Thursday, November 13, 2014

Curiosity

18079603Blackwood, Gary. Curiosity.
April 10th 2014 by Dial
Nominated for the Cybils by lizjonesbooks

In middle grade fiction, life can always get worse. That's what Rufus Goodspeed finds out when his failed naturalist/ minister father loses his job, and the two have to move into a small flat in 1835 Philadelphia. Soon after, not only is his father thrown into debtors' prison, but Rufus himself is caught stealing (although he is innocent) and sent to a boys' home. There, his superior chess playing skills comes to the attention of Milhouse and he is offered a job with Maelzel, a showman of curiosities. Among these are the Turk, a chess playing automaton that has gone in and out of fashion. Of course, it doesn't really play chess, and has suffered at the hands of the last person who was forced to sit in the cramped cabinet and play games. Rufus is perfect for this. Crippled because of birth trauma and able to win all chess games he plays, he soon learns how to operate the machine, and is set to work exhibiting its wonders. As with any curiosity, there are skeptics trying to disprove it, and a reported by the name of Edgar Allen Poe tries to figure out the mystery. Maelzel is a cruel task master and cares little for Rufus' well being; Mulhouse is too sunken in his own pain and infirmity to be of much help, and Rufus father never makes it out of debtors' prison alive, but support comes from the mechanic Jacques, who is gruff but devises a brace for Rufus' back, and helps him out in times of travail. Support also comes from an unexpected source when things go South with the Turk.
Strengths: Must admit that the length (308 pages) and the bleak topic didn't make me eager to read this book, even though I enjoyed Around the World in 100 Days. This did draw me in nicely, and the historical details were brilliant. The suspense of the various plots kept the book moving along, and the characters kept me invested. While this is not for every middle grade reader, I think I will buy a copy for those readers who will pick up historical fiction that is more complex.
Weaknesses: This would have been a tighter book if some of the subplots had been removed-- there was plenty going on without the addition of some threads.

21441500Tak, Bibi Dumon. Mikis and the Donkey. 
October 6th 2014 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Nominated for the Cybils by Stephanie Whelan.

There is a lot of work to be done on the island of Corfu, Greece, and Mikis' grandfather acquires a donkey to help him with it. He tells Mikis that the donkey is a work animal, but this doesn't stop him from treating the animal like a pet. Tsaki (Mikis choses several names but lets the donkey choose the one she likes) and Mikis spend a lot of time together. When the grandfather overloads the poor animals with firewood and causes an injury, Mikis takes the donkey to the local physician because the vet is too far away. The donkey must rest for a week to recuperate. Mikis tells lots of stories about his donkey at school, and meets a girl names Elena who has a donkey of her own. The two donkeys get loose in a grove one day, and late Tsaki has a foal.
Strengths: This is a good window into another culture. The author traveled to Corfu to do research at a Corfu Donkey Rescue, so the details are excellent. The translation by Laura Watkinson is smooth, and the illustrations make me think of books from the 1960s set in Greece.
Weaknesses: I would have liked an idea of a time period on this. I am assuming it is present day, but young readers might not know that donkeys are still in use, especially since motorcycles and trucks are mentioned.

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