Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reading Roundup, Part Two

Here are a couple of books I had high hopes for when I started them. Unfortunately, I think neither of them quite holds up to their early promise. But your mileage may vary.

The Chaos Code by Justin Richards
3Q 3P; Audience: M/J

When Matt Stribling's mother breaks the news to him that he's going to be spending his vacation with his father, rather than at home with her, he's not happy. His dad is a nice guy, but he's so busy with his archaeological work that he barely pays attention to Matt. Sure enough, when Matt arrives at the train station, Dad's not there. But Dad's not at home, either, and little by little, Matt comes to the conclusion that something is seriously wrong. Maybe it's the mess (but Dad's place is always a mess). Maybe it's the sandy footprints leading through Dad's office and out onto the lawn. Maybe it's the rough, sandy fingers he feels closing over his face and cutting off his air until he passes out. Or maybe it's the missing mail that was on the floor when he arrived and wasn't there just a few hours later. Or maybe it's the coded letter from his father, telling him to go to his Aunt Jane's and to worry if he doesn't hear from him soon. Or maybe it's all of the above.

When Matt heads to his Aunt Jane's, he has no idea that he will soon be meeting some of the richest and most ruthless men in the world, or that he will soon be swept up in an adventure that will find him in remote jungles and ancient pyramids, and threatened by advanced technology he couldn't have imagined existed. He isn't facing these things alone, of course. Aunt Jane works for multimillionaire collector Julius Venture, and Venture has a daughter, Robin. They are just the kind of people you want on your side when things get tense. But that doesn't mean that Venture and Robin don't have significant secrets of their own. Can Matt and Robin stop what seems inevitable? They hope so, because the fate of the entire world depends on their doing just that.

I was hoping that the book would continue in the same vein in which it started, with Matt having to decode various puzzles and clues as he gets closer and closer to discovering what happened to his father. Instead, the book is more of a cat-and-mouse game, with lots of action (which is a good thing) and chases. But I felt the whys and hows of what was going on got muddled. It felt as though the author hoped that if he threw enough things into the pot, his readers wouldn't really notice that the recipe isn't quite as filling as it ought to be. I had a few too many "Didn't you already say that?" and "I didn't quite get what you were going for there" moments as I read. I'd also have appreciated a more nuanced villain and fewer lucky coincidences. But perhaps that's just me. Readers who like a lot of action and suspense may not care or notice those things as much as I did.

Bunker 10 by J. A. Henderson
3Q 3P; Audience: J

At 2000 hours on Monday, 24 December 2007, Pinewood Military Installation exploded. The blast ripped apart acres of forest and devastated the remote highland valley where the base was located. There were no survivors and no official cause was given for the incident. Inside Pinewood were 185 male and female military personnel -- a mix of scientists and soldiers. There were also 7 children. This is the story of their last day.

Okay, a story can't open with much more of a grabber than that.

Pinewood is a secret military installation. Very few people know what goes on there, and even fewer people know that the seven children in the installation aren't ordinary kids. Each of them is a genius, and each has an ability that the army prizes highly. As a result, they have each been conned, coerced, or invited to work at Pinewood, with the understanding that they will join the military when they turn eighteen. In the meantime, they study, work on their own special projects (time travel is a big draw), and follow the dictates of those in command. Those officers haven't gone out of their way to make the school particularly comfortable or welcoming to the kids. That they aren't allowed to go home for Christmas is a pretty good indication that their choice to come to Pinewood wasn't the best decision they ever made. The rules are strict, the barracks are barren, and their life is about their studies. Given the situation, it's not surprising that a couple of the kids are ready to break loose. All Jimmy and Leslie want is go on a simple date. Off campus. It's all fairly innocent, really, as far as treason goes.

Getting off the base involves jamming signals and locks (for these kids, that's child's play) and otherwise deceiving their military guards. What Jimmy, Lesley, and the other kids don't realize is that they aren't the only ones who have secret plans. Messing around with the security system might not have been such a great idea. The plans of the others are potentially a whole lot deadlier than sneaking out for a date.

Lieutenant Dunwoody and his special teams force are on their way to Pinewood. All Dunwoody knows is that he is being sent to a facility that specializes in advanced virtual reality technology (all the better to train soldiers in combat techniques) as well as things like three-dimensional mapping, biohazards, and alternative fuel resources. But those are not his concern. His concern is whatever is in the lower levels of Pinewood, an area so highly classified that nobody will tell him what it is he's about to encounter.

The third group prowling around Pinewood this Christmas Eve consists of Sherman, a virtual reality simulation specialist who works for the military; Madrid, a tall, athletic woman sent from High Command; Darren, a computers and electronics whiz kid; and Nulce. What does Nulce do? He kills people.

While Jimmy, Lesley, and the other kids are concentrating on their date, Dunwoody and Sherman's teams are about to learn about Bunker 10. What's in the super-secret Bunker 10? May-Rose. May-Rose used to be just one of the kids. Not anymore. May-Rose has...evolved. And if she breaks out of Bunker 10, the world is going to regret it. She must be stopped at all costs. At any cost.

Believe me, the costs are high (as if you couldn't tell, given how the book begins). This is a book for readers who like gore, violence, and mayhem. It also requires readers who have the patience for discussions about time travel, virtual reality, genetic manipulation and the like, as well as the ability to follow several storylines at once. One of the storylines has a neat little twist/premise that I don't want to spoil. Suffice it to say that it will leave you wondering what's really going on. Some readers will like that. Some won't. One aspect of the book that I found problematical was a mention that each of the kids in the story supposedly have the traits of various despots of the past. I spent a fair amount of time trying to identify those traits and looking for similarities with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., but I wasn't successful. It bothered me that that was presented but not (or poorly) followed through. If it wasn't important to the story, why mention it? (I do have a guess about that, but I don't like that answer.) If it was important, why wasn't it more developed? I was bothered even more (because it's constant) by the jive talking of Dave, one of the teens. I found it utterly unconvincing and increasingly irritating. I'm sure it was an attempt to individualize him, but the end result for me was a character that seemed fake rather than authentic. Other characters, including Lesley, May-Rose, and the colonel, are either barely developed or essentially play the same note throughout. Characterization is not the strong point of this novel.

Ultimately, I found Bunker 10 disappointing. It has an intriguing premise and a terrific start. Henderson is excellent at ratcheting up the tension and keeping the action going. But I found the parts more coherent than the whole, with the "what it's all about" ultimately confusing and unconvincing. However, readers who like a thrill ride of a read may be willing to overlook things that I could not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As the Cassons Go Rolling Along (aka Rosy Pose Makes Me Laugh)

I'm not doing a proper blog entry on this book because (in our library, anyhow), it's not YA. But Hilary McKay's books about the Casson family are so much fun that it would be a shame for people to miss them just because of that. I really shouldn't quote from Forever Rose because it's the fifth (last? I hope not, but maybe) book in the series, and you really must read them in order, starting with Saffy's Angel. But I'm going to anyhow. But first, the cast of characters:

  1. Bill (Rose's father) has been living in London for the past three books. I don't like him much, but I think he's trying to redeem himself in this book.
  2. Rose's mother is an artist (though Bill says what she does isn't Art - just one more reason not to like him!) and a bit vague about an awful lot of things. Such as her children.
  3. Caddy is the eldest. Much has been written about Caddy's love life. Caddy is lovely and sweet, but she's an idiot when it comes to love.
  4. Saffy is Rose's sister/cousin. Very competent and intelligent and very down to earth, which is pretty much how you know she's not a full-on Casson. :)
  5. Indigo is Rose's brother. Once meek and bullied, Indigo has come a long way.
  6. Rose is Rose is Rose. Artistic, stubborn, independent, fiercely loving, unknowingly funny, and a keen observer. Age 11, but only chronologically.
  7. Sarah, David, Tom: all friends of the family who might as well be family.
  8. Molly and Kiran: Rose's friends, who are a bit more level-headed than she. Even if Molly does convince them to spend the night at the Zoo so that nobody will think she's boring.
  9. Michael. See #3

This is how Rose observes the world:

School is no longer a peaceful place where you can catch up on your daydreaming, forget your family (or what is left of your family), and talk about things like Dr. Who and how to stop Global Warming (we all know how but we don't stop it) and if it is okay for boys to wear pink and all those other things we talk about. School, says Mr. Spencer, is an educational establishment...These new ideas do not stay in my head very well, they drift away and before I know it I am back in the good-old-days ways, staring out the window. (p.1)

But Mr. Spencer, who had swung round from the board to shout at me, turned his back in a very deliberate way and carried on writing. "I wasn't doing anything!" I protested to his back, because we have learned to put up with Mr. Spencer's bad manners here in Class 6. (p. 3)

(Rose, seeing David approaching the house, hides behind the couch instead of letting him in. But David comes in anyhow. He sits on the couch and begins to cry.) What a strange thing to do, to go to someone's house, and sit in an empty room that is not yours, and make such a noise. I crawled out to have a look. Poor David. His face was in his dripping hands. He was crying and rubbing away tears, but not as fast as they poured down his big red cheeks. Poor poor David. I tried very hard to make myself care as much as I should. It was very difficult, because he looked such a mess...I moved my favorite green cushion out of reach of the flood. (pp. 41-42.)

...I was able to get rid of the guilt by giving (David) a handkerchief with a pink rose in the corner to use to dab his eyes (I have a whole lot of rose handkerchiefs that I keep specially for crying with. I like to cry on something proper. It feels so sad and interesting, dabbing your eyes on a real white hanky. But they are no good for noses.) I gave David the downstairs toilet roll for his nose (Economy Peach). (p. 46)

(Rose, Molly, and Kiran are spending the night at the zoo. They have brought along a very thick book by naturalist David Attenborough.) I wished I knew where a tiger's weak point was. I asked Molly, as casually as I could, because I didn't want to frighten her, if she happened to have any idea. Molly said she thought she had read somewhere that they have very sensitive digestions.
This means that if there is a tiger on the loose I am going to have to make him
David Attenborough.
If you ask me
It's about time someone did. (pp. 215-216)

Also in fairy stories there are hardly any of those half-good half-bad people who crop up so constantly in real life and are so hard to believe in. (p. 246)

Tonight is the school Nativity play performed by Class 1 with an awful lot of help from the rest of the world because Class 1 can do nothing unaided. Mary and Joseph are the worst of the lot. If the real Mary and Joseph were anything like our Mary and Joseph there would be no Christmas because Christianity would have got no further than a big fight over who got the donkey somewhere along the road to Bethlehem. (p. 257)

If any of that struck you as funny, there's a whole lot more where that came from. At the same time, the Casson series isn't just funny. The Cassons deal with some real issues (divorce, bullying, adoption, love, children alienated from their families), sometimes with more bluntness than I expect (which may be one reason that some libraries place them in their YA area), but always with great heart. Honestly, you're missing something if you haven't read a Hilary McKay book.

My personal feeling, despite where they are placed in my library, is that the audience for this series is grades 5-8 and any discerning adult readers who aren't foolish enough to believe that they're too old for them.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Reading Roundup, Part One

I'm still dragging around most of the books I said I was going to post about, so I'm going to do a couple of posts with two books at a time. It's always a little hard for me to do this, partly because I'm so long-winded and partly because I have to find books that share the same tags. I think these two go together pretty well.

Here's where I start wishing I were using stars or .5's or something. I enjoyed both of these books, but I'd give the edge to Suite Scarlett, even though I've given them both the same rating.

Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson
4Q 4P Audience: J/S

Maureen Johnson is another author I love to read. Although she has written some more serious books (Keys to the Golden Firebird comes to mind), it's her sense of humor that makes her stand out for me. If you haven't checked out her blog, you should remedy that soon!

Scarlett's family owns an historic hotel in New York City. While one might think that means they're rolling in the dough, nothing could be farther from the truth. The hotel rarely has more than a handful of visitors, and the family is barely making ends meet. That means they're very short-staffed. Well, actually, they're no-staffed. And that means that when each child in the family turns fifteen, they are given a room in the hotel to care for. Scarlett turns fifteen as the book opens, and she is given the Empire Suite, the hotel's showpiece guest room. It's not a room that's used often, but mere hours later, Amy Amberson, former Broadway actress arrives and takes the hotel by storm. Scarlett is at her beck and call for the summer. And trust me, Amy becks and calls a lot.

Scarlett's siblings play important roles in the book, so here's a quick rundown: Marlene, 11, is a spoiled rotten cancer survivor. She and Scarlett don't get along. Lola is pretty, charming, and the kind of older sister anyone would want to have. Spencer is the eldest, and he and Scarlett have a special bond. Spencer is a hugely gifted physical comedian, and it is his dream of being a professional actor which creates the events around which the book revolves. His "give me a year to see if I can become an actor" is just about up. If he doesn't get a professional gig within forty-eight hours, his parents are going to insist that he take the culinary school scholarship he has been awarded so that he can become the hotel's chef.

Well, Spencer does get a professional gig, sort of. Sure, it's Hamlet in a parking garage, not Broadway, but it's an acting job, right? And it pays. Sort of. Better yet, as far as Scarlett is concerned, his acting partner, Eric, is heart-stoppingly, breathtakingly gorgeous - and nice, too! And do those Southern boys know how to kiss!

When Spencer's group loses their rehearsal space, it's Scarlett and Amy Amberson to the rescue. Between trying to sneak the entire cast and a couple of unicycles into the hotel basement, shoplifting tuna, running a scam on an old rival of Amy's, and figuring out a way to get Eric to fall in love with her, it's a busy summer.

I smiled and laughed my way through this book. I also loved the relationships between Scarlett and Spencer and Scarlett and Lola. Scarlett-Spencer scenes are often just plain funny, but they are often very touching as well. There's a bonding/truth-telling scene between Scarlett, Spencer, and Lola towards the end that was perfectly pitched. (It also makes me wonder how Marlene could possibly be as bratty as she is, even given the "she used to have cancer, give her anything she wants" mindset of the family. I loved it when Scarlett called her out, though Scarlett is ashamed of herself.) Amy is a terrific character, too. She's a little over the top (she's an actress, after all!) and she's not as smart as she thinks she is, but her heart is in the right place. In fact, this book has heart written all over it. Read it when you want a book that makes you feel good. (And I hear there's a sequel coming. I'm there!)

(That was a short write-up? ::sigh:: I give up!)

How to Be Bad by E. Lockhart, Sarah Mylnowski, and Lauren Myracle
4Q 4P Audience: J/S

In a nut shell, this is a road trip book told in three voices. It won't keep pace with New Moon, Eragon, and Harry Potter, but I expect it to circulate very well. All three authors are very popular here.

When Jesse gets some devastating news about her mother's health, she has to get away for a while to process all the emotions she's trying to deal with. But she just can't bring herself to tell anyone what's going on. Not even Vicks, her best friend. So she manipulates Vicks into thinking that driving to Miami to see her boyfriend is a good idea. What Jesse doesn't know is that Vicks is wondering whether she even has a boyfriend now. He's been at college for two weeks and he hasn't called her yet. Is that how you treat your girlfriend of two years? She thinks not. Thing is, neither girl has any money to spare. On the other hand, Mel, the new girl at the Waffle House (where they all work), is loaded. She's also desperate for friends. So she ignores the obvious - that Jesse doesn't like her and that neither girl really knows her - and invites herself along. The deal: she pays for the food, the gas, and the accommodations. Jesse doesn't like it, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Mel is in.

What follows is some female bonding, a bit of sightseeing (the world's smallest police station and biggest alligator), a bit of breaking and entering, a bit of partying, and more than a bit of romance. There are also some tears, some fights, and some hugs. It all makes for a quick, light read, though this isn't just a frothy no-substance book. The girls each have issues that give the book some depth. Jesse needs to come to terms with her mother's illness and the way both of them have reacted to it. Vicks is convinced that her long-term boyfriend is ready for greener pastures, but she's afraid to confront the issue head on. As Jesse says, she'd rather run from a problem than deal with it. And Mel is so used to taking a back seat to everyone in her family that she doesn't know how to tell people what she's really feeling. She's also desperate to be liked, which leads her to make some questionable decisions, especially when a really cute boy is involved.

One other thing to note about this book: Jesse is a devout Christian, and she tries to live her life accordingly. Vicks is not at all devout, and she has a very different take on how to live a moral life. Despite this, the two are fast friends. They are accepting and supportive of each other, even while each may give the other grief on occasion for her beliefs or actions. Conservative Christians will probably appreciate that a like-minded character isn't portrayed as narrow-minded, as is fairly often the case.

My one minor quibble with the book is that I wanted to see Jesse deal with her mother and her illness, and that never happens. But even though I was left hanging a bit, I understand that the book is really about getting her to the point that she can face having that discussion, and that mission is accomplished.

If you like books about what it means to be a friend, if you like books about being in/falling in love, if you like books told with humor and heart, this is a book for you.

By the way, the other post I've had in draft mode for about three weeks now is The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, also by E.Lockhart. That post will be finished (I swear!) within the next couple of days. You'll want to check that book out, too.

(Well! It only took me six days between the time I started this post and the day I finished it. I suppose that's an improvement of sorts!)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Maximum Rid-iculous

Maximum Ride: The Final Warning by James Patterson
2Q 4P Audience: J/M
(sorry, Mr. Patterson, you may be marketing these to adults first now because "the sales are better that way", but they are NOT adult books)

Wow. Wow. Okay. I don't usually pan books here. I'd rather write about books that are worth the time it takes to write about them. But I'm making an exception for this one, which I just finished reading during my dinner break. Patterson churns out a book every other month, or so it seems. He must take all of two or three months to churn them out. I think he might have wanted to spend just a bit more time on this one. Maybe he's such a big star that his editor is a little afraid to tell him that he needs to go back to the keyboard and try again. I can't think of any other reason for a book this weak from such an established author.

The first two Maximum Ride books weren't literary masterpieces. But they were (very) light, quick, fun reads. The premise (human children genetically altered to become a human/bird hybrid and constantly on the run from those who would use and/or abuse them) is intriguing. There was an internal logic to the story, and the characters, particularly Max, work. Patterson did a terrific job with cliff hangers at the end of every chapter. All of this made the first two books in the series easy to recommend, especially to kids who don't like to read. Yes, the events are more than a little improbable, but that's part of the fun. The third book in the series slipped a bit, though it was still a decent read. But this one... yeesh!

After book three, Patterson really didn't have a place to take this story and his characters, but he decided to write a fourth (and there will be more) book anyhow. That meant coming up with a way to keep the story going. Throwing out even the slightest of connection to reality and good science, the kids (and Total, the dog) are all randomly generating new mutations. This occurs practically overnight, and with the exception of Gazzy's, the mutations have not a hint of a relation to any talent/mutation they have already exhibited. They also don't seem to have any particular importance to the story, so they seem even more gratuitous by the end of the book. Scientific principles are tossed by the wayside elsewhere as well. For instance, Category five hurricanes smash storm-proof windows, yet the Flock can fly in those winds without being torn to pieces. (Apparently all they need to do, as Max's Voice tells her, is to "Go with the flow" Yeah. Right.) I'm also wondering how an eighty pound weight can fall from a great height at great velocity and land on a girl who weighs less than a hundred pounds without breaking most of the bones in her body. Okay, the science in this science fiction series has been a weak link all along, but these are examples of events that stretch credulity past the breaking point. Call it fantasy or call it science fiction, it still needs to have internal consistency. And in good science fiction, basic laws of science aren't broken merely to advance the story.

Then there are the villains. Naturally, they pop up everywhere the kids go. The major villain has absolutely no relation to anything that's gone before. That's not terribly unusual in a sequel, I suppose. But since he's some sort of mutant or construct, it might have been a good idea to tell us where he came from and how he got to such a position of power. It certainly seemed to me that he's just the kind of hybrid that all the villains in the previous books wanted to get their hands on. He's got the power and intelligence to create his own little Frankensteins. How did he get to this position? Wouldn't he have been hounded and chased in the same way the Flock has been? Why is he so eager to exploit the kids instead of being on their side? We don't know, because he's such a two dimensional character.

Patterson has AN AGENDA with this book. See, there's this thing called global warming. And it's bad. It's causing all kinds of disastrous things all around the world. But some people don't believe it exists and other people think it's not a serious issue. These people must be convinced that global warming is bad. How to do this? Hmmm...how about I frame this book around the issue? Patterson does this with all the subtlety of a right hook to the jaw, followed by an upper cut. Max is a doubter. She thinks it's a good thing that the weather is a little warmer. How bad could a one degree change in temperature be? Well, Max, I'm glad you asked. Let me tell you. And tell you. And tell you. Not only is Max thoroughly convinced in the end, she winds up lecturing Congress about it. Umm. Yeah.

Put aside all those problems for a moment. The main issue here is that the writing is just plain bad. There are improbable coincidences that scream of "I've written myself into a corner. How can I possibly get myself out of it?" Or, worse, "I'm writing for kids. They won't care if this makes absolutely no sense. And my adult readers will buy anything with my name on it, so no worries there about internal logic." Sentences clunk instead of flow. The only characters who have any depth are Max and ... well, just Max, really, though Fang and Jeb (who barely appears) have their moments. Oh! Yeah! Speaking of Fang, here's another thing I love. Fang has a blog? The Flock is perpetually on the run from bad guys? Then why on Earth would he reveal where they are and what they are doing? These kids are supposed to be smart! And still yet another example that made me wonder where Patterson's editor was: towards the end of the book, we are casually told that a particular character was revealed (offstage) to be a bad guy. Why? There is not one single shred of evidence anywhere else in the book to prove that. or make it significant. If it's never a factor, why was it necessary to mention it?

Okay. End rant. I've spent enough time on this. I still have two half-written posts to finish and three more (and much better) books to write about. I think I'll go watch more of the Olympics. Maybe that'll help get me over this disappointment of a book so that I can concentrate on writing those posts tomorrow (after my summer reading-is-over party).