Friday, May 18, 2018

Teen review: Fantasy series

Title: The Red Pyramid
Author: Rick Riordan
Genre: Fantasy
Part of a series? Yes
Reading level: Grades 5-8

Reviewed by EB

The Red Pyramid, the first book of the Kane Chronicles, is a great story about adventure and excitement. This book is about two siblings, Carter and Sadie, who have been living apart for most of their lives and have nothing in common, except something that they will soon find out; Carter travels the world with his father, who is an Egyptologist, while Sadie attends school in London where her grandparents live. The two siblings are reunited at Christmas Eve when their father brings them to the museum in London, but something doesn't seem right when the siblings find their father summoning a mysterious figure who then takes their father with it and leaves with a blazing eruption. The two siblings soon come to the knowledge that the gods of Ancient Egypt (not the good ones) are awakening from their dormant states and they have an evil plan to take over. Carter and Sadie battle many different demons and phantoms during their journey to defeat Set, the most powerful of the Egyptian gods, and they meet new companions and enemies during their journey. Somehow, their father is a part of this and they have to travel on a frightening yet compelling journey to save their father and discover the truth about what is happening.

Over the course of this book, the readers are able to confront dangerous challenges with Sadie and Carter, and see how the two strangers learn to lean on each other and share a brother-sister bond. Written by the same author, The Red Pyramid is strikingly similar to the Percy Jackson series. I really liked this book, just like I enjoyed the Percy Jackson series. It is great for an audience of young boys and girls who love adventure and daring stories. Although quite a long book, it is very easy to read and was very interesting. My favorite part of this book was that it was so original and never had a dull moment in the story. It has an amazing plot, and although similar to the Percy Jackson books, it had a new and different take on the plot.

The cover of this book is intriguing, picturing the kinds of dangers that Sadie and Carter have to confront. I have read most of the books in the Kane Chronicles, and each of them is just as good as the first! I hope to finish reading the series soon.

Editor's note: We also have this as a sound recording, if you'd rather listen to it, and we have the graphic novel created from it.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

6+7 Book Club Report

Almost everyone (we were only missing three of our 17 members) was able to make it to the final 6+7 Book Club meeting of the school year on Tuesday night. We read and discussed Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud.

The book was almost uniformly well liked, though not necessarily loved; most people appreciated that the book jumped right into action from page one and then gave back story later, but some felt that the pace then fell off too much and didn't pick back up until too late in the book. Several commented that they liked the characters, who were well developed and quirky, and others said they enjoyed the concept of the alternate England haunted by the Visitors. Only two people seemed to dislike the book, one because he prefers realistic fiction and doesn't like ghosts; the other person didn't give her reasons, but rated the book a 4. Others' ratings ranged from a high of 9 to that low 4, so the final score was a respectable 7.25. Three people planned to go on to read the rest of the series.

When we counted up last night, we determined that a whopping 11 of our 17 members will be moving up to the 8+9 Book Club in the fall, so that group may be full before we even consider new people. There will, however, be plenty of openings in this club, if you wish to join!

We spent some time talking about the teen summer reading club planned for June 11-July 28; I think some of our activities were sufficiently enticing to ensure many club members will sign up and come! Six people from this club will be traveling out of the country this summer, to such exotic locations as Europe, El Salvador, Hawaii, India, and Canada, but most everybody will be around for part of the summer. (You can sign up for the program NOW, at

Our next meeting will be during August, for our pre-fall book selection meeting at which all our book club members get to meet one another and get ready to start discussing books come September. We hope to see everyone during the summer and then meet up in August!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What we're reading: Fantasy + coming of age

I recently picked up the sort-of sequel to Seraphina and Shadow Scale, the dragon books by Rachel Hartman. It's a little confusing knowing how to regard Tess of the Road, since Hartman herself is positioning it as #1 in a new series, and yet it is set in the same universe as her other books and does require some minimum knowledge about both the world-building and back story, as well as a few of the main characters that star in those. You could make a comparison to Leigh Bardugo's initial trilogy set in the Grisha-verse, and her later duology (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom) that lives in the same world but doesn't reference the events of the first books. But I feel like this one requires just a tad more knowledge.


I don't feel that you could read this book as a stand-alone without knowing, for example, that the dragons--saarantrai--are able to take human form and as such, resemble the Vulcan race as personified by Spock: logical, brilliant, not prone to emotion, and sometimes borderline sociopathic. You need to know that the quigutl are a subspecies of dragon, but are very much their own quirky race, with their own language and customs, and although they are held in contempt by most dragons and humans alike, their culture and presence is vital to the operation of the world. You need to know that Tess is the younger half-sister of Seraphina, a hybrid dragon/woman who is hugely influential in the current government, being as she is both the best friend of the queen and the lover of the king.

I suppose that if you were told all those things, you could approach this book without having read the others; but why deprive yourself of that pleasure? They were both fascinating. The originality with which Hartman has created this world and the personal characterizations of the protagonists is well worth the effort. I will caution that to enjoy these books you have to be a reader who likes a long slow build to a certain degree of complexity. These books are not shallow fantasy tropes; they're the real thing.

Tess of the Road begins some years after the end of Shadow Scale; Tess and her twin, Jeanne, are now of marriageable age, and Jeanne is on the verge of making a highly satisfactory match that will raise her family's prestige as well as pay off the debts they incurred when their father was punished for the crime of marrying a dragon (his first wife--Tess and Jeanne are the children of his second) by being divested of his livelihood. Tess, on the other hand, suffers from some past disgrace, and we discover as the story goes on that, once her sister's fate is settled, her own choices will be limited to either living with her sister and in-laws and serving as an unpaid caregiver for any potential offspring, or being shut away in a nunnery that cares for the diseased and elderly. Tess is, understandably, not a fan of either option; and it is when she finally brings herself to choose something else that the story really gets started.

I liked this book so, so much! The writing, the characters, the story—all were completely gripping. It does start slowly, and it's a little frustrating to have to learn Tess's story in bits and pieces as you go along instead of knowing it prior to experiencing current events; but you will come to realize there is method in the way Hartman reveals the back story. I was so happy when Tess became "of the Road," and her transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother (nothing like mine, and yet...), was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment. The book contains great examples of good love and bad, a wonderful transformation of a certain priest, an appropriate disillusionment about the "good" sister...everything was done so well. Brava, Rachel Hartman!

Please note that the designer of the book cover does the reader a disservice; there are no dragons (other than a few in human form who play minor roles) in this book. There is another significant creature that may share some DNA with a dragon, but the picture on the cover looks like Tess has a direct encounter with a saraantrai in dragon form, and this doesn't happen. It may have been meant to illustrate this other character, but I noticed that many reviewers on Goodreads expressed disappointment when there was no dragon action, so I thought I'd say something.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Register for Teen Summer Reading!

This year's theme is "READING TAKES YOU EVERYWHERE," and we have some awesome crafts, events, and programs planned for you over the course of seven weeks, from June 11th to July 28th. You can SIGN UP starting today, May 15th, by going to our website and clicking on the registration link on the front page.

The first thing you need to know is, signing up implies no commitment. Our summer reading program for teens is purely voluntary, and you can dip in one toe or plunge into everything. You can do online tasks for points and prizes; attend one program or all of them; write a book review or two; or do absolutely nothing. So sign up, find out what's on offer, and choose for yourself!

We're going with a travel theme this summer, so everything is about location. We'll be reading books about road trips, fantasy worlds and far-flung planets; making maps based on the stories contained within those; creating travel journals for ourselves so we can keep track of our journeys; and venturing inside some video games to hear about how their creators build the worlds you love to inhabit.

Summer wouldn't be the same, of course, without a few sessions of Book Café, so be sure to join us for cappuccino and book-talking!

And those of you who have attended in past years will be thrilled to hear that our TAB is again hard at work on a lock-in murder mystery for you to solve. This year's murder takes place on board a luxury cruise liner, and is entitled "Death on Deck."

The Teen Summer Reading program is for anyone in grades 7-12. Here is a link to our brochure, that includes a calendar of all our summer's events. We hope you will join us on this summer's adventure!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

10-12 Book Club Report

It was a tiny group who made it to our final 10-12 Book Club of the year. Apparently there were multiple AP tests going on Friday, so Thursday night was prime study time and not for anything frivolous like book club! And we were also competing with a band concert.

We had five in attendance to discuss Starflight, by Melissa Landers. Surprisingly (given the usual difference of opinions), everybody liked this book. Nobody loved it, but everyone enjoyed it and said it was entertaining and fun, so it was a nice book to go out on. Amidst all the segues into such discussions as current and past high school wardrobes, the foibles of various English teachers, teen summer reading club (sign up on Tuesday!), fighting at Hoover High, and so on, we forgot to rate the book, but I'm guessing it would probably have been a solid 7, or maybe a 7.5?

Since it was the end of the school year, we didn't pick another book, but we did all discuss what's coming up for "Reading Takes You Everywhere," our teen summer reading program. Three of the five people in the room were the models for the cover illustration of the brochure and flyer, so it was fun for them to see how that turned out. We established that we have two people graduating this year, so we're not losing such a large number (11!) like we did last year, and will be promoting some from the 8+9 Club to fill our ranks.

If you are interested in being a member of this book club, contact or

Friday, May 11, 2018

Let's talk politics!

Did you know that if you are 16 or 17 right now, you can pre-register to vote? At least 100,000 California teenagers have already done so. More than 10 percent of those sign-ups took place during the past few weeks, many as part of the teenager-led March for Our Lives rally, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February mobilized those teens to demand gun control.

You can register as an unaffiliated, nonparty voter, or as a Democrat or a Republican, and the state will automatically activate your voter registration on the day you turn 18. And if you are already 18...are you registered? If not, what are you waiting for?

Why should you do this? For many good reasons. Here are a couple:

1. In addition to all the national stuff going on, about which you might like to have a say (deciding who will control Congress, which will in turn decide such issues as gun control, education and energy policies, and other important decisions), there are some local races right here in Burbank that merit your attention! If you are 18, you can vote on those on June 5. And voting in a local election is good practice for voting in a national one.

2. By next year, the Millennial "generation" will outnumber the Baby Boomers (you already outnumber Gen X), so if you all get together and vote, you can pretty much have your way in both local and national government. Think about that!

Remember that exercising your right to vote means exercising responsibility--finding out about the issues, studying them closely, and making considered decisions. Doing so gives you a say in what your future, and the future of our city, state, and country will look like. So consider participating by exercising this civic right and duty this year!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

What we're reading: Space opera sequel

Back in January, I reviewed Starflight, by Melissa Landers, and my intention, having liked Starflight so much, was to immediately read the sequel, Starfall, but I got sidetracked, first by book club books that scheduling gave precedence, and then by teen summer reading program planning that caught me up in artwork and graphics and left little time for reading. I was disappointed not to read it right away; but I pitched the first one to the high school book club as a good choice for them to read in May, and they actually picked it, so I figured reading the sequel now was perfect, because I could give the club my verdict in a timely manner.

It turns out that this book isn't technically a sequel; while it takes place after the events of the first one, you could call it more of a companion novel, because it features different characters as its two main protagonists. It takes a look at Cassia, the exiled princess of Eturia, and her best pal Kane, who is good enough to share her exile but doesn't quite make the cut as the consort of a reigning queen, which Cassia hopes to be...once she escapes bounty hunters with the help of Kane and the rest of the Banshee crew. After that hiccup, there are various other plot complications that take the crew all over the outer realm trying to vanquish the evil space mafia and save Cassia's kingdom plus, it seems, the entire universe.

If that sounds confusing, it was. This book left me fairly unengaged, although I wasn't sure why when I first started reading it; after all, it continued the stories of many of the characters from the first, and had exciting moments written in. I think it was that some of the development was shallow (the history and world-building for Cassia's kingdom was super sketchy, for instance, and the whole mafia thing came out of nowhere), and the interaction between Solara and Doran, which was so fresh and entertaining in the first book, was not borne out by the primary relationship in this book, between Cassia and Kane. In a word, they were absurd.

"I love you! I don't know you! I don't trust you. I'm going off to find a job elsewhere. I think I'll go hit on my co-worker. No, wait, I'll give you my entire life, you're the only one for me. I'm going to stay single, love is a trap. I think I'm in love with my general. I'm done with you. I can't live without you." It gave me whiplash, and most of the time the reasons for the changes of heart were transparently shallow and silly. Beyond that, the rest of the story didn't have the logic that ruled the first book. Everyone kept making truly bone-headed, short-sighted decisions with no real planning, simply in order to get themselves into contrived fixes that the others could then save them from, and after a while I got bored and impatient and wanted to stop reading!

It wasn't a horrible book, and maybe I would have liked it more had I read it immediately after the first one and stayed involved with the characters...but I don't think so. Perhaps others will feel more charitable.

Monday, May 7, 2018

What we're reading: More historical fiction

I recently finished reading Under A Painted Sky, by Stacey Lee, and because the time period and some of the themes are the same, the comparison with Rae Carson's trilogy, that I reviewed just a few blog posts back, is inevitable.

This book is a bit more multi-ethnic: Samantha, the first protagonist, is a Chinese girl, who is a musician and the daughter of a dry goods store owner in Missouri in 1849. Annamae is a slave, attached to a "fancy house" in the same town, whose owner is coincidentally Samantha's father's landlord. When tragedy strikes and Samantha ends up dependent on the landlord, whose ideas about her future definitely don't jive with her own, she and Annamae team up and run away. Like Leah in Carson's story, they rapidly conclude that they'd be much more at ease in their travels if they turned themselves into boys; so they change their wardrobe and cut their hair, maintaining that masquerade for most of the rest of the book.

"Sammy" and "Andy" stick together, keeping their heads down and avoiding the law, which is searching for both of them, while pursuing their personal goals (Sammy is trying to find her father's friend, who preceded her on the road to California, while Andy is hoping to meet up with her long-lost brother). Eventually, after having rather a rough time on their own, they cross paths with a trio of lighthearted young cowboys from Texas who are likewise heading towards California, pursuing various dreams. They stick with these three, who provide much needed transportation in the way of extra horses, and have adventures.

The book kept my attention. In some ways I liked it better than Carson's trilogy--for instance, it was simpler and more straightforward (no paranormal powers involved, and it's a single book instead of three), and the characters were in some cases more interesting (a Chinese girl, a former slave, a vaquero). But it wasn't anything to do with the Gold Rush, except peripherally in that they were on the same trail with everybody headed there. There is less detail about survival on the trail and more about the girls' pasts, which was more entertaining, but because I had just read in Carson's first book about how imperative it was to set out on this trek adequately supplied, I had to wonder how these girls and the three cowboys were surviving so well without most of these staples! Of course, they did start in Missouri instead of Georgia, and took the Oregon Trail, but still...the sense of hardship was different.

I liked the book a lot until it reached the end, when it became completely confusing about when each cowboy figured out that the two were girls, what this meant to each of them, and why nobody said anything earlier; and I also wondered, given the ending, if the author plans a sequel. The book did resolve itself to a certain extent, but since the five never actually arrive in California, which seems like kind of a big deal...? We shall see.