Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

I started twiddling out reviews as a class assignment two years ago thinking it would help me remember novels when book-talking with students. Lo and behold, this reflection process has been like a boiling hotpot with questions bubbling to the surface as I bumble along. What makes children's books great versus average or what makes picture books rise to an artistic level? What began as an assignment has morphed into an enjoyable blogging journey into the world of children's literature. A common element inked in good children's books is they speak to both children and adults with various interpretations based on experience and this novel is no exception. I often have students point out a theme or picture detail that I missed or didn't notice as an adult, while I might point out a theme or detail from my perspective as an adult that they don't see.

When Sophie saves a baby bonobo ape off the street of Kinshasa, Congo, in chapter one, I applaud her courage for doing the right thing, but I also think of her as an impulsive teenager who is not thinking about the consequences of her actions. As an adult, I would have called her mother before making that decision because I know that traffickers and poachers are dangerous. Sophie's mother has been running a bonobo sanctuary for over six years and has the knowledge and tools to deal with this type of situation. Sophie, who grew up in the Congo, has lived for the past six years with her father in the United States. Their parents are divorced and Sophie is visiting her mom for the summer. A young reader will probably side with Sophie's actions. She is fourteen-years-old and when she sees a half-starved bonobo, she rescues it. Shucks, her mom owns a sanctuary and will be happy, right? Wrong.

Sophie's youthfulness and innocence makes her noble and seemingly right decision to save the bonobo tragic because the action is ultimately the wrong one. The moral dilemma facing Sophie is a driving force in the novel as she discovers that she can't save the bonobos one at a time like she does with the trafficker on the street, but must consider the endangered animals from a sociologically viewpoint; she must think about how the problem is reflected in the poverty of the Congolese people and the history of colonial abuse from foreigners that have stripped the Congo of its rich resources.

She learns this lesson throughout the novel when the capital city of Kinshasa is overthrown and the president murdered. Militiamen and boys take to the streets shooting and butchering people with machetes. When the sanctuary gets attacked and rebels take over, Sophie flees to the forest with the bonobos learning to survive in the wild and trying to reunite with her mother who happened to be in a remote area north of the capital releasing bonobos into the wild.

The constant tension from Sophie's life being threatened, by either the rebel soldiers or bonobos as she figures out their hierarchy, makes this a page turner. Her discomfort of living in the jungle and dealing with mosquitoes, leeches, crickets, and more, involve the reader's senses creating a vivid atmosphere and setting. Sophie doesn't dwell on the deaths of people, she's too busy trying to survive and she forces traumatic thoughts out of her mind. I thought it might be dealt with after the ordeal but the author skips ahead about four years. While some might not like this, it does make it more suitable for young readers who will focus more on the adventures than horrors of war.

This doesn't mean that the author skips the ugliness of war; just that the violence occurs after-the-fact versus a graphic description of someone being killed.  One section becomes particularly intense when Sophie has to deal with a drunk boy soldier. Earlier, an adult explains to Sophie how young boys are snatched to become soldiers and must fight each other to the death. Without giving away any of the plot Sophie cleverly works her way out of what could have been a violent rape situation. It probably isn't realistic but the author portrays the boy soldier as just as much a victim as Sophie; thus making it appropriate for a younger audience. While there is violence, it is toned down (moreso than books like, "Code Name Verity"); Sophie might stumble over a body or hear screams that suddenly stop, but that is about it.

I was first introduced to the Congo in books such as "Heart of Darkness," by Joseph Conrad and "The Poisonwood Bible," by Barbara Kingsolver. These aren't accessible for younger readers and it is fantastic all the great childrens books being written that help build responsible citizens and impress the inseparable connections between humans, animals, and the environment. I have read a bundle of books like this lately. If you want more try: "The One and Only Ivan" by Katherine Applegate (2013 Newbery winner), that deals with treatment of animals and the ethics of zoos; "Moonbird" by Philip Hoose (2013 Siebert finalist), that deals with the extinction of a species and how it impacts the fragile ecosystems; or "A Long Walk to Water" by Linda Sue park, that shows the difference a water well can make in the war-torn country of Sudan.  These stories need to be heard. A great read.

Young Adult
5 Smileys

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Clare Vanderpool knows how to craft a satisfying story. Early and Jack become unlikely friends when Jack is sent from Kansas to Maine. Early is a strange boy who likes to listen to certain music on days of the week, sleep in the custodian's workroom, sort jelly beans, and spew facts like Old Faithful. His made-up stories about Pi are strange as well. And not Pi from the "Life of Pi" but Pi as in the number pi, the 3.14 blah-blah-blah, or the number-that-never-ends. Jack doesn't want to listen to Early talk about Pi but he finds himself getting sucked into the story even though his mind resists it. I felt the same way at first but then found myself trying to figure out whose story Pi's mirrored amongst the characters.

Jack's grieving the recent death of his mom and he's angry at his dad for sending him to a boarding school in Maine from his home in Kansas. Early's dad has died too, although Early doesn't talk about it. Early is more focused on the loss his older brother, Fisher, who was killed in World War II. Jack has a rough start at school and doesn't fit in with the other students. The two misfits form an unlikely bond when they decide to run off from school on a quest to find a great black bear on the Appalachian Trail, but they find more than that and learn to face their grief.

Idioms, similes, and metaphors, "rain like cats and dogs" throughout this story. But while the idioms Jack's mom used showed wisdom and were an interesting play on words, the idioms the boys used were as tired as "raining like cats and dogs." Jack, in particular, thinks and speaks idioms so much I noticed it. I couldn't figure out why the author was purposefully doing this except toward the end when it reflected the boys internal changes of understanding their grief. When Early says, Mrs. Johannsen "beamed like a lighthouse" only to explain to Jack that it is an expression. "She was beaming more like a candle. A candle set in a window, but a closed window, so there's no breeze to make the candle flicker"; the change shows that Early has grown in his understanding that Mrs. Johannsen has realized her purpose and can move on from her grief. Whereas she was lost before, she was able to find closure with her son and become a steady flame versus a flickering one. This is reflected in the boys internal journey of dealing with their own losses. While I found the idioms tiring and baffling at first by the end I could see what the author was doing.

I admire Vanderpool's plot building and writing craft. How can you not delight in sentences like this, "I still saw the other boys in class and around the dorm, but ever since that night in Sam and Robbie Dean's dorm room and the talk of the Fish, the awkwardness lingered like empty space on one of Early's records. It whirled in circles, making it hard to jump back in." Jack's loneliness is painful and the boys talking about boats using alien words creates an atmosphere quite similar to living in a foreign country. I empathized with Jack and the loss of his mom and home as Vanderpool expertly crafts his ache in a short time.

Depending on your patience as a reader, I found the beginning third slogged and some scenes seemed a bit clunky versus seamless. The ring in the pool left me scratching my head along with Mr. Bane seeming like a sensitive teacher at first to an unobservant one as Jack blunders about as he tries to steer the boat by himself. The educator side of me knows the liabilities and caution taken when dealing with kids and water. This might have been one of those cases where first person point of view forced characters to do things in order to forward the plot. I also felt this way when the two soldiers talked. It seemed rushed and I would have liked third person point of view and knowing what the two discussed.

Jack is very authentic in the way he acts as a teenager and deals with his grief. His mean act toward Early made him more real to me and yet he also thinks deeply about things and changes to be a better person. He learns from his mistakes and for me that is an endearing character. Early is developed well too with his odd quirks that make him likeable and his not so likeable traits that irritate Jack at times and make him tune Early out such as when Early sounds like a Thesaurus or dictionary or encyclopedia. I found some supporting characters too stereotypical for my tastes such as the librarian and Gunnar, but I don't think younger readers are going to notice this. The ending is very emotional and perhaps wrapped up to the point of feeling somewhat contrived but I prefer that to the opposite. I can think of many students who would like this book because of its touching end. A nice story for your library.

Reading Level 6.2
4 Smileys

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Templeton Twins Have an Idea by Ellis Weiner

The recent crop of metafictional books has left me not lovin' this technique as much as when I first encountered it in children's literature. Or perhaps, reading authors who are really good at it, reveals the lesser talents. Either way, this one goes on my hoo-rah list. I loved it like I love fresh corn on the cob (I'm making a connection with my crop statement. I'm also hungry. I'm also giving you a taste of how this book is written). Imagine a Lemony Snicket-type snarky narrator wired on 10 cups of coffee and inserting his thoughts so much I would  argue he is the main character. That's the book, "The Templeton Twins." The over-the-top, babbling narrator never shuts up, pointing out how the book is organized, why he chose to write it this way, why he is using certain words, and basically poking fun at everything under the literary sun. (By the way, I reeeeeaaaallly like the word, "snarky". It has a snappy ring to it, don't you know. What's that? You want to know what it means? Look it up yourself. I have a review to write.)

Figures of speech, acronyms and character names are in every chapter such as the metonymic expression, "Abigail's eyes fell on that drawing of a balloon mounted on the refrigerator. By that, I do not mean that her eyeballs literally dropped out of her head onto the drawing. I mean the picture caught her attention." (I think that's called, metonymy. Isn't it? Ahhhh, please correct me if I'm wrong. This is the reason I NEVER became an English teacher. As Weiner would say, "LET'S MOVE ON.") Acronyms scatter the pages like leaves with my personal favorite, the STB or Self-Tensioning Book Ends ("beloved by librarians throughout the universe") and names that bounce like a superball such as Dan D. Dean - sounds like dandy, Dean D. Dean - sounds like dee-dee-dee, or Nanny Nan Noonan- sounds like na-na-na-na-nah. You'd think this nattering narrator would get annoying, but I never reached that point; the author reigns in at the right point keeping the pace going along with my laughter. The "Questions for Review" at the end of each chapter have hilarious questions that parody reviews or tests students take in school: 
  1. What were the names of Abigail and John, the Templeton twins? 
  2. Bonus Question: There is no bonus Question. Proceed to Question 3. 
  3. Isn't it a splendid thing that we have begun? (Hint: No. It means I must write some more. LET'S MOVE ON.)
The author is experimenting with how stories are presented with graphics, photos, and voice in surprising ways. While the action and cartoonish characters take a back seat to the humor, I admired how Ellis Weiner ties the plot points together and creates his own unique, goofy story while exposing craft at the same time.

Meet the 12-year-old Templeton Twins: Abigail, the genius, and John, the inventor. Abigail and John's mom has just died and they are finagling their father into buying them a dog; a common theme in children's books. You'd think this overused method of moving the plot along would be boring, but the narrator explains he knows this and points it out by writing, "asking for a dog is as old as the human (and dog) race," then he imagines out loud Cain and Abel arguing about getting a dog with Adam and Eve. Bad boy, Cain, sasses his parents while Abel begs "PLEEEEEEASE?" Abigail doesn't want to ask for a dog in a normal way because that is "tedious and grim." The narrator says, "Now, if I were you, I would immediately think, 'Just a moment, Narrator. Do you seriously expect me to believe that a twelve-year-old child would use the words 'tedious' and 'grim' in private conversation with her brother? wouldn't she be much more likely to say something along the lines of 'But, like, John? If we ask Dad the same old way, won't it be, like, boring and sad and stuff?'" This constant poking fun at the writing craft had me howling in the gym as I worked out. My neighbors on the elliptical machines quirked their brows at my sporadic outbursts. Between my plugged ears and piston pumping legs, I bet my laugh was much too boisterous. What do you expect from a Midwestern gal? I was having fun in my make-believe world. What's that? Oh, all right. I'll MOVE ON. I was just having a bit of a chit chat with you. I thought we could get to know each other.

When the Templeton's absent-minded professor-of-a-father moves the family to a different university, the twins get kidnapped by the idiotic villain, Dean D. Dean, AKA Tweedle Dee; aided by his equally idiotic twin brother, Dan D. Dean, AKA Tweedle Dum (my aliases). I love that Dean turns to crime because the professor gave him an F in class. He's even the moustache-twirling "Mwuh-ha-ha" stereotypical character, but because the narrator points it out, I found it funny. Dean's biggest problem is he accuses the Professor of stealing his idea to build a Personal-One-Man Helicopter.  The notion that an idea can be stolen is so ludicrous that its humorous and on a metafictional level points to the fact that many ideas are reused in children's literature. Weiner's presentation is what works. At least for me. I do have an odd sense of humor. While structure and plot are the building blocks of craft, it is the author's language and voice that makes this story rise on its own.

The parody of the slapstick villains and doofy adults is a familiar trope in children's literature where the adults are idiots and the young protagonists solve the story's problem because they are smarter and wiser. (Do you know the meaning of trope? "How very disappointing. And yet I know exactly what it means. Isn't that fascinating?" It means an overused theme or device.) Here Abigail and John not only unkidnap themselves, they save Dad in the process. They are helped by their ridiculous dog , Cassie a hyper fox terrier, that "runs and spins and wags its little tail like a metronome that has lost its mind. When you bring out the leash to take it for a walk and you tell it to "Sit!," it proceeds to leap straight up into the air, like a dolphin in a SeaWorld show, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until you finally give up and say, 'Oh for goodness' sake,' and you just hold it down and clip on its leash. You may do this four thousand times over the course of five years and it will never, ever sit." Are you laughing? No? Then I suggest you read the SERIOUS book, "Bomb: The Race to Build --and Steal-- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon." Do you get the idea of what this book is like with an in-your-face narrator? Good. "LET'S MOVE ON."

Reading Level 4.7
4 Smileys

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Center of Everything by Linda Urban

One of my favorite starts to a book is Linda Urban's, "A Crooked Kind of Perfect," with the protagonist complaining about having to play a wheeze-bag organ versus the elegant piano. Here comes another hilarious start, but with a Captain fighting to keep his boat afloat in a terrible gale by eating donuts spiked on the spokes of his ship's wheel; thus, inventing the donut hole. Urban has a whole or hole lotta fun with wordplays and slang. "The Hole Shebang" is my favorite. The 1960s "Gilligan's Island" TV show's theme song started pinging around my brain during these silly parts. "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.That started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship. The mate was a mighty sailin' man, the Skipper brave and sure. Five passengers set sail that day for a three hour tour. A three hour tour."

It didn't help that the book took me three hours to read. Ping. Ping. Here comes my theme song. Or Poke. Poke, as Ruby Pepperdine would say. Her grandma has just died and she is trying to squash her emotions, except they "poke" her in unexpected ways. When Ruby wins an essay that she has written on Captain Donut she gets to read it at the annual Bunning Day festival. Things fall apart leading up to the special day when her best friend gets angry over her sharing a secret wish with a boy in her class.

Urban plops her trademark quirky characters that are lovable, memorable and odd. Lucy is the drama queen who tells Ruby she has thrown a meteor into their lake of friendship causing a tsunami. She is the yin to Ruby's yang and their chemistry bubbles with fun. Nero is a different story. At first, Nero sounds too witty and old to me but he's funny so I don't particularly care. "Once a person kazoos in the lunchroom, she's lost her right to privacy," Nero says. "It's the fate of all celebrities." Urban develops him more in the proceeding chapters and shows he is thinker to the point he exasperates his teachers. Hence, when Nero points out characteristics in Ruby later in the story, I have bought into his character, and believe in it. Make no mistake, Captain Urban knows exactly what she is doing with this crew of characters.

The plot is solid and not too complex. The main character deals with friendships and grief with a slow buildup in the beginning. Quite a bit of the text involves interior monologue and not much action. Patient readers will be rewarded by the end as Urban brings it all together. Ruby has a "wish" and the reader doesn't know what it is. Urban uses this to bring tension in chapters, specifically six chapters in the first part of the book and it slowed the pacing too much for me even though the chapters were short. You'll have to decide for yourself. Grab your copy and drop anchor. "You're sure to get a smile..." Ping. Ping.

Reading Level 5.9
4 Smileys

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

When Harry Gold heard FBI agents knocking on his door, he scrambled to flush evidence of his treasonous actions down the toilet, but when they examined his office, and the map spilled on the floor, he knew the spy game was up. Thus begins this true story of the building of the atomic bomb. Stop right there. Time out. Imagine ear-piercing weather sirens giving you a split second warning before your body gets sucked (hands first) into the inky black vortex of an oncoming tornado. Don't say I didn't warn you! Books like these make me walk and read at the same time; falling down steps, walking into trees, and burning every meal that requires a flip of a burner switch. A tornado could come and I wouldn't even know it - nada, zippo, zilch.

Nothing like a bit of melodrama to jack up a review, don't you know. Not that this book is melodramatic. Shoot we are dealing with physicists. Oppenheimer is such a dippo that he goes on a date with a girl, parks the car with her, tells her he is going for a walk and completely forgets her in his car. She calls the police thinking something has happened to him and they find Oppie asleep in his bed at home. He explains that he forgot about her while contemplating theoretical physics. Uff da, and I thought my brain was scattered. Trust me, this is just one of many delicious details you'll eat up in this nonfiction story.

My journalism side admires Steve Sheinkin's creative use of quotations mixed with descriptive writing to create a strong sense of suspense and characterization. The description of Carl Eifler gives a clear picture of the character, "The thirty-seven-year-old Eifler already had a reputation for reckless bravery. Wounded by flying metal scraps earlier in the war, he'd pull out his pockektnife and dug the steel from his thigh. His idea of fun was to shoot cigarettes out of his friends' mouths." On his way to the CIA headquarters, Eifler spots a lawyer who once criticized him in a report and he "seized him by his jacket, lifted him off the floor, and smacked his back into the wall. Eifler leaned in close, glaring in the man's eyes. 'Listen, you son of a bitch,' he growled. 'If you ever interfere in my activities again, I'll kill you.' Eifler set the lawyer down, turned, and walked to his meeting. Eifler is then given the assignment to kidnap a top German physicist and escape to Switzerland. He asks the CIA officer what his orders are if the Swiss police capture him and the German. "'Very simple, Colonel,' said Buxton [CIA]. 'You are to deny Germany the use of his brain.' 'The only way to do that is to kill him,' said Eifler. 'So I kill him, and the Swiss police arrest me - what then?' 'Then we've never heard of you.'" Chalk this up as one of many "Mission Impossibles" planted in this nonfiction text that hit me like typhoon debris. Shucks, Sheinkin has such an extensive list of source quotes in the appendixes (this came from the book, "The Deadliest Colonel," by Thomas Moon and Carl Eifler) that I wanted to scream, "Ahhhh...stop it!" Stop giving me more books to add to my already bottomless book list that itches like an irritated mosquito bite.

The intertwined plot shows the Germans, Americans, and Soviets racing to build the bomb. Subplots such as the heavy water needed by the Germans to build the bomb and the Russians as tentative allies who like to steal from the Americans, are just a few elements that help build uncertainty and suspense. Bomb-making is not in my knowledge database and the author makes the fare anything but boring. The suspenseful description of scientists creating a chemical chain reaction with uranium on a cold day in a stadium, reveals the danger and tension as the silent crowd listens to the clickety-clack of the neutron counter hoping they can stop the reaction and not blow up Chicago. The chapter ends on the suspenseful question of one scientist thinking to herself, "When do we get as scared as we ought to?" These fictional elements elevate this book from what could be a dry expository text to a narrative, fast-paced read. Add to that the author's clarity in explaining the physics of building an atomic bomb and not once did my eyes cross or get glossy.

While reading I did have questions that came up. I wondered if the Germans did anything to Knut Haukelid's tough mother, how the radiation affected people on the project and those living around the town, what Oppenheimer did after being forced out, how does the gun assembly work, how did the absent-minded Oppenheimer find a wife and have an affair, and more. I don't see this as a flaw. It is good to have more questions and Sheinkin cannot possibly answer them all. Plus, it would sidetrack the book and would have steered it toward an older audience. Sheinkin wisely sticks to his overall message of the moral issues and political intrigue. Is it right to build a weapon that can destroy the human species? He shows that even the physicists who worked on bomb questioned what they had done at the end. Oppenheimer, in particular, had horrible doubts about this weapon of mass destruction. Even the double-agents who could easily have been one-dimensional villains are multifaceted. I was surprised to feel sympathy for the physicists and double-agents, even though I didn't agree with their actions. This type of character development is not one I expect in a nonfiction book and I appreciated Sheinkin's attempt to create such well-rounded characters. Not to mention the sober punch in the arm ending that details how many countries now have nuclear weapons and how easily humans can destroy the planet if a nuclear war breaks out.

A little two year old is torpedoing through the library yelling, "Jie Jie! JieJie!" over and over in Chinese causing a ruckus. Mom is a short distance behind but she can't seem to catch the little roadrunner. It sounds like "Gee Gee" and the celebratory ring suits my mood after reading this book. I have half a mind to join her sprint chanting, "Read! Read!"

5 Smileys
Young Adult

Monday, April 15, 2013

Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America's First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone

This emotional story had me in a free fall from start to end. Tension is inherent when covering black history, but when you throw in jumping out of an airplane to a reader like myself who is afraid of heights, the result is a confetti of fingernails in my reading chair. The Triple Nickles were the first trained black paratroopers during the 1940's under Sergeant Walter Morris. Originally, Morris was in charge of 20 men who were guarding The Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He noticed that his men were not proud of their work so he began training them in a calisthenics routine that was the same as the white soldiers. His men responded by feeling valued and started "acting like soldiers." General Gaither noticed and called Morris into his office where Morris learned of Gaither's order to create an all-black unit of paratroopers, the 555th Parachute Infantry Company. Morris was assigned the task, and excelled as a leader in both training and mental toughness against prejudices.

It wasn't easy. Morris was breaking new ground. His men were isolated and denied basic rights such as where to sit in the cafeteria, on the bus, going to the canteen, going to the post's theater, and more. Even prisoners of war were not denied these rights. The black paratroopers did comment that their white instructors, who were from the South, did not express prejudices toward them and showed them respect. The author addresses why these black men decided to fight for a country that would not claim them as their own. The men said that they wanted to prove they could succeed by not reacting to prejudices. Succeed, they did and those that weren't prejudice took note helping to change popular opinions on the black man's plight.

They also succeeded in raising American conscientiousness. America was fighting in a war against the genocidal racist, Hitler, while on their own soil they had a culture of black discrimination. World War II was a turning point in popular views advocating for African-Americans human rights. Unfortunately, even today there is still discrimination, as the author notes, found in popular movies made on history of World War II where blacks are not given credit for their military service. For instance, the movie "Saving Private Ryan," doesn't give credit to the all-black unit that was critical to saving a group of white men surrounded in a German town.

This informational text is pretty straightforward with photos, chapter headings, subheadings and a one-sentence summary pulled out of the text and put in bold. The addition of primary advertisements and cartoons enrich the reading experience immensely. I particularly enjoyed them. I actually wanted more ancillary text like that. The Japanese balloon story was fascinating. How the heck have I not heard about it before! I would have liked a side bar on it. I also liked the additional information the author puts in the end titled, "The Story Within the Story," but I would have liked it inserted where the text was that covered the three paratroopers who dropped out. What I'm not sure is if this is a decision made by the author or if it is a decision made by the publisher. The title bothered me too. (*spoiler - don't read the following) I kept waiting for them to go into combat and when they don't, I felt letdown. I'm not sure how it could have been done differently. (end spoiler) Either way, this is a well-told story that is worth reading.

4 Smileys

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip M. Hoose

Ever hear of a robin-sized bird that flies from South Pole to the North Pole? Me neither. This story follows the migratory patterns of Moonbird, a rufa red knot, that travels 18,000 miles each year on a primordial quest for food and mates. Researchers tagged Moonbird in 1995 and ironically put a band on his leg that represented the captured group B series - he just happened to be number 95. The author tends to call him B95 moreso than Moonbird. Moonbird's name reflects that after twenty years, he has flown the same distance to the moon and almost back to earth. No other bird tagged has lived this long or traveled this far. He is Superbird, an amazing flying machine. In ten years, the rufa red knots have gone from 150,000 to 15,000. The author looks at why this is and tackles questions regarding how to stop it.

This expository text is so engaging that I kept spitting out facts to my husband as I was being wowed by this tiny creature that performs feats that don't seem possible. Did you know that this bird eats 14 times it's weight and manages to fly? Did you know in 2009 scientists invented geolocators so lightweight and small that they can track bird migration? Did you know that horseshoe crab blood is used to make sure medical equipment is sterilized? Did you know... the poor guy won't have to read the book after me being a chatterbox of nonstop facts through 120 pages. While the author explains how the bird has evolved in order to make this journey of exhaustion and gives clear reasons for its impending extinction, it is a harder text because it is a hybrid nonfiction narrative that requires a higher level of comprehension.

Hybrid texts require synthesizing captions, sidebars, graphs, and main text. The narrative story shifts points of view that might confuse some. The first paragraph in the introduction is in italics and is from the bird's point of view, with paragraph two in the 3rd person, and the last paragraph switching back to the first person narrative. The next chapter begins in first person narrative while the profiles are in third person. While it is handled extremely well, it makes for a more complex read.

This book is loaded with different themes involving environmental impact, handling animals ethically, scientific study of shorebirds, to name a few. Hoose draws upon firsthand experience, secondary sources and interviews. I particularly like the story of Patricia Gonzalez who worked with her high school students to protect beaches in San Antonio Bay, Argentina. The book is interspersed with the story of the migration narrated by Hoose, along with profiles of scientists or activists in protecting the birds. Text boxes and maps explain concepts such as molting, distance, banding, and other amazing facts. The subtext on horseshoe crabs, the fragility of ecosystems, and the cost to fisherman's livelihood is balanced and clearly presented to readers.

The writing is gorgeous. You can smell, feel, and hear the ocean with this text. "Then hundreds of chattering birds, some beginning to show hints of red in their feathering, beat their wings and rise into the air as one, towering up into a tight, swirling, shape-shifting column that seeks the wind and looks like drifting smoke to a shorebound observer." Phillip Hoose captures the senses and creates a moving story. I was so wrapped up in B95's tale that I got tears in my eyes as the suspense builds as to whether or not Moonbird is alive or dead. Hoose's first person point of view also pulled me into the story like the tide coming in; his experiences with banding and capturing the creatures engage all the senses. This topnotch book pulls together information from scientists, activists, children, biologists, fisherman, and personal experience to create a fantastic tale of hope for the future of these birds and for humanity to correct some damage they are causing to the environmental. A must read.

5 Smileys

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami Decristofano

Not many writers can make astrophysics interesting. I've actually come across two articles on black holes in one week. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 was the first, and to be honest, quite a bit of it whooshed over my head. I wished I had read this book first, I would have appreciated the other more, or at least understood what a singularity means in the world of black holes. The simplicity at which the author presents the material and then builds to more complex ideas is what makes this extremely well done. Toss in some amazing facts, stories about Einstein, great artwork, good design, and you have a winner.

This book isn't going to attract mobs of readers. Personally, I am not particularly interested in black holes, but in a sense, the text created its own gravitational pull, sucking me into the science by comparing concrete concepts such as whirlpools and skaters with the energy of a black hole. This is probably the most I'll get interested in the topic. I can't wait to share this title with my grade 5 teachers for their nonfiction unit that they will be doing next year. Not to mention how it ties in with STEM. Enjoy this quick expository read.

4 Smileys

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Yesterday, I got on my workout clothes and was heading out the door with my husband when I said to him that the floor was uneven. He looked at my tennis shoes, quirked his eyebrows, drily replying, "You have two different pairs of shoes on dear." I looked down with round eyes at my white, errr.... blue-striped-left versus gray-striped-right shoe and responded, "We really need better lights in the bedroom." He quipped that there were five lightbulbs in the overhead fixture, but I had already slammed the bedroom door on him on my way to the closet. Honest-to-Pete, do I have to live everyday with this numbskull brain of mine? I tell you this because when you read my reviews, you have to understand my lightbulb doesn't glow in the dark. It doesn't really shine. At best it casts a hazy illumination on surrounding objects which is a round-about way of saying my wishy-washy brain can't figure out whether or not to give this book a 4 or 5 star. If I can't even get my shoes right, how can I decide on book review stars?

Sixteen-year-old Seraphina is plagued by self-doubts too, except unlike me, the light-emitting diodes (LEDS) in her brain shine brilliantly as one of the best musicians in the court and teacher to the high-spirited Princess Grisselda. When Prince Rufus is found headless after a hunt, Seraphina gets swept into an investigation that suggests a coup in the government. The mystery threatens to expose Seraphina's terrible secret, one so awful that if revealed, it would lead to her immediate execution.

The writing is exquisite with a unique retelling of familiar fantasy conventions and tropes. The author obviously put in quite a bit of research on medieval history creating a world of clothes and instruments representing that time period. I kept coming across words I didn't know; take for instance, "garderobe" is a medieval privy, "hypocaust" is a roman heating system, "hennin" is a 15th century hairdo, and "sackbut" (love that name) is a precursor to the trombone. My notes contain a symphony of historical details that create a rich setting. The glossary at the back contains a mere fraction of what is inked on the pages.

The first person narrative is necessary for the subplot of characters who exist in Seraphina's dreams. This alternate world called, The Garden of Grotesques, changes as the story progresses and it is unclear if the characters are going to help or hurt Seraphina until the end. I appreciated this surreal plot twist that kept me guessing in its unpredictability. Rachel Hartman explains that she based this on the memory palace. Oh ironies! I have checked out a book on the memory palace two times in the past four months, only to have it twice expire on my eReader because I forgot about it.

The romantic subplot between Lucian and Seraphina is predictable; however, I didn't find it boring because Hartman's writing is so gorgeous. Some writers leave me basking in their words and what might be tedious in less capable hands feels like a flower unfolding in the sunlight in expert hands. For instance, Lucian is a bastard and the concept is built on and explored by he and Seraphina in a satisfying way up to the end, "Bastard equals monster in our hearts' respective lexicons; that's why you always had such insight into it." Other themes such as truth, art, love, and more, are probed in similar ways. While the plot structure is conventional, the rest is not, and that, is what elevates this above your average, enjoyable fantasy.

Actually, the plot is what held me back on giving this book 5 stars. Many readers will not agree with me, but avid fantasy or romance readers might. The political investigation was fairly predictable with only one delightful twist that I didn't see coming - and while it was a great twist - I would have liked a few more. Not that it matters. Rachel Hartman creates terrific characters from the Spock-like Orma to the spoiled, kind-hearted Princess and infuses the storyline with tense life and death situations that ooze into many relationships and social structures. Dragons (in human form) and humans live together but theirs is a tentative peace. Humans cannot marry dragons and they do not commingle at the dinner table or at dances or socially. Prejudice and hatred are rampant creating suspense that made it hard for me to want to participate in the living, breathing, real world once I hunkered down with this book. Consider yourself warned.

I'm just poking fun at myself in the first paragraph. Actually, that isn't how it happened. My husband and I were going to the club, I noticed my shoes were uneven, and stopped pointing at them. "Unbelievable!" My husband snorts and says, "Kind of like different colored socks?" referring to our second date thirty years ago when I accidentally wore two different colored socks, drank too much beer and chucked a dart in his friend's expensive speaker hanging close to the dart board. "You knew exactly what you were getting," I snapped. He gives me his irresistible smirk while I stomp off. I had just burnt the granola I was cooking and wasn't in the mood for my dippy dim-witted brain clowning with me. So I fictionalized my story. I call it the art of writing. Or maybe it's author's prerogative. (Hey, I heard that... no it's not stupidity.) I do know that I resort to stretching the truth when I have writer's block. Usually uncataloging something stupid I've done melts the ice. Hartman explores the notion of art and truth in a much more intelligent way than me and the above paragraph is me connecting those ideas with my life. Dragons envy humans for the ability to create art and Kiggs and Serphina use it as a way to test philosophical theories. For them, art is a way to question life and look for different possibilities.

I am passionate about reading books, just like Rachel Hartman loves music. Her music passages contain so much emotion that it makes me want to pick up a flute and toodle some notes. Actually, her writing has such an exquisite rhythm and melody, it is easy to argue that it carries the plot forward at a steady beat. "I began too quietly, unsure of the melody, but the notes seemed to find me and my confidence grew. The music flew from me like a dove released into the vastness of the nave; the cathedral itself lent it new richness and gave something back, as if this glorious edifice, too, were my instrument. There are melodies that speak as eloquently as words, that flow logically and inevitably from a single, pure emotion."  Now you can see my inspiration to pick out some notes on the keyboard and write a review that began with uncertainty but ended on a clear note. Read "Seraphina" and discover your own song.

4 Smileys

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini by Peter Johnson

Yellow post-it notes litter my desk like a checkered flag. Once in a while one gets stuck to my elbow or purse bottom. I'm optimistic at first that this organization technique will galvanize me into getting my act together. But by the end of the year, I've gravitated toward my natural chaos, casting a jaded eye at the fake wood desktop thinking, this strategy ain't a workin' for me. I feel the same way about some common literary techniques in children's literature. At first, I think, ahhhh... how clever of the author to have the main character use a dictionary to look up words, helping the young reader learn new vocabulary. After coming across this technique umpteen times, it's looking like a checkered flag to me right now. Eventually, I git dawgone tired of it. Maybe my problem is they remind me too much of doing outlines for research papers where my scattered notes looked like confetti. Or maybe it is too much like cooking where I always miss a key ingredient creating a mound of inedible slop. Or maybe I'm too random for a sequential list. I don't know. I do know I get irritated at lists as well. Lists for top ten rules to make friends. Lists for things to do. Lists of favorite words (that's a biggie). Lists on how to pick your nose (just kidding).  Alas, this book has lists. But we don't see them once in a while, we see them ten times over the course of 160 pages. These lists clarify the plot. They are funny. And they irritate me.

I wonder if my snarky attitude towards lists makes me too biased to write a review, and maybe it does, but I didn't think this book lived up to its potential. While the craft elements are all there, the end result was like a rock skipping across the surface of a lake with chapters too short and the first person point of view too limiting for me to connect with the characters. The strong start introduces the protagonist, Houdini, who sounds like a smart aleck teenager. He's funny, has an attitude, and spends time with his good friends, Lucky and Jorge. Lucky is actually unlucky when it comes to injuring himself and Jorge likes to swear all the time. The trio deals with Angel, the class bully, and learn to not be afraid of their neighbor, Old Man Jackson, an ex-Vietnam war veteran with one arm and pit bull guard dog. Their neighborhood is rough and life is not easy for the boys. When Houdini's brother goes off to fight in Iraq, the family is fearful for his life, causing Houdini to find an unlikely friend in Old Man Jackson.

A subplot involves Houdini writing a novel. Normally I like this metafictional touch, but here it made me notice the writing craft too much and I felt like I was being manipulated through the story. Dad is political and opinionated. He's about to lose his job and through writing, Houdini notices these changes. The problem is that the first person point of view made the father flat as a character. Perhaps if I could go inside his head, he'd be more rounded. As is, when I first read his views they sounded like a platform for the author's political views. The same goes for Angel. I needed to get inside his head. Why did he change? The first person point of view made it unbelievable. The older brother is flat too. I would have liked to go inside his head to learn about his relationship with old man Jackson. He makes all the right decisions and is more an adult than the father. I think using third person narrative would have pulled me into the story more versus feeling like a detached observer.

In some ways this story reminded me of "Okay for Now" by Gary Schmidt but without the deep character development. The chapters are very short and while I like the authors use of words and arrangement of sentences that create a nice rhythmn, I just couldn't connect with the characters. On the other hand, I can see students liking the nice humor and short chapters.

I did feel uncomfortable with some of the stereotypes: hot-tempered abusive father who is a red head, screaming mother who dresses in tight clothes, wired rapper-looking boy who swears all the time, Vietnam veteran who burns incense and has an insane laugh, mohawk fat bully, and so on. The author tries to show them as human toward the end, but I wished he had not used these stock characters. This is definitely a grade 5 book and older. I know that I am in the minority with this book. My friend Angela really liked it and we tend to agree on most books. It has also won two awards. Maybe the lists spun me in the wrong direction. Maybe coming off reading four great adult novels, I was turned off by the simplicity of this story. I don't know. You'll have to decide for yourself. The good news is it took me only two hours. It's taken me longer to write this review ; )

Reading Level 5.6
3 Smileys

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 by Mary Roach

At the University of Minnesota's Journalism School I kept a dozen or so articles and poems that unlocked my writer's block like a "polyrhythmic jam session." This book reminds me of those inspirations. The in-depth reporting, clever arrangement, extensive resources, and beautiful writing has made this a favorite I won't be forgetting about in the near future.

A collection of nonfiction nature and science stories; my favorite was about fermentation. That's right. Fermentation. Author Burkhard Bilger includes all the elements of a fiction story giving readers a sense of setting, characters, and wit. What a gem. Bilger explores the world of Sandor Katz, famous fermentation guru who travels the country espousing the power of eating bacteria transformed foods and fermenting foods such as sauerkraut and dill pickles. Katz would have gladly picked up that moldy cheese on the basketball court that inspired such revulsion in Greg and Rowley, in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." Bilger begins the article with his lunch date at a house with a group, he dubs, the "oppotunivores," because they scavenge food from dumpsters. He describes the lentil soup made from the dumpster carrots and onions having a color that reminded him of the structures house paint. "The whole compound was painted a sickly greenish gray - the unhappy marriage of twenty-three cans of surplus paint from Home Depot." Bilger shows how Katz changes from a political activist to a "fermentation fetishist." The tale is so bizarre it will suck you in and leave you pickled, or tickled, afterwards.

Christopher Ketcham is a great article for studying similies and metaphors while learning about the adaptation of coyotes throughout history. His comparison of coyotes howling to gamelan music of Indonesia couldn't have been more timely as I read this book in Bali. Dan Koeppel creates suspense as he puts the reader in the place of free falling from 35,000 feet and surviving the impact. The "polyrhythmic jam session" comes from Geroge Mussler's piece on death, afterlife, and quantum physics. Or is it M-theory? Or cosmic singularities? His was somewhat technical and I can't remember specifics (obviously), although I liked his music metaphor.

My personal inclination was to focus on the nature stories more than the medical or space ones. Stephen Hawkings was too technical and theoretical for my short attention span, but it was still well written. Oliver Sacks story on prosopagnosia, people who can't recognize the faces of other people, was fascinating; however, a part of me shuts down after reading sentences such as "Here the data are clear: virtually all patients with prospagnosia, irrespective of the cause, have lesions in the right visual-association cortex, in particular on the underside of the occipitotemporal cortex." The article is quite clear, but medical terminology reminds me of learning a second language or suffocating in Beijing's air pollution.

These authors make magazine writing look like a stroll next to a waterfall, instead masking the hard climb to the mountaintop. The difficulty of taking multiple interviews, combining them with facts into a seamless story where the individuals become real is very difficult. Remember that these authors are collecting stories from a gaggle of folks attempting to get colorful quotes that spice up their articles. Not only do they succeed in seasoning their pieces, they surround factual details with rich sensory input that makes for a great reading experience. Hard for this lousy ex-journalism major to not admire their excellence in craft. If you are looking for ideas to write a novel, want a change from your normal reading fare, or love nonfiction, then pick up this winner.

5 Smileys

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

When I first read this book in the 1980s, the message that adults do not respect teenagers decisions or feelings as important in comparison to theirs, resonated with me.  Adults ruled my world back then. Ender Wiggins was a kindred spirit who didn't have control of his world any more than me. Like Ender, I too, wasn't always protected by adults when dealing with school bullies, siblings, cheats, competition, and loneliness, to name a few. Ender's gig was more extreme - shoot his world was so messed up that the government had created an army of child-genius soldiers - but all the same, I could relate to Ender's story in a deeply satisfying way as a young reader. Also, my alter ego got to pretend I was a brilliant strategist who could do no wrong, could manipulate people because of great deductive skills on human nature, and never lost a battle. I've gushed for years to students how much I enjoyed this book, even though I have forgotten most of the plot and haven't read it in over 25 years. Time to revisit an old friend.

As an adult reader I appreciate this novel on a deeper level; how the main character, Ender, drives the story; how the underlying themes of innocence lost, human nature, leadership, military strategy, psychology (to name a few) are more clear as I filter my own life experiences in tandem with the storyline. This adult-child crossover book creates a unique experience that feeds my addictive reading habits like a box of chocolates. Say what you will, but Orson Scott Card writes absorbing stories that are good at getting me to think. He has a distinct writing style characterized by a directness in dialogue and interior monologues that at first seem to tell, rather than show. When you look beneath the story's surface he's showing much more than I realized when I first read it; he's delving into complex themes and nontraditional literary strategies that are not easy to explain. I will tackle some and try not to give away the story; the plot twists are part of the joy in reading this book. Some might find Card's style boring or preachy, but it was the right mix of action and dialogue for me.

Set in the future, Earth has been attacked in two wars by the Formics an alien race derogatorily called, "Buggers," because of their insect-like appearance. Earth is ruled by three parties, the Hegemon, Polemarch, and Strategos who are in conflict with each other, but currently cooperating in anticipation of a third "Bugger" invasion. The mediator of peace between these three political forces and the military defender of the world is the International Fleet (IF). Ender is to be trained in leadership and military strategy at IF's "Battle School," a place that recruits children with the best tactical minds to be a part of a rigorous program that launches their careers as commanders or pilots of spaceship fleets that protect earth from interstellar invasions.

Chapter one begins with a doctor removing a monitor that was surgically attached to six-year-old Ender Wiggin's neck as a three-year-old. The IF uses the monitor to determine if he will be a good candidate for Battle School. The doctor assures Ender the monitor detachment won't hurt, but it not only hurts, it is life-threatening, causing Ender excruciating convulsions and temporary memory loss. From the get-go, adults lie to Ender in order to hide the truth and protect him from pain. This literary device makes the reader sympathetic towards Ender and the other children in Battle School, drawing the focus away from the fact they are being trained as soldiers who kill others and makes them appear as victims of adults who control their destiny. This makes the story work. If the reader is not emotionally sympathetic with Ender, then the outrageous plot seems silly. Once the monitor is off, Ender thinks he's been rejected by IF; however, they are still watching him and analyzing his actions. They decide they do want him and he is whisked off by a Colonel to Battle School that resides in the Earth's orbit to save the world from the Buggers.

The author's outrageous plot makes another point besides the reader being sympathetic, it shows the irony of innocence lost and adults who purposefully don't protect students in order for them to learn how to fight. Let's recap the plot: a six-year-old is sent to training school to save the world from war and he sounds and acts like a mature adult. What a clever way to make the point of innocence lost by creating a futuristic world where the military is made up of children who train for war using video games and simulators in zero gravity so that war and killing look like a game. The adults mask the reality that students are killing other beings. They are just killing aliens. Buggers. The result is a lack of moral debate because their intentions are innocent; plus, using third person omnipresent gives the reader privy to the serious consequences that the characters do not know. Ender is manipulated more than any of them and is the target of bullies and jealous cadets. He does question and cry every time he must hurt someone. As the book progresses, the games become less fun and more all-consuming bringing out hatred, jealousy, and stress, as well as, creativity and teamwork in students. Even though children are smaller than adults, they have character voices that show, for the most part, a sophisticated inner monologue that sounds too mature and developmentally inaccurate for their age. The author does this deliberately. He even has the characters dialogue about it, "But we don't think like other children, do we Val? We don't talk like other children. And above all, we don't write like other children." This reveals that the children think of themselves like adults as do the adults. Even though the adults control the childrens environment, they often talk about the students superior mental capabilities compared to theirs and placing them in command of the fleet to save the world from war reaffirms this.

Ender is a third child, an exception to Earth's two-child policy per family. IF is hoping he will be a half-and-half personality of his older genius siblings who have been considered for Battle School before Ender. His sister, Valentine, was rejected because she was too passive and his brother, Peter, because he was too violent and psychopathic. Born for the sole purpose of being a commander, Ender's parents don't bond with him like normal parents; they know he'll be taken from them for the military at some point. Ender is close to Valentine and shows the empathy that was lacking in Peter; hence, the IF knows he has leadership potential to command their fleet.

Ender's siblings, are great manipulators who control adults, as seen when they set themselves up as political spokesmen for humanity. Ender only manipulates when he has too and uses leadership skills to inspire loyalty in others. Whereas Peter sees what others hate most about themselves and inspires fear and Val sees what's best in others, persuading them to her point of view; Ender understands how other people think and uses that information to his advantage. When he gets in tight spots with bullies, he exploits their weaknesses, whether it is pride or vanity, and anticipates ensuing actions circumventing the conflict or attacking it head on. He doesn't manipulate adults, because he has the same goal as them which is to save the world from the Buggers. At first he doesn't understand why the adults are isolating and singling him out, but he eventually realizes it is in preparation to lead a crew of soldiers for on the battlefield there will be no adults giving directions. At times he is broken, but like a tragic hero, he continues his lonely quest.

I find a character who agonizes over his actions more interesting than one that doesn't. When Ender cries after he hurts another person, it makes him more authentic. He isn't like many characters who kill and give it no thought. After he hurts someone, he is torn; even traumatized at times. Ender's gut-wrenching sobs and depression after hurting others shows a compassionate person who is on the one hand ruthless, and on the other, humane. This makes him sympathetic to the reader, which is critical in connecting with him even though he's a trained killer. This also shows military strategy. Ender is learning that he must destroy his enemy to show his superiority and prevent future fights. This mentality is deemed necessary to defeating the enemy.

This book reminded me of coaching in some ways and in other ways it didn't. In coaching you focus on improving skills and finding your best potential, not winning. Winning is an outcome. For Ender, winning is everything. Losing means at best, you are a prisoner of war, worst, you are dead. At first, Ender works on strategy and how to improve and improvise after each battle. He makes mistakes but they never cause him to lose.  He leads the others finding positions in the toon where they will be the most successful. He never laughs or banters with others so they know he is commander. They are not friends. He is harsh with them as a group, but patient individually, listening to questions and making "suggestions quietly." His military leadership forms a tight supportive group that works well as a unit.

In the introduction, Orson Scott Card, reveals the resources he used on military strategy and leadership as background research for this work of fiction. He also explains how he got the idea for "Ender's Game." It is quite fascinating and I recommend reading it. I hadn't intended to analyze this much, but as you can see, I find the story irresistible in terms of topics and craft. Guess I'll have to force myself to stop. But don't you. Get a copy at your library and see what you think. It's worth it.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) by Brandon Sanderson

Your standard high fantasy novel is characterized by a prophecy, hero, quest, Dark Lord, feudalistic empire, good versus evil, and rare magical powers. Toss these tropes into a made-up salad and pour some home-made dressing on it and you have "Mistborn," a story that sounds familiar, yet tastes fresh and original. Add some strong, likable characters, terrific world-building, and you have a delicious tale. While parts of the tale are predictable there is enough that is unpredictable creating waves of drama and action that kept me reading for 7 hours straight on the beach. Beware! This is a long novel that you won't want to put down.

Vin is a maltreated skaa orphan who is abandoned by her brother with a thieving crew. Skaa and noblemen divide the world of Luthadel, except skaa are trying to survive the bottom of the pecking order. Unlike the noblemen, the skaa slaves did not support the Lord Ruler and they are treated like animals. Skaa work for noblemen who treat them as they want, killing them at will.  Noblemen fight amongst each other for power in the government and belong to Great Houses. Some noblemen have magical powers called, Allomancy, that enhances a physical or mental trait. Neither skaa nor noblemen have true power; that is in the hands of the Lord Ruler, a tyrant, who is immortal and claims to be a god. He's lived for a thousand years and has made the land barren with ash falling every day. In a nice twist on the fantasy trope of self-fulfilling prophecies, this story begins after the Terris prophecies have been fulfilled and the hero's quest failing, leaving the Lord Ruler in charge. Lordy, has he done a bang-up job of making life miserable for most everyone, until a gang of half-blood (part noble, part skaa) thieves come up with a daring coup.

Vin is a half-blood who doesn't know it and survives by using her "luck" on people to persuade them to be agreeable. Her "luck" is the use of Allomancy that is only found in noble blood. She meets Kelsier, another half-blood crew leader, as she's being beaten by her "boss" for a scam gone bad. He recognizes not only her magic, but makes her a member of his crew and mentors her on using her magical skills. She and Kelsier are rare for they are Mistborns, Allomancers, who can use 12 metals that enhance their physical and mental senses. A small amount of noblemen are Mistings and have only one magical element; even less are Mistborns. Allomancers must swallow a metal and then they have superhuman strength, can time travel a few seconds, have enhanced hearing and more. The physical magic makes for great action scenes and Sanderson does a fantastic job slowly explaining how this magic works. The magical system created by the author is so well-done it is one of the strengths of the novel.

However, the main driving force is the characters who have endearing traits and grow throughout the novel. This story is mostly Vin's. She must learn to trust people and matures from a frightened waif into a confident woman. Elend was a hoot with his stack of books that he hauls everywhere. He never quite gets the fashion right and is in the shadow of his father. I could relate to him the most, except I didn't hide at parties in a gorgeous castle, just under the bookshelf next to a  heater (what do you expect - I grew up in the Minnesota). Kelsier smiles all the time to show the world he's not been beaten, even though he's been captured, tortured, and his wife killed. He's known as the "Survivor" by skaa. Spook speaks in a dialect no one can understand. Ham has superhuman strength who loves philosophical debates, Sazed is wise and shares knowledge, while Breeze is like his name. He loves wine and shoots-the-breeze with people keeping conversations light and humorous. This is just a short list... there are plenty more endearing characters.

While Kelsier teaches Vin to use her powers she makes mistakes that almost kill her. It makes her more real as a character and she changes as she learns from these mistakes. I like that she is not your bionic woman who can take on a man double her height and weight, even with enhanced powers. I always think its silly when you have a tiny woman knocking out a man. Sorry ladies... it's just a physical thing. I've been creamed by men on the soccer field and gotten some of my worst injuries from those collisions. And this was when I was a fit 19-year-old playing soccer at the University of Minnesota. Sanderson has Vin recognize she can't take on everyone and she has to outsmart the more brawny men, as well as, the Inquisitors. She knows when to run. I appreciate that in a story. Again, it makes the character more real.

Inquisitors are like the Lord Ruler's physically enhanced bodyguard. They have inhuman strength and kill those disobedient or disfavored by the Lord Ruler. Inquisitors hunt half-bloods and kill them because the Lord Ruler doesn't want Allomancy to mix with skaa. They are quite the monsters with steel spikes piecing not only their bodies but each eye, and protruding out the back of their heads (this made me think of Phineas Gage). Their enhanced senses and brutality makes them so fearsome that the suspense of whether or not the heroes will survive when accosted by them adds great tension.

The plot is well done and while everything is not answered, I was satisfied at the end. I believe many of my questions, particularly concerning the Lord Ruler, will be addressed in a sequel. I did want to see more conflicted emotions from the "evil" characters; how oppression negatively effects the noblemen who must carry out the corruption and violence. Some of the nobles were not comfortable with the executions and I would have liked to see that thread developed mor so they weren't so one-dimensional. As is, the villains are kind of flat. I also wanted Vin to be shocked after killing those 4 soldiers. She just brushes it off and becomes a killing machine by the end. Plus, the two heroes push and pull using soldiers that doesn't respect human life and it seemed to contradict the thread that Kelsier's crew and Vin are "good" people. At the end, Vin does talk to some soldiers and shows them as human but it is very late in the story. I needed to see more sensitivity as the story went along. I think the author could have spent a little less time on her inner monologue of betrayal and addressed a conflict with killing people. Most won't notice or care about this inconsistency because it doesn't take away from a great story.

Because this story follows the literary devices found in high fantasies, I found some of the plot predictable, but then other parts surprised the heck out of me. There was enough balance to keep me engrossed and not irritated. While I did guess Kelsier's part, Renoux had me fooled. The romantic subplot was predictable too, but Elend's actions with the prisoners was a fun twist. I did think Vin acted out of character with Elend in that she trusted him so quickly with information that could have killed her. However, she is also presented as somewhat reckless so maybe she would have blabbed to Elend after some wine. It was a "huh" moment for me. But honestly, I didn't have many of those moments and my husband lost me in the world of storytelling for 12 hours. Good thing I don't usually read adult books. Might be hard on my marriage. If you love fantasy, you'll enjoy this novel. I think I'm inspired to make my own salad creation for dinner tonight (and I hate cooking). 

4 Smileys