Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I'm still here!

No one needs to search for me, I'm just enjoying a little downtime after this latest semester has come to a close. I'll be back after Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (illus. by Dave McKean) (HarperCollins, 2008)

Recommended for ages 12+

Created from an idea author Neil Gaiman had in 1985 that would create a "Jungle Book in a graveyard", The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody "Bod" Owens, orphaned as a toddler and raised by the ghosts of a graveyard he wanders into after his family is murdered. His guardian, Silas, is neither dead nor alive and can navigate both worlds in order to assure Nobody's needs are taken care of.

The problem is, Jack - the man who murdered Nobody's family - is still at large, and he's still looking for Bod to finish his business. He's working for a secret society who has ordered the boy's death, but as long as Bod stays within the confines of the graveyard, he is safe. As he gets older, though, Nobody wants to venture outside and see more of the world and have human friends.

Like Coraline and Gaiman's other work for younger readers, The Graveyard Book is a dark fantasy, yet he manages to make the fact that a boy is raised by ghosts and the undead charming. Nobody is a sweet boy who grows up loved for and cared for by the spirits of the graveyard in which he lives, and the supernatural beings - Silas and Bod's tutor, Miss Lupescu - who are charged with his care. Mr. Gaiman's descriptions again let the reader's imagination run wild, with funny and wry descriptions of everyone from the inhabitants of the graveyard to the sinister murderer, Jack Frost.

The Graveyard Book received the 2009 Newbery Medal, Hugo Award for Best Novel, and Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book; it also won the 2010 Carnegie Medal.

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (illus. by Dave McKean) (HarperCollins, 2002)

Recommended for ages 10+

Coraline is a dark fantasy created by author Neil Gaiman. It was adapated into a graphic novel (2009) and an animated feature (2009).

Coraline is a young girl who moves into a new home with her parents and feels out of place. Her parents don't seem to have too much time for her, so she goes exploring and meets some of her odd new neighbors and the neighborhood cat. One night, she discovers a hidden doorway that leads to a parallel world; it's here that she meets her "Other Mother", who seems to have all of the time in the world for Coraline and always makes delicious meals. She desperately wants Coraline to stay, but there's something... strange... about the Other Mother. As Coraline visits more often, she discovers that the Other Mother is not at all what she seems, and she'll need the help of the neighborhood cat - who isn't exactly what he seems, either - to save herself and her family.
Neil Gaiman has been writing dark fantasy since the 1989, when he revived the DC Comics title The Sandman. He brings his creepy fantasy worlds to children as easily as he does to his older audience, and often makes some of his most unsettling characters adorable. His main characters often go against the grain, and Coraline is no exception - she is an independent, stubborn, curious girl who loves a good adventure; she's also a smart heroine who can work her way out of a tight situation.

Mr. Gaiman creates memorable images with his words - visions of The Other Mother will stick with kids and adults alike and Coraline's odd neighbors come with their own strange charm that smoothly made the transition from print to screen. His descriptions allow the reader's imagination to run wild without ever worrying about going over the top - because there simply is no limit.

Coraline has won numerous awards, including the 2003 Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella and the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers. Neil Gaiman's Mouse Circus website - a Coraline reference - is geared toward his younger readers and offers information about the author, downloadable computer wallpaper, and video interviews and book trailers.

Friday, December 09, 2011

DVD Review: Hellboy: Blood and Iron (Starz Home Entertainment, 2007)

Recommended for ages 12+

For those unfamiliar with the Hellboy comic book and movie series, let me provide a very quick overview: Hellboy is a demon from Hell, brought to earth by Nazi occultists during World War II. He was saved by the Allies and raised as a son by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, and later went to work for the secret international Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), founded by Professor Bruttenholm. His two closest friends and partners are Liz Sherman, a human who can create fire with her mind, and Abe Sapien, an amphibious humanoid.

In Blood and Iron, the BPRD is asked to investigate a haunted mansion purchased by a billionaire who wants to make money from it as a tourist attraction. They learn that the mansion is haunted by ghosts, witches, werewolves and hellhounds and that the evil undead Hungarian countess and vampire Erzsebet Ondrushko, who Professor Bruttenholm has tangled with before, is back to cause more trouble. Ondrushko appears to be based on the real-life historical figure Elizabeth Bathory, and Greek mythological figures Hecate, goddess of the crossroads and witchcraft, and harpies are also thrown into the mix.

Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator, was one of the screenwriters on Blood and Iron and the cast who plays the characters in the movie voice their characters in this animated film. Fans of the comics and the movies will be happy here; there is plenty of paranormal activity, snappy dialogue and character interaction, and wild fight scenes and gunplay. While some of the imagery may be rough for younger viewers - there's not direct graphic violence, but there is blood and some implied torture - older 'tweens and teens have played more violent video games. Parents, watch it first, then use your judgement.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Book Review: The Giver, by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)

Recommended for ages 11-14

In the dystopian future, there is no more war, disease, or poverty. There are no choices, either - in 12-year old Jonas's community, spouses are assigned to one another, children are assigned to families, and children's milestones are pre-selected and celebrated once a year. At age seven, they receive jackets that button in the front. At the age of nine, they receive bicycles. At the age of 12, they attend the Ceremony of Twelve, where they are assigned their careers. Jonas, who has been experiencing feelings that has made him feel different from his peers, is assigned to be the Receiver of Memory - the sole repository for the collective memories of the community. He begins to work with the outgoing Receiver, now called The Giver, to receive the memories and learns disturbing truths through both the memories and the truths he begins to see in his daily life in the village.

The Giver is one of those books that sticks with you, changing the way you think about things. What price is a group willing to pay to live in a perfect, ordered society? Jonas, in receiving memories, plays the part of Adam in the Garden of Eden - he receives knowledge, and with knowledge comes confusion. Is his community right because they don't know better? He begins to question everything around him and everything he's ever known; when he sees his father commit an act in the course of his daily work that he finds unspeakable, the last vestiges of what he believes in are thrown into chaos.

The Giver is one of the most challenged books books in middle schools across America, usually for its portrayal of euthanasia (but also for what has been considered a sexual reference). Regardless of its challenges, it remains a popular and important middle-school book that speaks to the power of free will and choice. There are many lesson plans for this book on the Web, including this comprehensive one from the Mountain City Elementary School District in Tennessee. The book won the 1994 Newbery Medal and the 1996 William Allen White Children's Book Award and has been designated an American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA Notable Children's Book. The Giver is the first in a 3-book series that includes Gathering Blue and Messenger.

Lois Lowry is an award-winning YA author; she has received numerous awards, including two Newbery medals (for The Giver and Number the Stars). Her website lists all of the awards she's won in addition to offering book information, a biography, her blog, her photos, and copies of her speeches. 

Book Review: The Magnificent 12: The Call, by Michael Grant (Katherine Tegen Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Mack MacAvoy is a medium kid - medium in height and build, medium in looks, medium in grades - he's so ordinary that his own parents don't really notice him most of the time. That all changes when Grimluk, an ancient man dressed in an old black robe, appears in his school hallway and announces that he is one of the Magnifica, a group of 12 children who will have to save the world from the ancient evil of the Pale Queen. In no time at all, Mack and his bully protector Stefan are swept off to locate the other 11 Magnifica, but it won't be easy - the Pale Queen's daughter, Eriskigal, and the monsters at her command, will stop at nothing to destroy them before they even begin.

The Magnificent 12 is a fun adventure series with good character development and interaction; the story moves at a pace that will keep readers' interest. The chapters alternate between Grimluk's story, providing an establishing backstory, and Mack's story, laying the groundwork for the future books in the series. There are villains, monsters, and prophecies galore and with both male and female characters, boys and girls alike should find this a good read. International locales lend a James Bond-type feel to the adventure.

The series website offers the chance for visitors to create their own avatars, play games, and enter a sweepstakes to win a copy of the latest book in the series, The Trap. An online map also acts as Mack's travel journal where readers can learn facts about the different countries where Mack's adventures take place. Educators can find essay questions, discussion questions, and lesson starters on the "Educators" section of the site. The author's website offers a biography, FAQ, information about his books, and contact information. 

Book Review: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger (Amulet, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-12

What would you do if the school oddball showed up with an Origami Yoda on his finger and started dispensing advice one day? What would you do if his advice actually made sense and worked? That's the dilemma facing McQuarrie Middle School sixth grader Tommy Lomax as he creates the case file known as The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.

At first, Tommy and his friends think Origami Yoda is just another one of Dwight's odd quirks, but as Origami Yoda's advice continues to produce positive results and even borders on predicting the future, Tommy and his friends end up seeking Dwight and Origami Yoda out. Tommy has a particular reason for wanting advice and struggles between believing in Origami Yoda's connection to The Force and the fear of falling victim to a hoax. He compiles a series of case studies from classmates' experiences with Yoda to review and make a decision; his friend Kellen adds illustratrations and his frenemy Harvey adds his own commentary. Harvey does not believe in Yoda and thinks everyone's crazy for buying into the whole scheme.

The book is hilarious. It's a fun read, written from the point of view of Tommy and his friends, with different handwriting and computer fonts and line drawings to give the reader a feeling of reading a middle schooler's notebook. The banter between characters, carried out on paper, is fun and realistic - there's sarcasm and anxiety aplenty to go with the light humorous pace. The book is a great, quick read for boys and girls alike looking for a funny book.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is the first in a planned trilogy of books by Tom Angleberger. Its sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back, was released this past summer. The book has won several awards including the Cybil Award for best middle-grade fiction, The Dorothy Canfield-Fisher Award for 2011/2012, and the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award for Middle Grade Fiction.

The author maintains an Origami Yoda/Darth Paper blog that offers tips on folding one's own Yoda or Darth Paper, along with a "Super Folders Forum" for users to communicate. He also shares a blog with fellow author Sam T. Riddleburger, Berger & Burger.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Book Review: Goosebumps: The Beast from the East, by R.L. Stine (Scholastic, 1996)

Recommended for ages 9-12

R.L. Stine is the Stephen King of kid's horror. His Goosebumps series has been scaring the daylights out of kids for almost 20 years now, and he has branched out into other Goosebumps series (Horror Land, Hall of Horrors) and a television series based on the novels.

The Beast from the East is like reading a demented version of the old nursery song, Teddy Bear's Picnic (also referenced in the story). Twelve year-old Ginger, her ten year-old twin brothers Nat and Pat, and their parents go on a camping trip one summer. While their father sets up the campsite, Ginger and her brothers go exploring and end up getting lost in the woods, where they come upon a group of big, blue, furry bearlike beasts that want to play a game where the winners get to live, but the losers get eaten. There are a lot of rules - can they figure them all out and get back to their parents, or will they end up as dinner?

Stine's stories are short, creepy fun, and end with a macabre twist every time. There isn't a lot of character development here, but there doesn't need to be - you learn what you need to know to get through the story, because it's really the situation that makes the book. Stine is great at describing panic and fear, giving readers the good scare they want in the safety of their own space. The twist is one last parting shot to keep you thinking after the book's end, or until you pick up the next book.

Several books from the series have won Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards and is one of the best-selling children's series of all time. Scholastic has an official Goosebumps site.

Book Review: The Summer of Moonlight Secrets, by Danette Haworth (Walker Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Eleven year-old Allie Jo lives with her mother and father at The Meriwether, a Florida hotel that they help manage. She doesn't have many friends, and the mean girls at school call her a "hotel rat". The summer of 1987 changes things for Allie Jo, though - she meets Chase, a fourteen year-old guest traveling with his journalist dad and who's working through some issues of his own, and they both meet Tara, a mysterious girl who appears one day and says she's run away. As Allie Jo and Chase learn more about Tara, they're split as to what they believe - is she a troubled teen, or is her fantastic story true?

A fantasy substory taking place within a realistic fiction plot, The Summer of Moonlight Secrets is great fun with a few big issues going on - there is some minor bullying, the issue of an absentee mom, and a runaway whose stories all intertwine here. Ms. Haworth's story is evenly paced with well-developed characters. Chapters are narrated in each of the three main characters' voices, so the reader truly gets a glimpse into each character's mind and point of view in addition to how each perceives the others. The big reveal is also a pleasant surprise, as Ms. Haworth almost leads to reader to one conclusion to reveal another, more interesting one. Overall, an enjoyable read about friendship that will make readers feel good when they're done - and leave them with some interesting things to consider.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Book Review Thor's Wedding Day, by Bruce Coville (Harcourt, 2005)

Recommended for ages 8-12

Based on the humorous Norse tale about the theft of Thor's hammer, Bruce Coville fleshes the story out with other pieces of Norse mythology to give readers this amusing story of cross-dressing gods, talking goats, and dopey giants.

Told by Thor's goat boy Thialfi, Thor's Wedding Day begins with Thor discovering his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, missing. His trickster brother Loki discovers that their enemies, the giants, have somehow gotten hold of the hammer and refuse to give it back unless their sister, Freya, marries Thrym, king of the giants and Thor's enemy. Freya refuses, and Loki concocts a scheme to dress Thor up as Freya and get his hammer back. Loki agrees to accompany Thor as a bridesmaid and Thialfi must dress up to be Thor's goat girl. While in the company of the giants, Thialfi discovers that their plan goes far deeper than just handing Mjolnir back to "Freya" after the wedding, and he finds himself in the position of saving Asgard.

Bruce Coville can tell a funny story, and Thor's Wedding Day is no exception. He stays true to the tale that inspired him and to make it accessible to new, younger audiences. It's downright silly in some parts with a touch of adventure and intrigue - a good combination to keep more reluctant readers interested.

Bruce Coville's website offers information about this and other Coville titles. For readers interested in learning more about Norse mythology, there are a variety of resources available on the Web.

Book Review Capt. Hook, by J.V. Hart (illus. by Brett Helquist) (HarperCollins, 2005)

Recommended for ages 12+

Did you ever wonder what Captain Hook was like as a teenager, before he became Peter Pan’s nemesis? If so, this may be the book for you. Hook Screenwriter J.V. Hart adds to the Peter Pan mythology by giving readers the story of 15-year old James “Jas” Matthews’ eventful stint at the prestigious Eton College.

The bastard of a British lord and an unidentified mother and raised by a Shakespearean actress, James arrives at Eton with the odds against him. Colleger Arthur Darling targets him for bullying, but James is no shrinking violet. He defiantly pushes back against the bullies and in doing so empowers the other young Oppidans. He befriends fellow student “Jolly” Roger Davies and rises to the top of his class, aggravating Darling all the way. Dreaming of a place where he can be free that he calls “Neverland”, he plots the creation of his future. He also adopts a poisonous spider he names Electra, captures the heart of a Sultana and challenges Darling to a duel. Escaping Eton, James destroys all records of his existence in a fire; his father answers this by sending him out to sea – and that’s where the adventures really begin.

Hart was inspired to write this story based on Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s Eton speech, “Hook at Eton” and sprinkles homages to Barrie and Peter Pan throughout the book. A Series of Unfortunate Events illustrator Brett Helquist’s artwork is on display here at the chapter heads and some illustrations throughout the book.

My main problem with Capt. Hook is this – there is a lot of story to be contained in these pages and I found the pacing off at some points, the storytelling lags and at others, speeds by. On two occasions, Hart begins wrapping up the story rather than just that portion of the story, which threw me off as a reader. Jas himself is a well-drawn character and it was interesting to see him drawn as an antihero; I would be interested in seeing what led him to make the jump from the noncomformist antihero to the villain he ultimately becomes.

This book was suggested for ages 10 and up, but the violence, language and overall density of the material suggests a more mature reader – 12 and up – should pick this up and be his or her own judge.

Chasing Lincoln's Killer, by James L. Swanson (Scholastic Press, 2008)

Recommended for ages 12+

Chasing Lincoln's Killer is the story of the plot to kill President Abraham Lincoln, the assassination and ensuing manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators. Author James L. Swanson based this YA version on his previous book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (William Morrrow, 2006).

A lifelong Lincoln aficionado who shares the 16th President's birthday, the author wanted to bring his story to a younger audience. He never dumbs down the narrative to reach this audience; rather, he makes it more accessible by featuring over 70 photos of artifacts, newspapers and photos taken from various archives; he summarizes trial manuscripts and interviews, and moves the events along at a pace that younger, less patient readers will enjoy and stick with.

Scholastic's website offers free teaching resources to use with the book including an audio book excerpt, video interview with the author, and printable Wanted! poster for Booth.

Manhunt received an Edgar Award for the best true crime book of the year in 2007; Chasing Lincoln's Killer has received recognition as a Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Best Book for Young Adults. Mr. Swanson holds a seat on the advisory council of the Ford's Theatre Society. He has collected books and artifacts on President Lincoln since he was 10 years old and has written a photographic history, Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution.

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008)

Recommended for ages 12+

Welcome to Panem, the post-apocalyptic United States of America, divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Every year, two "tributes" between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each district to take part in a brutal contest called The Hunger Games, where they fight to the death. There is only one winner. Sixteen-year old Katniss volunteers to her district's tribute after her 12-year old sister's name is drawn.

The Hunger Games is the brutal version of a reality game show - think of Stephen King's (written as Richard Bachman) novel, The Running Man and you'll have a good frame of reference. The tributes are given mentors - former winners, condemned to preparing future tributes for the games - and stylists to make them look good. The contestants have to project personality in the week of interviews and preparation so that they have a chance at receiving help from sponsors, who can send food, medicine, and supplies to their contestants during the games. The games are televised for all the districts to watch. Katniss struggles to keep her humanity in the midst of the game and rails against being the Capitol's pawn.

The book moves at a breathtaking pace with an intensity that starts mere pages in and doesn't let up until the book's end. The main characters have a good base for character development that will likely continue in the two following books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay; the others are as developed as they need to be in order to further the story and keep the pace. Ms. Collins makes her point about valuing bloodsport over humanity as eloquently as she is brutal in several key scenes in the book. With a strong mix of violence and compassion, boys and girls have both seized on this series and catapulted it to the top of their reading lists. Katniss emerges as a heroine not only for her strength but her ability to retain her sense of self in the middle of the games. She is a complex, conflicted heroine who resonates with 'tweens and teens alike.

The Hunger Games has won multiple awards and honors. It is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal besteller, and was one of Kirkus and School Library Journal's Best Books of 2008. It is an Americna Library Association (ALA) Notable Children's Book and one of the Young Adult Library Services Association's (YALSA) Teens Top Ten for 2009. Lionsgate Studios will release a movie based on the book in March of 2012.

A comprehensive wiki exists for the series and the author's website offers author and book information. There are many teacher's resources for teaching the series available on the Web, including Scholastic's and Hunger Games Lessons.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Book Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan (Miramax, 2005)

Recommended for ages 10-13

The first book in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, The Lightning Thief introduces readers to Percy Jackson, demigod son of Poseidon, and his friends at Camp Half-Blood.

Percy, a sixth grader who's been kicked out of several schools, suffers from dyslexia and ADHD; he's never met his real father; and his mother, whom he adores, is married to a jerk who verbally abuses Percy and his mother. When monsters start coming after Percy and he discovers that his best friend isn't exactly what he seems, his mother helps him escape to Camp Half-Blood in Long Island, where he finds out the missing information about his past and a great deal more. The Greek gods exist, and they have a lot of children populating the earth; Camp Half-Blood is a safe haven for them. Because he is the son Poseidon, of one of the "Big Three" - Zeus, Poseidon and Hades - he is hunted even more than the children of the other gods and goddess. He also learns that someone has stolen Zeus' master lightning bolt and Zeus think it's him.

Charged with finding the bolt and returning it to Mount Olympus in just 10 days, Percy heads out on his quest with his best friend, the faun Grover and Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Getting the lightning bolt back is just part of the puzzle: Percy must also learn who was really behind the theft, and in doing so, will uncover a plot to bring down Mount Olympus.

The Percy Jackson series was hugely popular with middle grade readers with good reason: it's a well-written, exciting series with plenty of monsters, mythology and quests to keep boys and girls alike turning pages. There are well-fleshed, strong male and female characters alike throughout the series and familiar monsters like Medusa and the minotaur make appearances throughout. Bringing mythology to life is a great way to make these stories accessible to a new generation, and giving these demigods learning disabilities like ADHD and dyslexia makes them relatable to a wider audience of readers who may be coping with these issues and rarely get to read about characters who also deal with them.

The Lightning Thief is the first of five books in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. Riordan's newest series, The Heroes of Olympus, follows new heroes from Camp Half-Blood but has references to the original Percy Jackson characters.

The Lightning Thief received several honors, including designations as a New York Times Notable Book of 2005, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and VOYA Top Shelf Fiction List for 2005. It was made into a movie in 2010. The author's website offers information about all of his books, a link to his blog, and extras including a map of the Underworld and a Greek mythology guide. A Camp Half-Blood wikia offers exhaustive information created by Mr. Riordan's fan community on all of his books, his characters, and the mythology that breathes life into his series. 

Book Review: My Brother Sam is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier (Scholastic, 1974)

Recommended for ages 12+

My Brother Sam is Dead is a look at the Revolutionary War that readers don't normally get: like the Civil War, this war divided families. We also see a side of the American soldiers that we don't usually hear about in History class - "our" soldiers weren't always acting like the good guys, especially to their own countrymen if they weren't supporters of the cause.

We hear about the Tories and they are demonized. We laugh at stories of them being tarred and feathered, but what My Brother Sam brings home is that Tories were the same Americans that the Revolutionaries were, but they just believed in a different ideal. To the Tories, there was no reason to split with Mother England, who provided for them and protected them. Taxes were a fact of life. Quartering soldiers was a fact of life. To rebel was treason and it was just wrong. When looking at the acts of the Revolutionaries - stealing from, kidnapping and murdering fellow Americans who were Tories - it is difficult to say anyone involved was 100 percent right or wrong. We learn that the Revolution was a black and white issue; My Brother Sam goes beyond that thinking and shows readers that the War was made up of many, many shades of grey.

Tim Meeker is the son of a Connecticut tavern owner whose older brother, Sam, joins the Revolutionary Army under Benedict Arnold while away at college. The relationship between Sam and their father appears to have been conflicted to begin with, as both are stubborn men with strong opinions, and this act leads to a schism within the family that leaves Tim wondering who's right and who's wrong Torn between his love for his brother and his love and loyalty to his family, he finds himself stuck in the middle of a far larger conflict when he's asked to keep secrets about Sam and when his battalion is in the area. Tim sees firsthand the brutality of the American soldiers to his Tory neighbors and he sees the cruelty of the British soldiers. Is there a right or wrong?

My Brother Sam is Dead won the 1975 Newbery Honor and was nominated for a National Book Award that same year. It has also been designated as an ALA Notable Children's book and was the twelfth most frequently challenged book from 1990-2000 (ALA).

The History of Redding website has extensive information about the novel; Redding, Connecticut is the setting for the story. A 2005 Scholastic edition of the book has an AfterWords bonus feature which includes an interview with the authors, where they compare their story to fellow Newbery winner and Revolutionary War story Johnny Tremain, and discuss parallels between their work, written after the VietNam conflict, and Johnny Tremain, written after World War II.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Book Review: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, by Adrienne Kress (Miramax, 2007)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Alex Morningside is a 10 1/2 year old girl who's often mistaken for a boy; she wears her hair short and is something of a tomboy. Orphaned at a  young age, she lives with her uncle in their home above his doorknob shop. When Mr. Underwood, a new teacher, shows up in her sixth grade classroom at the prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy, Alex finds herself finally liking school. Mr. Underwood has a good sense of humor and is fun to talk with.

Mr. Underwood also has a family secret - he's the descendant of a famous pirate family. When he's kidnapped by a rival pirate family over a long-secret buried treasure, Alex is the only one who can help him. She goes on a journey that will take her through strange places, where she meets equally strange people and one Extremely Ginormous Octopus.

The book is a fun adventure for young 'tweens, with enough interesting characters and plot twists to keep a reader's interest. The only problem for me is in the occasional plodding of the storyline, which bogs down the story and may bore less patient or committed readers. The main characters - Alex and Mr. Underwood, to a degree - are fairly well-developed, and the supporting players don't really need to be: they aren't part of the story for long enough to necessitate it.

The book has won several awards in the UK and Canada, including the Heart of Hawick Children's Book Award in 2009. It was shortlisted for the Red Cedar Award in 2009/2010.

The author's website offers the usual biography, FAQ, book and appearance information. Extras include Alex and the Ironic Gentleman desktop wallpaper.