Archive for September, 2010

Review: Gregor: The Underland Chronicles, by Suzanne Collins

If you liked Percy Jackson and the Olympians, here’s a series you should try:  Gregor:  The Underland Chronicles, by Suzanne Collins, better known as the author of The Hunger Games trilogy.  (I know, what’s with the cool Percy and Gregor names, right?)  I was introduced to this series through my 5th grader.  It is exciting, captivating, and surprising philosophical.  It’s similar to The Hunger Games in terms of making you think.  What is right, and what is wrong?  What is good and what is evil?  Is it really that black and white, or is it more gray?  And, what is ethical?  What lengths are appropriate to go to, to have an advantage over your enemy?  Do prophecies really predict the future?  Or are we the masters of our own fate. Is anything more important than family?  The Underland Chronicles are filled with thought provoking  questions, fantastical creatures, a war between human and rats, rats discrimination against mice, huge flying bats, flesh eating creatures and plants, and more.

There are 5 books in the series, and I’ll try not to give too much away:

Book 1:  Gregor the Overlander

Gregor’s father disappeared years ago, and now Gregor is living a life of poverty with his Mom and little sister, Boots in New York City.  One day, Boots falls into a grate in the basement laundry room, and Gregor follows her.  Down and down, they fall to the bottom of a huge dark passageway, and discover the Underland, a fantastical dark land underneath the city.  There are giant cockroaches, rats, bats, and spiders – and there are humans.  The Underland is on the verge of war, and Gregor’s arrival has been foretold in the Prophecy of Gray.  The Underlanders think he is the Overland Warrior, the Son of the Sun – the only hope to save the humans and the underground, stone city of Regalia, from destruction by the rats.  But Gregor’s just a skinny 11 year old, and he just wants to go home with his sister.  Will he stay and help?  Is he really the warrior? What will happen on the quest? 

Book 2:  Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane

Gregor’s little sister, Boots is kidnapped, and Gregor must return to the Underland to find her.  Turns out, the Underlanders need him for another prophecy.  Gregor is sent on a new quest with his bat, Ares and Princess Luxa.  They must travel through the dangerous Waterway to find and slay the Bane.  But is the Bane really the enemy?  Will Gregor succeed in his quest?  Will he lose the people most precious to him?  And what is a Rager?

Book 3:  Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods

Gregor is called to the Underland again, for the Prophecy of Blood, to avert a catastrophic plague.  His mother refuses to let him go, so Gregor, his mother, and Boots all travel to Regalia for a “short meeting”.  But all is not as it seems.  The terrifying, lethal plague is contagious, and quickly spreading among all warmblood races.  The prophecy is a riddle, and Gregor is sent on another quest to obtain the cure, with humans, rats, and a giant cockroach all travelling through a dangerous jungle.  Twists and turns abound, and what will Gregor do when he uncovers the horrific truth?

“Turn and turn and turn again, you see the what but not the when.  Remedy and wrong entwine and so they form a single vine.”

Book 4:  Gregor and the Marks of Secret

The rats have always dominated the mice, or “nibblers”.  But now, the mice are disappearing.  Why?  Gregor and Luxa set out to find out what’s going on, and are shocked at what they find.  Can they save the mice from genocide?  Did Gregor make a mistake in book 2, regarding the Bane?  Is Gregor falling in love with Luxa?  Why is there no prophecy for this event?  Are humans only known for killing?  The war between rats and humans has started, and we are now at the door of the final, secret prophecy, the Prophecy of Time.

Book 5:  Gregor and the Code of Claw

Gregor finally reads The Prophecy of Time, which call for the warrior’s death.  Just how far is Gregor willing to go to save the Underland humans?  Will he sacrifice his life?  An army of rats is approaching Regalia, and this time all of Gregor’s family is in danger in the Underland.  Will the humans be able to crack the Code of the Claw?  Will they be able to stop the rats?  How?  Given their histories, is peace possible between humans and rats?  Will Gregor ever master echolocation?  Can he control being a Rager, or will it consume him?  The war is in full swing and death is everywhere. 

Overall

The Underland Chronicles are full of good questions, questions worth asking (that’s why there’s so many in this post).  Is it okay to question authority?  Would you do what is right, at the risk of being punished?  Will you do what’s necessary, even if it might destroy you?  Gregor grows up quickly, faced with challenges and mysteries, one after another.  Things are never as they seem.

Like a modern day, urban Alice in Wonderland, Gregor is a treat to read.  Suzanne Collins knows how to hold your attention and make you care about her characters.  A fantasy adventure, with themes of morality, values, ethics, duty, destiny, and humanity, The Underland Chronicles are sure to make you and your kids ponder each character’s choices. Thrilling battles, puzzling quests, and cliffhanger endings will keep you turning the page, again and again.

Recommended for reading level ages 9 -12 (grades 4 – 7); I think it’s perfect for 9 and up – I know I enjoyed reading it, as did my 14 year old.

Price is $6.99 for each book, or $21.75 for the complete 5 book set on Amazon.  Definitely worth spending $20+ for these books – it’s better than seeing a movie, and your kids will have an enthralling, smart series of books to read for school.  Oh, and skip The Red Pyramid and read this instead.

P.S.  You can see from the photo, our copies are getting worn out from reading…

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Amazon Associates?

Since I link so much to Amazon anyway, I joined their Amazon Associates affiliate program, which means if you click through a link on Kid Mania to Amazon and buy an item, we’ll get a small commission, like around 4% of the price.

Our family works together to do reviews on our own things, meaning we aren’t paid to do reviews and we don’t receive any free products to review (not that we’d refuse to do it, but we would definitely add a disclaimer so you would know).

So, I’ll be throwing in a couple of Amazon links here and there, and if it works out, maybe we could reward the kids with pizza once in a while.  If not, that’s ok too.

If you’d like to support Kid Mania Blog, then feel free to click through, but certainly, don’t feel you have to.  Thanks for your support!

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What’s Hot: Simon’s Cat in ‘The Box’

Got an iPad?  Need something cute to keep your little one entertained for a couple minutes?  Cat lover?  Check out Simon’s Cat in ‘The Box’, a witty line-art animated short, by Simon Tofield.  And watch, while, a curious cat investigates an empty cardboard box.

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Review: The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan

I really wanted to like The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan.  We discovered and loved the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which was all about Greek mythology.  The Kane Family Chronicles, of which The Red Pyramid is Book One, is all about Egyptian mythology.  Since I loved The Lightning Thief, Greek mythology, and Egyptian mythology, the potential for me to enjoy this book was very high.  Sadly, while The Red Pyramid is educational and mildly entertaining, the story plods along, with rarely a page turner where you can’t wait to read what happens next.

The Red Pyramid is the story of Carter and Sadie Kane.  It’s told in a distracting way, with Carter and Sadie as narrators, changing every chapter or two.  Since his mother’s death, Carter’s been travelling the world with his Dad, an Egyptologist, while Sadie, his younger sister has been living in London with his grandparents.  One night, the kids go with their Dad to the British Museum, so he can “set things right”.  Things, of course, go horribly wrong.  Their Dad disappears, and it turns out he inadvertently released a number of Egyptian gods.  The kids must work together to try and save their Dad, all the while on the run from the evil god Set who is after them.  Carter and Sadie work to figure out why Set is after them, what is going on, who is good and who is evil, why they seem to have special powers, and how can they stop a conspiracy for Chaos to take over the world, which will lead to the destruction of North America.

It’s back to school, and that means 30 minutes of reading every night before bed, and each kid has to have a different book.  Sometimes, when it’s a really good book, we read it together, taking turns reading pages, and passing the book around.  We tried that with The Red Pyramid.  But, honestly, it couldn’t hold the kids attention.  We were all bored, myself included.  I kept saying, give it a chance, I’m sure it’ll get interesting soon.  Finally, I couldn’t get the kids to listen anymore, so I took the book for myself to read.  I hate leaving a book half read.  Someone worked so hard to write it, and it’s kind of like leaving a perfectly good dinner half eaten.  And we all know, you shouldn’t wasted food.  (Unless, it tastes absolutely terrible, right?) 

Keep in mind, I am a reading addict.  I’ll skip eating and sleeping to read.  I‘ll read anything that’s not fastened down – backs of cereal boxes, any book I can get my hands on, and even, when I was younger and ran out of books to read, my grandmothers huge, 8” thick library style dictionary.  When the last Harry Potter book came out, I read the entire thing through in 25 hours.  And yes, I did sleep for 3 of those.  So, I worked on reading The Red Pyramid.  And it was mostly work.  I slogged through it until the end, and then, it wasn’t like I wanted more, I was just glad it was done.

If you love all things Egyptian, give it a try.  Maybe you’ll love it.  It just didn’t do it for me.

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Review: Princess Tutu

We just finished watching the Japanese anime Princess Tutu on YouTube.  It was unexpectedly beautiful, freakish, and poetic.  Imagine if you combined classical ballet – Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, with the book Inkheart, and sprinkled in a little of The Matrix and Lord Of The Rings, to create an anime series.  What you would have is Princess Tutu, a complex, layered, and musical labyrinth of a fairy tale, created by Ikuko Itoh.

Once upon a time, a small, yellow duck sees a boy dancing by the waterside.  He is a handsome and kind Prince, a beautiful dancer, but his eyes are so lonely, because he has lost his heart.  The Duck wishes she could talk to the Prince, dance with the Prince, and most of all, help the Prince to smile.

Suddenly a strange old man appears and offers her a magical blood-red pendant.  She is magically transformed into a human girl, and begins studying at a ballet school with the Prince.  She is not very good at it, but tries her best.  Even with the pendant, if Duck quacks, she turns back into a duck; she can turn back into a human girl by getting wet.  Duck meets Fakir, Mytho’s domineering and rude friend, along with Rue, a beautiful advanced class ballerina who is Mytho’s girlfriend.

The strange old man is Drosselmeyer, a story writer who died, but had the power to bring stories to life.  When he died, the story he was writing, The Prince and The Raven was only half finished.  Thus, the Prince and Raven have been eternally battling, unable to stop as the story has no end.  The Raven escaped out of the story, and the Prince followed the Raven to protect the town and battle the Raven.  Unable to defeat the Raven, the Prince, using a forbidden spell, shatters his own heart to seal the Raven away. 

The Prince, according to the story, loves everyone and is loved by everyone.  Although now utterly defenseless and lacking any emotion, he still feels the need to protect small and weak things.  The empty, broken Prince is found by Fakir, who becomes his protector.  The pieces of the Prince’s heart have scattered and are hidden.  The entire town is under a spell, as the lines between what is real and what is the story have become mixed.

The magical pendant also allows Duck to transform into Princess Tutu, who is fated to love the Prince, but if she professes her love to the Prince, she will vanish into a speck of light.  Princess Tutu is the only one who can gather the missing shards of the Prince’s heart and return them to the Prince.  Instead of battling to take the heart shard from a person, Princess Tutu asks “Dance with me”.  She releases the wandering heart shards hidden inside people by talking with them about their true feelings.

But just as Duck is more than she seems, so are Fakir and Rue.  And, Fakir and Rue both don’t want Princess Tutu to restore the Prince’s heart, for different reasons.  And what of the Raven, who desires to be released from his sealed prison?  In a town that is ruled by stories, things are constantly changing, and not always as they seem.  Drosselmeyer is still writing the story, using the lives of real people – and he wants an epic tragedy.

There are so many questions to be answered –  

What will happen?
Who is good and who is evil?
Is it right for Princess Tutu to restore the heart shards?
Will Ahiru stay as a duck, her real self?
Who is Princess Kraehe?
Is everything happening the way it is, because it’s just part of the story?
Is there no escaping fate?
Will the Prince live happily ever after?  But with who?
How will the story end?

*** WARNING: SPOILERS ***

Here’s an AMV video which gives you a 3 minute glance at Princess Tutu, to a Swedish technobeat:

First off, let me explain that the Prince is called Mytho, which is pronounced Mewtoe (I kept calling him MewTew, cause I’ve gotten too much Pokemon over the years).  And try not to let the title “Princess Tutu” make you think of Disney pink princess confection, as that is not what this is about.  It is a darker tale, more along the lines of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

A breathtakingly suspenseful, sweet, funny, yet unusual and odd anime, both of Princess Tutu’s 2 seasons are on YouTube.  There are 13 episodes for season 1, and 13 for season 2, making a full 26 episodes of approximately 23 minutes each.  Episode 18 is not available in English dub on YouTube, so you will have to at least watch that one in Japanese with English subtitles.  (Although, some people think the Japanese language episodes are more enjoyable to watch and listen to than the English dubbed ones.  It’s all what you prefer – try a couple of each and see.)   Originally released in 2002-2003, Princess Tutu is an older anime.  You can buy the DVD set on Amazon, or on eBay, but why not just watch it on YouTube, for free?

The classical music and dancing are superb.  Think combat ballet – a dance-off  as a battle.  There are also quite a few sword fight scenes.  There are references to Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Cinderella, Coppelia, A Mid Summer’s Night Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and many more classics.  I really enjoyed learning more about the different ballet “mimes” – how dancers use positioning to communicate language; for example, we learn the mimes for death, love, dance, no, you, etc.  As ballet doesn’t use the spoken word, you learn how a dancer uses ballet moves as language.

Rated TV14, and recommended for 13 and up.  I think Princess Tutu is fine for ages 8 and up.  There is occasional swearing towards the end (damn it, hell) and some nudity (nothing too revealing); there is also talk of sacrificing a human heart so the Raven can eat it.

A unique anime, Princess Tutu is a story within a story, with themes of good versus evil, the question of can you make your own destiny, the power of hope and love, and how one small, insignificant soul can change the world.

The ending is not what I expected.  Like many others, I imagine the “story of hope” that Fakir is shown writing at the end will lead to a happy life for him and the one he loves.

P.S.  The opening theme, “Morning Grace,” is written and sung by the talented Ritsuko Okazaki.

At the secret place by the waterside that no one knows of…
Dance the pas de deux of life…
And I’m dreaming again today

 

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Top E rated video games for kids

Here’s my latest list on the top selling and top rated video games, especially games that are appropriate for kids – all with an ESRB rating of E or E 10+.

Top selling E rated video games:

  1. Sid Meier’s Civilization V, PC
  2. Club Penguin: Elite Penguin Force Collector’s Edition Bundle, DS
  3. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, DS
  4. New Super Mario Bros, wii
  5. New Super Mario Bros, DS
  6. Madden NFL 11, PS3, Xbox
  7. Just Dance, wii
  8. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, PSP
  9. WipeOut, wii
  10. Lego Rock Band, Xbox

Top selling video game consoles and accessories:

  1. Xbox 360 250GB Halo Reach Console Bundle
  2. Kinect Sensor with Kinect Adventures
  3. Playstation Move Starter Bundle
  4. Playstation Move Controller
  5. Playstation Move Navigation Controller
  6. Xbox 360 Live 1600 Points
  7. PlayStation 3 160GB
  8. Xbox 360 250GB Console
  9. Wii Sports Resort Console Bundle, Black
  10. Xbox 360 12 Month Live Gold Card

Top rated games:

  1. Super Mario Galaxy 2, wii (released 5/23/10) – 10
  2. NHL 11, PS3/Xbox (released 9/7/10) – 9.0
  3. Plants vs. Zombies, Xbox (released 9/8/10) – 8.5
  4. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, DS (released 9/12/10) – 8.5
  5. Metroid: Other M, wii (released 8/31/10) – 8.5
  6. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (released 7/11/10) – 8.5
  7. Tales of Monkey Island, PS3 (released 6/15/10) – 8.5
  8. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, wii/Xbox 360/PS3 (released 6/8/10) – 8.5
  9. Bit. Trip Runner, wii Ware (released  5/17/10) – 8.5
  10. Picross 3D, DS (released 5/3/10) – 8.5

Most gamers are probably playing Halo:Reach, which was just released, but my kids are still too young to be playing M rated games.  There are some good E rated games just released, most notably, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future and Metroid: Other M.  If you don’t have an Xbox or an iPod Touch, you can also check out Plants vs. Zombies online, at Popcap games.  Our review of Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is here.

If your child is stuck in a game, and doesn’t know what to do to get to the next level, or complete a quest, check out the FAQs at one of my favorite sites – www.gamefaqs.com.  GameFAQs was purchased a while ago by www.gamespot.com, which is a great place to get information on video games for any platform, including:  ratings, reviews, previews, and release dates.  (Note:  My lists are based on topselling stats from Amazon.com, and top rated stats from gamespot.com.)

My last list, from July 2010 can be found here.

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What’s Hot: Furreal Friends Furry Frenzies or Zhu Zhu Pets?

Christmas is only a little more than 3 months away.  I know – scary, isn’t it?  Pretty soon it will be Halloween, and then *BAM*, it’ll be Christmas in every store.  It gets a bit overwhelming.  Since every dollar counts in this economy, each year I try to be sure to get a few select toys that my kids really want.

Last year, around November, I found myself desperately seeking Zhu Zhu Pets, with none to be found.  After searching every store in town, one night I went on eBay, and around 1 a.m., found myself bidding $160 for 4 pets.  $160!  For 4 small, furry toys, that I knew would make my kid smile on Christmas morning.  And then, I panicked.  What in heaven was I doing bidding that much for some cheap, little toys that retailed for only $9 each?  Was I insane?  Amazingly, during the middle of my panic attack, I was outbid (by some other sleep-deprived crazed parent, no doubt).  In the end, no Zhu Zhu pets came for Christmas.

I just did a review of Furry Frenzies Cruisin’ Carrier, and I’m trying to guess ahead of time, which will be more popular this Christmas – Furry Frenzies or Zhu Zhu Pets?

Furry Frenzies:

Furry Frenzies are essentially Zhu Zhu Pet clones, but come in a wider variety of animal types – dog, cat, rabbit, hedgehog, raccoon, and chipmunk.  Other differences include:

  • Shorter, thicker bodies, and slightly taller (3.9 x 5.4 x 5.1 inches)
  • Nose button is bigger, and looks more like a normal nose
  • Have ears, and tails
  • Fur is tight fitting on body
  • Stuffed animal type eyes (colored with black center)
  • Recommended for ages 4 and  up
  • More cuddly and cute*

Best selling Furry Frenzies include:  City Center Play Set, Buster Bow Wow (dog), Senorita Scamps (cat), Whirl Around Playground, and Flurry in a Hurry (rabbit).  Pets are typically between $7.99 and $11.99.

Zhu Zhu Pets

It’ll be hard for Furry Frenzies to catch up to and compete with Zhu Zhu Pets.  Zhu Zhu Pets has released many different pets and building sets, including a new line of girl-targeted pets (hamsters and rabbits) in girly colors, plus a new line of Kung Zhu to appeal to boys, with warriors, ninjas, armors and a battle arena.  With Zhu Zhu Pets, not only can you collect all the different pets released (like Beanie Babies), but you can build your Hamster City and continually add different items to your metropolis.  Another notable difference – Zhu Zhu Pets have a website, and hamster blog, and Furry Frenzies have nothing.  Differences include:

  • Pets are primarily hamsters
  • Longer, thinner bodies (2.4 x 5.9 x 2.2 inches)
  • Smaller button on the nose
  • Fur is looser fitting on body
  • Black dot eyes
  • Recommended for ages 5 – 10 years

Best selling Zhu Zhu Pets include:  Jilly, Mr. Squiggles, Funhouse, Kung Zhu Special Forces Hamster set of 4, Nugget, Adventure Ball, Add On hamster wheel, Hamster House Starter Set, Pipsqueak, Wild Bunch set of 4, Sweetie, Scoodles, Kung Zhu Battle Arena, Add On ramp and slide, Carrier and blanket, Funhouse set with hamster, Blanket and bed, Convertible sports car, Rocky, Fluffy, Tex, Carly, Moo, and Justice.  Pets are typically between $8.99 and $11.99, but can be as high as $20 or more depending on popularity and scarcity.

Although there doesn’t appear to be any of last year’s Zhu Zhu Pet craziness yet, on eBay several items – the Giant Hamster City Playset, a Kung Zhu Battle Arena lot (along with Ninja and Warrior hamsters and armor), an Airport, Pizza Parlor, and Beauty Salon set lot, and a set of the girlie pets (Jilly, Pinkie, Sweetie, Roxie, Carly, and Peaches) are in high demand and going for $100-$180.

Similarities between Furry Frenzies and Zhu Zhu Pets include:

  • Both are activated by pressing on pet’s back or nose
  • Both make a variety of sounds
  • Both are on rubberized wheels
  • Both – have to watch don’t get caught in hair

In summary, Furry Frenzies are a relatively new toy, and at this point, they are not even close to Zhu Zhu Pets in sales or popularity.  There is only a very limited selection currently available – 3 playsets, 6 pets – and they are barely offered anywhere; Target online only has the Cruisin’ Carrier and City Center, although in-store they also have the individual pets.  Even though Furry Frenzies are well designed, and *my daughter prefers them over her Zhu Zhu pets, I imagine they will not sell as well as Zhu Zhu Pets, but will probably continue to be in short supply anyway this holiday season.

For Christmas, I’m planning to get my daughter the Furry Frenzies City Center Play Set, and will NOT be waiting until November to order it this year.

What about you?  We only have a small number of Zhu Zhu Pets – I’m interested to hear from people that have the whole hamster habitat-city-metroplis set up.  What do you like best?  Do you feel it was worth the money you spent on it?

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