Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bizarre Buildings by Paul Cattermole with Ian Westwell

Bizarre Buildings by Paul Cattermole with Ian Westwell is a collection of pictures of unusual architecture around the world. As artists in the 20th century broke the boundaries of convention, this book seems to show how architects are not only breaking the rules, but defying the laws of gravity in the 21st century. Some of the designs you'll see in this book seem to hover, fly, and even burst out of the vertical and horizontal dimensions that we are used to seeing.

Here are some of my favorites from the book:

The Twisting Torso High-Rise Apartment Tower in Malmo Sweden. The tower is 623 feet high. It has nine five story blocks. The blocks twist as they rise.

BurJ Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. This is the tallest hotel in the world. It is designed to look like a sailing ship. It claims to be the world's only 7-star luxury hotel. Its 590 foot atrium is largely covered in 22-carat gold leaf. I wonder how much it costs to stay there for a couple nights.

Selfriges Department Store in Birmingham England. The author descibes the exterior of the store like a reptile's skin. "Its reptilian skin is a glittering array of more than 15,000 anodized aluminum disks bolted to an undulating facade of sprayed concrete rendered over contoured layers of expanded steel mesh."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Great Race by Gary Blackwood

The Great Race: The Amazing Round-The-World Auto Race of 1908 is a non-fiction book by Gary Blackwood, the author of the well-known books, The Shakespeare Stealer and The Year of the Hangman.

Imagine Spring Break is approaching but your parents have taken you out of school a few days early. Yes! You've taken an airplane to New York City and now you're taking in the sights when all of a sudden they interupt everything for a surprise announcement. They have decided that for the rest of the vacation they're taking you on a non-stop coast to coast trip in a SUV from New York City to San Francisco.

It will be a tough trip, but it's doable. But let me change a few of the conditions. Let's imagine it is 1908 instead of 2008. (Before the Model T was even developed.)The car is about the same weight, but everything else is much different. Instead of a 300 horse-power engine you only have a 30. Instead of a windshield you only have a leather screen that comes up to your chin. Instead of getting 20mpg you will be lucky to get 8mpg. I suppose the price of gas will be cheaper, but not when you factor in that there aren't any gas stations on your route-you will have to pay the price of shipping all your gas ahead of you by railroad in order to refuel. What if I take away the repair shops and parts suppliers? How about if I said none of the roads are paved and sometimes railroad tracks will be taken because the roads are in such awful shape? (Can you imagine the shaking?) One more- instead of 3,000 miles coast to coast, you will travel 22,000 miles, from New York to Paris.

In 1907 some newspapers offered a challenge to car racers around the world: a long distance automobile race from New York to Paris (22,000 miles). There was a lot of interest. Some would do it for the money. Some would do it for the fame. Some would do it because no one else had dared to before.

(Public challenges are still sometimes announced even today. For example, John McCain, who is running for President against Barak Obama proposed this summer a $300 million dollar prize be given to the winner of the Clean Car Challenge. He wants to give this prize to anyone who can develop a battery that a car can run on better than any that current technology has to offer.)

Well, news of the 1908 challenge also sparked interest in some of the leading automobile makers at the time. Many of those interested in the race-around-the-world were not as concerned about the prize money as as much as they desired the glory and attention they would receive by winning such a race. Some of the racers didn't think of themselves as heroes or pioneers-just crazy adventurers who wanted to see if they could do it. Some of these adventurers actually thought they could cross the frozen Bering Strait (the body of water that separates Alaska from Russia) by car.

Did they actually cross the Pacific Ocean via the Bering Stait by car? How many racers and cars would actually finish the race? How often did the cars break down, and if they did would the racers help each other? Get the details about the personalities, the drivers, and the mishaps from Gary Blackwood's fascinating re-telling of this true story.

You can also find out more at:

The Greatest Auto Race on Earth

The Great Auto Race

2008 re-enactment (postponed to 2009)

On a similar note, the year 1909, the year after the Great Race, would mark another important year for automobile adventures. Alice Ramsey would become the first woman to cross the continent of North America by car. Learn about her car and the route she took at:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Schooled by Gordon Korman

You know how some kids who move and start a new school in the middle of the year will probably get a student council member or someone the office thinks is responsible to escort the new kid around and help them get situated. In Schooled, by Gordon Korman, Cap Anderson is being shown around Claverage Middle School by Zach Powers, the last person that should have been showing Cap Anderson how things work at C Average Middle School.

C Average, that's what the students call it (just take the L out of Claverage and you get C Average). Zach figures since he is in 8th grade now he's earned the right to be on top of the food chain at C Average. And the new arrival appears to be fresh meat.

It didn't help that when Cap was being shown his locker, he didn't know what a combo was. It didn't help that he didn't know that he was supposed to turn those numbers left-right-left. Zach probably thought he had died and gone to heaven when Cap looked inside it and said, "It's empty."

Astonished, Zach responded, "Of course it's empty. It's your locker. It's empty until you put something in it."

Cap didn't know what to do with a locker. He asked, "What do I have to put in there?"

"How should I know? It's your stuff."

Then Cap did his thing. He said something he may have been taught to say. He said something he truly believed and maybe if it had been the 1960's it might have made sense even to Zach. He said something no other C Average Middle School student would have said in a million years:

"When we lock things away we're really imprisoning ourselves."

Zach's eyes probably popped out. This was too good to be true. He asked Cap what school he'd been to before. Like a sheep to a wolf . . . Cap said he had been homeschooled.

Immediately Zach knew what he had to do. He was going to nominate this dude for 8th grade president without telling him, make his life miserable, and have a whole lot of fun doing it. This was his year!

Or was it? Maybe there was a whole lot more to Capricorn Anderson than Zach or anyone else thought at C Average. Like Cap would say later: "When we judge others, we're really judging ourselves."

The Scary States of America by Michael Teitelbaum

There's some creepy stuff in this one. The book reminds me a little of the old television show called the X-Files. I feel the need to caution some of you before you check this one out. Be prepared, you might actually start checking to make sure the doors are locked at night.

The short stories from each state are presented as true, based on the narrative of someone who witnessed a paranormal event. Some of them you are probably familiar with, especially if you are a fan of Monster Quest on the History Channel. There's the one from New Mexico about Roswell and Area 51. Another one is from New Jersey about a possible cryptid that has been used to explain strange incidents involving farm animals having the flesh torn off of them. And then there's the story from Wisconsin about the Beast of Bray Road. Supposedly, there have been numerous sightings of the beast. One account goes something like this: A girl was driving on a Wisconsin road at night and got out of the car. She then happened upon the beast. Terrified, she ran back to the car and as she barely turned the ignition on the beast jumped on top of the car. She tore down the road with her unwanted passenger firmly hanging on. She was able to fling the beast off as she made a sharp turn, squealing the tires. When she got home, while trying to breathe, she probably tried to explain to her family and friends what had happened. Who could believe such a story, but then how could they explain all the scratch marks covering the car? (Can you guess what kind of cryptid the beast is supposed to be?)

Scary States of America might make you fascinated with all the forms fear takes in people's imaginations. Scary States of America might intrique you with the notion of how hoaxes are so elaborately constructed and why people keep repeating them. Or, Scary States of America might just make you think that these eyewitness accounts and other forms of evidence point to the possibility that paranormal phenomena exist.

But don't tell me later that I didn't warn you.

The Fire of Ares by Michael Ford

Have you heard of the movie 300? I haven’t seen it (it’s probably a little too violent for my tastes), but it is based on the Battle of Thermopylae and one of history’s famous last stands. During the battle King Leonidas led 300 Spartans and a few other forces, including some Helots, against a massive invading army led by Xerxes I of Persia. Although the Spartans were widely known as fierce warriors, it really wasn’t a fair fight. The Spartans were vastly outnumbered. It was a force of tens of thousands against a few hundred. King Leonidas positioned his force to hold the Persian army from advancing through a narrow mountain pass that led inland. According to legend he was betrayed by one of his own people who showed the Persians another way through the mountains that guarded the coast. The Persians flanked around and then surrounded Leonidas and the 300. Leonidas and the 300 purportedly killed a disproportionate number of Persians, but they eventually succumbed. Their sacrifice was not in vain since according to some this gave time for the Athenians to organize a crushing counter-attack against the Persians.

Spartan warriors were feared in battle. They were like the special forces of today’s armies. To become a Spartan warrior meant enduring the most rigorous training a soldier could undertake at that time.

When not fighting wars, Spartan commanders would often conduct attack drills. For example, a commander would order two large groups to form 50 yards apart, each with 4columns of men. This was called the Phalanx position. “Each group proceeded forward, first at a walking pace, then a jog, then faster still.” As they drew together, both sets of men would run at full speed until they met with a crash. Some would fall and be stepped on, the rest would continue to push, digging their heels into the dirt. Both sides would lean their combined weight against the other side until one side gave in. “The conquering phalanx did not stop, but simply walked over their fallen comrades.”

Even the young Spartan boys who entered into the warrior schools would have to endure brutal training such as this. One such boy was Lysander.

In the Fire of Ares we are introduced to Lysander who doesn’t yet know that he is about to be sent to the agogue-Spartan warrior school. Before he receives news of his impending training he is sent on an errand to the market in the city. Lysander is unfamiliar with both the city and marketplace. He experiences great difficulty pushing through the crowds when all of a sudden he is jostled off balance and bumped into a place between two vendor stalls. As he tries to regain his footing a voice behind him says:

“Do what I say and you may live today.”

Lysander tries to escape but a large hand clamps down around his neck and pushes him against a nearby wall. As he struggles, Lysander feels the cool side of a blade pressed against his throat, just above his pulsing artery. Everything goes black.

Except for the large bump on the back of his head, Lysander awakes otherwise unhurt, but what he doesn’t realize immediately is that a greater harm has been done to him. The attacker has stolen something that Lysander was wearing underneath his shirt, hidden and known only to himself and his mother. He was wearing a special Amulet. Its name: The Fire of Ares.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix is book one in her new series called, The Missing.

Thirteen years ago FBI Agent James Reardon had a mess to clean up.

Thirteen years ago a Sky Trails Airline supervisor decided the best thing to do was to admit nothing, deny everything and claim her co-worker must have been hallucinating.

Thirteen years ago the airline co-worker named Angela discovered an unexpected arrival at gate 2B. She headed down the ramp to investigate. She noticed the door to an unscheduled plane was open. She thought she could barely hear something, like a soft wimper.

(Ever feel your heart start pounding, your hairs stand up, and your blood drain from your head when you sense danger?) Angela sensed something was wrong and bolted toward, not away from, the sound as fast as she could . As she ran she noticed on the side of the plane the name of an unfamiliar airline, Tachyon Travel. But, before she could process what she was looking at she blinked and the logo changed back to Sky Trails Airline. Was the excitement and adrenaline rush causing her mind to play tricks on her?

Angela stepped on the plane, swivelled her eyes to the cockpit hatch on the left. The small space was empty, instruments dark. At any moment she expected a flight attendant to greet her or at least intercept her before she got any farther. She also feared discovering a pilot laying on the floor, struck down by a heart attack or by some terrorist. Nothing. No one on board, or so it seemed.

The aisle of the plane was empty, and as she inspected the plane for more details, she observed that the passenger section contained twelve rows with two seats per row on one side and 12 seats on the other side for a total of 36 seats.

As she looked down into the seats she probably gasped with astonishment. Her senses had not betrayed her. The plane was indeed occupied. There was not an empty seat to be found.

Each seat contained a baby!

Now, let's fast forward 13 years.

In a small peaceful midwestern town, not that much different from Lindstrom, thirteen-year-old Jonah and his neighbor Chip coincidentally received a plain blank envelope in the mail with the following message:


You see the reason Jonah and Chip received the same letter that day has something to do with what they have in common. They are neighbors, but they also have in common the fact that they were both adopted 13 years ago.

Guess how many other letters went out that day?
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