Friday, April 23, 2010

Get a Clue!

There are no shortage of adventure series for young readers and preteens. The series are trying new things as well, using new media and video to compliment the story lines. One such series has been very popular, "The 39 Clues." They are fast-paced mystery-adventures that wisk readers to exotic locations around the world. "The 39 Clues" include an online game, collectible cards, and a sweepstakes. Another series, set for release in May, using a 360-degree media approach is "Trackers," but I'll review that one at a later date.

"The 39 Clues: The Emperor's Code"
By Gordon Korman
For ages 8 - 12
This fun adventure-mystery is very fast-paced and filled with interesting facts about China, emperors, Kung Fu, and Mount Everest. Intrigue abounds and it will have you guessing and striving to solve "The 39 Clues." Rated 4 (danger, adventure, education)

We have now been following young Amy and Dan Cahill, and their au pair Nellie Gomez, around the world for seven books. "The Emperor's Code" is the eighth book in the series. In the first installment we learn that Amy and Dan were orphaned as youngsters and forced to live with their not-so-friendly aunt. Then their beloved grandmother dies. The funeral brings together an interesting assortment of Cahill relatives and an interesting proposition. Dan and Amy can each take a two million dollar inheritance or tear up the check and search for 39 clues that could make them the most powerful people in the world. They choose the hunt and thus the adventure and danger begin.

Dan and Amy have been to France, Austria, Russia, Egypt, Australia, South Africa and now they are in China. Their last adventure was more cold and ruthless than previous books. It also brought the first real casualty to the story line. However it did answer one question — Dan and Amy are Madrigals. The end is coming, but can Dan and Amy keep their sanity and family intact through the last couple books.

As we begin book eight Amy and Dan are struggling with the revelation of their Madrigal lineage, their parents' possible dicey past, and trusting anyone. They are in China trying to discover a clue of which the last emperor, Puyi, had knowledge. Things get interesting when Amy and Dan get into a nasty argument and Dan runs off. Then the Kabras show up and kidnap Dan. After escaping he ends up traveling with another cousin, Jonah Wizard; all the time hoping to find Amy and wanting to quit the hunt.

In the meantime, Amy and Nellie are searching everywhere for Dan. They even recruit an uncle, Allistair Oh, to get information. They finally discover Dan is with the Wizards and decide they must stay on the hunt in order to find them. The dizzying adventure culminates at the top of the world (Mt. Everest) with the Holts, Kabras, and Dan and Amy fighting for a single vial of liquid.

This installment of the hunt has less ruthlessness and mortal peril, although danger still exists. The action is fast and furious and the historical facts are very interesting and blended well with the fictional plotlines. From the Great Wall to the Shaolin Temple there is something for every reader in "The Emperor's Code." I was particularly intrigued by the experimental French helicopter and ascent to Everest's summit. Answers are coming quickly now, but so are the questions. What is Nellie's story and how do the Madrigals fit into the Cahill family? With two books left in the series it will be interesting to see how everything is wrapped up — or if doors will be left open for another series.

My family has read each book in "The 39 Clues" series. Some are better than the others, but all have been fun and interesting. I know my son is looking forward to the last two books — and so am I. The ninth book, and next to last installment, in the series "Storm Warning" is set for release May 25.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Middle School Cool

What makes a book a good vacation book? Is it adventure, friendship, mystery, humor, depth of character? Does any good book also make for a good vacation book? The way I see it, you can read any good book while on vacation, but vacation books are generally lighter reads and just for fun. They are not going to win Newberry Awards, but they will entertain you. They can be about any subject at all. Actually, they are often about school life and friends. Which brings me to my new review on "Cinderella Cleaners."

"Cinderella Cleaners #1: Change of A Dress"
"Cinderella Cleaners #2: Prep Cool"
By Maya Gold
For Ages 9 - 13
The "Cinderella Cleaners" series is fun, fast-paced, and lighthearted. The stories focus on friendship and middle school drama with hairbrained schemes and hijinks for a little added excitment. Fairytale overtones spice up the adventures with happily ever after moments. Rated 3.5 (humor, disobediance, lying, friendship)

Diana Donato is a theater obsessed eighth grade girl, living just outside Manhattan in a small New Jersey town. She lives with her loving father, rigid stepmother, and spoiled stepsisters. "Change of A Dress" is the first book in the series which will have four or five out before the end of the year. The stories follow Diana and her best friend Jess as they get themselves in and out of trouble, build relationships, meet new people, scheme, and generally live normal middle school lives.

So how does "Cinderella" fit into the story line — aside from being the name of the family business, and the whole stepmother/stepsister bit, that is? Well, the first book also contains "Cinderella" overtones with a red carpet appearance and VIP party (the ball), a lost shoe, a special dress, a lot of manual labor, and a prince. Only this time the prince is the hottest young actor on broadway.

On suggestion from her stepmother, Diana is forced to begin working at the family dry cleaners, which means she won't be able to try out for the her school's Fall theater production of "Our Town." Diana is devestated. Things don't seem so bad when she is befriended by the highschool girls, Cat and Elise, who also work at the cleaners. While at work Diana comes across two VIP tickets to the gala opening of the hottest new broadway play. Now all she has to do is figure out how to attend, what to where, and how to appease her stepmother.

The second book in the series is "Prep Cool." Again we find Diana and Jess mixed up in typical 13-year-old behavior. Not as many "Cinderella" references in this storyline as the first and that is probably a good thing. The same players are back plus a few new ones. When Diana and Jess get the chance to go to a dance at the extremely upper crust Foreman Academy things get a little interesting. Jess hits it off with one of the prep school boys and that does not sit well with the queen of the prep school girls. She steals Jess' new iPhone and begins to text mean and insulting messages to all of Jess' friends. Diana, with the help of her friends from the cleaners, devises a plan to sneak into Foreman Academy and steal back the iPhone. Things are never simple though. Diana must act the part of a prep school student, fool the teachers, take a pop quiz, and not get caught by the mean girls... or anyone else. It is all quite exciting.

"Cinderella Cleaners" is a fun series. The stories are fast-paced and entertaining. The characters are easily relateable, the relationships are well-developed, the dialogue is believable, and the plotlines are fun. The series does not break new ground, but it is far more suitable for young readers than "Gossip Girl." The only real drawback to this series may be the fact that it unknowingly glorifies breaking the rules. Although Diana is a good girl, she still breaks the rules. She lies to her parents, sneaks out, and "borrows" clothes from the cleaners. She feels guilty about all of it and she does receive punishments, but never for the big things. After all, the stories do borrow from a fairytale — Diana learns lessons and everyone ends up happily ever after.

For more adventures with Diana and "Cinderella Cleaners" look for "Rock & Role" in June and "Mask Appeal" in August.