Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review: 'Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #3: Teacher's Pest' by Charles Gilman

✰✰✰✰½ Twelve-year-old middle school student, Robert Arthur, and his friends Glenn Torkells, the school bully, and Karina Ortiz, the school ghost, are back in the third installment of the Lovecraft Middle School series. It's just another normal school day at Lovecraft Middle School. Normal, that is, until Glenn gets stung by a wasp, and not just any wasp, mind you, but one with a purple abdomen. That's just the beginning. 

Soon ants, head lice, flies, gnats, wasps, and fleas are taking over the school and, of course, the janitors are on strike. This buggy situation quickly goes from simply annoying with most of the students have to get their heads shaved to downright dangerous as student council president, Howard Mergler, summons even more bugs to the school. As a giant bug in the disguise of a kid, Howard has enlisted the insects to help him accomplish his Master's sinister plan of revenge. Robert, Glenn, and Karina must figure out how to save the school from certain disaster before the bugs take over everything. In a race against time, the trio, with the help of the school librarian, Ms. Lavinia, and Robert's two-headed rat, must work as a team to thwart the Master's plan.

The Bottom Line: Author Charles Gilman includes plenty of action and adventure making this the perfect book for kids in grades 4 - 7 including boys and reluctant readers. While I did not read the first two books in the series, I was easily able to pick up this one and read it without missing a beat. That being said, I enjoyed this one so much that I will definitely be checking out the others. This book's focus on friendship and teamwork make it a winner. Additionally, the black and white pencil drawings are realistic and a fantastic complement the text. Highly recommended for young fans of horror, especially those who are fans of Goosebumps or The Bailey School Kids.

For additional fun, Lovecraft Middle School is now enrolling students online!

Details: Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #3: Teacher's Pest written by Charles Gilman & illustrated by Eugene Smith. Hardcover published by Quirk Books in 2013. 176 p. ISBN: 978-1-59474-614-7 Note: I received a copy from Quirk Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book Review: 'The Dark Monk: A Hangman's Daughter Tale' by Oliver Pötzsch

✰✰✰✰½ After solving a series of murders, life in 17th century Schongau, Germany has mostly returned to normal. The second installment of the Hangman’s Daughter series finds Magdalena working as an apprentice for the midwife. As the daughter of a hangman her future holds limited opportunities for her.

Just as things are looking up, the tide quickly changes. A local priest is found poisoned and a series of highway robberies have paralyzed the local towns making it impossible for the merchants to deliver their goods. Add to that a mysterious illness working its way through town and the people of Schongau are suddenly on edge again.
As Simon and his father try to offer medical care to the villagers, Simon finds himself teaming up with the murdered priest’s sister, Benedikta Koppmeyer, to pursue clues all over the picturesque German countryside. Meanwhile the hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is assigned to lead a band of men to find the robbers. As usual Magdalena’s relationship with Simon is rocky and the romantic tension builds with the arrival of Benedikta. Although Simon, Magdalena, and the hangman all find themselves going their separate ways, the riddles and clues all add up to a dangerous search for treasure hidden by the mysterious Knights Templar. Along the way, each has a feeling that someone is watching, and with each twist and turn of this mystery the stakes get higher and the danger more imminent. The trio must work together to solve the mystery and find the treasure before someone else does...or before someone else gets killed.
The Bottom Line: I had been looking forward to reading the second book in the series for quite a while. The Dark Monk doesn’t disappoint. It’s a quick read despite being nearly 450 pages long. While the English translation seemed somewhat too contemporary at times, I thought this book was even better than the first. As with the first book, there are multiple protagonists; each does their part to contribute to solving the mystery. This mystery reminded me of a scavenger hunt as Simon followed the riddles to various monasteries in the German countryside.

While some parts of the book were a bit predictable, there were still plenty of twists and turns to keep me guessing. Additionally, the inclusion of the mysteries of the Knights Templar in this installment added to the intrigue. Although there is a religious theme to this installment, this is not a book of Christian fiction by any means. I, also, enjoyed the many subplots including the romantic tension between Magdalena and Simon. Very enthusiastically recommended for those interested in historical mysteries. Also, highly recommended for those searching for a series that is a little bit different from the usual. I'm looking forward to reading the third book, The Beggar King.

Details: The Dark Monk: A Hangman's Daughter Tale by Oliver Pötzsch and translated by Lee Chadeayne. Paperback published by Mariner Books in 2012. 528 p. ISBN: 978-0-547-80768-3

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How to Select Nonfiction for Your Book Club

Books clubs are not just for fiction readers any more. While some are indeed dedicated to discussing only works of fiction, others manage to work a few nonfiction titles into the mix every year. However, lately, book clubs dedicated to discussing nonfiction are popping up nationwide. Nonfiction titles offer the reader a chance to explore different topics and learn something new. It also gives participants the opportunity to read books that you wouldn't necessarily choose on your own; thus, opening ones eyes to a whole new world.

In fact, carefully chosen nonfiction titles can be just as engaging to read as fiction. But how do you pick just the right nonfiction titles for your group? Consider the following guidelines when making your choices:
  1. Start off with shorter, lighter selections that have reading guides available.
  2. Select topics that are different from month to month.
  3. Read book reviews and compare ratings.
  4. Take a look at bestseller lists.
  5. Consider books that have won awards such as The Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Awards as well as local prizes.
  6. Check availability. Newer titles may be difficult to obtain, while older titles may have less appeal.
  7. Consider the reading format. The most obvious choices are hardcovers vs. paperbacks, but also consider the availability of  other formats as well such as audiobooks, eBooks, and large print.
  8. Page length can be an issue especially if members of your book club belong to other groups. Work as a group to set a page limit.
  9. Decide how long your discussions will be. If your group only meets for one hour, there might not be time to discuss a 500 page tome.
  10. Finally, consider recommendations from friends or colleagues.

Keep in mind that there are a few don’ts as well:
  1. Don’t choose several heavy topics month after month.
  2. Don't get stuck on a topic either. While the Civil War era might appeal to some in your group, discussing three books in a row on the same topic might discourage others.
  3. Is the book too controversial? Some members may shy away from controversial topics.
  4. Some groups may want to avoid the following types of books: divisive topics, religion, books with offensive language, and books that may offend members of different cultures.
  5. Remember, a book doesn't have to be a prize winner to inspire a thought provoking discussion.

Finally, your book club will need to agree on a procedure for choosing books that may or may not include some of the above suggestions. As the moderator for my group, I personally select the titles up to one year in advance when planning my programs. I am careful not choose books that reflect only my reading preferences.  Instead, I try to choose books that I think will appeal to the group as a whole and inspire conversation. In order to do this, I make a list of topics we are interested in, check book reviews and ratings, and consider the physical characteristics of each book such as page length and font size. Also, I take a look at how these titles fit in with current events.

Another option instead of having just one person pick all of the titles is to have the group vote on suggested titles. Likewise, other groups may implement a rotation system allowing each member to pick a title and lead the discussion when her turn comes around. There’s no wrong or right way to choose books; simply outline what works best for your group. However, do learn to accept the fact the not everyone will like every title, and that’s okay. Sometimes the best discussions arise from the least liked books. With a little practice, selecting nonfiction titles for your book club can be a rewarding experience for all.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: 'Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: building St. Peter's' by R. A. Scotti

✰✰✰½ As a popular tourist destination, St. Peter’s Basilica is an architectural wonder and a treasure trove of art. Millions of people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, from all over the world visit annually. While the images of St. Peter’s Basilica are familiar to many, few know the behind-the-scenes story of how it was constructed. The building of St. Peter’s spanned almost two centuries and involved thirty popes. 

Built during the time of the Renaissance, the list of artists who participated in the building of St. Peter’s Basilica reads like a who’s who of the era including Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini. Work began in 1506 when Pope Julius II had the audacity to raze the original St. Peter’s, which had been built by Constantine the Great during the 4th century. Pope Julius II recruited only the best for his project. But that was just the beginning. As the years passed into decades and then centuries, each pope influenced Bramante’s original plans. Building the basilica from the inside out made it easy to change plans on a whim and, indeed, the plans changed frequently. Yet, somehow it all came together into the magnificent structure we know today.

The Bottom Line: R. A. Scotti’s historical narrative invites the reader to explore the history, politics, and art of one of the world’s most sacred buildings. There was plenty of scandal during that time in church history making this book read almost like a Renaissance soap opera. Spanning two centuries, thirty popes, and numerous artists, it provides a snapshot of each personality and event. However, sometimes the snapshots were so brief that I had to do additional research to more fully comprehend topics like the Sack of Rome.

All in all, this is an interesting read for the lay person. Recommended for amateur historians and those interested in art, art history, church history, and architecture. Also, recommended for those who are traveling to or who have already been to Rome. Scotti has included black and white illustrations and four walking tours of Rome.

Book Club Notes: Reaction to the book was mixed, but overall the group enjoyed the book. Each participant seemed to gravitate towards a different topic including politics, history, art, architecture, religion, and biographies. The book was thought provoking; however, there are so many people to keep track of which made reading it difficult at times.

While Scotti covers almost two centuries of history, the book is more like a brief introduction than a text.  The black & white illustrations were helpful, but as the group moderator, I felt they were insufficient. Full color images were needed to supplement the discussion. Scotti’s writing style was hit-or-miss at times as well. While mostly engaging and fast paced, some chapters were a bit dull. We agreed that the short length of the chapters helped present an enormous amount of information in small doses. Recommended for book clubs looking for something different to read and discuss.

Book clubs considering this book can find a reading guide with discussion questions at Penguin.

Details: Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s by R. A. Scotti. Paperback published by Plume in 2007. 336 p. ISBN: 978-0-452-28860-7

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review: 'Company Orders' by David J. Walker

✰✰✰✰ Father Paul Clark is fast on his way to becoming a bishop. After all, he’s done everything right and has managed to avoid controversy of any sort until now. A secret from his past has come to light, and Father Clark will do anything and everything to hide it. Unfortunately, a mysterious woman who claims to represent “an agency of the federal government” uses her knowledge of his secret to manipulate the priest into doing some unpriestly things. Father Clark’s life is turned upside down when his friend becomes a casualty of the need for secrecy, and he vows to set things right before someone he cares for becomes the next victim.

The Bottom Line: This fast-paced thriller features plenty of action. Once you start reading, the story rapidly gains momentum making it difficult to put down. As a former Catholic priest, author David J. Walker brings authenticity to the character of Father Paul Clark. The behind-the-scenes look into church politics was fascinating as well; however, this is not Christian fiction at all. Furthermore, I enjoyed the vivid Chicago settings. Since I live in the Chicagoland area, I was able to picture the scenes as I read along. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of thrillers and those interested in books set in Chicago.

Details: Company Orders by David J. Walker. Paperback published by Allium Press of Chicago in 2012. 324 p. ISBN: 978-0-9831938-5-2