of witticism gives way to depressing negativity.

Ah. I absolutely sound too harsh. After all, I did find the book charming in its quirky, outlandish, and even informative (lots of New York City historical oddities and other useful tips, such as how to put on a successful disguise and how to tell if someone is telling a lie) way. I guarantee its success with many young readers, especially somewhat brainy 5th and 6th graders who aspire to become spies or super-heroines!

Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies)

Author: Justina Chen Headley
Reading Level: 7th-9th

Pages: 256
Publisher: Little, Brown
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

I had to try twice to finish this book. During the first attempt, I got SO annoyed by the piled-on, not-always-so-clever, made-me-cringe similies and metaphors (dried shitake mushroom of a heart?) that I simply had to put it down. I couldn't believe that the author was getting away with such a case of over-writing syndrome.

However, since I had to read it for the Asian Pacific American Award of Literature, I braced myself to continue reading. Gradually, I accepted that this habit of overusing figures of speech belongs not to the author but to the narrator, who is both an over-achiever and someone who does not recognize her own strengths. Lots of humor and cultural references (although they can be somewhat stereotypical) - both realistic and with quite a bit of exaggeration make the book eventually an entertaining read, albeit a bit of a mess in plot twists and tangents. But, hey, a half-half Taiwanese-White American girl whose father went absentee when she was just a tot, whose mother is pushy and demanding, whose brother just got into Harvard, and whose first love turns out to bit quite a jerk, is nothing short of a messy situation.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


Author: Lois Lowry
Reading Level: 4th - 6th

Pages: 140
Publisher: Hougton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Since so many people love this book, I was unwilling to read it, afraid that I'd find it undeserving in some way. But, I, too, fell in love with it right away. My admiration of the author's skill in telling a simple and yet complex story sustains until the very last word on the very last page. What a refreshing experience.

The characters, major or minor alike, have such depth. Many things are unsaid about them, but the reader senses a strong "knowing" of their souls from the few key moments in life Lowry chooses to present. The elegant text, deceptively simple, reminds me of my favorite Dickinson poems: a few words, arranged just right, describing the most common personal experiences, can encompass the immensity of the collective human minds -- conscious or subconscious.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Endymion Spring

Author: Matthew Skelton
Reading Level: 4th - 6th grade

Pages: 392
Publisher: Delacorte
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

A book about the Book of All Books (All Stories) and set in the labyrinth of Oxford Libraries, highly atmospheric and not lacking in the action department... how could I resist! It was definitely an entertaining and gripping read. I wanted to find out what's going on both in the 21st Century and in the 15th. All the highly imaginative magical elements are very enjoyable, as well. However -- as the end of the book approached and finally arrived, my anticipation of an illuminating resolution which would have raised Endymioin Spring high above the other "fantasy outputs" now saturating the children's book marketplace is sadly unrealized. With the singular villain out of the way, the parents' happy reunion, and the easy explanation of everything else, Blake Winter's story is a solid, although still just run-of-the-mill, fantasy read, no more.

Will Skelton write a sequel to this volume? The last pages seem to be testing the water. I imagine it all depends on the readers' reaction and the market demand.

The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea

Author/Illustrator: Anne Sibley O'Brien
Reading Level: 2nd - 5th grade

Pages: unpaged
Publisher: Charlesbridge
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

This picture book in comic book style is near perfect in every way. The narrative is fluid, the story is exciting, the cultural details are accurately portrayed both in text and illustraion, and the pictures are expertly rendered. I am impressed at how O'Brien effectively conveys varied moods by simple changes of each facial feature.

The King of Attolia

Author: Megan Whelan Turner
Reading Level: 6th grade and up

Pages: 387
Publisher: Greenwillow
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Such an intriguing, subtle, and exciting book! Since I did not read the first two in the trilogy (The Thief and Queen of Attolia,) the first chapters of this one are somewhat confusing because all the relationships between characters and the political complications are presented in the most ambiguous way. I know this is Turner's style and became appreciative of this ambiguity as the tale unfolded in front of me. I learned to just sink into the story, follow the lead of the narrator and let go of my impulses to make sense of everything, trusting that all will make sense eventually. And it delivered: all the threads are gathered at the end and the knot is tied up neatly, very satisfying! And I couldn't help but falling in love with the characters -- all of them, but mostly, of course, with the King and the Queen, whose love for each other rises out of the page and grabs hold of me, almost physically. This read is quite an "experience."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wait for Me

Author: An Na
Reading Level: Junior High

Pages: 172
Publisher: Putnam (Penguin)
Edition: Hardcover (Galley), 2006

Mina's story is told with such quiet power by An Na that it's almost unbearable to read. So much stuff is laid on the shoulders of this one child: her mother's expectations, family secrets, lies, her sister's wellbeing... It is almost unrealistic. But it does feel real -- her relationships with all people in her life, from the former childhood friend to the new boyfriend, from her helpless sister to her dominating mother, all ring true. Suna's story is not as fleshed out, although she is given her own chapters -- they are all quite dream-like, which I believe is An Na's intention, and yet, I'm left with a sense of dissatisfaction at the incompleteness of her story, especially toward the end.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Harsh Cry of the Heron

Author: Lian Hearn
Rating: - for the first 300 or so pages
Rating: - for the last 200 or so pages
Reading Level: HS and up

Pages: 528
Publisher: Riverhead
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

If I hadn't wanted so much to finish the series of Otori tales, and hadn't heard that the ending is truly worthwhile, I would have put down the book at page 215 or so. The first half of the book needs so much editing! Hearn's static character descriptions (a long paragraph on the appearance and the personality of each major and minor character), while charming in small doses, become an annoyance when too many new (or old but forgotten by book 4) characters are introduced this way. And the repeated explanation of "The Way of the Houou" leaves me feeling that Hearn cannot trust her readers' intelligence to have grasped the philosophical underpinning of the way of peace. The plot development is also painfully slow.

I have no problem with the fact that this is a story of Takeo and Kaede when they are adults -- but it really would have been better for me if there has been a better balance of politics and tribe skills (up the fantasy element, down play the political struggles). Someone mentioned on that it is disappointing how Kaede is reduced to a plain character troubled by traditional prejudice (against the twins), the lack of a male offspring, and other petty feelings. I can agree with that -- Takeo continues to be a fully drawn character but Kaede becomes quite shadowy. Her feelings are told without the possibility of deep understanding by the reader. Her final actions, however, are in keeping with her passionate nature. Her old coolness in facing adverse situations sprang from her love and trust for Takeo. Thus, she cannot possibly keep her cool when that foundation is destroyed.

But... the ENDING -- the last 150 pages or so... MY GOODNESS. I often shed tears over incidents and characters in books, but the violent sobs and non-stoppable stream of tears are uncommon, even for me. Two days after closing the book, the sorrow still tinges my mood.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Pish Posh

Author: Ellen Potter
Reading Level: 4th grade and up

Pages: 166
Publisher: Philomel Books
Edition: Hardcover 2006

Ellen Potter really knows how to build upon the utterly unbelievable scenarios and make them seem oh-so-plausible. Her New York City apartment buildings (as in the Olivia Kidney books)expand into wonderlands that even the lovers for Carrollian twists and turns will find tantalizing. The mystery, the unique characters, (11-year-old Clara Francofile who owns nothing but simple black dresses and a keen sense of the social standings of each celebrity coming through her parents' restaurant and her co-star Annabelle Arbutnot, pre-teen master burglar, for example) and the satisfying resolution all just WORK! A truly fun read.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Author: Naomi Shihab Nye
Reading Level: 5th and up

Pages: 259
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Edition: Hardcover, 1997

When I say a novel is comprised of a series of character studies, I usually mean that in a negative way. I usually mean that there is no story or there is no emotional impact. However, when I say that there are impeccable character studies abound in Habibi, I mean that Nye is so skilled at "sculpting" her characters that they all come to life, each of them in 3D glory! Their relationships -- from a street vender who appears in two brief scenes, to Liyana and her family members and her new found friends -- are incredibly real and moving. Yes, there is not a strong story-arc and yet you don't feel like you'd put the book down -- you want it to go on for a long long time. You want to know what happens to the budding romance between Liyana (American/Arabic) and Omer (Jewish) in the city that divides them by ethnicities (Jerusalem). You want to know how Poppy's (Father) new found cause of making the country better and more peaceful develops. You want to watch Rafik (Liyana's cool nerd of a younger brother) grow up and see what kind of girlfriend he'll have.

A tender book about a violent time and place that is both important and more than well articulated. Nye's native skill as a poet adds sparkle and dimension to her story.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The End

Author: Lemony Snicket
Reading Level: 4th and up

Pages: 324
Publisher: HarperCollins
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

I'm so glad that this series did not end with either a completely depressing scenario or a sappy silly one. It felt emotionally profound and satisfying. But... did the series really end? How about that extra chapter? How about The Beatrice Letters (which was published not long ago and which somehow "predicts" the next adventures AFTER The End has ended.)

Fragile Things: Short Fiction and Wonders

Author: Neil Gaiman
Reading Level: HS/Adult

Pages: 355
Publisher: William Morrow
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

This book is such a treasure -- from the cover design to the very interesting, informative introduction, to each of the 30+ stories and poems. It is odd to think of this book with such fondness and deep, comforting satisfaction when most of the stories are unsettling, dark, often with unrestrained gore and tragic situations. I wanted to write my reaction to each of the story... but simply didn't have time. Here are some of my favorite pieces. The short summary is just so I won't forget what the stories are about...

October in the Chair
(the little boy running away, meeting a little ghost boy...)
Forbidden Brides of the Facelss Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire
(meta-fiction of a young writer, living in a world of fantasy and trying to write his own "realistic fiction")
Bitter Grounds
(a "zombie" like traveler, assuming another's identity...)
Other People
(very short and philosophical piece of demons in hell)
Harlequin Valentine
(tricking and being tricked -- do not lightly give away your heart -- pinning it on the door, with blood dripping..)
The Problem of Susan
(what happens to Susan after the Last Battle from the Narnia books...)
Instructions (poem)
(instructions to one who finds herself trapped inside a fairy tell)
My Life (poem)
(tall-tale goth and funny)
Feeders and Eaters
(a really creepy cannibal story)
(a possible story from the world of the movie Matrix)
The Day the Saucers Came (poem)
(humorous accumulative love letter)
(what happens when you have eaten all the rare and precious foodstuff - and not so-foodstuff - in the world)

Lily Reads: Jack and the Seven Deadly Giants

Author: Sam Swope
Reading Level: 2nd - 5th

Pages: 99
Publisher: FSG
Edition: Hardcover, 2004

Monday, October 16, 2006

Archer's Quest

Author: Linda Sue Park
Reading Level: 4th - 6th

Pages: 167
Publisher: Clarion
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

This flimsily structures fantasy presents a slight introduction to legends from Korean and Chinese cultures. I wish the book is more moving, more imaginative, more convincing, richer in characters, with more inherent "importance" (for lack of a better expression)... but, then, maybe that is never the intent of the author. I'd like to get some feedback from the kids!

Sunday, October 8, 2006

Lily Reads: Because of Winn-Dixie

Author: Kate DiCamillo
Reading Level: 2nd? - 5th

Pages: 192
Publisher: Candlewick
Edition: Paperback, 2004 (2000)

Lily says, "The book is cute. I like how much friendship they show to each other."

Monday, October 2, 2006

The Merchant of Death (Pendragon #1)

Author: D.J. MacHale
Reading Level: 4th to 6th

Pages: 374
Publisher: Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon & Schuster)
Edition: Paperback, 2002 (2002)

Bobby Pendragon describes events as Bazzario, his friend and uncle as Coolio, something sad is always going to "break his heart" and when facing death, he cannot help himself but uttering "Whoa!" I can't believe the kind of drivel that is kept in this published work. At least half of the description, statement, and revelation is redundant. MacHale is a master of stating, restating, and overstating the obvious. It's as if there is no trust in the reader's ability to make sense and emotional connection or interpretation of the events.

There are life-or-death situations throughout the story but if one thinks twice about it, it is apparent that a tighter, more powerful story can emerge from beneath the jumble and rambling of words. Show, Mr. MacHale, show, and don't tell!

I also couldn't suspend my disbelief to accept that Bobby could scratch with a crude pen-and-ink-set on FOUR sheets of parchment, almost 50-printed pages worth of "journal entry." Ok, he has to write "everything down" but if he only had a few hours (as it is the case) and a limited supply of parchment, it just does not make sense for him to record every single last word in the dialog or for him to make side mental comments on the situations. It simply does not follow logic -- and in works of the fantastic and the wonderous, logic is more important to keep the fabric of the tale together.

So, I am forced to finish this book because my students keep asking me to read it because it is "GREAT"! Now, I have to start questioning how and why this book is great.... I need help! But I'm just happy that I've finally finished the book (what a painful week it was!) and can now move on to the new Neil Gaiman short story collection, The Fragile Things

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sandman: The Dream Hunters

Author: Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano
Reading Level: 7th and up

Pages: 128
Publisher: Vertigo
Edition: Paperback, 2000 (1999)

Beautifually haunting, both in text and illustration. Typically Gaiman. And I am a sucker for his style. The tenderness of a tragic love is revealed with poetic, dream-like prose. Gaiman is masterful in conjuring up not only paradoxical phrases, but paradoxical imagery and emotions: we find beauty in the macabre, humor in the tragic, hope in the despairing...

Lily Reads: September 2006

Lily read these herself (with one chapter here and there read to her by us, sometime.)

Author: Roald Dahl
Title: The Witches

Author: Roald Dahl
Title: Matilda

Author: Cyhthina Ryland
Title: The Cobble Street Cousins

Author: Beverly Clearly
Title: Henry Huggins and Ribsy

Lily was read to at betime:

Author: Vandana Singh
Title: Younguncle Comes to Town

Author: Terence Blacker
Title: The Secret Life of Ms Wiz

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Wish List

Author: Eoin Colfer
Reading Level: 5th - 6th

Pages: 252
Publisher: Miramax/Hyperion
Edition: Hardcover, 2003 (2000)

Eoin Colfer has not quite redeemed himself in my view, via this book, either. I have to go back and re-enter the world of Artemis Fowl series to see if he is a brilliant writer, as so many of my young readers seem to believe. This book has a great premise, an explosive and grabbing beginning, some very witty commentary on the human nature, and many moments of cool actions. However, plenty of stylish flaws can be spotted. When the narrative is taken over by Meg Finn, the teenager who died and couldn't enter Hell or Heaven, she does not sound anything like herself as a character -- she sounds just like the 3rd person narrator that we presume as Eoin Colfer, the author. Page 200: "A semi-inebraited mind sinks all th emore readily into the mire of satellite stations"; "Franco saw himself in the tragic hero mold."

I know Colfer probably didn't set out to write a profound book, and he did not produce one, for sure. But it seems a bit of a waste when I sense so much potential based on what he has already achieved. This could have been both an action-packed, imaginative, humorous story AND a book that leaves the readers ponder about life, after-life, and the actions we take when we are living our lives. Instead, it's just an amusing read.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Chocolate Chip Cookies

This entry is not about a book, but it is book-related. Tonight Lily wanted to finish a chapter in Matilda but if she read it all by herself, it would have taken too long and past her bedtime. So, I finished the chapter by reading aloud to her. Afterwards, she sighed contentedly and said, that she and I made a good "chocolate chip cookie." I was a bit baffled at first. She explained, "I'm like the cookie dough part, because I read most of the book. And you're like the chocolate chip part, yummy, when you read bits and pieces of it to me." I thought this a very cute and apt description.

Rabbi's Cat

Author: Joann Sfar
Reading Level: 8th and up

Pages: 152
Publisher: Pantheon
Edition: Hardcover, 2005

This amusing and thoughtful graphic novel seems to not know whether it exists to answer some really big questions (about life, love, religion, humanity, prejudice, etc.) or to further confuse the readers on all fronts! I love the Cat, and adore the Rabbi. Both are very well-drawn (in text and in pictures) characters. However, I do not take to the way how most of the panels are presented: the illustrations serve as accompaniment to the descriptive paragraphs: very few of them include dialogs between the characters.

It gets to be tedious after a while and the author/illustrator's voice/hand become too apparent for my taste. Once again, the last part of the "story" seems disjointed from the rest of the book and the sense of lacking a resolution makes me unhappy...

American Born Chinese

Author: Gene Luen Yang
Reading Level: 7th and up

Pages: 240
Publisher: First Second, Roaring Brooks
Edition: Paperback original, 2006

I cannot pin down my own reaction to this graphic novel. It is beautifully produced: glossy paper, clean layout, the comic illustrations are quite skillfully done, and the storytelling is at moments quite intelligent. But, that what I felt most reading the book was how all parts of it are "adequate" and how I was aware of all these components at the same time finding myself not terribly moved in any way. I was not offended, either -- even by the buck-teethed, slant-eyed, Engrish-speaking caricature of a Chinese cousin (I knew that he served some form of purpose other than ridiculing the Chinese as a whole.) I felt little revelation -- even when the three story lines finally get twisted together, the surprise factor only lasted a short moment and then the bigger lingering question remains: "Are these three stories organically entwined due to an unyielding internal creative force or are they forced together because it seems like a cool idea to connect a current day ABC's destiny to an old Chinese Legend?" For me, the resolution definitely lacks the power to convince me that this tale cannot be told better.

The best part of the book actually is the very short, very straightforward, very truthful retelling of the Monkey King story -- I wanted more of that!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Utterly Me, Clarice Bean

Author: Lauren Child
Reading Level: 2nd - 4th

Pages: 160
Publisher: Orchard Books
Edition: Hardcover, 2002

Lauren Child's child-like voice manages to be both super innocent and highly savvy. Clarice Bean is utterly a little gem and utterly charming, in an I-might-find-her-a-bit-annoying-in-real-life-for-a-friend-or-a-student-but-it-sure-is-fun-to-read-her-thoughts kind of way. I love the illustrations and the creative typesetting.

The only slight gripe I have is the "fake" story that Clarice Bean loves to read so much (Ruby Redford mysteries) within the book does not grab me, but distract me from Clarice's story. However, Lily is reading it now and she actually likes the Ruby Redford mysteries better than the main plot. Shows how tastes dictate!

Thursday, September 7, 2006

You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah

Author: Fiona Rosenbloom
Reading Level: 6th - 8th

Pages: 190
Publisher: Hyperion
Edition: Hardcover, 2005

It's a fun and quick read. Stacy Friedman's voice is lively and funny. The story, although utterly unbelievable, is actually charming at moments. However, it is highly predictable and sugar-sweet: everything works out in the end so do not worry about having to feel sorry for anyone.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

The Chocolate Touch

Author: Patrick Caitling
Reading Level: 1st - 3rd


Lily and I took turns reading aloud to each other and had a blast. This is definitely a "messegey" book: don't eat too much junk food! but it works well as a highly entertaining and imaginative story. I read it a long time ago and this time around, I still enjoyed it.

Be A Perfect Person in Just Three Days

Author: Stephen Manes
Reading Level: 1st - 3rd

Pages: 76
Publisher: Yearling
Edition: Paperback, 1996 (1982)

Lily read it and found it mildly amusing. (I had to nudge her to finish it, though.)

The Sea of Monsters

Author: Rick Riordan
Reading Level: 4th - 6th

Pages: 279
Publisher: Miramax / Hyperion
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Much like the first book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians/The Lightning Thief, it is mildly amusing, light, full of cameo appearances from the Greek mythology: some work very well and others are a bit forced. The "guest stars" scenes work a little better in this one: they contribute to, rather than detract from, the momentum of the plot. The stake gets higher here and I presume, like many fantasy series, this one probably will progress from light to dark as the series progress. (Think Harry Potter.)

Riordan's decision on using Percy's first person narrative voice that is light, self-deprecating, and ironic has been effective but might make it more difficult to darken the mood. Of course, he (Percy, not Riodan) can grow up and mature a bit and hopefully we'll see that his "voice" grows along with him. I was reminded of the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, with Percy gaining companions of various talents along his quests. But the similarity stops there - Alexander's style differs drastically from Riordan's.

The explanations of some modern day phenomena are actually funny: Chain stores sprouting due to the new birth of each monster; Internet being invented by Hermes, the Messenger God, etc.