Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Audio Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Reading Level: 12 and up

Title: A Monster Calls

Author: Patrick Ness inspired by Siobhan Dowd

Publisher: Candlewick

Publication Date: September 15, 2011

Audio Reading: 3 hrs 59 mins

Narration by: Jason Isaacs

From the book:

At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting-- he's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It's ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth. From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd-- whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself-- Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined.
My Summary: Conor is a thirteen-year-old boy doing his best to deal with life in the wake of his mother's illness. Conor puts on a brave face for his mother, he helps her when she's weak and sick from her chemo treatments and he's self-reliant in her absence. He silently deals with bullying and the feelings of becoming unnoticed since his peers and school found out about his mom. He also suffers from a recurring nightmare that wakes him every night at the same time. Then one night a great, monstrous Yew Tree comes walking and shows up at his bedroom window. Connor should be afraid of the come-to-life tree but with everything going on in his life, he's more miffed than anything else. Especially when the Yew Tree tells him his reason for being there is to tell Conor three stories and then for Conor to tell the fourth (his own story) and that will be the truth.

Seems simple enough, but the truth for Conor is admitting something that he's absolutely terrified of and hasn't even come to terms with himself. The Yew Tree's arrival signifies a change in Conor. One that he's not ready for but has to live through, otherwise he will never be able to face what is to come.

On the Book: I spent my time listening to this book being simultaneously awed, amazed and heartbroken. It has been a while since I've been moved to tears over a story, A Monster Calls changed that. I listened to this audio telling each night before bed with tissues near by, just in case, and I used them. Oh, did I use them. The story is simple, yet beautifully told. The effects of Conor's mother's illness are many, and though it is not said what form of cancer she is suffering from, the reader can glean that it is aggressive and has taken a great toll on, not only her but Conor and his Grandmother as well.

The presence of the Yew Tree is so much more than what I thought it would be. It's not just there to tell Conor "once upon a time" stories. There are lessons to be learned in his retelling's. Lessons that Conor may not want to hear, but will come to understand in time. The horrific story of a monster I thought this story would be about, it wasn't, not in the literal sense, anyway. What it turned out to be was so much more, though.

A Monster Calls was inspired by a premise from author Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer short of seeing it into fruition. With Dowd's notes about the story, Patrick Ness wrote A Monster Calls. Talk about inspiration!

On the narration: Jason Isaacs does a wonderful job narrating A Monster Calls. He conveyed all of the characters brilliantly, and his take on the gravelly Yew Tree was excellent. Gritty, hearty, full of emotion - he was the perfect narrator for this story. Bravo! The narration concludes with a 10 minute interview of Patrick Ness where narrator, Jason Isaacs is the interviewer. I loved this bit, as it gave a lot of insight to the story and the inspiration behind it.

Something of note, Ness remarked that he hopes that the best of both of he and Siobhan Dowd are found in the reading of this book. While I'm not familiar with Dowd's work, the story was beautifully told. I'm sure any author would be proud to see their work presented in such a way.

Notes: A Monster Calls deals with a hard subject matter for children with great care. The subject of cancer is simplified enough for a reader 12 and up to understand. The gravity of the Conor's situation will not be lost on them, though I think this book gains an overall better appreciation with age.

Final Thoughts: If you haven't read this, please don't hesitate to do so. It is a must read, in my humble opinion. I plan on getting the hard cover of this book for the illustrations - which are amazing - and also because it's that good that I must have both.

"Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak." - Yew Tree

Visit author Patrick Ness here.

*Illustrations are from illustrator's Jim Kay's website. The last illustration was found here.

**This is book 2 for me in the 2012 Audio Book Challenge being hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Once Upon a Time VI

With spring comes flowers in bloom, birds chirping, beautiful weather and the Once Upon a Time Challenge from Stainless Steel Droppings. Our gracious host, Carl, describes the challenge as so:

“Once upon a time…”

Perhaps you too have heard that voice whispering on the spring wind, or perhaps Old Man Winter continues to drown out the sound; either way that time has come: Once Upon a Time is here!

Wednesday, March 21st begins the sixth annual Once Upon a Time Challenge. This is a reading and viewing event that encompasses four broad categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum. The challenge continues through Tuesday, June 19th and allows for very minor (1 book only) participation as well as more immersion depending on your reading/viewing whims.
 This challenge is great because it has different levels of participation, ranging from minimal to very involved. I've decided to be minimalistic and have gone with The Journey.

Per Carl: 

This is really as simple as the name implies. It means you are participating, but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. By signing up for The Journey you are agreeing to read at least one book within one of the four categories during March 21st to June 19th period. Just one book. If you choose to read more, fantastic! If not, then we have still had the pleasure of your company during this three month reading journey and hopefully you have read a great book, met some interesting people, and enjoyed the various activities that occur during the challenge. It has always been of utmost importance to me that the challenges that I host be all about experiencing enjoyable literature and sharing it with others. I want you to participate. Hence, The Journey.
 The one book that I'm definitely reading will be The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. A couple more that I hope to get around to are Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes and The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

I'm more than ready for reading full of whimsy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Reading Level: Ages 12 and up

Title: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Author: Elizabeth George Speare

Publisher: Laurel Leaf

Publication Date: May 15, 1978

Pages: 256

From the book:
Orphaned Kit Tyler knows, as she gazes for the first time at the cold, bleak shores of Connecticut Colony, that her new home will never be like the shimmering Caribbean island she left behind. In her relatives' stern Puritan community, she feels like a tropical bird that has flown to the wrong part of the world, a bird that is now caged and lonely. The only place where Kit feels completely free is in the meadows, where she enjoys the company of the old Quaker woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond, and on occasion, her young sailor friend Nat. But when Kit's friendship with the "witch" is discovered, Kit is faced with suspicion, fear, and anger. She herself is accused of witchcraft!
My Summary: The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens in the year 1687 with orphaned Katherine "Kit" Tyler aboard the Dolphin on her way to Connecticut Colony. Kit has journeyed from her life-long home in Barbados to Connecticut following the death of her grandfather, which has left her alone and penniless. Her last living relative is her late mother's sister, Rachel, whom Kit has never met. Rachel and her husband have settled in the Puritan community of Connecticut and with nowhere else to go, Kit hopes that they will welcome her arrival.

Kit's unexpected arrival at her aunt's house receives a mixed welcome. Her aunt is happy to have her and welcomes her immediately. Her two cousins, Judith and Mercy, welcome her with a little apprehension, and her Uncle isn't in good spirits about Kit showing up. Over the weeks to come, Kit tries to fit into the household, but she finds it a hard thing to do. Coming from living a life of privilege in Barbados, she is unused to doing things for herself. Cooking, cleaning, weeding, spinning - all come hard to her and she feels as though she's not much help to anyone.

Kit is out of place in this new world and longs for her old life in Barbados, but things start to look up after she finds a meadow that gives her the only solace she's known since her arrival. In the meadow by Blackbird Pond lives an old Quaker woman who has been labeled "The Witch of Blackbird Pond." Kit is warned against going anywhere near the witch's little cabin, but she can't seem to stay away from the meadow. Her connection to the meadow and Blackbird Pond lead to consequences that will forever change Kit's life.

On the book: I enjoyed reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The story deals with trials of the time: religion, slavery, family relationships, and prejudice. Kit finds herself in the middle of an always changing world as her uncle struggles with others to preserve Connecticut's charter. There is also a love story that involves all of the younger characters in the story, making it a well intentioned yet convoluted love hexagon. Luckily, it has a fitting resolution.

Kit, in the beginning of the story is very self-involved, as most sixteen year old girls are, But as the story progresses, she experiences personal growth and becomes a more accepting and caring young woman. When she finally begins to see the importance of the people around her, the story becomes something truly meaningful. Kit's struggle with reconciling the life she once had with her new life in Connecticut was heartfelt and by the end of the book I hoped that she would find the happiness that everyone around her had. When she finally does, it was well worth the wait. The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a delight to read.

Notes: The book deals with social and religious issues of 1687 Connecticut. It contains one kiss between two characters. The suggested reading level is 12 and up. I think it is suitable for that age group.

Final thoughts: Lovely story with an underlying lesson of tolerance and acceptance. Get it, read it, share it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

AudioBook Review: Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. Lafevers

Reading Level: Ages 9 and up (middle grade)

Title: Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos

Author: R.L. Lafevers

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Publication Date: April 9, 2007

Audio Reading: 7 hrs 53 mins

Narrator: Charlotte Parry

From the book:
Theodosia Throckmorton has her hands full at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. Her father may be head curator, but it is Theo—and only Theo—who is able to see all the black magic and ancient curses that still cling to the artifacts in the museum.

When Theo’s mother returns from her latest archaeological dig bearing the Heart of Egypt—a legendary amulet belonging to an ancient tomb—Theo learns that it comes inscribed with a curse so black and vile that it threatens to crumble the British Empire from within and start a war too terrible to imagine. Intent on returning the malevolent artifact to its rightful place, Theo devises a daring plan to put things right. But even with the help of her younger brother, a wily street urchin, and the secret society known as the Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers, it won’t be easy . . . she quickly finds herself pursued down dark alleys, across an ocean, through the bustling crowds of Cairo, and straight into the heart of an ancient mystery. Theo will have to call upon everything she’s ever learned in order to prevent the rising chaos from destroying her country—and herself!

My Summary: Theodosia is a bright 11-year-old, so bright, in fact, that she sometimes knows more about the importance of the artifacts her parents bring into the Museum of Legends and Antiquities than her own father (the museum's curator) and her mother (an archaeologist.) This knowledge is bound to get her into all sorts of trouble, and trouble is what Theo finds herself in when she realizes that the Heart of Egypt, one of the artifacts her mother has brought back from her latest excursion, holds a curse that will bring about the end of days for Britain if the artifact is not returned to Egypt. Seems simple enough, right? Just take the Heart of Egypt back to its rightful place and all is right in the world. Well, not exactly. Theodosia is not the only person after the Heart of Egypt. A group, The Serpents of Chaos want the artifact, too, though their intent for it is not good. The artifact holds the power to set all of Europe at war and they will stop at nothing to have exactly that happen.

On the book: I found Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos to be a delightful tale of adventure and chaos. Theo is a smart and resourceful young girl. She's quick witted, but still maintains a childish innocence that reminds the reader that she is just a young girl (something that can be easily forgotten while reading all of the adult-like trouble she finds herself in.) Some of the predicaments Theo finds herself in require one to suspend disbelief. I can't imagine many young girls of Theo's standing in 1906 London would sneak about so readily and deal with the situations Theo does in her adventures so well. But this is a story about a young girl who can see magic and curses so it's easy to accept Theo's adventures when considering the fantasy already involved.

On the narration: Charlotte Parry is charming in narrating of the novel. She takes on Theo's clever voice in a perfectly childlike, yet wise-beyond-her-years way that brings the young heroine to life. She also does well at voicing the novel's host of characters. I particularly liked the voicing of the street urchin, Sticky Will. The only character that I wasn't completely enthralled with was Theo's mother, whom I felt lacked any distinctive accent. I wondered if she was American, but since it was never brought up in the story, I assume her not to be, therefore the accent that Parry used for her was bothersome until I warmed up to, and accepted that to be the way she sounded. Overall, I feel the narration was excellent, so much so that I searched for more of Parry's narrations and plan on listening to a few of those books as well.

Notes: This is the first book in the Theodosia Throckmorton series of which there are currently 4 books.
The reading level for this book states 9 and up. I think that age 9 is a bit generous and that a middle grade audience would have a better appreciation for the story. While listening I couldn't reconcile a child of 9 really getting the wit and dry humor used throughout the story. That's not to say don't try to give it to a child that age, just be mindful that they may not be too interested in it for another couple years.

Final thoughts: Growing up I loved stories like Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos put me in the mind of those mysteries that I used to pull out from under my pillow, way after I should have been asleep, and read by the moonlight that came in through my window. It's a charming story, with a witty young heroine - and for me, that's the stuff good books are made of.

For more about this book and others by R.L. Lafevers, visit her the author's site here.

**I'm participating in the 2012 Audio Book Challenge being hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Lorax by Dr Seuss

This review is based on an audio copy of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Narrated by Ted Danson.15 mins

The Lorax is a Dr. Seuss tale about a young boy who lives in a polluted landscape. He wonders about The Lorax who once lived there until he, according to rumors, no longer could. He goes to ask The Once-ler, who knows all about the place, what happened to The Lorax?

The Once-ler tells the boy of how he found and fell in love with the beautiful place.The Once-ler reminisces that the place was once filled with wonderful Truffula trees that the Once-ler took advantage of with his invention of Sneed's. He chopped down Truffula trees to make sneed's for profit. The Lorax, an orange creature who is the lone voice of the trees, asks him to stop because he was ruining the beautiful place. The Once-ler instead asks his family to come help him cut the trees to make even more money.

The Once-ler's greedy demands on the land interrupts the creatures who live there. They lose food from the trees, smog fills the air from the machinery, and the ponds become polluted. The creatures have to leave because they can no longer survive there. The Once-ler continues with his destruction until there are no more trees to chop down. When all he work is gone and the land is demolished, everyone leaves. The only ones left are The Once-ler and the sad and disapproving Lorax, who, after there is nothing more to save, also leaves.

Now all that was left in the bad smelling sky, was my big, empty factory, the Lorax and I. The Lorax said nothing, just gave me a glance. Just gave me a very sad, sad, backward glance as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants. And I'll never forget the grim look on his face when he heisted himself and took leave of this place, through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.

The story ends on a promising note with one last Truffula tree seed remaining. The Once-ler gives the seed to the young boy and tells him there is hope that the place might be restored and then The Lorax and all his friends may be able to return.

Notes: The Lorax focuses on bringing environmental awareness to children in an imaginative way - with creatures such as The Lorax and trees such as Truffula's, and clever rhymes. The Lorax is a good way to educate children about things such as littering, and teaching them doing their part to keep the earth clean. The words "stupid" and "idiot" are both used once in the text. I listened to the The Lorax with my children on a drive to the grocery store, unaware that those words would be used. Since we teach that both are "bad words" my girls' pointed it out immediately. The reading has a musical score that, in the very beginning of the story, is somewhat overpowering, making it hard to clearly take in what is being said. Luckily, that particular musical bit only lasts a minute or so. The rest of the score goes well with, and aids in the story telling. Ted Danson does a good job with the narrating. He reads deliberately and rhythmically. His voice paints a clear picture of the things taking place.

The Lorax is currently 2.95 on Audible. It is definitely an audio book that I recommend for children.

*All images were found online and are copyright  of Dr. Seuss.