Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: Between Two Kingdoms by Joe Boyd

Title: Between Two Kingdoms
Author: Joe Boyd
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Standard Publishing (March 2010)
Genre: Fantasy/Allegory/Christian
Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: FSB Associates (thanks Anna!)

About the book: from the publishers

In this work of allegorical fantasy, author Joe Boyd takes us on a pilgrimage to a land of two kingdoms, but only one true King. An ancient land, where children never grow old. A living land, where foundations grow in trees and rivers sing and breathe. But also a dying land, where the darkness of a false prince threatens to swallow everything in its shadow.
Enter the adventure with Tommy, a child of the Great King, as he and his friends accept the challenge to live as grown men and women in the Lower Kingdom—where hope is hidden, vision is clouded, and pride twists truth into a beautiful yet deadly deception.
My thoughts:
I thought long and hard about the genre of this book. It's obviously a fantasy book. That was made crystal clear by the time I hit the second paragraph of the first chapter:
The palace marked the heart of this mountain kingdom -- the Upper Kingdom, which had no beginning, but always was. The Great King, whose name was ancient and unpronounceable, ruled the entire expanse of the Upper Kingdom -- every tree and animal, every stream and pathway. His son, the Good Prince, faithfully served his father with eternal devotion. The King and Prince had justly and lovingly ruled their subjects for as long as anyone could remember.
Will young readers who enjoy fantasy enjoy this book? Yes. It has all the components necessary for a successful fantasy: magical elements, universally scary situations tempered by the soft cushion of fantasy, a hero or heroes that must face seemingly insurmountable tasks, and an evil character that seems more outlandish and cartoon-like in this created world.  So taken as just a fantasy, this is the story of a little boy and a loving prince who sees potential in this boy to do great things. He sends him on a quest to the lower kingdom where, with an older mentor, he and his two friends must destroy the evil king and stop this king from bringing chaos on the world. Along the way, they are helped by a nurturing river, as well as strangers who end up being valuable assets to these children.

However, this is not just a fantasy. This is also a Christian allegory. We have the King (in caps) of the Upper Kingdom. He's a more hands-off King, allowing his son, the Good Prince to deal with the minutia of the kingdoms. People in the Upper Kingdom are all 7 years old, and they stay that way forever.  I hesitate to read too much into this, but there are several stories in the Bible where Jesus (the Good Prince) talks about being like children in order to get into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3). When children of the King move into the lower kingdom, they transform and grow old. They start to forget what it was like in the Upper Kingdom and are easily swayed by the evil king.  Still there are pockets of people in the lower kingdom that still serve the King, and they continue to do the work for the Good Prince.

Again, does this have to read as a Christian allegory? No. I think if you regard it as such, it will seem too heavy handed as a story. The connections and lessons in this allegory just wash over me like a strong wave and I found that I had to just read this as a story, and actually turn off the Christianity aspect of it. I never forgot that the Good Prince was the more approachable and hands on Jesus versus the overseeing and somewhat distant King (God), but I didn't linger on that. I think the story on its own, and the tension and twists and turns at the end are enough to sustain it as a great story. If I dwell too much on the morality of this story, then I lose the excitement of the climax. Of course good will triumph over evil eventually - God's soldiers will always overcome evil in the end - but I needed to forget that in order to savor the enormity of the task that the three protagonists must face.

I think what I'm trying to say is that I acknowledge that this is a Christian allegory, but if you have reluctant tween readers, sell this as a fantasy. The story is exciting, action-packed and reader-friendly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Live Virtual Author Event tonight 6/28/10

Terry Kate from the blog Romance in the Back Seat is hosting two YA authors in a virtual author event on her site. The live video chat with the authors starts at 8:30 p.m. EST (that's 2:30 p.m. Hawaii time).

You will have an opportunity to chat live with Alyxandra Harvey (Blood Feud, the second adventure in the Drake Chronicles) at 9 p.m. and Meagan Hatfield (Shadow of the Vampire) at 9:30 p.m.

If you are interested in joining, please go sign up at her site below:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review: Ponga Boy by Phil Lebherz & Philip Reed

Title: Ponga Boy
Authors: Phil Lebherz & Philip Reed
Publisher: Epic Press (July, 2009)
Hardcover: 180 pages
Genre: Sports fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5
Source: from the authors

My thoughts:
It's World Cup fever at my house, despite the fact that although we loyally taped the 3 am matches, US lost to Ghana for their final match in the tournament. Still, they got to the round of 16. Not too shabby, and the last goal by Donovan will be historic in US soccer. I think our local AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) will be filled with boys and girls who are also glued to the World Cup this summer. 

Ponga Boy, the story of a young up-and-coming soccer star from the little fishing village of Los Barilles, Mexico, comes at an appropriate time for middle readers who are interested in soccer. This is the book that could pull reluctant male readers into reading. Pitchu helps his father on their ponga (bait fishing boat), and on his spare time, he plays soccer with his town team. Although the boys play with homemade uniforms on a cement field,  Pichu stands out for his gravity-defying moves. In one memorable game, a vacationing American soccer scout sees Pichu in action and offers him a scholarship to play soccer for the University of San Francisco. In America, Pichu faces many conflicts: prejudice, jealousy, and culture shock. Still, there are many Latino role models that help him along the way. Ultimately, Pichu must make a difficult choice and choose between his own opportunity and the opportunities of his family.

The drawback of this book for some reluctant readers actually has nothing to do with the story and more to do with the format (not enough white space, and the font is too small), as well as the fact that the book is in hard cover. Hopefully, when the movie version comes out, the book will be in paperback. This book is also in audio form and read by actor Tony Plana from the television show "Ugly Betty."

Favorite passage:
...he saw his father staring at him with a look he didn't understand. But years later, recalling this moment, Pichu would realize it was the going away look. His father knew his son had a special gift. He was proud of the gift, since it had come through his blood. But he also knew that the gift would take his son away from him to places that were not as simple and good as this life in Los Barriles. And in those places, his son would be hurt and changed and things would never be like this wonderful moment ever again (7).
In a sentence:
Ponga Boy is a moving tale of an extraordinary boy and his love of soccer and family.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Review: One Red Paperclip by Kyle MacDonald

Title: One Red Paperclip: or How an Ordinary Man Achieved His Dream with the Help of a Simple Office Supply
Author: Kyle MacDonald
Publisher: Three Rivers Press (2007)
Paperback: 310 pages
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: bought

Synopsis: from product description
Kyle MacDonald had a paperclip. One red paperclip, a dream, and a resume to write. And bills to pay. Oh, and a very patient girlfriend who was paying the rent while he was once again “between jobs.” Kyle wanted to be able to provide for himself and his girlfriend, Dominique. He wanted to own his own home. He wanted something bigger than a paperclip. So he put an ad on Craigslist, the popular classifieds website, with the intention of trading that paperclip for something better. A girl in Vancouver offered him a fish pen in exchange for his paperclip. He traded the fish pen for a doorknob and the doorknob for a camping stove. Before long he had traded the camping stove for a generator for a neon sign. Not long after that, avid snow-globe collector and television star Corbin Bernsen and the small Canadian town of Kipling were involved, and Kyle was on to bigger and better things. 

My thoughts:
Let's not beat around the bush. In 14 trades, and one year, Kyle gets the house (and the girl). I knew that from the beginning because I've already heard the story. However, what makes the book worth reading on a Saturday afternoon when you should be doing more important things like paying bills, cleaning the house, or washing the windows is not the outcome, but the process he took to get to the end.

While trying to get things ready for an upcoming garage sale, I found myself on a roll, all fears of being married to a hoarder pushed aside, when I came across this book. I bought it for my son as a Christmas book. It was something to inspire him as he got ready for his senior year, but since I already knew the outcome, I wasn't interested in reading it. Still, I flipped through it looking for any loose note or money or receipt used as a bookmark when I saw the pictures and obvious title headings (the title heading has to do with his next trade). Being middle school minded, I am a sucker for obvious title headings and pictures, especially pictures where the author always looks like a goofball. What's more, even though he is an adult, his mother still cuts his hair. Nice.

The thrill of the trade kept me reading even though the author's voice was a bit too cornball for me in the beginning. I don't know if his voice changes as an author later on, or I just ignored it, but I wanted to read on and only stopped to pace around and talk to my family when the climax of the "bad trade" happened.  But the trade is not the point, as he so clearly points out, and my finishing the book in one afternoon was not about the trades, but about the process. By insisting on doing trades in person, the author takes us along and invites us not only into his life, but into the very interesting lives of those people who actually find ways to help him trade up for bigger and better.

The promotional parts, the crazy interviews, the media frenzy - those were all skim worthy. I wasn't interested in that, although, I know that the author needed to be media savvy in order to keep this project going. I think self-promotion using the social media as well as traditional media is what many bloggers dream of, but I am always more interested in the human story and this book has many interesting human stories.

In the end, as I go back to gathering "treasures" from my "junks," this book reminds me that an item is only worth whatever somebody is willing to give you for it, but if you don't get in there and trade away your "one red paperclip," then nothing is going to happen except that you still have "one red paperclip." I will try to convince my husband of that as I try to get him to see that the memories will still be there even if the object is not.

Now if only I could trade my 2003 red 4-wheel drive Toyota Sequoia for two smaller cars (preferably one truck and one sedan - both in excellent running condition).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

From the mixed up files

There's an exciting new blog on the blogosphere, and to celebrate, they're doing a 9-book giveaway of middle school books.
From the mixed up files. . .of middle-grade authors is a blog made up of middle-grade authors to celebrate books for middle-grade readers. Sweet! Their contest ends on June 22nd, but even if you don't enter, add this blog to your reader.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Title: Countdown
Author: Deborah Wiles
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication date: May 1, 2010
Hardcover: 400 pages
Reading level: ages 9-12
Genre: Documentary novel
Rating: 5 out of 5
Source: Big Honcho Media (thanks Chelsy!)

Synopsis: from inner cover flap
Franny Chapman just wants some peace. But that's hard to get when her best friend is feuding with her, her sister has disappeared, and her uncle is fighting an old war in his head. Her saintly younger brother is no help, and the cute boy across the street only complicates things. Worst of all, everyone is walking around just waiting for a bomb to fall.
It's 1962, and it seems that the whole country is living in fear. When President Kennedy goes on television to say that Russia is sending nuclear missiles to Cuba, it only gets worse. Franny doesn't know how to deal with what's going on in the world -- no more than she knows how to deal with what's going on with her family and friends. But somehow she's got to make it through.
My thoughts: 
In this documentary novel, Ms. Wiles uses her experiences as a young girl growing up in the 1960s to immerse readers in the fear and unease of the Cuban missile crisis through the life of 11-year-old Franny Chapman. Franny, who comes from a military family, lives near Andrews Air Force Base, close to Washington D.C. Franny and her classmates are used to air-raid drills, where they practice how to "duck and cover," but when the air-raid drill happens during recess, the panic not only of the children, but also of the adults quickly brings home the feeling of dread in a chaotic world. It's easy to see how the civil rights movement could gain so much momentum from young people in this time of unease.

What I like about Franny, the main character, is that she is so well developed and authentic. When the family sits down to listen to President Kennedy announce that Russian missiles are in Cuba and can strike Washington D.C. at any time, the 13 days in October 1962 are a huge concern for Franny. She continues to try and pen a letter to Chairman Khrushchev to show him that she is just like the children in Russia with the same feelings and fears, but she also must deal with the stress in her own family. Her 11-year-old self is old enough to try to comfort her younger brother, but not old enough to really know what's going on with her older sister or her parents. She is in that in-between stage where the adults dismiss her as being too young to know what their worries are, and too old to coddle. Her pain of feeling invisible and powerless, while still worried about 11-year-old stresses like friends, boys, homework and being embarrassed really creates an important character in Franny. I know that this is book one of a trilogy of the 1960s, so the book may take on different events, but I hope that somehow I can be in Franny's life a little longer. Despite her awkwardness, the end of this book shows that she will grow up to be a wonderful teen.

This is my first documentary novel, and until I read the author's acknowledgments at the end, I was labeling this as a multigenre novel, but documentary novel is the perfect label for this. Interspersed in Franny's story are snippets of songs and speeches, black-and-white photos and cartoons that not only bring the missile crisis to a new level, but also brings in other subplots like the civil rights movement and the propoganda of the day. The documentary nature of this book shows us the big picture of the 60's while the novel of the Chapman family focuses the microscope on one family trying to continue to live normally. This genre is a powerful way to bring this time period alive.

I think this novel can span the generations. I think Franny's story is appealing to tweens all by itself, but for me, it brings back my little girl  self who watched the Vietnam War on our black and white television each evening, and prayed for the safe return of all our fathers each night before I slept. It brings back my deep sadness as we watched the Challenger explode in the air, a room full of college students standing around one lounge tv, mourning for all the astronauts, but especially our own astronaut from Hawaii, Ellison Onizuka. This brings back the awful call in the morning from friends yelling for me to turn on CNN, and watching in horror and hopelessness as before our collective eyes we watched the second plane hit the towers and we stayed glued to the television as the towers fell again and again. I remember grabbing my two little boys, knowing that like everything else, life would be different, but as Americans, life would go on. It always has. I think that our memories are so embedded in the media, that this genre is a natural way for us to learn.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review: The Revolutionary Paul Revere by Joel J. Miller

Author: Joel J. Miller
Publisher: Thomas Miller
Publication date: April 2010
Paperback: 320 pages
Rating: 4
Source:  phenix & phenix literary publicists (Thanks Shelby!)

Synopsis: from Goodreads
"Quick in the saddle and fast out of town." Watch one of America's most remarkable heroes come alive through fast-paced prose and gripping storytelling.
The Revolutionary Paul Revere starts at a gallop and never slows down. Follow Revere's adventure-filled life from childhood through the French and Indian War; from the prerevolutionary economic disasters through the incendiary tax fights and riots; from military occupation of Boston through Revere's part in the Boston Massacre trial; from his role in the Boston Tea Party through his early service as express rider for the Massachusetts patriots; from the tragic death of his first wife through the whimsical pursuit of a new love; from his role as waterfront spy through his famous midnight ride; from his participation in the worst American naval disaster before Pearl Harbor through his eventual vindication.
Learn about Revere's life in the Freemasons and the secret political clubs of Boston. Discover his role in Massachusetts' ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Get the inside picture of his business dealings, and see how he transformed himself from poor artisan to wealthy industrialist, making everything from kettles to cannons. Revere's life story is the quintessential American story.
My thoughts:
Paul Revere, made famous in the Longfellow poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," was an early model for the struggles and triumphs of the American dream. In the book The Revolutionary Paul Revere by Joel J. Miller, the author pulls together primary documents and other resources to show Revere as the new American -- idealistic, independent, headstrong and innovative.

Unlike some of the other prominent revolutionaries like John Adams and John Hancock, Paul Revere was a laborer, a tradesman who continued to struggle financially as the new America went through its growing pains and teen aged rebellions. Revere also continued to straddle his political views with his financial need to support his large family.

He may have conferred, planned and participated alongside the revolutionaries, but that doesn't mean that he was averse to accepting jobs from loyalists. He was practical after all, and Revere had many mouths to feed at home.

The format of this book, with the little synopses at the beginning of each chapter creates a nice flow and structure to the book. It reads as a student-friendly history book, perfect for research and sure to be enjoyed by those who like the "side story" versions of history. What I learned from this book is that although he was a rather minor player in history, Revere is an example of American gumption and creativity.

About the author:
Miller is the vice president of editorial and acquisitions for the non-fiction division of Thomas Nelson. He has been an editor for more than a decade and is the author of two other books, Bad Trip (Thomas Nelson, June 2004) and Size Matters (Thomas Nelson, January 2006).  For more information about Miller and The Revolutionary Paul Revere, please visit


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