Monday, July 30, 2007

Too Smart for Anyone's Good

I've got a backlog of books to blog about, so I'm going to do some (hopefully) shorter posts about them to help myself catch up. Here's the first:

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks
4Q 4P, J

Cadel Piggott is a genius. If you're astute and you've read the title of the book, you rightly assume that he is an evil genius. But it's not completely his fault. After all, what would you expect a kid to be when, after getting arrested for hacking into computers at the age of seven, he is brought to a child psychologist who tells him that his one big mistake was getting caught? As it turns out, the psychologist, Dr. Roth, is a bit of an evil genius himself. Or at least, he's evil, and he's the go-between for Cadel and another evil genius: Cadel's real father. Cadel's father, Dr. Phineas Darkkon, is in jail for various nefarious plans. But his biggest nefarious plan is one the authorities can't stop: he plans to educate and train people with superior abilities (like Cadel) and help them take over the world.

Over the years, Dr. Roth and Dr. Darkkon guide Cadel as he goes through school honing his talent for lying, manipulating, and plotting, as well as developing his computer hacking skills. (He uses all of these skills in developing an online dating service that winds up being significant for many reasons.) Finally, at the age of fourteen, he is ready to enroll in his father's Axis Institute to be trained in the arts necessary for world domination. His courses include Basic Lying, Pure Evil, Embezzlement, Contagion, and Assassination.

Up to this point, Cadel has had no problem with his father's plans for him. But the Axis Institute isn't for the faint of heart. Tortured screams echo the halls, classes are disrupted by deadly explosions, and blood frequently drips from the ceilings, fellow students die (horribly) or mysteriously disappear, and the faculty is deeply suspicious of each other and their students. Even for Cadel, it's all a bit too much and he begins to wonder if being an evil genius is all it's cracked up to be.

I'm going to recommend this one to kids who like the Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books, with a few caveats. This one is a lot longer than those books, and it doesn't have as humorous a tone. But it does have a kid-as-criminal-mastermind theme, and the kid is every bit as interesting as Artemis is. I think it's more complex than the Artemis Fowl books, and it's certainly darker in tone and theme. I know elementary school kids like the Artemis Fowl books as much as middle school readers do, but I think Evil Genius is better suited to Artemis's older readers, as well as readers who don't mind a book where the action moves a little more slowly. I think I might also suggest this book to teens who have enjoyed Muchamore's C.H.E.R.U.B. books and Butcher's Spy Highseries. I've just read a few reviews that compare this book to Harry Potter, too, primarily because it involves a young boy who gets sent to a school to get trained to use his talents. I think this one has a different feel from Harry Potter, though I'm sure there will be some overlap in readers.

Friday, July 27, 2007

When the Shark Bites, It Bites

Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham
4Q 4P, M/J/S

I admit it. This book had me near tears more than once, even though I was trying hard not to get emotional. (I feel like such a sap when I cry over something I'm reading.)

I also admit that I came to this book thinking it smacked of ripping off Bethany Hamilton's story (Soul Surfer, and that annoyed (even offended) me a bit. But the reviews were good, and I know it's the kind of story that a lot of people like to read, so I bought it for our teen collection. I wasn't going to read it, but I needed a book I could read quickly at lunch. Since this is written in free verse, letters, and phone calls, it looked like a very fast read. So I took it, a little bit grudgingly. Six pages into the book, I was hooked and having trouble swallowing my food over the lump in my throat.

The last thing that Jane expects when she, her mother, and her brother go to the beach one June day is that she'll wake up from a coma ten days later to discover that her right arm has been amputated just above the elbow after a harrowing shark attack leaves her arm so badly mutilated it can't be saved. The cards and letters that flood into the hospital can't begin to ease her pain, anger, and depression. Why her? Why couldn't it have happened to someone else? She loves to cook. She's an award-winning artist. She needs her arm! These people who are writing to her can't begin to comprehend what she is feeling. Why can't they leave her alone to mourn the person she'll never be again?

Kelly Bingham does a terrific job making it clear how such a tragic event doesn't just alter the life of the person it happens to. It is almost as hard to read about Jane's mother and brother's attempts to deal with the aftermath as it is to read about Jane's anger and despair. Where do you draw the line between being sympathetic and supportive and and TOO sympathetic and supportive? When is it time to force someone to move forward? When Jane's brother lashes out at her for expecting everyone to wait on her, it's both a shocking and liberating moment, for them and for the reader. The ways that Michael encourages (and forces) her to learn to do things for herself were touching and empowering. And I positively ached for Jane's mother as she tried to encourage Jane to go out in public, to draw again, to get back to as much of her old life and self as possible. There's a poem called "Constant" that is painful to read no matter whose perspective you read it from. It's equally moving to read about Jane's frustrations with her friends. Are they insensitive, or is Jane too sensitive? All of these poems and conversations, as well as Jane's tender moments with a little boy from the hospital, make for a very emotional read.

A few favorite moments:

(from "Leaving", p. 84, as Jane prepares to leave the hospital)
The problem is
life outside the window
is life outside.
Not here.
People out there
are out there.
Too many.

The eyes of the doctors
are familiar.
The kind of seeing I can almost live with.
It's their job, taking care of people like me.
I was welcome here.
I fit in.
Out there,
I won't.

Whew! If that doesn't communicate how scary it is to know you have to face people who are used to seeing you a different way, I don't know what would.

Then there's the poem called "The Web". Jane's discovering the world of Internet support groups, and she's not at all receptive:

Motivational speakers.
Chat rooms.

And overwhelmingly:
Most of the time, we become
a better person than we were.

I was fine
with who I was.

I will never
become one of these heroic
icons, spreading hope
from the other side,
one hand waving.

I could feel Jane's resistance pushing out at me from the pages of the book.

"Moat, Overlooking" is a powerful poem depicting an artist's despair at knowing she'll never again be the artist she used to be. She's realizing that the things she used to draw aren't the subjects she would draw now:

These pictures
are from someone else's world,
someone else's memories,
not mine.

What, then, is now?
If I can't return to
Horse, Grazing,
am I doomed to be a
van Gogh imitation?
Tortured, wrecked, surviving
pain through the art of my darkest attic,
creations spun from the haunted memories
of the Shark Girl
trying to accommodate with her left hand?
Will the subject matter
be endless grays and white-capped
waves, gaunt faces, thin children,

I have no legs
to cross the bridge
toward Sunflower, Blooming,
and return home.

Eventually, Jane does start showing signs that she might be able to move forward. I liked this particular poem in part because it shows Jane now able to think about people other than herself and to recognize their sincere desire to help, when before she was too angry about too much to be able to do so.

(from "Tools", p. 223)
Fingering my new tools
I think about the people
who devote their lives
to inventing stuff like this.
Things that make life
a bit easier.

I wonder who they are

and why they invent things like this

and if they ever hear the words

"thank you".

Seeing Jane develop new interests and discovering that she doesn't have to leave her old ones behind makes this a moving, inspiring, and empowering story. I can't speak for Bethany Hamilton or anyone else who has ever lost a limb, but I can say that this book really helped me understand what they and their families might be going through and gave me some things to think about. I'm glad I ordered it and I'm glad that I wanted that quick read at lunch. I'm sure that I'll find myself recommending this book to a lot of readers in the future.

Post edited to include some links, including a very interesting interview of Kelly Bingham by Cynthia Leitich Smith (one of these days I'm going to finish my blog post on Smith's Tantalize, which I'm having a really hard time writing) and Bingham's web site. (In the interview, Kelly Bingham talks about how she got the idea to write this book, and Bethany Hamilton's name does come up. I was happy to see that she actually finished the book a few days before Bethany Hamilton was injured.)

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Peak Experience

Peak by Roland Smith
4Q 5P M/J

Peak lives in New York City, which isn't exactly the ideal place to live if your sport is mountain climbing. On the other hand, NYC does have really tall things to climb, as long as you don't get caught climbing them. Unfortunately, Peak does get caught, just as he finishes tagging the Woolworth Building (his tag is little blue mountains) and hauls himself onto the roof of the skyscraper. He's under arrest, facing several years in juvenile detention. Fortunately, his father shows up just in time and makes a bargain with the judge and prosecutors: he'll take Peak out of the country and make the story go away if they will drop the charges. Little do they, or Peak, realize that Peak's father has big plans for Peak: He's going to be the youngest climber to summit Mount Everest.

Musings as I read this book:

I loved the first couple of chapters. "The Hook" really is a great hook. I love the way Smith makes you think one thing is going on and then switches it up just enough to make you realize he was thinking "Gotcha!" as he reached the end of the chapter.

I don't much like Peak's father. Talk about an "it's all about me" guy! When Peak asks him if he'd have come to New York (to bail him out of serious trouble) if he had already been fifteen and his father says no, I wanted to kick the guy.

I also like that Smith wrote a really good adventure/survival story, but doesn't sacrifice humor to do it. Talking about a reporter who has insinuated herself onto the climb but who is clearly neither mentally nor physically prepared for it, Peak writes:
    "Inside a tent her voice was shrill enough to sour yak butter. She was no longer gasping, which I missed because the pauses gave my ears a chance to rest."

You've got to laugh at that!

If you want to know more about Roland Smith, check out his web site. You can find his Cryptid Hunter in the children's department (I'm waiting for a sequel!) and Jake's Run and its sequel Zach's Lie in the Teen Room.

Update: I will shortly be posting a booktalk for this book. I'll use "booktalk" as a tag because it's not one of the ones I did for the Connecticut Library Association.