Showing posts with label adventure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label adventure. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

With MALICE Aforethought

MALICE by Chris Wooding
4Q, 3P; J/S

Kids are going missing. Sometimes they show up again weeks or months later, but they can't remember where they were or what they did. The police and their parents are baffled. If they knew about the existence of Malice, their questions might be answered. What is Malice? It's a really creepy comic book set in a place called Malice. In its pages, kids fight for survival against strange, terrible creatures. But it's not just a story. Malice is a real place, and everything in Malice is real. You won't find Malice in most comic book shops, and most shopkeepers will claim they have no idea it even exists. But if you're really determined, you can get your hands on a copy. You might even be tempted to go to Malice, to have a few adventures yourself. You might be tempted to gather the materials and perform the ritual that will get you there: "Tall Jake, take me away! Tall Jake, take me away!".... But you'd almost certainly regret it.

Luke is one of the kids who disappeared. Only three people know that Luke had a copy of Malice. Only they know that he did the ritual. Only they know that Tall Jake did take Luke away to Malice. Only they know that Luke isn't coming back. How do they know? Because they saw him die in the pages of the comic book.

But is it really true? Is Luke really dead? Seth is determined to find out. He knows it's dangerous, but he's always hated the dull, predictable life his parents lead, and he's always been afraid he'll wind up just like them. He's always liked to push the edge and get the thrill that comes when you're really up against it. What better place to do that than a place like Malice, where there's no room for error and your life is always on the line? Seth too does the ritual ("Tall Jake, take me away...") and becomes one of the missing kids. Within minutes of his arrival, he has narrowly escaped his own death and witnessed another's at the hands of one of the vicious mechanical inhabitants of Malice. It only gets worse from there.

Left behind by Seth, Kady sets off on her own quest to get to the truth. Her search leads her into just as much danger as anything she'd find in Malice. Because what Kady finds are the people deeply, evilly connected to Malice. And they know who she is and where she lives.

Their search for answers leave Seth and Kady staring death in the face and the readers of Malice on the edge of their seats.


The decision to tell this story partly in prose format and partly in graphic novel format was brilliant. Each time the story moves to events in Malice, the book shifts into graphic novel mode. In effect, the reader takes on the role of one of the readers of Malice (the comic book) who is watching the events unfold before his eyes. It takes the reading experience to a different level.

In the past, I've had a hard time getting into Chris Wooding's books. I don't think that had a thing to do with the author. The books just weren't right for me. I found this story to be a more comfortable fit, though a book this dark is certainly far from a comfortable read. I was intrigued by the premise.
I thought Wooding did a particularly good job creating the aura of Malice. Its bleakness and hopelessness is emphatically punctuated by bursts of terror and rushes of adrenaline. I'd never want to go there, but I can understand its appeal to someone like Seth or Justin.

I am not skilled at reading graphic novels, which meant that I occasionally had some trouble interpreting what was happening in the illustrated portions. That was somewhat frustrating for me, but I think the majority of the target audience is more familiar with the format and will have less trouble.

As well-developed as parts of the novel are, I do have some quibbles with it. The role of the various villains and how they are connected to each other is very murky. There doesn't appear to be any particular reason for their actions, and even a bad guy ought to be given some motivation for doing the things he does.
As Tall Jake makes clear on the last page of the book, he will be back in a sequel soon, so I expect the holes will be filled in a bit then. But while it's true that when a book is intended to be a part of a series there have to be things you still want to know at the end of the first book, it 's also true that the book should still be complete unto itself. I think Malice falls a bit short in that department.

I will recommend this book to readers who like dark, atmospheric books, graphic novels, and suspense, and readers who don't mind unanswered questions.

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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Leviathan: A Whale of a Story

LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld
4Q 3P; Audience: M/J/S

This is another book I finished quite a while ago but haven’t had the time to write about. (It’s a good thing I don’t write under deadline. Then again, if I did have a deadline, maybe it would help get my thoughts marshaled into order and out of my head in a timelier fashion!)

It’s 1914. Europe is divided between two ideologies, Clanker vs Darwinist. The Clanker countries rely on mechanical technology – iron and steam-powered devices such as the enormous multi-legged machines that carry them into battle. The Darwinists bioengineer animals to create not only beasts of burden but also weapons of war. A face-down is fast approaching.

When Aleksander Ferdinand, prince of Austria-Hungary, is woken in the middle of the night by two of his tutors, he has no idea that he has just become a pawn in the political maneuverings of the Clankers. He has no idea that the assassination of the Archduke has left him an orphan or that his continued existence may be the spark that provokes a world war. All he knows is that he and a small band of loyal men are on the run, and the only thing that may keep them alive until they reach their safe house is the protection of their Cyklop Stormwalker and its cannon and machine guns.

Across the ocean in London, Deryn Sharp is preparing for the midshipman’s entrance exam into the Royal Air Service. She’s confident of passing every test but one: will she be able to convincingly play the part of a boy so that she’s allowed to follow her dream?

When a furious storm during her testing leaves Deryn/Dylan and her Huxley ascender floating miles off course, she is rescued by the Royal Navy’s largest air ship, the Leviathan (a sperm whale enhanced by a hundred other species). But instead of returning her to London to continue her test, the crew, Deryn/Dylan included, has been ordered to fly to the Continent to keep an eye on the Clankers in the wake of the Archduke’s assassination.

Both Alek and Deryn are catapulted into the middle of world-changing events. On opposite sides of the edge of war, what will happen when their paths converge?


I’m just discovering steampunk (see also: Wikipedia's article) and finding that I like the combination of science fiction and alternate history to explore how the addition of technology (either anachronistic or fictional) might have affected the (usually*) Victorian Age. It helps that the mid-late 1800’s is my preferred historical fiction time period. (*Edited to add that I'm aware that this book is set a few years post-Victorian Age.)

What I really liked about Leviathan:
  • The fast pace. It’s pretty much non-stop chases, clashes, and collisions.
  • Devyn’s part of the story is at least as action-packed as Alek’s, so the girl never takes a back seat to the boy.
  • Alek, Devyn, and Count Volger are forceful personalities that really burst off the page. In particular, I love Devyn’s feisty, take-no-guff attitude.
  • Alek’s evolution (it’s formulaic, to be sure, but effective nonetheless)
  • Westerfeld doesn’t get too bogged down describing the new technology, be it Darwinian or Clanker (Though I got confused in a few places, it didn’t really matter.)
  • Striking black and white illustrations which really set the mood and style of the story.
  • C’mon! Who wouldn’t have fun with the idea hitching a ride on a giant jellyfish or gargantuan sperm whale?

  • It's a trilogy, so there's more to come!

What I didn’t like as much:
  • Nothing, really. But I guess I’m a Darwinist at heart, because I was more intrigued by the idea of the bioengineered animals than I was with the machinery of the Clankers. I was a more interested reader when the action began centering around the Leviathan.
  • We have to wait until late 2010 for Book Two (Behemoth).

To hear a chapter from the book, see some of the illustrations, or just read Scott's thoughts about the series, check out Scott Westerfeld's blog. Scott also blogged about how he structures his books to make sure there's a good blend of action, tension, and "nothing".

This book will appeal to both boys and girls who like adventure and action. It’s a natural suggestion for readers who enjoyed Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, the Bloody Jack books by L.M. Meyers, or Philip Reeves’s Mortal Engines* and/or Larklight* series. (*These two series are miles apart in tone, but both have elements which pair well with Leviathan.)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Run, Don't Walk, to Get Your Hands on These!

I read three books over the past week that are the kind you finish with a groan because you don't want them to end. On top of that, they each end with, if not a cliffhanger, at least a heart-in-your-throat, what-happens-next question. Even worse, they're all the first book in the series, which means waiting months (I'm avoiding the y- word!) to find out. I'm absolutely positive it will be worth the wait, but it's going to be hard.

All of these rate 5Q 5P, Audience: J/S

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

In the Seven Kingdoms, there are those who are Graced, and they are marked by their eyes, which do not match. Graces vary. Perhaps the grace is knowing what someone will say, or perhaps it is the ability to tie knots. Some Graces are valuable, some are not. Some save lives. Some take lives.

Katsa discovered what her Grace was at the age of eight, when a relative made an improper advance and her instinctive response resulted in his death. Since then, her uncle, the king, has used her to teach a lesson to those who displease him. Those who are Graced have always made the non-Graced uncomfortable, but when one is Graced with the ability to kill, the discomfort turns to fear. Katsa's only friends are her cousin, her maid, and her trainer Giddon. Amost everyone else avoids even looking at her.

Katsa loathes her role as killer/enforcer to the King. She desperately wants to find a way to help people instead of hurt them. And so she creates the Council, a secret group of people determined to help those who have in some way been wronged. When the father of the king of Leinid is kidnapped, the Council tracks him down and Katsa rescues him. But who is behind the kidnapping, and why did s/he do it? Those questions are not so easily answered.

One person nearly foils Katsa's rescue, and that person comes looking for her. Is Prince Po, son of the Leinid king, a friend or a foe? Unsure of the answer, Katsa still joins with him on a quest to discover the truth behind the kidnapping. In all her years of training, only Po, Graced with combat skills, has ever come close to challenging her. His challenges don't come only on the training field. He challenges what she knows of herself and what she believes of herself. Is she really the cold killing machine she imagines herself to be? There are many discoveries ahead for Katsa, not least that she isn't as friendless and coldhearted as she imagined herself to be.

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Told in two voices, this book is a book that will leave you gasping for air. The tension is that relentless. Sadima's story, told in third person, details a world in which magic has been forbidden and forgotten. Even so, those who can't afford real healers rely on fakes in times of need. Sadima's mother died giving birth to her with the aid of a "magician" who then stole the family's valuables and left newborn Sadima on the floor in her dead mother's arms. Understandably, Sadima's father and brother hate "magicians" and even the idea of magic. Sadima knows they will never believe her if she tells them the truth she's known since birth: she can communicate with animals. This bit of magic brings her to the attention of Somiss, a young nobleman who is determined to bring magic back to their world, and Franklin, his servant/friend. As soon as she is able, Sadima joins the young men. She dreams of being able to share her abilities freely, but she soon realizes that, as sympathetic and kind as Franklin is, he will always bow to his master, Somiss. And Somiss is not kind, and he is not sympathetic. His dedication to reviving magic is all-consuming and dangerous.

Hahp's first person description of a world in which magic now exists is chilling and unrelentingly grim. Though Franklin and Somiss dreamed of a time when magic would be used to help people, it is only the wealthy who seem to have access to it. Wizards have a fearsome reputation. Families who bring their sons to the wizard academy are told they will never see them again. Once the families leave, the boys learn why: in each class, only one student (if that) will become a wizard. The others will die. They are forbidden to help each other. Hahp learns to use the magic to get food, but will it be enough to keep him alive? His struggle isn't only physical. Can he bear watching the other boys slowly starve to death, knowing he could help them if only he dared?
The link between Sadima and Hahp slowly becomes clear, but both their stories are unresolved at the end. It was achingly hard to close the book and leave these two characters in their desperate straits behind.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Collins is well known for her Gregor the Overlander series for elementary and middle school students. The theme and level of violence in this book marks it for older readers (middle school and up).

Decades ago, the Districts rebelled against the Capitol. They've paid the price ever since, in the form of the Hunger Games. Every year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12-18 from each of the twelve districts are brought to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games. This is Survivor for real. The players must outwit, outplay, and outlast the other twenty-three players, because this is a duel to the death. The entire country watches every move the players make. The Game creators manipulate every facet of the game to make it more exciting for the viewers. The uglier the kills, the better. The Game is brutal, and players do what they must in order to make sure they're the one to survive. Katniss and Peeta are District 12's contestants.

Katniss has years of experience hunting to feed her family. She's confident she can survive, at least for a while. Peeta is the baker's son. He's got the survival skills of a newborn kitten. Katniss doesn't know Peeta well, but she owes him: he once saved her family from starvation. And Peeta...well, Peeta had his reasons for giving Katniss the bread that day, even though it earned him a beating. He is willing to endure much more for Katniss. How can they kill each other? And yet, they must. First, though, the other twenty-two players have to die. What then?

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.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Half-Bloods and Rangers

I'm not reading as slowly as it may look. It's just too hard to do blog write ups at work, especially in the summer when we're busy with summer reading on top of everything else. And I'm wiped when I get home! So I do these posts in dribs and drabs and I fall behind. I'm trying to catch up! In the past couple of weeks, I've read five or six books (not including a couple of adult mysteries). I'll be writing about three of them in other posts. But a huge chorus has already voiced their appreciation of the ones below, so I don't have anything new to say about them. I'll add just some quick random thoughts:

Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

Gods, these books are fun! It's a neat concept that Daedalus's labyrinth is, essentially, a living thing. And how unsurprising that it leads, among other places, right to Camp Half-Blood, giving Luke and Kronos a terrific opportunity to attack before Chiron and Mr. D can do anything about it. Of course, Percy, Grover, and Annabeth have something to say about that! It would really have helped, though, if I hadn't been listening to Titan's Curse at the same time I was reading this one! (I didn't realize I hadn't read it until I started talking about BotL with a patron and couldn't remember what happened in TC. No duh - you have to read it to remember it!) I really enjoyed the reappearance of Rachel Elizabeth Dare, and I'm quite intrigued to see how (I do think it's a how, not a whether) she'll fit into the rest of the story. I'm also curious about the hints Annabeth keeps dropping about something she can't/hasn't told Percy about yet. Props to Grover!'re a little scary. (I think maybe I'd rather face Luke than Nico.) I'll be impatiently waiting for the next one, just like just about everyone else!

Battle for Skandia by John Flanagan

Speaking of being impatient for the next one, a significant number of the hits I get on this blog are for people who either want to read one of John Flanagan's books online (to my knowledge, they aren't available that way, sorry) or who want to read book seven or eight. But we're only up to book four here in the U.S., unfortunately. I'm with them - I'd love to read the rest of these books now! Flanagan is back in form with this book. I thought The Icebound Land didn't hold up as well as the first two in the series. Will drugged into a stupor for most of the book just wasn't a terribly compelling read for me. I was even more bothered by some writing that fell more than a little flat (awkward phrasing, too much telling instead of showing). But Battle for Skandia leaves those problems behind. There's plenty of action right from the beginning, and plenty of humor, too. (It helps that Halt is back in a central role.) Battle for Skandia takes up right where the last book ended, with Will and Evanlyn hiding in the hut waiting for Will to recover his strength. When Evanlyn is abducted by Temujai warriors while checking animal traps, Will needs to summon all his strength to rescue her. Fortunately and fortuitously, Halt and Horace are also on the trail. Their reunion is immensely satisfying. Far from dragging, the action ratchets up as inexorably as the Temujai warriors march towards battle. Things are desperate, as the Skandian method of battle is pretty much "bash and smash", and the Temujai are a much more skilled and strategic fighting force. The Skandians have no chance at all, unless they can come up with something surprising to slow the Skandians down and force them out of their tried and true battle strategems. Fortunately, Halt and Will have a few good ideas that just might do the trick.

A teen patron here told me that "the book gets really good in the last forty pages or so". He really called it. Those forty pages are the big battle, and it's worth the wait to get there. But as much as I appreciated the pace of the novel, I also loved that the humor is back in full force. It's a toss up to decide whether Halt is funnier dealing with Horace or with Erak. Flanagan also deals nicely with the "is this what they call love?" triangle between Will, Horace, and Erak. Battle for Skandia left me wanting more, and fortunately, I'm going to get just that. Too bad it's not going to be as soon as I want it to be!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's a Runescape Kind of World

EPIC by Conor Kostick
4Q 5P J/M

The teens here are Runescape fanatics. Battleon used to be really popular too. I've been known to play both. When I was younger, I loved the Zork games (boy, does that date me!) and any other adventure game that centered around solving puzzles (as opposed to the ones that feature endless battles). There's something about these games that's addicting and exciting. But what if you had to play? And what if everything you did in the game affected your real life? If you are a sixtieth level warrior with +20 magical weapons and armor, you're golden. In the real world, you'd have enough points to have a pretty good life. But what if you meet a stronger foe with better weapons and more magic? Well, then you die and wind up back as a level one character with maybe a rusty dagger and a leather arm guard to protect you as you scramble to kill anything weaker than you are just to gain a paltry coin or two. Now real life's not nearly such a picnic, because you've lost all your assets there, too. Welcome to Erik's world.

In Erik's world, everything depends on how well you play the virtual reality game called Epic. As the book begins, Erik is supposed to be preparing for what seems to be the equivalent of his final exams. But that doesn't mean cracking the books. It means he has to get online and play Epic to hone his skills and improve his stats. That may sound like fun to us, but to Erik, it's no fun at all, particularly because he knows it's an exercise in frustration. The game is stacked against them. Erik, his mother, and his father are, like everyone else in their village, struggling to meet their quotas and fill their duties in the real world. But in order to do that, they need things they can only get by winning in Epic. And that just isn't going to happen. In fact, it's so impossible that they're about to be reallocated and sent to work in the mines. So instead of preparing for the graduation tournament, Erik is trying to find a way to challenge Central Allocations, the governing body that decides who gets what. A successful challenge is the only way the family will be able to stay where they are. Unfortunately, his characters keep dying.

This last death is the final straw. He has to play, yes. But he's through with playing the game by the rules; he's through with playing strategically. His new character will be different from anything he's ever created before. For one thing, she'll be female. And instead of maximizing all the typical skills, such as fighting or crafts, and instead of trying to get as much magic and the best weapons he can afford, in a moment of whimsy he decides to throw all his attribute points into his character's physical features. She's beautiful. In a game where all the players are gray, angular blobs, Cindella the swashbuckler is going to really stand out.

Stand out she does. The very first time Erik plays Epic as Cindella, he realizes that everything has changed. For the first time ever, the NPCs (the characters controlled by the game, not other players) interact meaningfully with him. In fact, sometimes they even initiate conversations, which is unheard of. But what they tell him is even more amazing. It seems that there's a treasure to be found. If Cindella can find the treasure, she'll be rich. And if she's rich, then Erik is, too.

Erik soon realizes that this is the character that just might survive long enough to be able to mount that challenge against Central Allocations. But if Cindella wants to find that treasure, she's going to need some help. And Erik is going to need help, too. Fortunately, Erik has four very good friends in Bjorn, Injeborg, Big Erik, and Sigrid. Together, they make a formidable team, becoming famous throughout Epic and in the real world. But are they good enough and strong enough to beat Central Allocations, the most powerful people/players in both worlds? They had better be, because Central Allocations doesn't like its power threatened, and the council members are prepared to take whatever steps necessary to make sure that Erik and his friends are put in their proper place. In a world where even the merest hint of violence is outlawed, all disputes are supposed to be solved inside the game of Epic and only through tournament combat. But certain members of Central Allocations think rules are for other people. Erik might not know it yet, but his life is in danger, and not just in the game.

Epic has all the elements of a great role-playing game adventure: a quest, villains, vampires, ogres, trolls, a truly fearsome dragon, treachery, magic, and ::ahem:: epic battles. Some characters turn out to have secrets that have a huge impact in the way the story (book and Epic) turn out. In a sense, this is two treats in one. It's a great read, and at the same time, there are sections when it manages to make you feel as though you truly are participating in the virtual reality world.

I highly recommend this book to teens who like action and adventure. Even kids who are more interested in playing on their computers than in reading will enjoy this one. And when teachers assign their students to read a science fiction novel, this will be one of my first suggestions to the kids who hate science fiction. I think they'll be pleasantly surprised.

The author is planning to write at least one sequel/companion novel to Epic. In fact, I see that it's already been published in the United Kingdom and Germany. I'm glad to see that it doesn't seem to be precisely a sequel, because I don't really think it needs one. (But it does seem as though at least 80% of J/YA fantasies and a significant percentage of J/YA science fiction come with "sequel" or "trilogy" written into the contract!). But sequel, companion novel, or stand-alone novel, I will be buying it for my library.

No quotes this time, because it's not a book that particularly lends itself to that. But here are a few links that might be worth checking out:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

PEAK booktalk

Booktalk for Peak by Roland Smith

As you know from an earlier post, I loved this book. It's a booktalk waiting to happen, so I don't know why it's taken me so long to actually put one on paper. Too many other books to read, too little time to write, I guess! If you've read the book (and if you haven't, what's taking you so long?), you'll see that the climbing sequence is taken directly from the book. See what I mean about the booktalk writing itself?

My fingers were numb. My nose was running. I didn't have a free hand to wipe my nose, or enough rope to rappel about five hundred feet to the ground. I had planned everything out so carefully, except for the weather, and now it was uh-oh time. A gust of wind tried to peel me off the wall. I should have waited until June to make the ascent, but no, moron has to go up in March. "Moron!" I shouted.

Option #1: Finish the climb. Two hundred sixty-four feet up, or about a hundred precarious fingerholds (providing my fingers didn't break off like icicles

Option #2: Climb down. A little over five hundred feet, two hundred fifty fingerholds.

Option #3: Wait for rescue. Scratch that option. No one knew I was on the wall. By morning (providing someone actually looked up and saw me) I would be an icy gargoyle.

Up it is, then.

I timed my moves between vicious blasts of wind. The sleet turned to hail, pelting me like a swarm of frozen hornets. This is it, I told myself. Fifteen more handholds and I've topped it. I reached up for the next seam and encountered a little snag. Well, a big snag, really...My right ear and cheek were frozen to the wall.

To reach the top you must have resolve, muscles, skill, and...a FACE! Mine was anchored to the wall like a bolt, and a portion of it stayed there when I gathered enough resolve to tear it loose. Now I was mad, which was exactly what I needed to finish the climb. Cursing with every vertical lunge, I stopped about four feet below the edge, tempted to tag this monster with the blood running down my neck. Instead, I took the mountain stencil out of my pack, slapped it on the wall, and filled it in with blue spray paint.

And that's when the helicopter came up behind me and nearly blew me off the wall. "You are under arrest!"

Busted. Hey, I'd rather have been climbing a mountain, but there aren't many of those in Manhattan, so I've had to settle for climbing skyscrapers. I had no idea how much trouble that could get me into. They wanted to send me to juvenile detention for three years! I don't know what shocked me more, the idea of a three year prison sentence or the fact that it was my father who rescued me. I hadn't seen Josh since I was about seven. What was he doing here?

See, Josh is a big time mountain climber. He's famous. But all his climbing has left him with no time for me. He's never even sent me a birthday card or answered the letters I've sent. I'm not sure I can remember the last time we talked on the phone. So having him show up at my trial and offer to become my guardian and take me out of the country really blew my mind. I should have felt great about being with my father again, but I had a feeling there was more to this than met the eye.

I was right. My father didn't come get me because he was being a good dad. He came for me because now that he knows I can climb, he wants me to be the youngest kid to ever scale Mount Everest. Now here I am, sitting at Base Camp, wondering what I should do. Things here are really tense. Nobody in the group he's leading wants me here. Josh barely pays attention to me. Instead, he's got an old Buddhist monk training me. A nosy reporter is watching my every move, and so are the Chinese officials, who think we're up to something. Maybe we are. Preparing to climb Mount Everest is grueling. I can barely breathe and I feel sick all the time. Still, it would be cool to be the youngest kid to climb Mount Everest. But I don't I really want to make my father's dream come true?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Wizards and Warriors, Part II

In my review of The Warrior Heir, I said that a sequel was due out soon and that I was looking forward to reading it. Well, the sequel is out now, and it's just as good a read as the first.

Very briefly:

Seph knows he's a wizard, but he doesn't know much else. He knows the story he's been told about his parents is false, but he doesn't know why he's been fed a pack of lies or what, if anything, is the truth about them. More important for the story, however, is that he knows that he has power, but he doesn't know how to control it. He's been kicked out of multiple schools because his uncontrollable bursts of power have created some very uncomfortable and unfortunate situations. But the worst situation of all is what happens one night when he goes to a nightclub to party with some friends and meets Alicia (who we met in the first book). When she spikes his drink, Seph loses any semblance of control. Several people die as a result, and Seph's guardians (a law firm) have to get him out of town fast. He is sent to the Havens, a small school in a remote part of Maine. Unknown to him (but is it unknown to the people who sent him there?), the school is run by a wizard who has set the school up specifically to collect as many wizard around him as possible. His goal isn't to train them, it's to link to and control them. When Seph resists, he is mentally and physically tortured. After months of this, he is finally able to get a call for help out. A significant character from the The Warrior Heir arrives to rescue him, but he's merely jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Many wizards are angry about the changes made at Raven's Ghyll, and they aren't going to accept them without a fight. Little does Seph know how central a role he's playing in that fight.

Jack, Ellen, Linda, Hastings, Niko, and several others from the first book appear in this one as well (though it takes a while). But we also meet several other new characters, notably Seph, Maddie (who has a fascinating power we haven't seen before), Jason, and Gregory Leicester (Jessamine Longbranch and Geoffrey Wylie don't hold a candle to this guy).

Cinda Chima's web site has a bio, a list of books she's read over the past few years (fun to browse), and pages on the two books in this series that include lists of characters, information about places in the books, and a FAQ. Dragon's Heir, the third book in the series, is scheduled to be published in the spring of 2008.

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 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.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Yes, They Really Are Out to Get You

True Talents by David Lubar
4Q 4P, M J

The gorilla who clung to the ceiling was wearing a Princeton t-shirt.

I don't know about you, but that's the kind of first line that hooks me right into a book! As it turns out, there is no gorilla on the ceiling. And the walls aren't rippling, either. But when you've been drugged and you're just coming out of it, you see some mighty strange things.

The man who wakes Eddie (aka Trash) up wants to play a game with him. But this is no ordinary game. It has something to do with marbles, making those marbles float in the air or roll across a table. This man knows what Eddie has been trying to hide: his hidden talent, his ability to move things with his mind. How could he possibly know that? What is Eddie doing in this horrible place?

You may have met Trash before, in Lubar's Hidden Talents. Eddie was one of the delinquents sent to Edgewood School to straighten them up (or take them off their parent's hands). As far as most of the world is concerned, the kids at Edgewood are beyond hope. But Eddie's group weren't delinquents. They were misunderstood, even by themselves. Until Martin arrived, none of them knew they had hidden talents. Eddie can move things with his mind. Cheater can read minds. Flinch sees things a split second before they happen. When Torchie gets excited, things around him go up in flames. Lucky has a knack for finding things. And Martin somehow knows the thing a person is most proud of and what they are most ashamed of. They already know how much trouble these talents can get them into. How much trouble can they get them out of?

The boys have all left Edgewood now, but they've all tried to keep in touch. But they really miss Eddie. It's hard to accept that he died in that accident last year.

Wait a minute. Eddie is dead? Didn't we just see him drugged and locked up in that lab? We sure did. There's a good reason that the boys decided to keep their talents a secret. They were afraid that if anyone ever found out what they can do, they'd be studied, probed, and tested, and they'd have nothing to say about it. They were right. Months ago, Eddie made a possibly-fatal mistake. All he'd wanted was a little money to buy some art supplies. If he used his talent to help him get it, and he was really careful about it, nobody would ever find out. Right? Wrong. Two weeks later, he was attacked by two goons with a gun. If they hadn't already known what he could do, his efforts to get away would have blown his cover. He'd killed one of the men, using just the power of his mind. No matter how badly he's drugged, Eddie will never be able to forget the image of the blood pouring out of the man's mouth as he gasped for his last breath. Now he's paying for that in spades, locked up, drugged, and playing these games for the man he comes to know as Major Bowdler.

Major Bowdler is a piece of work. He's the kind of guy who likes to teach people lessons. Does a little kid run into his house, leaving his toy soldiers behind? Careless boy. If he's going to leave his toys out, should he get to keep them? Of course not. Does one of his men fail to do his job properly? Get rid of him. Permanently. As Eddie discovers, Major Bowdler is very, very interested in people like the boys, people who have special talents. As he sees it, these people should be happy to use their talents in service to their country (and make Bowdler very rich in the process). Whether or not the boys want to use their talents in this way is immaterial. What Bowdler wants, Bowdler gets.

Except...Eddie isn't about to roll over and play dead for Bowdler. When he gets the chance to escape, he grabs it. But what then? Where can he go? He has no money, and no way to contact anyone. And then, of course, there's the little matter of discovering that everyone thinks that he's dead. Who can he trust? There's only one answer for that. It's time to get the boys all together. And when these boys come together, they are a force that even a guy like Major Bowdler may not want to reckon with. Their hidden talents give them a boost in the first place, but when they are coupled with their true talents, watch out!

This is not my favorite of Lubar's books, but I think his fans will be glad he wrote it. I'm afraid this is a long, rambling review for a book that's just the opposite. The book reads very quickly most of the time, with more focus on action and suspense than in the first book. I found it a little confusing to follow the specifics of what Bowdler was up to, but I decided not to worry about it and just go with the flow. One of the things I enjoyed about the book was its mix of tension, action, and humor. Lubar has a great sense of humor, and that's what I always look forward to in his writing. In this book, I kept wanting to share the parts about Torchie serenading his neighbors with his accordion and his delight when they take up a collection to send him to music camp. (Anything to get him out of earshot!) And when a smart, cute older girl enters the mix and a little manly romantic rivalry results, well, that's fun too. This book will please younger teens who like to laugh as well as those who like action.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What's the buzz on this mosquito?

The Hand of the Devil by Dean Vincent Carter
3Q 4P J

Warning: If you are easily grossed out, think twice about reading this book. On the other hand, if your idea of a good time includes reading about decaying corpses and (very) bloodthirsty monsters, step into my parlor, said the mosquito to her next victim.

Ashley Reeves is a young journalist who works for a magazine called Missing Link. It's his job to investigate weird sightings of strange animals (among other strange things), even though they usually turn out to be hoaxes. He's not expecting anything different when he gets a letter in the mail from a man named Reginald Mather, who invites him to come see his specimen of the Ganges Red mosquito, claiming it is the only one of its kind. The letter seems genuine, and Ashley is intrigued. A few hairs on his neck do quiver a bit at a couple of things in the letter (why must he come so quickly? Why is he not to tell anyone?), but the story sounds too promising to pass up. He's on his way in hours.

Mather lives on Aries Island, so when Ashley arrives at the nearest train station to his destination, he must rent a boat to get to the island. The man he rents the boat from is an old crab, and the boat itself looks barely seaworthy. He's not a particularly expert boater, which is all the more a problem when a sudden fierce storm whips up as he crosses the lake to the island. He crashes the boat on a rock. It quickly starts to sink, and Ashley has to swim to shore. Almost as soon as he drags himself up on the beach, his cell phone rings. Once. Then it sputters and crackles and dies. Great. Now he has no boat to get home and no way to communicate with anyone off the island. If you think this is the kind of thing that should make him think "Bad omen! Go back!", you're right. But Ashley isn't thinking along those lines. Yet.

Mather turns out to be an odd sort of man. And is he really living alone on the island, as he says? Because as Ashley comes up to the house, he's sure he hears a female voice saying, "He's here!" But no, Mather swears he lives alone. He is a gracious enough host, offering to let Ashley stay the night and preparing some hot tea for him. But he is also strangely reluctant to let Ashley see the Ganges Red, telling him it isn't a good idea to disturb her after she's recently fed. Instead, he suggests that he read Her Story. The book is rather ghastly, featuring a series of stories about a fabled creature called The Devil's Hand. The illustrations feature a giant mosquito, quite large in size, attacking one or more screaming people, including Roman centurions, Saxon Britons, early Europeans, and various other cultures. Ashley can only hope that this Devil's Hand has nothing to do with the Ganges Red.

No such luck.

Over the next few days, Ashley will discover the following things:
  • The Ganges Red, or "The Lady", as Mather calls it/her, is a giant mosquito. Her wingspan alone is over eight inches.
  • Mather is rather desperate that he not explore the rest of the island or take any pictures
  • Mather seemingly has no intention of letting him off the island
  • Mather is quite, quite mad
  • The Lady is very, very hungry

I'm not kidding here. This book gave me the creeps more than once. Carter doesn't shy away from describing gross and truly horrific events, and sensitive readers should beware. He also does a great job building up the suspense. He's very good at the creepy moment/lull/creepy moment/lull/crescendo method of creating tension. Though at times some of the characterizations and dialog are a little over the top, it can be overlooked. Teens who have an itch to move past R.L. Stine will probably suck ever morsel of bloody horror from this book and savor it to the very last drop.

(Sorry. I couldn't resist.)

Friday, April 20, 2007


Here's a book that middle school kids will really enjoy, particularly boys. I really enjoyed reading it, and I'm looking forward to the sequels. The book indicates that there will be four books in the series, but I did an Internet search on the author, and it looks as though there will be seven or eight. At this point, I can only say that that's good news.


As his fifteenth birthday approaches, Will has just one dream: he wants to be chosen as a Battleschool apprentice on Choosing Day. Choosing Day is when the Duke's wards learn their fates. Will they be chosen to apprentice in a craft or guild, or will they be sent to work on a farm as a common laborer? More than anything, Will wants to join the Battleschool and become a knight someday. Will knows little of his family, not even his own last name. The only scraps of knowledge he has are that his mother died in childbirth and that his father died heroically in battle against the evil Lord Morgarath. That must mean his father was a great knight, and Will wants to follow in his footsteps. But knights are big and brawny, and Will is small and scrawny. He knows in his heart that he doesn't have the build to be a knight, but he knows that he is strong and fast, and maybe that will count for something. But it doesn't.

Will can barely swallow his disappointment when his rival, Horace, is chosen for Battleschool and he himself is refused. Even worse, none of the other guild or craft masters will take him on. Only the Ranger speaks up when the Duke asks if any of them will take a second apprentice, and that is only to give the Duke a note. It seems that Will is doomed to a life as a farm laborer. As crushed as he is, Will also can't help wondering about that note the Ranger gave to the Duke. Clearly, it was something about him. Or was it? Will has to know. Years of sneaking about the castle to play tricks and steal pies from the cook have taught Will how to sneak in and around the castle without being spotted by the guards. It's an easy thing for him to scale the wall of the castle and into the Duke's office. It's even easier to sneak over to the desk to find the mysterious piece of paper. He reaches out to grab it...and a hand reaches out to grab his. Terrified, Will looks up and into the eyes of Halt, the Ranger. Where had he come from?

It's a trap, and Will has fallen right into it. But it is also a test, and Will's refusal to lie about what he was doing means he passes that test. Will is to become the Ranger's apprentice. The training is hard, and Halt is not an easy teacher. It isn't Battleschool, but Will soon learns that rangers play just as important a role in keeping the kingdom safe as the knights do, and maybe even more. Rangers are the eyes and ears of the kingdom, gathering intelligence and reporting to the dukes and king. When Lord Morgarath, who fifteen years ago killed the previous king and was only barely defeated, gathers a new army of alien creatures and begins to menace the kingdom again, it's the rangers who know first, and it's Halt, his old apprentice Gilan, and Will who are on the front lines in the battle against him.

Edited to add a link to a very interesting interview with John Flanagan and a link to his web site. Lucky Australians! They're up to Book 6 there, and the seventh book in the series is due out soon. I'm writing this on August 10, 2007, and Book 3, The Icebound Land, has only just been published here in the U.S. Oh, well. Something to look forward to!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Here There Be Pirates (Red Sea booktalk)

Red Sea by Diane Tullson
4Q 3P J/S (Grades 7-10-ish)

It thrills me to stand on the deck of the ship, look out at the ocean, and see no land in any direction. But there’s a big difference between being on the deck of a huge cruise ship captained by an experienced crew and being out in the middle of the ocean in a small sailboat with nobody but yourself to pilot the ship.

The last thing in the world Libby wanted to do was leave her boyfriend and her best friend behind to sail around the world with her mother and stepfather. Unfortunately, she wasn’t give a choice. Now she's stuck for months on a sailboat with the two people in the world she most wants to get away from. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it were just Libby and her mom. But no way is she okay with sailing around the world with Duncan. And so she does what teenagers are really good at. She makes her parents pay. She’s as uncooperative as she can possibly be. She insinuates that Duncan can’t keep his hands to himself. She goes ashore alone, knowing it makes her mother crazy. She does whatever she can to make them sorry that they ever brought her along. But it’s not just being on this trip that’s making her miserable. At every port, she emails her boyfriend, Ty. At every port, she eagerly waits for word from him. It never comes.

After three weeks in Djibouti waiting for the right weather to begin their Red Sea passage, Emma, the leader of their traveling group, decides to leave early the next morning. For safety’s sake, the flotilla must stay together. There are pirates in the Red Sea, men who will take anything and everything a ship has, men who won’t hesitate to shoot anyone who gets in their way. Everyone must be ready to leave on Emma’s signal. But Libby isn’t ready to leave. Not when there’s one more chance to check her email, one more chance to make her parents pay. She sneaks ashore early in the morning. By the time she gets back, the rest of the group has gone. There’s no choice now but to sail alone and hope for the best. Her parents are grim, but Libby doesn’t care. That’ll teach them.

It’s dangerous for a sailboat to be in the middle of the ocean completely out of sight of land. Pirates aside, your tiny boat can’t get out of a freighter’s way fast enough to avoid being crushed. Someone always has to be on watch, especially when, like tonight, a bad storm adds to the danger. Duncan wants Libby on watch with her mother. Libby can take being with her mother just so long, though, so she abandons watch and her mother and goes to bed. She’s woken by a loud noise and a change in the boat’s motion. Something is wrong. She tears up the stairs, Duncan just behind her. They reach the deck just in time to see her mother fire a flare directly at what is unmistakably a pirate’s boat. A gunman in the boat aims a gun their way. Tiny bursts of flame erupt from the barrel. The mainsail rips, a cockpit cushion explodes, a thermos disintegrates. Libby can barely think with the panic and the noise, but one thought does go through her mind: “Oh, good. They’re going to miss her.” They don’t. Her mother spins, her arms splayed. A gob of red goo shoots from her leg and she crashes to the ground. Duncan runs towards her. A bullet catches him in the shoulder, and then the top of his head flies off. When Libby opens her eyes again, he’s gone, thrown overboard by the force of the impact.

The pirates take everything they can: almost every bit of food, every scrap of electronics, including their GPS equipment, their batteries, and the go-bag that contains their emergency supplies. What they can’t take, they break. When they finally go, they leave behind a ship with a fouled propeller that can’t use its engines, no way to contact anyone for help, no medical supplies, a badly wounded woman, and one fourteen-year-old girl. For Libby, being alone in the middle of the ocean isn’t at all thrilling. It’s terrifying.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Here There Be Pirates: Red Sea by Diane Tullson (booktalk)

RED SEA by Diane Tullson
4Q 3P M/J

It thrills me to stand on the deck of the ship, look out at the ocean, and see no land in any direction. But there’s a big difference between being on the deck of a huge cruise ship captained by an experienced crew and being out in the middle of the ocean in a small sailboat with nobody but yourself to pilot the ship.

The last thing in the world Libby wanted to do was leave her boyfriend and her best friend behind to sail around the world with her mother and stepfather. Unfortunately, she wasn’t give a choice, so here she is, stuck for months on a sailboat with the two people in the world she most wants to get away from. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it were just Libby and her mom. But no way is she okay with sailing around the world with Duncan. And so she does what teenagers are really good at. She makes her parents pay. She’s as uncooperative as she can possibly be. She insinuates that Duncan can’t keep his hands to himself. She goes ashore alone, knowing it makes her mother crazy. She does whatever she can to make them sorry that they ever brought her along. But it’s not just being on this trip that’s making her miserable. At every port, she emails her boyfriend, Ty. At every port, she eagerly waits for word from him. It never comes.

After three weeks in Djibouti waiting for the right weather to begin their Red Sea passage, Emma, the leader of their traveling group, decides to leave early the next morning. For safety’s sake, the flotilla must stay together. There are pirates in the Red Sea, men who will take anything and everything a ship has, men who won’t hesitate to shoot anyone who gets in their way. Everyone must be ready to leave on Emma’s signal. But Libby isn’t ready to leave. Not when there’s one more chance to check her email, one more chance to make her parents pay. She sneaks ashore early in the morning. By the time she gets back, the rest of the group has gone. There’s no choice now but to sail alone and hope for the best. Her parents are grim, but Libby doesn’t care. That’ll teach them.

It’s dangerous for a sailboat to be in the middle of the ocean completely out of sight of land. Pirates aside, your tiny boat can’t get out of a freighter’s way fast enough to avoid being crushed. Someone always has to be on watch. Tonight, Duncan wants Libby on watch with her mother. Libby can take being with her mother just so long. She abandons watch and her mother and goes to bed. She’s woken by a loud noise and a change in the boat’s motion. Something is wrong. She tears up the stairs, Duncan just behind her. They reach the deck just in time to see her mother fire a flare directly at what is unmistakably a pirate’s boat. A gunman in the boat aims a gun their way. Tiny bursts of flame erupt from the barrel. The mainsail rips, a cockpit cushion explodes, a thermos disintegrates. Libby can barely think with the panic and the noise, but one thought does go through her mind: “Oh, good. They’re going to miss her.” They don’t. Her mother spins, her arms splayed. A gob of red goo shoots from her leg and she crashes to the ground. Duncan runs towards her. A bullet catches him in the shoulder, and then the top of his head flies off. When Libby opens her eyes again, he’s gone, thrown overboard by the force of the impact.

The pirates take everything they can: almost every bit of food, every scrap of electronics, including their GPS equipment, their batteries, and the go-bag that contains their emergency supplies. What they can’t take, they break. When they finally go, they leave behind a ship with a fouled propellor that can’t use its engines, no way to contact anyone for help, no medical supplies, a badly wounded woman, and one fourteen-year-old girl. For Libby, being alone in the middle of the ocean isn’t at all thrilling. It’s terrifying.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Wizards and Warriors

The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima
4Q 4P M/J/S

(Why is there a shortcut/toolbar icon for bolding and italics, but not underlining? I can make it do an underline for the title, but only if I code it myself. Is underlining a thing of the past or something? How annoying!)

What if you found out at the age of sixteen that you weren't who you always thought you were? What if you found out that the medication you've been taking every day all your life isn't really to keep your heart healthy, but is actually a magic potion that keeps you hidden from people who want to kill you or kidnap you? What if you forgot to take that medicine one morning, and accidentally released a burst of power as a result? What if you found out that that one little mistake put you right in the middle of a deadly game of Wizards and Warriors?

That's exactly what happens to Jack when he forgets to take the medicine he's taken ever since he was a baby. It's weird, really. As far as he can tell, there's absolutely nothing wrong with his heart and never has been. But he's been told that he had an operation on his heart as a baby, and sure enough, there really is a scar on his chest. But there's never been a problem. He's even made the varsity soccer squad. So he doesn't worry much the day he forgets to take the medicine, except for dreading what his mother will say. In fact, he actually feels better, a little...stronger? A little more...aware? Something, anyhow. He goes to soccer practice feeling pretty good, until Garrett Lobeck starts giving him grief. But what happens to Garrett isn't something Jack tries to do. It just...happens. Jack sticks his arms out to fend off Garrett, a burst of power leaps from his fingers, and Garrett goes flying into the goal. Jack didn't even touch him!

Now the secret is out. Jack's no ordinary boy. He is, in fact, a warrior. In the next few weeks, Jack tracks down the magical sword destined for him, is nearly killed several times, begins his warrior training, and maybe, just maybe, falls a little bit in love. He discovers he has many loyal friends and protectors. And he also discovers that there's even more to learn about his birth and his birthright. He'd better learn it all fast, because wizards from all over the world felt his blast of power, and now they know where to look for the boy who is possibly the very last undiscovered warrior left. The wizards long ago divided into two camps, and both camps are desperate to get their hands on him. Jack is a pawn in a very deadly game, because he holds the key to their power. He is to be the warrior champion of whichever house gets to him first. Think gladiators and the Coliseum. Think savage medieval jousts. Think mortal combat, fighting to the death for a cause that is not your own.

This book is a fast-paced adventure, with sword fights, martial arts, battles to the death, narrow escapes, unexpected twists, and an ending that hints at more to come.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Absolutely DROWNING in spies! (KIKI STRIKE)

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller
4Q 4P M/J

Of all the girl spy books, this is the one that's getting the notice and getting the raves. Maybe I'm more lukewarm on it than others because it was the third in the genre that I read pretty much right in a row. It's a good idea to mix things up a little so that books stand out from each other and things don't run together so much, and I didn't do that well this time. There is a lot to like about this book. It's just that it didn't stand out for me the way I expected it to after hearing so many excellent reviews of it.

Ananka Fishbein 's life changes the day she looks out the window of her New York City apartment to see that a sinkhole has appeared in the park next door. She also sees a small figure crawling out of the hole. The small figure turns and waves to her. It's a girl! Ananka has to know more about that girl and the sinkhole. She runs downstairs to explore the hole and discovers a hidden door that she eventually learns leads to the Shadow City. What's the Shadow City? It's a city of passages, tunnels, and secret rooms that lead all over the city. What's down there? Dead bodies, rats (big ones!), and treasure. But Ananka doesn't learn any of that until she discovers who the girl is: Kiki Strike.

Kiki, it turns out, is a student in her own school, but Ananka has never noticed her before. That's a surprising, because Kiki has the kind of looks that make her stand out in a crowd: she's only about four feet tall (but she's at least fourteen) and she has absolutely white hair. She also carries herself with a confidence few other teens can match. Kiki soon introduces Ananka to several girls with unusual talents: there's Betty (a master of disguise), Luz (an electronics genius), Dee Dee (a chemist who's great at explosives), and Oona (an excellent forger and thief). Together they form the Irregulars, and together they explore the Shadow City. All of those unusual skills come in very handy when you're doing something you don't want anyone else to know you're doing.

But Kiki has secrets she isn't telling the others, and when one of their explorations ends in disaster, Kiki disappears and the Irregulars break up. But that's not the end of the story. Ananka keeps getting glimpses and information that lead her to believe the Kiki hasn't gone far. Two years later, Kiki is back, and this time, things are serious. Kiki doesn't need them just to map out and explore the Shadow City. This time, teenage girls are disappearing, and the Irregulars know why and what the kidnappers want. They also know they have the means and skills to get the girls back and stop the kidnappers. But they don't know everything. And they most definitely don't know everything they need to know about Kiki Strike.

This book is chock full of girl power and advice for would-be spies that just happens to be potentially useful in real life, too. Check out the end of most of the chapters for items such as:

"The Benefit of the Doubt: Most people are willing to give young girls the benefit of the doubt. Girls are too sweet and innocent, they think, to be up to no good. A clever story--generally one involving a missing kitten--can get you out of trouble in nine out of ten situations. Remember, a tear or two will make any tale more believable." (page 16)

"Duct Tape: Take a roll with you whenever you travel. It can be used to immobilize criminals, fix essential equipment, and make a cute skirt if you're in a bind." (page 86)

You've got to like a book that can mix strong characters, a sense of humor, and adventure and do it well. This book does. Really. I admit it, it's not ever going to be on my favorite books list, and it's not likely to wind up on my Top Five or Top Ten of 2006 list (as it has appeared on others' lists already). But I will happily recommend it to readers who enjoyed the Sammy Keyes books and to kids who like interesting characters doing interesting things.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

There are spies EVERYWHERE!

I have recently read Michael Spradlin's SPY GODDESS #1: Live and Let Shop and Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, and I am almost finished with Kirsten Miller's Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City. Wow. Spy books for girls! It's funny that all three have come out at the same time, when there probably haven't been three other spy girl titles published in the last three years. Anyhow, I'll be happy to recommend all three, though they all address the issue a little differently and the three might not all satisfy the same reader.

First, Spradlin's Spy Goddess. I might be in the minority, but frankly, I think I enjoyed this one the most. Rachel Buchanan, the protagonist, has a smart mouth (which is one of the many reasons she's in big trouble as the book begins), and it makes her fun to read. Rachel's the daughter of wealthy parents who (stereotypically) don't have the time or interest to pay her any attention. Consequently, Rachel has been upping the ante for a while now, hanging out with kids who are bad news, shoplifting, joyriding, anything to get the attention and the goat of her parents. When Rachel and her friends are caught joyriding (the friends take off), Rachel is sentenced to at least a year at Blackthorn Academy, a private school on the East Coast. If she doesn't stick it out, she'll get a year in Juvie instead. Rachel's pretty sure she's not going to stick around, and when she gets to Blackthorn, she's certain: no Internet? No phone? PE every day?! She's outathere! But her escape attempt is foiled by a sprained ankle (wrist?), confusing woods, and the headmaster, Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim puzzles Rachel. He seems to know everything about her (and even what she's thinking), and nothing she says or does pisses him off, even when she's trying her very hardest. He convinces her to give the school a one month trial. Despite herself, Rachel agrees.

Blackthorn Academy is not like most schools. All the kids have some connection to the justice system, there's a top-secret off-limits floor, and the classes are in things like Code Theory, microelectronics, and the martial arts. Rachel is a little intrigued, and she does make a couple of friends. But still, at the end of the month, she decides she's heading back to California, even if it does mean Juvie. She's on her way down to tell Mr. Kim so when the weirdness gets racheted up a couple of notches. The FBI are in the school, talking to Mr. Kim, who doesn't look happy. Then Mr. Kim disappears. Well, Rachel is not one to let her curiosity go unsatisfied. She's determined to figure out what's going on and what happened to Mr. Kim. This leads her and her friends to a secret passage, a secret room, and the biggest secret of all: somebody named Mithras is out to take over the world, and they've just put a major wrench in his plans. And he doesn't like that one bit. Game on!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I liked the blend of humor and tension. Is it realistic? No. Is the plot a little thin? Yes. Is the villain paper thin and stereotypically whacko? Yes. But I didn't care. Rachel and Mr. Kim are interesting characters I'd like to read more about (Rachel's friends need more development, which I think might be coming in book two). And just when you want to roll your eyes at something Rachel says or does, she does it for you with a snarky comment. All in all, it was a quick and fun read that I happily recommend. I will be ordering the next in the series.

This is really long, so I'll post about the other two books separately.