Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thrills and Chills, Steampunk Version

The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade
4Q, 3P; Audience: M/J

Modo started his life on display as a freak in a side show. Was he rescued by Mr. Socrates, or was he merely taken from one bad situation and thrown into a new one almost as bad? What kind of savior would keep him locked up in two rooms of a house for years with only a housekeeper and a fight trainer for companions? What kind of savior would take him out of that situation, only to abandon him on the streets to see if he can fend for himself at the ripe old age of fourteen? Mr. Socrates, it turns out, has big plans for Modo, assuming he can pass this heartless test.

For some readers, it will come as no surprise to learn that Modo, born in the shadow of Notre Dame cathedral, has a humped back and a misshapen face. But Modo is not destined to become a bell ringer. Modo has the extraordinary ability to move the bones and muscles of his face and body into new configurations for a short time, to transfigure himself into the likeness of someone else. With that skill as well as the education and training he received in his years of isolation in Mr. Socrates's mansion, what will happen when a mysterious young woman hires him to learn more about her brother's association with the mysterious Young Londoners Exploratory Society?

What happens is far more than Modo or Octavia (the young woman) bargained for, leaving them fighting for their lives and the survival of their country against enemies that are both truly mad and absolutely ruthless. To make matters worse, it's not at all certain that Mr. Socrates and the organization he represents are any better.


Like Leviathan, this belongs to the growing list of YA steampunkNonstop action, moments of violence, tinges of gore, and horrifying hybrid human-machines (courtesy of a familiar mad Dr. Hyde) give this book sure appeal to boys who are willing to look past a cover that screams historical fiction. The villains are creepy and chilling (the image of a metal finger poking Modo's eyeball is hard to get rid of), and the aura of menace surrounding them is nearly tangible. Modo and Octavia are likable, resourceful characters, and the occasional bantering between them offers a welcome lightening of the mood. Where the book faltered a bit for me was in the revelation of the actual intentions of the villains. It felt a bit like an afterthought and the execution seemed a little rushed. But by that time, I was so invested in the characters and setting that the relatively weak payoff didn't get in the way of my enjoyment. Nothing in this book actually promises a sequel, but there are definitely strong hints that this is intended as a series. If that's true, I would happily read the next.

The website for the book looks like fun to poke around in. I enjoyed the Victorian factoids on the Steamtrunk page. Interesting difference between the Canadian/Australian and US covers. I think the US cover is more atmospheric, but the Canadian/Australian cover is probably more appealing to kids and teens.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Faster I Read, the Behinder I Get

I have three half-finished posts to complete and publish and seven more books I've finished and haven't even started to write about after that. Yikes!

In the offing:
  • Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have by Allen Zadoff
  • Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick
  • Giving Up the V by Serena Robar
  • Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles
  • How To Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford
  • Hate List by Jennifer Brown
  • The Hunchback Assignments by Art Slade
  • The Miles Between by Mary Pearson
  • Day of the Assassins by Johnny O'Brien
  • Malice by Chris Wooding
I'll try to get something post about each of these as soon as possible. If I were less long-winded, it would be easier, but those of you who read me regularly (or as regularly as I post, anyhow) may have noticed that brevity is not my strong point!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Handling the Truth

PURPLE HEART by Patricia McCormick
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S

When Matt wakes up in the hospital, he's got a heck of a headache, a lot of pain, and a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat. How did he get there? All he remembers is being on checkpoint duty with Justin, a chase after a taxi that burst through their barricade, an alley, and a dog with a broken tail. But what happened then? How did he wind up in the hospital? His doctors tell him he has a traumatic brain injury that will make him dizzy, anxious, and moody. It will keep him groping for words and groping for memories. They're right. The more Matt tries to remember what happened, the more frustrated and upset he gets. Something else happened in that alley, and it was something bad. Something about a little boy and the dog. Why can't he remember what it was? And why does it seem as though nobody really wants him to remember?

Most of the books I've read about soldiers have been focused primarily on what happens in the field. They rely on battle scenes for their action and tension. In this book, the tension derives from Matt's confusion over what really happened in that alley and his gradual realization that the official story and the real story may have significant differences.

I hated to see Matt so lost and so unable to find comfort in the places he used to be able to find it: his high school sweetheart, his faith, and his platoon buddies. I hated that he wasn't given time to heal completely before he was sent back to his unit (apparently a very common circumstance). I hated that Matt's faith in people gets sorely tested. As I turned the last page of the book, I could only hope that Matt is able to heal both emotionally and physically sometime in the not-to-distant future.

Without being too spoilery, I know the key element to the events as McCormack describes them has happened and probably will continue to happen, and the motivation that she/Matt provides for it appears plausible. But it still disheartened me, and true-too-life or not, I wish she had chosen a different path. And I suspect that's exactly the reaction she hoped for when she wrote it.

This book might not have all the high-stakes action boys usually want when they ask for a book about war, but I think most of them will not be disappointed when they pick this one up.

For more on this book: http://www.harpercollins.com/authors/33041/Patricia_McCormick/index.aspx

(Yikes! I started this post on February 9 and I'm just posting it now!)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

To Be or Not To Be...a Virgin

It was a coincidence that I picked up two books back to back about teens losing their virginity, but it makes sense to talk about them together. The main characters in the two books have made very different decisions about sex, for very different reasons, and both are forced to confront those decisions when a seemingly casual encounter with a boy pulls them up short. But as interesting as their stories were, I found myself paying at least as much attention to the secondary character in each book who decides to lose his/her virginity as a result of societal pressures. More on that below. I found both books to be good reads and worth thinking and talking about, but it is the Knowles book that will stick with me longer and which I think will resonate most with its readers.

5Q 4P; Audience: S

All Ellie wants is to be loved. She wants that feeling you get when someone holds you close, kisses you, cares for you. Each time she sleeps with a boy, she thinks that's what she's going to get. But instead of feeling loved, she just feels empty and just hates herself a little more. The night she hooks up with Josh, they both have high hopes. He's tired of the guys in the locker room teasing him about being a virgin. They tell him Ellie will take care of his problem ("She's really into it!"). After a few minutes with Ellie, he's no longer a virgin. But one glimpse of the look on Ellie's face as he walks away leaves Josh feeling ashamed, not relieved or ecstatic. As for Ellie, she hopes this time it will be different, that Josh will be different. But he's not. She still feels just as empty, just as unloved. The only thing that's different is that this time Ellie gets pregnant.

Told by Ellie, Josh, and their best friends Caleb and Corinne, this is a poignant, makes-your-heart-hurt story. Nobody is a villain here. Ellie's need for love leads her to keep making poor choices. Josh is embarrassed and ashamed when he realizes too late that Ellie wanted and needed something from him that he was not prepared to give. He's shocked and confused when he learns she's pregnant and totally at a loss about how to handle the situation. Corinne tells her side of the story as a loyal friend who is sometimes frustrated by Ellie but who will always stand by her. Caleb's story is the pain of having to watch someone he loves hurt so much, unable to tell her how he feels.
There were so many things to like and admire about this book. The three-dimensional characters and their actions and reactions ring true, Ellie and Josh in particular. I really appreciated that Josh was portrayed as someone in as much pain and confusion as Ellie, rather than as callous or callow. I loved Caleb's mother, both as a character and for being there for Ellie when her own parents aren't. I loved the warmth of those scenes contrasted with the emptiness of so many of the others. And I loved that there are no easy choices here and that Knowles didn't tie everything up in a perfect little bow at the end. There's so much more to say about this book, although I've already said too much.

GIVING UP THE V by Serena Robar

3Q 4P: Audience: S

Spencer Davis's mother's idea of a perfect 16th birthday present for her daughters is a trip to the gynecologist for their first exam and a prescription for birth control pills. It is not Spencer's ideal gift. She's mortified, though her friends (guys and girls) all think it's terrific. They all expect Spencer to take full advantage of the situation. But Spencer has no interest in losing her virginity right now. For one thing, other things are a lot more important to her. For another, there's nobody she's even remotely got her eye on, and she wants her first time to be with someone who is special, so that it means something to both of them. In contrast, her best friend Alyssa just wants to get it over with. She's even made a list of guys she's willing to give it up to. Complications arise when Benjamin enrolls in their school. Suddenly Spencer isn't so sure that she has no time for boys and serious dating (and perhaps more). She's thrilled every time he talks to her, and her body tingles every time he touches her. Now she gets what this whole sex thing is all about, and having those birth control pills in hand is looking like a very sensible present after all. The trouble is, Alyssa just moved Benjamin to the top of her lose-it-to-him list, and she's doing everything in her power to make sure Ben knows it. Should Spencer pretend not to like the boy she can't stop thinking about so her best friend can have him? (Or, rather, he can have her.) Or should she go after him herself to see if she's ready to give up the v after all?

This book is a fairly intelligent look at teens who are trying to decide what is right for them in terms of their sexuality. It's fair to say that while I recognize that Alyssa is representative of many young girls, I had a hard time sympathizing with her goal.
I think it's a shame that there's so much emphasis on sex in our culture that some teenagers "give up the V" because they don't want to deal with the pressure. What I appreciated about Spencer was that she wouldn't allow herself to be coerced into something she wasn't ready for just because her friends and/or society were telling her she should be. It's not surprising that I, as an adult, feel that way. I wonder which of the two girls most readers will empathize with.

These two are on either end of the spectrum. Also represented are Spencer's friends, most of whom are happily and vociferously sexually active, either as part of a (frequently battling) couple or playing the field.
Though the energy level in the book goes up a notch or two whenever they are on the page, they're stock characters and a bit overdrawn. I found myself wondering on more than one occasion how Spencer fit in with this group. I had the feeling that this was a group that may have been close friends at one time, but would more likely have grown apart over the years. It has only just occurred to me that they're in the book primarily to represent that full spectrum. They are also quite raunchy and randy, making for one more reason this book is recommended for older teens.

I found the ending to be predictable, but I think readers will appreciate it, regardless.