Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Moon over Manifest

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is a complex historical novel that bounces between two time periods: 1917-1918 and summer 1936 ($7.99 paperback; Yearling; December 27, 2011). Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker has been riding the rails with her daddy for as long as she remembers, but when she scratches her leg and it becomes infected, he sends her to live in Manifest, Missouri with some of his old friends. The story is told through Abilene’s 1936 observations of the town, through letters from Ned to Jinx in 1918, and through a fortune-teller’s stories.

The novel is well-written and exceptionally well-plotted. The book has several big twists and reveals, which I am loathe to give away here. The characters are realistic and lively, and the description is detailed and interesting. For example,
You’d have thought I’d be used to this by now. Being the new kid and all. I’d been through this umpteen times before but it never gets any easier. Still, there’s certain things every school’s got, same as any other. Universals, I call them....My one consolation was that I knew these kids. Even if they didn’t know me. Kids are universals too, in a way. Every school has the ones who think they’re a little better than everybody else and the ones who are a little poorer than everybody else. And somewhere in the mix there’s usually ones who are pretty decent. Those were the ones who made it hard to leave when the time came. And sooner or later, it always came (Vanderpool 26).
As the book progresses, Abilene learns more about her father and his past in this town, as well as all of the secrets lurking in a small town. There is no romance and very little violence with the exception of some fistfighting, a Klan cross burning, and a murder which is entirely “off stage” and not actually seen. There is some bootlegging during Prohibition and discussion of strong drink, but only one character is ever “seen” drunk and the irony is that she does not realize she has been drinking alcohol until it is too late. A small scene in the beginning has a fortune telling. Overall, though, there is little here that most parents would find offensive.

I have only two minor criticisms of the book: the pace and the complexity. First, the pace is a bit slow in the beginning. The latter half of the book is exciting and page-turning, but the first half meanders for a long time, setting the stage. I maintained interest, but a young reader might become bored before reaching the thrilling parts.

Second, the complexity might confuse young readers. Overall, I am pleased to see a young adult novel with substance. Too often books for the YA audience are shallow, and Moon over Manifest is definitely not that. Still, the bouncing between two time periods can create confusion and the vast number of characters to keep straight—with names like Callisto Matenopoulos and Nikolai Yezierska!— might overwhelm even strong readers. The author includes a list of characters at the beginning of the book, which helps considerably, but it is still difficult to keep everyone straight. Moreover, without some historical background (such as a cursory understanding of WWI and the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918), the book would lose some depth. I would not recommend this book for a reluctant or struggling reader for the reasons mentioned and because it changes font in each chapter, although he or she may enjoy it on CD.

If you have a strong reader who is ready for substantial plots and complicated characters or if you are studying Prohibition, the Great Depression, or WWI, this is an excellent book which both boys and girls in 5th – 9th grade will like. I can see why it won the Newberry Medal. I give Moon over Manifest five (out of five) stars.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*Contains affiliate links

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Kids Love Their Garbage Picking Mom

What can I say? I'm not ashamed to garbage pick. It is frugal.  And green.  It also gives me Cool Mom points.


This Factor X Micro Ramp (Black)is $41.27 at Amazon.  I like FREE better. Much better.


Of course, any injuries could land (get!) me some hefty doctor bills.  Hmm - perhaps I have a clue on why this perfectly good ramp was in my neighbor's garbage. I choose not to think about that at the moment, and will bask in my Cool Momness instead.
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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Grave

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
The Grave by James Henegan ($9.99; Laurel Leaf; June 11, 2002) is an historical fiction story inside an historical fiction/science fiction story. That is not as tricky as it sounds. The book begins in Liverpool in 1974 when a neglected thirteen-year-old foster boy, Tom Mullen, goes poking around a mass grave site near a church where a new school is being built. He feels drawn to the pit of coffins and eventually falls in— into Ireland in 1847 during the Irish Potato Famine. Thus, the historical fiction story (1847) is inside the historical fiction/science fiction story (1974).
 The premise is clever and based on real events, including the mass grave unearthing in Old Swan in 1974 and the Irish Potato Famine. Tom is a likeable character, although he has bad habits of lying and stealing food (“nicking,” as he says). The historical details of the area and time period are solid and detailed. Sadly, the book suffers from a lack of depth and plotting. Mainly, the story lacks credibility, especially in how the characters behave. It is just too simplistic.

(Spoiler Alert! Skip to next paragraph to avoid spoiler.) For example, when Tom tells adults how he has fallen into the past and returned to the present, they do not question him, but accept it outright. I’m sorry, but if a child tells me that he has time-traveled to another century, I’m going to be a bit more skeptical than that. I’m going to ask a lot of questions. It will take time for me to believe it. I know it is fiction, but even fiction needs to have a grain of reality in order to be believable. I just can’t suspend my disbelief that much. Moreover, the author alludes to the existence of Shee-ogs, Irish goblins, but never resolves this plot line (Tom sees a green goblin man every time he passes through the time traveling grave.)

Despite these drawbacks, The Grave is entertaining and might be a good book for an eight- to twelve-year-old boy who is studying the Irish Potato Famine. All of the good historical fiction stories about the Irish Potato Famine that I have read have girl protagonists (such as Nory Ryan’s Song and Greener Grass – see review on this site), so this is a nice change. There is very little romance (a kiss from a young crush) and violence is primarily limited to fistfights and billy clubs. Of course, the book describes some gruesome details related to starvation and illness, but I did not find it to be excessive.

 Unfortunately, the ending is terribly cliché and wraps things up so neatly as to be completely unbelievable. (Spoiler Alert! Skip to next paragraph to avoid spoiler.) The reader learns in the beginning that Tom was abandoned as a baby in a department store. At the end, Tom and the reader discover Tom’s real parents are actually his football coach and his wife. Instead of having them give a believable explanation for abandoning their child (unmarried, too young to handle a child, depressed, poor, etc.), they tell him that he was abducted by the babysitter when he was an infant and then the babysitter later abandons him. What?!? Moreover, if this were the case, wouldn’t the football coach and his wife be searching everywhere for their baby and check out a child abandoned a few months later? It’s just too far-fetched ending in an already far-fetched story. The ending ruins the rest of the book.
I give The Grave three stars (out of five) for the historical accuracy, promising premise, and unique perspective from a male protagonist. If you need a book about the Irish Potato Famine for a young boy, it might fit the bill.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Berlin Boxing Club

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
I do not like boxing, but I enjoy World War II stories and I liked the movie Cinderella Man, which is about boxing, so I thought I’d give The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow a try ($11.91; HarperTeen; April 26, 2011).

The historical novel is a coming-of-age story about fourteen-year-old Karl Stern, a blond, blue-eyed Jewish boy living in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power who likes to draw cartoons. Karl’s father is an art dealer whose friendship with the World Champion of Boxing Max Schmeling results in boxing lessons for Karl, who has suffered a beating at the hands of some Hitler Youth at school. While boxing is important to the plot, it isn’t necessary to appreciate boxing in order to understand the book.

The plot and characters are well-developed, and the stories concerning the real-life boxers, such as Schmeling, seem well-researched. At the beginning, I liked the way in which Karl treats his sister and the funny cartoons he draws, but as the book progresses, I grew to dislike the protagonist Karl, which made me dislike the book overall. Karl is a self-absorbed boy whose Aryan looks save him from much of the hardships Jews suffered at that time. He seems almost completely oblivious to the sufferings of others.

For example, when Karl and another Jewish boy, Benjamin, are running from thugs at school, Benjamin falls behind, which results in a gang beating. Even though Benjamin calls for help—and Karl has been training as a boxer with men for almost three years!—Karl refuses to stop and help him. He, instead, runs away and justifies his actions by saying he would have simply been beaten as well. That may be true, but it does not endear him to the reader. He is ashamed of his sister’s “Jewish looks,” as he calls them, and says that he does not like Jews in general. In summary, Karl posses few admirable qualities—he is self-centered, cowardly, and quick to anger. The reader wants a noble protagonist. The protagonist can have flaws, but overall he should be praiseworthy. Karl isn’t.

His parents are worse. His mother is constantly depressed and useless to her family. His father is emotionally distant. Aside from Karl’s sister Hildy, it is difficult to find anyone in the story to like. Other parts of the book bothered me as well. First, there is a scene where Karl drinks excessive amounts of beer to the point of passing out. This might be realistic for the time and European children tend to have lower drinking ages and cultural expectations than Americans, but I don’t think it sets a good example, even if Karl regrets it. Moreover, it seems downright moronic in light of the potential risks for Jews at the time.

Secondly, Karl’s cartoons become bizarre as the book progresses. He draws a new cartoon “hero” called “The Mongrel” who comes from a Nazi experiment: “We will mix the blood of all the mongrel races—Jew, Gypsy, Negro, Indian, and Chinese—and perform a transfusion on a baby and create a monster to prove their ultimate inferiority” (Sharenow 315). While the cartoon shows the “experiment failing” as the baby gets “stronger and far more intelligent than a normal baby,” which advocates that the so-called “Mongrel” races are not to be despised but admired, the whole cartoon rubs me the wrong way. And, it is not something I would want my children reading. It continues that the Nazi doctors order a nurse to kill the baby with poison. The nurse cannot commit the “heinous deed” and instead, in the tradition of Moses, sends him down the river in a basket. It could be that I am just unfamiliar with superhero cartoons, but for me, the cartoon is just too dark and subtle, even for a perceptive student.

Thirdly, Karl does not embody the typical Jewish experience in Germany in WWII. While this could be a plus since it makes the story different from many Holocaust tales, in this case, it just makes the book seem unrealistic. Instead, Karl has all of the minor characters embody the “common Jewish experiences,” and he simply watches. For example, Karl’s uncle Jakob is sent to Dachau Concentration Camp because of his Communist activities where he allegedly dies of dysentery. The Jewish shopkeeper where he buys his art supplies cannot earn enough to feed his family and sees his shop smashed. Karl’s father has trouble selling his art and is eventually attacked and sent to prison. The only things Karl experiences for himself as a result of his Jewish heritage is being kicked out of school, disqualified from a boxing tournament, and forbidden from dating a Catholic girl. These seem so mild as to be trivial, compared with the experiences of others.

Lastly, there is a lot of discussion of homosexuality and cross-dressing. A major character is a man in drag. Interestingly enough, the man turns out to be the most admirable character in the entire book in terms of his integrity and courage. However, the cross-dressing underworld is not necessarily the type of fodder most parents want their teens and tweens contemplating. The book might be acceptable for a high school boy who is interested in boxing, but I do not recommend giving it to a student under fourteen years old. In conclusion, The Berlin Boxing Club has a complex plot and well-crafted characters, but there are too many elements that detract from the story. I give the story three stars (out of five).

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*Contains affiliate links