The Sword of Summer

I’ve been a huge fan of Rick Riordan’s books since I first picked up The Lightning Thief nearly six years ago. (Notice I said “books.” The movie adaptations of The Lightning Thief and The Sea of Monsters are horrible and should be avoided. I’m pretty sure Mr. Riordan agrees with me.) Since then, I’ve devoured the entire Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Kane Chronicles, and The Heroes of Olympus. (I still have Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods and Greek Heroes in my to-read pile. I’ll get to those soon.)

Anyhoo, I say all that to introduce Riordan’s latest book–the first book in a new series–The Sword of Summer. Previous series gave us tastes of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology. This one, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, provides readers with a closer look at Norse mythology. As you’ve likely guessed, this series focuses on Magnus Chase (notice the familiar last name) and the realization that he’s got a pretty major role to play in preventing the end of the world, or Ragnarok. No biggie, right?

For the past couple of years, Magnus Chase has been on his own. Following the traumatic death of his mother, Magnus left his home behind and survived on Boston’s streets, relying only on the help of friends Blitz and Hearth to get by.

Magnus always feels as though he’s being watched, and he soon realizes that people are actively searching for him. His Uncle Randolph eventually does track him down only to saddle Magnus with some rather huge pieces of news: Magnus is a Norse demigod, he must find his father’s sword–the Sword of Summer–and do whatever he can to delay Ragnarok. No pressure.

As soon as Magnus learns the truth about his father (or some of it, at least), he knows a huge target is on his back. It quickly becomes abundantly clear that he’s absolutely correct. The fire giant, Surt, is determined to get the Sword of Summer, and he’ll do everything in his considerable power to obtain the weapon, including kill Magnus.

For Magnus, though, death is when the real adventure begins…

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I’m going to stop here before I give too much more away. A lot happens in this book, and it’s really something you need to experience for yourself. Suffice it to say that Magnus Chase is everything we’ve come to expect from one of Rick Riordan’s heroes. He’s sarcastic, brave, and totally real…and he’s only one of the amazing characters in this book. I haven’t even touched on the wonderfully diverse cast of this book. I will say, though, that it includes a fashion-savvy dwarf, a deaf elf who doesn’t let his “disability” slow him down, and a Muslim Valkyrie. (Yes, you read that last bit right. It’s awesome.)

Now, I must confess that most of what I know about Norse mythology comes from Marvel, both comic books and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I had to throw a lot of that out the window almost immediately. I’m only a little sad about that. I do love Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki…so much so that I’m looking at a stand-up of him as I write this. Don’t believe me?

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The view from here…

At any rate, even though I had to forget most of what I thought I knew about Norse mythology, that didn’t slow my reading down at all. Riordan is great about explaining unfamiliar phrases (and there is a handy glossary in the back of the book), so it didn’t take very long to become familiar with the Norse gods and other assorted creatures. (After reading The Sword of Summer, I have to say that I’m particularly intrigued by Ratatosk, the immortal squirrel that terrorizes people in Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Makes me think twice about making the squirrels in my yard mad at me.)

I would say that The Sword of Summer is a must-purchase for libraries that serve middle grade and teen readers. Upper elementary may be a bit of a question mark, depending on your population. There are a couple of instances of cursing, but it’s really nothing gratuitous. I made the decision to place a couple of copies of this book in my elementary library, and I’ve had no complaints. It’s mostly 4th and 5th graders reading the book, and they’re gobbling it up. My students who love all of Riordan’s other books love The Sword of Summer just as much, and they’ve only had positive things to say. I call that a win.

The next book in the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series is The Hammer of Thor. (One guess what that focuses on!) It’s slated for an October 4th, 2016, release. As usual, we’ve got a wait ahead of us.

Never fear, though, my fellow Riordan fans! There’s another series to look forward to! On May 3rd, we’ll get our hands on The Hidden Oracle, the first book in The Trials of Apollo. In this series, the god Apollo is made a human teenager after angering Zeus. (The horror!) He has to navigate the human world and try to find a way to be welcomed back to Olympus. And where does he go for help? Camp Half-Blood, of course! Exciting stuff!

If you’d like to learn more about The Sword of Summer and the other outstanding books by Rick Riordan, check out the author’s website. You can also catch up with him on Twitter, Tumblr, Blogspot, and Facebook. Additionally, here’s a trailer for The Sword of Summer produced by Disney Books. It doesn’t give too much away, but I hope it whets your appetite for this wonderful book.

The Diviners

My favorite historical period (in America, at least) is the Roaring Twenties. I also enjoy reading books about people with supernatural abilities. Well, my latest read combined those two things in an amazing story that I’m still thinking about.

This book, The Diviners by Libba Bray, was a lengthy tome, and I couldn’t read it much at night because I’m a wuss, so it took me longer than I would have liked to finish. That being said, I adored this book, and I look forward to reading the second book, Lair of Dreams, which came out last month. I’m fairly certain it will give me the same case of heebie-jeebies that I got while reading the first book.

Evie O’Neill doesn’t quite fit in her boring Ohio hometown…and everyone knows it. When scandal erupts–a scandal that Evie had a part in revealing–she is sent to live with her uncle in Manhattan, and Evie couldn’t be happier. She knows she’ll find the life she’s always wanted in the Big Apple, and she’s ready to take the city by storm.

As Evie explores the speakeasies, parties, and good times that are so much a part of New York in the 20’s, she’s also being introduced to her Uncle Will’s work in the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. Uncle Will is soon called to assist with a strange murder investigation, and Evie finds herself right in the middle of it.

You see, Evie has a special ability that helps her to know much more about these gruesome murders than she should…and this ability may just make Evie a target herself. Evie is quickly caught up in an investigation that leads her to learn more about a dangerous cult, ritualistic killings, ghosts come back to life, and someone’s quest to bring about the end of the world.

How can one girl hope to stop such horrible events? Evie will have to use all of her considerable wits to combat the evil to come, but it still may not be enough. She’s on a collision course with a vicious killer, and her charms and abilities may not get her out of this mess.

And Evie is not the only person with abilities that put her in a killer’s cross-hairs. Theta, a chorus girl with a tragic past, has her own dangerous secret. Memphis once had sought-after healing abilities that left him after his mother’s death. His brother, Isaiah, is showing signs of his own special–and disturbing–gifts. Then there’s Sam, a pickpocket who has the handy ability of going completely unnoticed when he wishes to. And let’s not forget Jericho, a student of Evie’s uncle, and a young man who isn’t completely what he seems.

All of these people will, on some level, come face-to-face with the horrendous evil that is waking in New York, and each of them will have to do what they can to protect themselves and those they love. Will they be able to stop what’s coming before it’s too late? Or will one of them be a murderer’s next victim?

Answer these questions and many more* when you read The Diviners by the fantastic Libba Bray.

*Warning: For every answer you receive, about a thousand questions will pop up in its place. It’s kind of awesome.

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To say that I like The Diviners would be a major understatement. This book was rich, terrifying, entertaining, complex, and filled with characters that I want to know more about. (If you’re familiar with Libba Bray’s other books, this is probably not news.) Luckily, The Diviners is only the first book. Lair of Dreams was released on August 25th, and there are rumored to be two more books in this captivating series.

In my most humble opinion, The Diviners a series more suited to teen readers, but some mature middle grade readers may be able to handle it. There’s a certain amount of rule-breaking and alcohol use–completely true to the historical period–that might keep it from being a must-purchase for libraries that serve middle grade students. (For instance, I definitely wouldn’t put this book in the hands of sixth or seventh grader.) I simply think mature teen readers will be able to read this book and keep social and historical context in mind. That’s all, really.

If you like your historical fiction with a supernatural twist (or vice versa), I’d highly recommend The Diviners. To learn more about the series as a whole, I urge you to visit the series website. There’s loads of information on The Diviners, Lair of Dreams, and the amazing Libba Bray.

Mountain Dog

Last night, I made myself sit down and finish Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle, another of this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees. Those who regularly follow me here or on Twitter can probably figure out why I put off reading this book for so long. If the title didn’t clue you in, take a gander at the cover.

That’s right. There’s a dog on the cover. Despite my status as an elementary librarian, I tend to shy away from animal books. (Like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I blame Old Yeller.) Well, I knew I had to read Mountain Dog so that I could talk to my students about it, so I jumped into the story this weekend. I’m happy to report that I rather enjoyed it. (Yeah, it surprised me, too.)

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In Mountain Dog, readers are introduced to Tony, a boy who has grown up in a rough environment. His mother is being sent to prison for dogfighting, and Tony is going to live in the mountains with an uncle he’s never met. Tony doesn’t know what to expect, and he’s plagued by nightmares of yelling, claws, biting…and math. Can life with an unknown uncle be better than what he’s known? Tony dares to hope so.

When Tony moves to his uncle’s home in the mountains, he’s met by Gabe, a happy, lovable dog who helps Tony’s uncle on search-and-rescue missions. Gabe, along with Tony’s uncle and a few other people, help Tony to understand life in this wild new environment, how to survive in the wilderness, and everything that happens during SAR missions.

Tony gradually begins to thrive–and even feel at home–in the mountains. He’s making friends (both human and canine), he’s writing for the school paper and his own blog, and he’s becoming more comfortable with the numbers that used to worry him so much. He can’t imagine life without his uncle and Gabe…and he doesn’t want to. Tony feels truly loved for the first time in his life, and going back to the way things were with his mom is unbearable.

How will Tony handle his uncertain future? Will he find a forever home with his uncle and Gabe, or will he be forced to leave the life he’s come to love? Learn the answers to these questions and many more when you read Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle.

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Mountain Dog is told in free verse and is a quick read that will appeal to readers in elementary and middle grades (not to mention many older animal lovers). The story is presented in both Tony’s voice and Gabe’s, and it’s interesting to see how both boy and dog view what’s going on around them. Peppered with illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, this moving book highlights the bond between man and nature. Mountain Dog shows readers that families come in many forms…and species.

If Mountain Dog seems like the book for you, you may want to connect with author Margarita Engle on her website to learn more about her other books. Also, take a peek at the short Mountain Dog book trailer below. Enjoy!

Rain Reign

I finished a book today that I can hardly wait to share with my students and teachers at school. That book is Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin. It was released last week, and it’s already earned a spot on several must-read lists. I predict that this book will find a place on several award lists as well. It’s absolutely amazing, and this book should be included in every elementary and middle school library collection (at the very least).

In Rain Reign, we meet Rose Howard, a young girl who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism (also known as Asperger’s Syndrome). Her voice shines on every page, and readers get a small glimpse of what life is like for Rose. Rain Reign is a must-read for anyone–especially educators and other caregivers–who have any interaction with high-functioning autistic children. I know I was able to see one of my students in the character of Rose, and this excellent book may have provided me with just a bit more understanding.

Fifth grader Rose Howard loves homonyms, prime numbers, rules, and her dog Rain (whose name has two homonyms). Rain is the one of the few gifts Rose’s father has ever given her, and their bond is a strong one. When nearly everyone else–including Rose’s father–gets irritated by Rose’s obsessions, Rain is always there to provide a comforting and calming presence.

Comfort and calm is something that Rose will sorely need in the days to come. Hurricane Susan is making a beeline for Rose’s small Massachusetts town, and her precious routines will be tossed to the winds. The power goes out, creeks turn into rivers, bridges are washed out, trees fall…and Rose’s father lets Rain out of the house without checking on her return.

When the storm finally passes through, Rose realizes that her dog is missing. Did she forget her way home in the horrible storm? Was she carried downstream by the powerful currents? Where is Rain? Rose doesn’t understand how her father could have let this happened, but she’s determined to find her beloved dog…even if that means letting go of her routines.

Rose searches high and low for Rain. She enlists the help of her uncle, her teachers, and even her classmates. Rose does everything humanly possible to find her dog, but how will she handle it when she finds more than she was looking for? Will her world be thrown into yet another storm, and how will Rose–a girl who needs routine and consistency–deal with the fallout? How will she handle the many changes to come? Read Rain Reign by the brilliant Ann M. Martin to find out.

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As soon as I return to school next week (I’m on fall break right now), I plan to hand this book over to my guidance counselor. (In addition to working with autistic students, she’s also a dog lover.) Several other teachers may also benefit from reading this book. I think Rain Reign could be unbelievably useful in communicating with and understanding autistic students.

In addition to being enlightening for educators and students, parents of high-functioning autistic children may also find this book to be helpful, especially if the parents don’t really know how to communicate with their children. Rose’s uncle provides an example of a good caregiver. Her father is the opposite. As a matter of fact, I wanted to punch Rose’s father in the face on more than one occasion.

Rain Reign is also a great book for students who have fondness for word and number play. This could even come into play in language arts or math lessons. Class studies of this book could include looking for homonyms that weren’t mentioned by Rose or finding prime numbers out in the “real world.” And don’t even get me started on how this book could be used to illustrate character’s voice. Read one chapter, and you’ll see that for yourself.

I don’t know that I’ve adequately conveyed it in this post, but I love everything about Rain Reign. It definitely tugged at the heartstrings (yes, I cried), but it taught valuable lessons. Rose was a brave girl who worked past her own issues when something was important to her. She tried to understand others even when it seemed like no one understood her. She always wanted to do the right thing and follow the rules…when it would have been much easier–and far less painful–to just “go with the flow.” Rose is a character, much like August Pullman in R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, who we’ll be talking about for a long time to come.

For more information on Rain Reign and other books by Ann M. Martin, go to her official website, Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter.

*I receive an advance copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads.*

Alligator Bayou

I’ll be honest.  When I first picked up Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli, I was less than enthused about reading it.  The cover was boring.  (Yes, I do judge a book by it’s cover.)  Once I began reading, however, I was drawn into the story.  I didn’t know until reading the afterword that the story was based on actual events.  That shed a whole new light on what I had read.

Calogero and his family are Sicilian immigrants living in Tallulah, Louisiana.  The year is 1899.  The South is trying to rebuild from the Civil War, and Jim Crow laws are in full effect.  In Louisiana, like in many other parts of America, Sicilians are viewed as lower than dirt.  They are seen as criminals and are trusted by few.  Calogero, his cousin, and his uncles are grocers in Tallulah, and they deal with these prejudices day after day.  Calo doesn’t really understand why these prejudices exist.  What makes white people better that black people or Italian people?  Why can some people enter the ice cream parlor while others have to be served at the back door?  It just doesn’t make sense.

Calo does, however, make friends in the midst of this turmoil.  He joins a group of black teens in a midnight gator hunt in the swamps.  Although he is terrified the entire time, the hunt actually serves to cement friendships between Calo, his cousin Cirone, and the black teenagers.  Calo is also deeply in love with Patricia, a black girl he met while working at his uncles’ grocery.

Many white people in Tallulah are noticing that Calo and his family spend a lot of time with the town’s black community, and they don’t like it.  Some of the more powerful men are just looking for a way to wipe Calo and his family out of Tallulah.  Can things ever change?  What will become of Calo and his family?  Read Alligator Bayou to find out.

It is clear when reading this book that author Donna Jo Napoli has done her homework.  She includes a detailed afterword and notes on her research.  These tools may serve as jumping off points to learn about a little known prejudice in Reconstruction America.  Napoli’s research shows that Italian Americans were reviled across the United States, not just the South.  Alligator Bayou is an excellent book to begin discussions on prejudice and how various groups of people have been treated in our nation’s history.