Friday, July 31, 2015

Benji Franklin, Kid Zillionaire: Money Troubles by Raymond Bean

This book is set to be released tomorrow,  August 1, 2015, along with a few other books from Capstone Young Readers that I've previewed through NetGalley. It is probably categorized as middle grade fiction, though I would say that it probably fits best in a category I'd call younger middle grade fiction. It's the fourth Benji Franklin book to be published, and the first Benji Franklin book that I've read. Capstone has created a web page about the series, so if you want to know more about it, click here for the link. If not, below is a paragraph from NetGalley about the book, and what I thought can be found below that.

Benji Franklin is the world’s go-to super genius. He’s already saved the planet twice before, and now he’s at it again. With the help of his extraordinary problem solving skills (and a solid gold submarine or two), he’ll be busy stopping dangerous underwater earthquakes and catching outer-space cyber criminals! But with balancing saving the world and doing his homework, are there some problems too challenging for even the Kid Zillionaire?

Benji Franklin: Kid Zillionaire kind of sums up the tone of this book right in the title. Benji (that's short for Benjamin) is a boy with so much money that a real number just won't do to describe it. (If you are unaware, there is no actual number that is assigned the name zillion. It's just a word people use when they are talking about a quantity so enormous that real numbers aren't cutting it.) In short, Benji Franklin is supposed to be a modern adolescent who is so wealthy that mathematics cannot adequately describe his bank account.

What does the egregiously wealthy child do? He makes extravagant and senselessly expensive purchases (like a gold submarine with orange lightning bolts on the side), attends elementary school like a normal child, and solves problems for inept rich businessmen who value discreet service more than expertise. This book isn't meant for the analytical reader that will slowly pick it to pieces. It's pretty easy to poke holes in everything from the plot, to the characters, to the incidental details that just don't seem to add up (like a spaceship that needs a spacious runway to land despite having the ability to hover while magnetically picking up or dropping off a submarine). This book is meant to be a zany and fun caper with cartoon-like silliness and suspense. As Kirkus Reviews so perfectly described the first book in the series, "This book is the best cartoon that Hanna-Barbera never made." Think of it like Tony Stark and/or Bruce Wayne having a richer nephew that decides to be a private investigator instead focusing on finishing elementary school. He's a bit of a braggadocios egomaniac, going so far as to as to refer to himself as a superhero simply because with enough overpriced gadgetry and fairly transparent nonviolent criminals to outwit, he's been able to repeatedly save the day.

I can see this appealing to 7 and 8 year old boys particularly, as Benji lives an adolescent boy's fantasy life. He's rich beyond anyone's wildest imaginings; the whole world (including his parents and his school principal) kind of bows to his greatness, and his only real adversaries are a girl from his class named Cindy with whom he maintains a battle of wits for elementary school supremacy, and an ever growing pile of schoolwork that he can't seem to fit into his busy "superhero" schedule. I laughed a couple of times as I read this, and I'm sure the right reader would do the same. All in all, it's a good read for it's intended audience. It's a bit nonsensical and even a little delusional at times, but if you can buy into the insanity, it can be a fun ride.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

BookCon 2015

The past week was a big one in the world of books, the kind of week that only comes around once a year. The annual Book Expo America event was held in New York City from Wednesday to Friday. Now, I've never been in a position to actually attend a BEA event since I work weekdays like most of the employed world, so I don't have anything to report about that other than what I heard and read about it, but thanks to the same people that organize ComicCon, there's an alternative event that happens over the weekend. What event is that? Why, it's BookCon! I know the title makes it sound like a knock-off version of ComicCon, and it is to some extent (minus the abundance of people that attend in costume), but this is something worth seeing.

On Saturday, I journeyed to Javits Center overlooking the beautiful Hudson River in Manhattan to take in the spectacle that is BookCon with a friend of mine. We started the day as I imagine cattle do when they enter a slaughter house or as families do when they decide to ride basically anything in Disney World; we queued up in a seemingly endless line of people waiting for their chance to enter the show. I've never seen so many people waiting to attend an event that revolves around books. We were all corralled into a seemingly endless basement. We had to choose between a line that would lead to one of the more highly anticipated panels with celebrity personalities B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling, Nick Offerman, or Aziz Ansari or the wait in the still longer line that would release us onto the showroom floor sooner than that. We chose the line that let out earlier. Standing and waiting was not something we were going to do well, despite the fact that we stood and waited in a number of lines that day.

When ten o'clock rolled around, we joined an seemingly endless throng of people all being directed upstairs to showroom floor. After being driven along in that torrent for at least fifteen minutes we finally spilled into the show and began our trek through booth after booth. I wondered if this was what it felt like to enter the World's Fairs in the early 1900s. Everything was big and bold. People were everywhere. All around were exhibitors trying to hand out early proofs of upcoming books. Other exhibitors were selling featured work from their publisher. Not all the vendors were publishers. Some were simply people attempting to sell their own self-published books. In any case, we toured them all.

Within an hour, my friend and I found ourselves in line to get the autograph of Charlaine Harris as she gave away copies of her new book. Though I am not a reader of Charlaine Harris, I got in line anyway. Both the book and the autograph were free if you were only willing to wait for it, and how many opportunities like that do you get? We struck up a conversation with another BookCon goer, this one a blogger from New York who had attended a number of events like this one. The excitement was palpable. Our line wound past the showroom door of a panel that featured Annie Barrows, author of the Ivy and Bean series, though she was there to discuss her recent book for adults titled The Truth According to Us. Everywhere we went there were employees from different publishers trying to tempt us to enter their little stall and sample their wears. After getting our autograph and my friend getting a picture with the Ms. Harris, we toured a few more booths, inlcuding one for National Geographic where we were given books and bags and another for Bloomsbury books (a favorite publisher of mine) where we were given posters, and a couple of advance reader copies of books.

Penguin Random House, the same people that had arranged for Charlaine Harris earlier in the day, later featured the true highlight of my day, and possibly my reading year, the chance to meet Norton Juster and get a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth signed. If you are a regular reader of this blog (a.k.a. a figment of my imagination) then you know that I love The Phantom Tollbooth more than any other book. I have five copies of the book, in various editions and states of disrepair, on my shelves at home.  Whenever a child asks me what my favorite book is, I know the answer without hesitating. Meeting Norton Juster was like winning Publishers Clearing House, I never really believed it would happen to me. Yet, there I was, a little while later, getting my picture taken with him. The whole experience seemed unreal to me.

After that, we caught the middle of a presentation by Mac Barnett and Jory John, authors of the recent bestseller The Terrible Two, on how to prank effectively. They were truly funny as a pair. They played well off of one another, much as the characters in their book did. Sadly, we had leave while they were still presenting in order to catch another panel titled Faraway Lands.

Faraway Lands featured authors Aisha Saeed (Written in the Stars), Sabaa Tahir (An Ember in the Ashes), Renee Ahdieh (The Wrath and the Dawn), Marie Lu (The Young Elites), as they all discussed their bestselling books and what fans they were of each others' work among other things. They were all disarmingly funny people, though Marie Lu stood out among the crowd for her soft-spoken humorous insights. One memorable line that Ms. Lu offered up was about the responsibility of creating a realistic world for her characters to live in and the sometimes difficult decision to do something unpleasant to one of her characters. She said that as an author, she was God in her characters' world, and, "It's hard to be God." The whole audience cracked up at this, myself included. Renee Ahdiah amusingly added that she often emails her author friends that what she had written was "so mean" as though she was remorseful after writing a particularly cruel scene, all while secretly taking great, evil joy in making her characters suffer. Another amusing anecdote came when the authors were asked what their mothers thought of their books since in each of their books, parental figures are at least partially to blame for the problems that their protagonists face. Sabaa Tahir commented that her mother had been secretly suspicious that she was the model on whom the Commandant was based, and that now that she was a mother, whenever she had to correct her child in her mother's presence, her mother would chime in by calling her the Commandant.  Aisha Saeed had to insist to her mother that she wasn't writing about her by saying, "You didn't force me into an arranged marriage. That's kind of an important difference." Aside from the laughs and the insights, I was just startled by how young they all seemed. Seeing them on the stage, I kept thinking, 'My goodness! They're all my age or younger, and they all have bestselling books to their credit already! What have I been doing while they've been writing bestsellers?'

When we returned to the showroom floor after the presentation, we toured the remaining booths that we'd missed earlier. My friend was very excited to meet Michelle Visage, a celebrity that I knew next to nothing about, though to be honest, I didn't know who more than half of the featured attendees were. I guess that I don't keep up with pop culture and non-children's authors as well as other people do. While he got in line at 2:15 in order to be one of the first to meet her and immediately began gushing with a fellow Visage fan, I went off on my own around the showroom floor and caught half of another panel featuring my favorite author, Norton Juster. I was getting way more than my fair share of good fortune. I signed up for a few contests, read some of the books that were featured on the tables in different publishers' booths, and generally enjoyed what was going on around me before returning to the Chronicle Books pavilion where Michelle Visage would be signing posters.

While waiting to take a picture of my friend with Visage, I noticed that Mac Barnett and Jory John had entered the pavilion as well. Jory John has had a number of books published by Chronicle Books including All My Friends are Dead, K is for Knifeball: An Alphabet of Terrible Advice, and I Feel Relatively Neutral About New York, so I assume that he was there to catch up with a couple of old friends who were running the pavilion. I broke off from my friend again and introduced myself to Mac Barnett. I didn't get a chance to say anything to Jory John since he was in the middle of some reminisce with his friends, and I didn't want to interrupt, but Mac Barnett, who writes some of the funniest picture books I've read in the past couple of years as well as The Terrible Two, was extremely kind and welcoming. I think I may have gushed about what a fan I was, but he didn't seem to mind. Though I didn't ask for a picture or an autograph, I got everything I wanted from just shaking his hand and thanking him for all that he's done. He asked my name and where I was from and thanked me politely for all my compliments. Generally, he was just a good guy. Soon after, my friend got his autograph and picture with Michelle Visage (who was very kind as well), and we decided to go downstairs for one last panel before we called it a day.

On our way, we ran into none other than Marie Lu, who we'd seen earlier in the day at her author panel. I introduced us and we talked briefly. She was extremely friendly and humble just as she'd been in her panel. She spoke with us briefly and offered some words of encouragement to my friend in his writing endeavors before we parted cordially.

Then we headed onto our panel featuring Patrick Ness (The Rest of Us Just Live Here), Lauren Oliver (Before I Fall), Ellen Hopkins (Burned), and Jason Reynolds (The Boy in the Black Suit). Though of the authors I'd only read Ellen Hopkins work before, I'd seen Lauren Oliver's books in stores and even paged through a couple. I didn't know who Patrick Ness was, though everyone else in the room seemed to and they were really excited about it. Jason Reynolds, on the other hand, seemed to be the panelist that the other panelists were most excited about, and after listening to him describe his book, I understood why. After sitting through so much before that, you'd think that we'd have grown tired of the repetitive hubbub and would be anxious to conclude our day, but it was just the opposite. Patrick Ness was disarmingly funny as was Lauren Oliver, while Jason Reynolds was relaxed and exceedingly cool about the whole thing. Ellen Hopkins, star author that she is, was amazing to listen to. She was so honest about her craft and her inspiration. She was older than the other panelists, and she mentioned that a couple times as a preface to her answers, but she brought a different dynamic to the panel than the others could provide. Once again, I felt a little starstruck by the whole thing. Near the end of the panel, a little boy came running through the panel room being chased by some very embarrassed teenagers that he'd gotten away from, and though it interrupted the session briefly, the authors came to rescue, suggesting that they not chase him and allow him to come to them. Not surprisingly, their suggestion worked.

After the panel, though there was more to see if we stayed, my friend and I quietly departed BookCon, thoroughly satisfied with the experience. Though a year from now it will be held in Chicago, I'm tempted to make the pilgrimage again, and perhaps arrive a few days earlier in order to see what Book Expo America is like. If this was any indication, the trip would be well worth it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Saving Crazy by Karen Hood-Caddy

This book is set to be released by June 16, 2015 from Dundurn Publishing. It is a young adult environmental fiction story with themes including animal rehabilitation, global warming, whale conservation, and environmental advocacy. In the interests of full disclosure, it is important for me to note that despite this being the third book in a series about The Wild Place, I have not read books 1 and 2 in the series, titled Howl and The Truth About Brave. While I might do that in the future, this is the first book I have read in the series. Below is a product description provided on Netgalley. Below that is my review of the book, also available on Goodreads.

Can a high-seas, whale-saving adventure repair the hurt between two friends? How do you decide where your heart lies when it’s being tugged at from so many sides? When Robin and Zo-Zo discover that their beloved lake has become a toxic sludge — the result of an algae bloom — they know they have to do something to fix it. But trouble begins when the two friends develop a crush on the same boy during a community meeting to save the lake. To help repair things between the girls, Robin’s grandmother, Griff, suggests a high-seas adventure with a whale-saving old friend of hers. Out on the open water Robin must decide what’s more important: a relationship with a boy or saving the animals she loves.

Saving CrazySaving Crazy by Karen Hood-Caddy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book as an advance copy provided by Netgalley. While I wouldn't say it's the kind of book I normally read, I read this all the way through and enjoyed it overall. The story is profoundly environmental in nature, but also a story of a teenage girl dealing with all the insecurity of her first real infatuation. A couple elements of the story came off a little bit heavy handed, one in particular being the constant harping upon global warming being to blame every time there was any environmental situation in the book. I'm no doubter of the science of global warming, but even I reached a point where I was saying, "Okay, I get it! Let's get on with the story now!"

The book did a good job of exploring the many different ways that an obsession with a boy could affect a girl's life, from her friendships, to her interests, to her goals all being compromised. Readers are sure to become attached to Griff as she helps Robin to see just what her feelings for McCoy are doing to her, and what she stands to loose from the experience.

The whale watching trip served as a nice opportunity to bring in another environmental cause, and it was a great climatic location. All in all, this would appeal to the same readers that enjoy Carl Hiassen or Jean Craighead George books, but it is also a good read for the fan of stories about teenage angst because there's plenty of that in there too. Certainly not a book for my elementary school library, but right at home in the YA crowd.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Jars of Hope by Jennifer Roy

This book is set to be released on August 1, 2015 from Capstone Young Readers. It is a picture book biography of Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who, as a member of the secret organization known as Zegota, helped over two thousand Jewish children escape the Warsaw Ghetto during the years of Nazi occupation. Below is a one-paragraph product description provided on Netgalley. Below that is my review of the book.

Amid the horrors of World War II, Irena Sendler was an unlikely and unsung hero. While many people lived in fear of the Nazis, Irena defied them, even though it could have meant her life. She kept records of the children she helped smuggle away from the Nazis’ grasp, and when she feared her work might be discovered, she buried her lists in jars, hoping to someday recover them and reunite children with their parents. This gripping true story of a woman who took it upon herself to help save 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust is not only inspirational; it's unforgettable.
For ages 9-12
* Dramatic and sophisticated picture book for older audiences
* Inspirational and true story of a strong female hero
* Award-winning author of Yellow Star
* A gentler introduction to the Holocaust

Jars of HopeJars of Hope by Jennifer Roy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of Irena Sendler, while not entirely untold, is certainly not one that springs to the average American mind when discussing Holocaust and pre-Holocaust occupation of Central Europe, yet it seems like it should. The comparison that springs to mind for me at least is to that of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman in the years that led to the American Civil War. While the Holocaust and American slavery are not the same thing, the idea of a secretly organized group of people helping an oppressed people to escape from the oppressive situation seems almost identical. The reason that I draw that comparison is that the Underground Railroad is so well documented in children's literature and even in our school curriculum, yet this group, the Zegota, and many other resistance movements that formed to counteract Nazi occupation in WWII basically remain unknown to most Americans despite interest in WWII and the Holocaust being comparable to the Civil War and slavery.

Though brief, this book does a good job of describing the ingenious methods that Sendler and the Zegota developed for extracting children from the Warsaw Ghetto and the great lengths that she went to in order to preserve a sense of history for the children that were extracted. Jars of Hope refers to the fact that Sendler used buried jars to store secret information about the children she helped to escape; information that she later used to reunite some of those children with their families.

This was an inspiring read, one that revealed a part of WWII history that is otherwise little known. This would be a good book to pair with Irena Sendler And The Children Of The Warsaw Ghetto. Both books are engaging and present Sendler's story in a slightly different way. Readers of one book would certainly appreciate the other. This book was a pleasure to read.

-Early copy of this book provided by Netgalley

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reading ARCs and Reviewing Books

Recently, I've been on a bit of a reading binge, the kind of binge that makes my wife look at me like I've lost touch with reality. These binges happen from time to time, when I look at my to-read list on Goodreads and realize that it's been outgrowing my read list at an unsustainable pace. I work to bring things back into balance in my reading life, which of course throws all other aspects of my life into disarray. I feel like its good for me every so often.

The thing is, as I quested after that elusive moment when I feel as though I am caught up again, I've happened upon a fascinating feature of Goodreads that I have been neglecting for most of the time I've been a member of the site. 'What feature it that?' you ask? Why, it's the giveaway feature of the site. Apparently, since Goodreads has come to be such a powerful source of inspiration to so many readers, publishers have been jumping on board and giving away ARCs or Advance Reader Copies of titles that they hope to generate some buzz for.

Anyone can enter to win one, so long as they agree to read and review what they receive. I've entered to win a number of these giveaways, and I haven't had any luck yet. That hasn't deterred me, though I'm beginning to suspect that my wife passed on the word to all these giveaways that we don't need any more books lying around the house. I'm a bit messy, though I strive not to be. Anyway, this lack of success recently combined with a little good fortune, and I've discovered another place to get ARCs. This other source has proved much more fruitful, and I intend to show that sending me an ARC is not a bad decision, so I am reading some books that are so new, they haven't even reached the shelves yet, and I plan to issue reviews of those books just as soon as I finish.

This binge is turning out to be great news for me, and even better news for my wife because all the ARCs I'm reading are electronic. No mess to clean up after, no clutter to organize. Both my wife and I get what we want. Sometimes, things work out for everybody. Hopefully, that means that coming soon will be reviews of some of the books that I've had my nose electronically buried in. Keep an eye out. They're on their way.