Monday, March 30, 2015

Predator Cities #1: Mortal Engines (The Hungry City Chronicles #1) by Philip Reeve

I just finished the prequel called, "Fever Crumb" by Philip Reeve. This book gave me a better understanding of the steampunk world and its government as the world building in this story is more complete. Earth is running out of resources and a man named, Nikola Quercus, designed a machine hundreds of years ago from a floating barge that became a huge city on tread wheels known as a "traction city." Traction cities have become more complex over the years with large machines running the huge treads and the city tiered on top versus slaves on the treads and a barge on top in Nikola's original design. These traction cities originally helped people avoid natural disasters. In the current setting the machines consume other cities as a survival of the fittest; a practice called, Municipal Darwinism.

The setting is on one of the largest and most powerful traction cities called, London, that is run by four Guilds. The gap between the rich and the poor in this autocracy means that the haves and the have-nots are at odds with each other as one group oppresses the other. Even the tier-shaped levels of the city represents the social classes with the wealthy at the top and the poor closer to the pollution and noise of the engines at the bottom. The Anti-Tractionist League is against Municipal Darwinism as the Earth becomes more stable. The two groups are fighting each other as the League tries to restore resources and London continues to wantonly consume all in its path. Tom Natsworthy, is an Apprentice Historian who lives in London, that gets swept up in a plot by a scar-faced girl, Hester Shaw, who is trying to kill an important hero to the city, Thaddeus Valentine. When Tom discovers Valentine's dark past he must make the moral decision of choosing sides in the war between both groups.

Grike, the Staulker, is a fascinating three-dimensional robot assassin. The tie-in with "Fever Crumb" makes Grike all the more interesting as his motivations show a creature that has not completely lost his human qualities even though he is technically dead. In a terrific twist, the reader learns Grike's heart's desire that I did not see coming. I was also glad to see him go partway through the story because he showed up when Tom and Hester were in a tight spot and it would have become repetitious had Reeve kept the same pattern going in the plot. By resolving Grike two-thirds through the story it added interest and then a new twist in the last third.

This story is more violent than "Fever Crumb" and has more romance giving it a Young Adult feel. The author has nuanced villains and characters with distinct voices. Besides Grike, the pirate is a hoot. This helps balance the dark side of the story by lightening the violence. The pirate wants Tom to help him with his "Ettyket" or etiquette. He's a goofball that reminded me a bit of Dustin Hoffman in the movie, "Hook." All in good fun. Reeve also balances kind people with nasty people, that again, doesn't make the novel too dark.

Themes involve idolizing people and then being betrayed, learning to look beyond appearances, making moral decisions, and colonialism. Tom, the protagonist, must decide who to trust and to not trust after he is betrayed by someone he looked up to his entire life. As a person that grew up in London, when he gets embroiled in the politics of the Municipal Darwinism thinkers and the Anti-Traction people, he must choose sides even though he tries not to. He looks beyond the horribly scarred face of Hester Shaw and makes a true friend, but it takes time for the two to trust each other. The Colonialism that threatens to destroy resources versus the Anti-Traction League that he can see working to stabilize Earth, makes him question the morality of what his government is doing in its quest to destroy others. Engines are mortal compared to the Earth's natural resources. A great science fiction story with nonstop action.

5 Smileys

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fever Crumb (Fever Crumb #1) by Philip Reeve

Steampunk novels remind me of surreal art. This book made me feel like Salvador Dali's "Sleep," painting where I mistook the crutches holding up a sleeping head as needles piercing it. I thought the lips were sewn shut. It is a creepy painting, straight from my nightmares. Steampunk oftentimes has a surreal, nightmarish dark side that slurps me into the plot. I can't seem to put down the book even when I want to. If you like science fiction, then you'll like this book. Philip Reeve's world building is detailed and hard to visualize only because it is so darn odd. Barges on wheels. Robot men made from supposedly dead people. Paper boys that can fold into small squares and squeeze through small apertures. Plop down with this crazy, disorienting story with its multi-layered themes and strong character development that shows a child going from dependency on a parent to independence and self-discovery. This is a prequel to the Hungry City Chronicles and can be read without knowing that series.

Fever Crumb is an orphan raised by engineer Gideon Crumb in London. As the only girl in the Order of Engineers, a group that spurns emotions and pleasure as the two lead to irrational behavior, Fever works hard to follow the rules. When she is sent to assist an archeologist, Kit Solvent, it sets in motion a plot to kill her thinking she is a Shriven, or nonhuman. The fanatical Bagman Creech who led the previous riots that overturned the Shriven with commoners committing genocide makes for a fascinating character study. Creech believes in what he does and feels it is right. He doesn't see Shriven as humans because of the spots on their skin. This could launch discussions on fanaticism and terrorism. The Shriven were an elitist group that held all the power and money while oppressing the Londoners. As Fever works with Kit, the scents and sights trigger memories that she can't understand. As Creech chases after her and threatens those she cares about, she finds out more about herself and her odd background that makes for an action-packed story.

Philip Reeve loves to play with words. The dictator's name is Auric Godshawk. He has an aura about him and likes to play God while preying on the dead. Bert Atkinson is spelled, Bert @kinson. The villain curses, "That's a load of blog," or "you great soft blogger," are an interesting look at how the world has changed in the future. The Internet no longer exists but the words reflect the past, but are used different. Reeve's play on words is constant. My favorite was "technomancer" or "technomancy" like "necromancer" or "necromancy." The person with that title was the one that brought dead men to life using technology. He also describes technology without using the word so it was fun guessing what was braces, or tanks, or cars, or hovercrafts were when they are introduced in the story.

Fever begins as a young girl that is dependent on Gideon and happy to be home with him. When she gets her first assignment she is scared and doesn't want to go, but because she is an engineer she has learned to ignore her emotions. She shaves her head like all the other engineers so she is not distracted by pleasures or vanity and feels safe within the rigid order of life at the Engineerium. It isn't until she meets Kit who acts as her foil, that she starts to think for herself and become independent. At the end when she questions the cruel intentions of people using machines, it shows a girl who is becoming her own self. She considers the ethical issues of creating Stalkers who at times show the conscience of their former self and go "mad." She feels that the practice is morally wrong and requires more research.

The floating barge is run literally by slaves on treads. The politics shows different factions trying to take control with one person succeeding at the end. The end has the next ruler of London being bent toward an aristocratic government and a colonization of other cities that is similar to the British Empire.  This sets up for the Hungry City Chronicles government that seems to be more of a plutocracy, but is driven to colonize others as the world becomes depleted of natural resources. Some terrific twists and turns make this story original, memorable, and the questions left at the end will have me scrambling for book 2 when it is released for publication.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea: The Story of Annaliese Easterling & Throckmorton, Her Simply Remarkable Sock Monkey by Eileen Beha, Sarah Jane Wright

This story takes plot elements similar to "The Velveteen Rabbit" by Margery Williams, but explores topics such as divorce, abandonment, and the joy of being loved. Annaliese Easterling loved her sock puppet, Throckmorton, until a horrible incident happened that made her abandon the toy. When she rediscovers it she brings it to life with her love and friendship. Life is difficult in the Easterling household since their mother ran away nine years ago. The oldest boy, Evan, is angry, isolated, and mean-spirited at times. The middle child, Teddy, is more kind to his sister and those around him. However, the father rules with an iron fist, not allowing the children to ask any questions about their mother or letting them have any communication with her. Annaliese is isolated more than any of them. Her brothers are going to military school and a tutor has been hired to teach her. She is not allowed to have friends or go out and it leaves her only Throckmorton, her sock monkey, as her friend.

When an invitation arrives for a large family gathering with their sock monkeys, a hunt begins to find the two that have been misplaced by Evan and the father. When Annaliese finds the sock monkeys in the forbidden attic, she also discovers clues to who her mother was before she left the house. The tutor, Miss Pine, helps Annaliese's father deal with his children in a more healthy way as they begin to question him about the items in the attic that was their mothers. When Annaliese gets together with her grandmother, she learns not only how to sew a sock monkey, but gathers more information about her mother.

The point-of-view is from Throckmorton, which allows the reader to see how all the characters are reacting to each other. The drama, action, and pacing are well done. When Annaliese comes down with pneumonia, I thought of the boy in "The Velveteen Rabbit," that comes down with Scarlet Fever. The author does not follow the same plot and puts her own unique twist that is original from the classic. I got a kick out of the grandma who loves horses which again made me think Margery William's Skin Horse, the wisest and oldest toy in the playroom that tells the Velveteen Rabbit that children's love is what makes toys real. The same is in this story. The sock monkeys are only alive when a child loves them. However the imagery of a child abandoning a toy juxtaposed with a mother abandoning her children is completely unique.

The Esterling grandma handmade all her grandchildren sock monkeys that made me think of how people will give presents like this, but they are not always appreciated as they should be. I was a bit convicted thinking about a person that handmade an ornament that I would hide because I thought it was so ugly. Really it is the effort and love in the item that should be seen more than the product. Even in school I think I focus on students creating products versus thinking of the process. Anyway, it is worth reflecting on how actions impact others. An intriguing story that would make a good read aloud.

4 Smileys

Goblins (Goblins #1) by Philip Reeve

This clever story pokes fun at common fantasy conventions and tropes while appealing to young readers with its scatological humor. If you liked Christopher Healy's satire on fairy tales in "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom" then you'll enjoy this one. Meet goblin Skarper, a whippersnapper that teaches himself to read and makes the mistake of correcting the King Goblin, Knobbler, about the definition of a pirate. Even though Skarper's right, but no one likes a smartypants, especially a cranky king goblin. Skarper's catapulted off the "bratapult" winding up outside the castle ruins of his home and in the company of Hewyn, a cheesewright, who wants to be a hero instead of taking over his family's cheese business. Hewyn, who is a bit of a cheese brain, is on his way to saving a princess from a giant when Skarper saves his life from a troll. 

Hewyn accidentally blew up his dad's cheese factory and he thinks he can redeem himself by becoming a hero. His cheese disaster reminded me of Big Anthony in Strega Nona. On their way Skarper and Hewyn are intercepted by three sorcerers that capture them and make Skarper lead them back to his home at Blackspike Tower in Clovenstone so they can reclaim the evil Lych Lord's power. A comet is nearing their planet and magic is stirring. Lych Lord has been dead for "years without numbers," sealing up his tower. By the way, lych, means corpse. Between friendly giants, boglins (froggy-goblin hybrids), goblins, a middle-aged princess, dragons, a prophecy, amulets, and more, this action-packed fun ride will satisfy many fantasy lovers.

The play on names pokes fun at a gazillion fantasy conventions. Okay, maybe not a gazillion, but a lot. King Arthur had Excalibar. King Knobbler has Mr. Chop-U-Up. J.R.R. Tolkien had Bilboa Baggins of Bag End where he made Frodo Baggins his heir to the disappointment of the Sackville-Baggins. Here, there is King Lusuenn's daughter, Princess Eluned from Porthstrewy who is to be married to Colvennor of Choon. It's on the Northerly Gate of Colvenstone along the Nibbled Coast by Oeth Moor.  Sounds like Tolkien drunk on Dr. Seuss. Tolkien liked to use "Dor" such-and-such, like Dor-Lomin of Hithlum by the Mountains of Mithrim. Reeve has the plain of Dor Koth and the Battle of Dor Koth by the Bonehill Mountains. Are you laughing yet? Or maybe you are cross-eyed.

When Hewyn finally reaches his princess he is going to rescue, he discovers it's been forty years and she is grey, middle-aged, and very happy living with her friendly giant and on a ship that sits atop the high tower where the battlements of the Westerly Gate arise. Oof. This is one silly tale that I know my students will like. There's the bumwipe heap where the goblins use book papers to wipe their bums. There's the King Knobbler that secretly wears pink undies and is terrified his subjects will discover the fact making him the butt, I mean brunt of jokes. Last month my third graders changed the html code on Follett catalog to "Poop is awesome." Hoorah. They'll love all the poop references. The kindergarteners are into "Booboo butt" thanks to "The Book with No Pictures" by P.J. Novak. It will be a while before those mini goblins can read this chapter book but it will be a hit when they do.

There are several villains, invisible ink, treasure hunters, beserkers, cloud maidens, and creepy batlike men. Skarper, who chooses friendship over power and treasure, is the real hero. He wants treasure but resists the urge when he sees how the person with power lavishes gifts only to turn toward punishment when people disagree with him or her. Power can destroy a person as well as ruin friendships and isolate the person in power - as it does to one of the characters in this tale. 

The plot has a quest and follows the Hero's Journey or monomyth as Skarper sets forth to get into the castle and find the hidden treasure. Skarper encounters obstacles before facing an ultimate challenge that changes him in the end; that being his discovery of true friendship. From the opening sentence the reader is immediately clued in that this is a high fantasy novel with its funny, melodramatic tone,  "In the lands of the west, where men are few and some of the old magic lingers still, there stands the ancient fortress of Clovenstone." The ruins of a castle is described and it sounds quite serious until the second page where Skarper is screaming "Aaaaaah!" as he is catapulted off the tower. Get ready to scream folks. This one is a hoot. The end suggests a sequel as the two adventurers muse over how dull life is once the excitement is over. Get thee to a bookstore to purchase thy grand "Goblins" book.

4 Smileys

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

I haven't come across many books that have a protagonist that is adopted. Orphaned... yes. Adopted? Not so much. Readers will not only like the mystery Kate Milford weaves throughout the plot, but the rich layers of Milo's journey of coming to terms with being adopted and gaining confidence in himself. Milo's caring and loving parents feel guilty when five guests show up unexpectedly at their Inn making it difficult for them to give Milo the attention they want as he is home for the holidays from school. When items start disappearing from each of the guests rooms, Milo teams up with Meddy, a relative of the cook's and they create a game that gives them pretend characters who solve the mystery at the Inn and become friends in the process.

Milo is an adopted Chinese boy that thinks about his birth parents throughout the story and then feels guilty for doing so. His adopted parents consist of a dad that is "good at quiet" and a mom that is good at talking. His parents are extremely busy with the guests but check in with Milo and help him with his journey of dealing with sense of loss over his biological parents. Their empathy with Milo represents loving parents that know they can't replace the hole Milo feels in wondering what and why his real parents gave him up for adoption, but they try to help him process it. Milo learns with the help of not only his parents, but some of the guests how to deal with his loss in a healthy way.

Milo and Meddy create a game where they choose a character that becomes their alter-ego. They solve the mysteries going on at the Inn and it allows them to take on characteristics that they don't feel they have in real life. Milo is anxious and quiet, but as his game character, "Negret" known as an escaladeur or spy, Milo can be anything he wants. As Meddy explains, "'s a character. It's a different version of you. In the game, it helps to think of being different from you that lives in the real world." At one point Milo realizes that he didn't have to get into the play-acting to behave like Negret, and it is at this point, he starts to become more confident in his own abilities.

Milo and Meddy's playacting adds humor and fun to the story. The Odd Trails game they are playing is like a video game with avatars even though it is a board game. The clever titles give it a medieval-type atmosphere and Milo and Meddy even add obstacles to the mystery to make their discoveries more exciting. I remember doing this with my friend as a kid. We'd get so wrapped up in our imaginative play we'd try to make things more complicated to add to the fun. Milo and Meddy don't just give the guests their stolen items back. They wrap the items as presents and put them under the tree because they are afraid of being accused of the thefts. At times they make the situations harder than need be, but it is all a part of the pretend play mixed with reality. This makes the plot entertaining and creative with resolutions. Add to that the adult made-up stories with the children's and the mysteries deepen as the story unfolds.

The author's word choices and imagery are beautiful such as "orphan magic," that means an orphan has more power from knowing loss. "When one remains, it is the one that was meant to remain. It is the one that is special; it is precious because it is unique; it is powerful because that is how it survived. ...It has potential when it is connected to the rest, but when it is sundered away, its potential becomes power." Milo finds some antique keys with writing on them and using Negret he pretends they are keys to his birth parents. He doesn't feel guilty using his alter-ego. He fantasizes about his Chinese dad, "I always knew you would follow in my footsteps, his father might have said. We all knew, the entire family, because you take after me so very much. We even look alike." Milo and Meddy have fun plowing through attic junk and using it for their game. Meddy finds a yellow robe and dubs it the Cloak of Indiscernibility; Milos hat becomes the Helm of Revelations; Meddy's sunglasses are the Eyes of True and Aching Clarity; and the box of glass shards, Gems of Ultimate Puissance.

I thought the pacing at the start was somewhat slow but it is setting up for a great twist at the end. Take that for what it is worth... I am biased toward action and not the most patient reader. The author does a great job having the sleuths discover the obvious clues right away and then adding a layer of unforeseen difficulty. The last few mysteries I've read have taken obvious clues and then dragged them out forever before the protagonist thinks about it. Here, the author is spot-on with the clues and resolutions. At times reading this book made me think of "Murder on the Orient Express" by Agatha Christie and "The Westing Game" by Ellen Raskin. A must for your library.

4 Smileys

Friday, March 20, 2015

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire

I've read "Wicked" and "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" by Gregory Maguire, but this is my first attempt at one of his non-adult books. I found it meandered too much and I kept putting it down finally forcing myself to finish it. Maguire is a commanding writer with a wonderful grasp of language creating metaphors and rich layers in his stories, but this mishmash of folktale, fairy tale, history, and anachronisms is going to require an awful lot of background knowledge and patience by a young reader. His villain also steals the show. No surprise there. The author is great with creating three-dimensional villains. I'm going to give my copy to the middle school library, as it might appeal to older readers. The first half with its distracting narrator slowed the pace, while the second half had more action and fairy tale elements with the adventure to find the Firebird egg.

Elena Rudina lives in rural Russia during the 1900s where the townspeople are dying of starvation. The Tsar has conscripted Elena's brother into his army and her other brother works for a wealthy man that owns most of the land around town. Elena's mother is dying and her dad is dead. She scrounges for food but it gets scarcer each day. When a train stops at her town so workers can repair a nearby damaged bridge, Elena finds a wealthy girl her age, Ekaterina (Cat), who is traveling to St. Petersburg to see the Tsar's godson. The train contains lavish amounts of food and Elena is sent by her grandmother and the town doctor to get some morsels for their starving mother.

In a "Prince and the Pauper" style twist, Cat falls out of the train saving a Faberge egg that was custom-made for the Tsar, while Elena stays on board. Through a series of coincidences Elena can't get off the train and masquerades as Cat. The servants go along with the ruse because they know they will get fired once it is discovered Cat is missing. Historically, this is set during the Russian Revolution when people were starving and Tsar Nicholas II ruled with no sympathy toward their plight. Had I not just completed, "The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia" by Candace Fleming, I would not have understood the Tsar's hardline and lack of reasoning with peasants. The nobility would not speak in Russian because they thought it beneath them and they believed in their superiority to the peasants. Rasputin even makes a brief appearance and there is a subtle joke on his motive to be with the Tsar as being self-serving versus any spiritual pursuit as a humble monk.

On the train adventure, Elena finds a Firebird while Cat finds the witty and hilarious witch, Baba Yaga. She calls the children "chuckleheads" instead of "knuckleheads" and "honeybucket" as a term of endearment. She acts threatening but shows she's more caring than most adults. When she meets the Tsar she is outspoken and amusing as no one would ever have been to him in real life. When she tells Tsar Nicholas she's, "Baba Yaga, arrived at court at last, and I wish this were a christening so I could cast a few good spells and have some fun, but honeybucket, we haven't time," I thought she knows how to steal the show. She's really funny and the reason I didn't quit reading the book during slow parts.

The Firebird is like the Phoenix in classical mythology that burns in fire and is reborn from the ashes. Here, the Firebird symbolizes the death of the Tsarist autocracy and rebirth of a new government.  In Russian folktales the Firebird is a blessing and a curse as Maguire cleverly weaves throughout the plot. The story shows the blessings of family and friends and the curse of humans wanting more or the fact that "...there is always something more to do, while you are alive." He also has it represent magic found in folktales. This magic is understood mainly by children and in this tale only they can see Baba Yaga, the old witch's house, and go on a journey to save Russia. Children are the future and they can decide how they want to shape it through the choices they make in life.

The beginning has a first person narrator that is a monk. His voice interrupts the story and is jarring at times. I'm not sure how it moves the story forward. Sometimes he shows the writing process and how the author is manipulating the story while other times he gives sarcastic comments on humans. It doesn't always work for me. I did wonder if the author was purposefully stopping to point out that the the reader is the narrator of his or her own life or if the reader is supposed to question who is telling this tale. Perhaps writing is like the Firebird's cycle of life and death. Or maybe Maguire was trying to represent the oral tradition of storytelling and having a narrator act as a bard-like person.

The anachronisms are a bit much. They are supposed to be funny and some are really humorous, but at one point it felt like a bombardment of quips. I always love books that make references to other stories and Maguire does that here but they didn't bother me as much as the anachronisms. I think its because in my mind I'm thinking ...Russia ...1900s, so when I read Baba Yaga said, "Let me at this regrettable bit of sour sausage. His hair is unnatural. A crime against the Crayola company," it seems quite out of place and my brain stops with a "Huh?" versus when Baba Yaga says on the previous page that her governess uniform brings out her "inner Mary Poppinskya." I laughed and kept reading with no stuttering. There are so many references to fairy tales and folk tales I'm not going to even try to list them all. It was quite fun. So while I enjoyed this book I think it is too hard for elementary students and it might get more takers in middle school. High schoolers will think it too young.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

*spoiler alert*
Eleven-year-old Naomi "Chirp" Oreinstein lives in Cape Cod with her sister and father when they discover that her mother has a serious disease. Unable to cope with the loss of a career, her mother develops severe depression and is hospitalized. Set in the 1972, treatment involves electricity and it is apparent that the doctors don't know much about depression. As she deals with the family changes she makes friends with her neighbor and classmate, Joey, who also has issues at home with an angry father and mean brothers.

This book tackles the difficult topic of depression and suicide with a subplot that involves physical abuse. The author succeeds in some parts presenting the issues and fails in others. There's a social stigma with mental illness and while the author captures the pain, grief, and denial, she doesn't show how it is a disease of the brain that causes death if treatment is unsuccessful or untreated. I wanted some of the myths exposed through classmates or medical professionals. There are so many misconceptions about suicide and rather than mention them they are omitted. Instead the family hides the fact and doesn't really talk about it. Even when Chirp is with her friend, Joey, she doesn't talk about her mother's actions. The result is no enlightenment on mental illness as a disease. No adult has any insightful talk that helps her deal with this topic. No counselor. Nothing. The family would want answers considering the mother was getting treatment. Why did this happen? I really wished a medical person was inserted in the text to give knowledge on the disease. As is, people just see a child's grief and anger. Even an Author's Note that talks about SAVE foundation or other facts would have been good.

Miss Gallagher is a teacher that shames kids and has no classroom management. She's a pathetic teacher that uses her authority to abuse kids. Being an educator, I hate this stereotyped teacher. They exist but are the minority. And it is a stereotype that has become cliched. There are so many different personalities and I like when the complexity of humans is captured creating 3-dimensional characters. This teacher ends up being flat. Then there is Joey. He is abused by his father and no one talks about it, even though Chirp's father is a psychiatrist and required by law to report it to authorities. Wouldn't he see a red flag with Joey when picking the kids up? Chirp is portrayed as flighty and clueless, but as a sixth grader wouldn't she see the marks on Joey's face from getting hit?

The author does a great job creating a loving family unit which is why I really thought the father would discuss with Chirp the death of the mom. He does with the older sister and Chirp is portrayed as being in denial, but I would have thought he'd force the issue as he forces them to have family meetings. Chirp's love of birds and tie-ins with dancing are unique and add depth to her character. The plot is somewhat slow at the start but goes out with a bang.

3 Smileys

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2) by Ann Leckie

Book two of the Imperial Radch series did give me answers to some of my questions from book one, Ancillary Justice, and because its written in a linear narrative it isn't as complex as book one. I also took notes so I wouldn't miss as many details as I am sure I did blazing through book one. Anne Leckie switches the character, Breq, using her point of view as a human, not alternating multiple points of view. In book one Breq is the starship, Justice of Toren, that connects her to thousands of human bodies turned into ancillaries with artificial intelligence and a 20-ancillary soldier unit called, One Esk. This story feels like it is setting up for the next book with little action and no battles. I was surprised because book one ends on a the strong possibility of a civil war, but that doesn't happen.

The world building is well done and the economy is explained, but I do think there are some holes in the author's description of artificial intelligence or they lack depth in explaining the mechanics that makes it hard for me to visualize how the systems work together. It might also be me. Science fiction can be hard to follow because the entire world is made up by the author. If the reader can't visualize it, then heck... that's a problem. Maybe if I read more of it I would recognize that the word, "decade," means a military unit or that implants in people control them and when removed it does not mean they die but become something else. Let's just leave it that... certain aspects left me confused and I don't know if it was the writing or my lack of sci-fi. That said, I still found the story engrossing. This plot is not as complex (hence, less surprising) and I missed the everyman character found in Sveivardan who does not have a prominent role in this book. As a result the story is weaker for me, but still entertaining. 

The backstory from book one is a thousand years ago, the Lord of Radch, Anaander Mianaai, takes over other planets in the galaxy annexing the people and forcing them under her rule. Those that resist are killed. In one instance Mianaai committed genocide against one planet. The Lord of Radch is an AI now ruling thousands of ancillaries and controlling outerspace populations. She is at war with herself for decisions she has made such as the genocide and seems to have split into two forms of justice where she is a dictator or autocrat. The result is a civil war caused by her and within herself. When the Lord of Radch needs new bodies she grows them and has thousands that share her identity. I don't quite understand how this works for it is different than how ancillaries are explained in the book. The Lord of Radch uses starships run by a single AI that uses host bodies of soldiers called, ancillaries, to control the annexation of a planet. These starships are being retired and becoming space stations leaving them unhappy with their new job. Breq was once a starship that the dictator side of the Lord of Radch destroyed because it doubted her loyalty. Breq's character arc is one that has been programmed to side with justice, but when the Radch dictator actions become contradictory and unjust Breq acts them out (as she has to) leaving her in grief and unhappy. 

In this book Breq is a human or One Esk ancillary nineteen. The autocratic Lord of Radch has made her captain of the ship Mercy of Kalr and sent her to Atheok Station where the threat from the alien Presgrs is a real possibility and Lieutenant Awn's sister lives. The Lord of Radch knows that it is the latter that will make Breq go to the station for Breq struggles with grief over Awn and must resolve it. While at Atheok, Breq uncovers a corrupt government and sets things right so that the people are united and not divided if an alien or civil war breaks loose at their doorstep. 

Breq is less interesting without Seivarden in the plot messing things up. Seivarden was the Everyman's person, the ordinary character that is thrust into an extraordinary situation who the reader can identify with. Hans Solo was the everyman character to hero Luke Skywalker. I find the everyman character rounds out the hero more. Breq gets a bit preachy at times as the politics unfold to show oppressed natives from an annexation that happened 600 years ago. The character Breq is AI so she isn't going to make many mistakes. She is able to see more than the human eye or brain can and plot twists are lost when Seivarden is put in the background. Lieutenant Tisarwat is not as interesting as Seivarden and I liked how Seivarden would mess up Breq's plans. I didn't realize how much her character pushed the action forward in the first book and it left a hole in the sequel.

As a character, Breq, is interesting because her emotions and stance on situations vary from others due to her artificial intelligence and being one thousand years old. She looks at justice with a perspective others won't have because of her longevity. She understands the unhappiness of the starships and life of an ancillary more than a human ever could and it gives her human qualities because she even deals with machines compassionately. The theme of justice is explored in depth showing the perspective of how a tyrant can justify her actions. The fun word play on gender is dropped and I missed it. I thought it lightened the heaviness of the plot and I enjoyed when the Raadchi gave clues as to who was what gender. Breq's discs with the holograms don't make an appearance in this novel and it is clear she doesn't follow a particular religion. I wasn't sure in book one. Her religious actions were for show. Part of Breq's character arc is to find redemption for her unjust actions against Lieutenant Awn. She seeks it in Awn's sister who understandably rejects Breq. The reader definitely gets to know Breq better in this book, but there is less action and a more straightforward plot. If you liked book one, then give this a go.

4 Smileys

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) by Ann Leckie

While most of my reviews are middle grade fiction novels, I like to find crossover books for my high readers that are challenging but appropriate. I thought this might be okay based on a review I read but after reading it I'm going to give it to the high school library. This space opera has a plot that is too complex as the reader is dropped into the middle of the action with unique points of view and no textual features to show when the viewpoints have changed. Add alternating chapters in the past and present from a character that is three beings in one body and it is can be confusing, especially at the start. The story slowly unfolds and comes to an exciting climax, but requires patience by the reader. I see why two top readers gave the book back to me saying, "I don't get it." Science fiction can be complex at times. I remember abandoning "Dune," as a kid because "I didn't get it." As an adult, I enjoyed the uniqueness of this book, especially how the author plays with gender. The androgynous-type characters had made me placing my own genders on them in order to visualize them. Not only is the reader customizing the story to his or her preferences, it exposes internal biases in the process creating good discussions on the topic of self-identity.

The main character is a robot with multiple points of view that refers to herself as "she" : she is Justice of Toren, or the artificial intelligence of a starship; she is Justice of Toren One Esk, or a twenty-unit ancillary serving a Lieutenant; and she is Breq, a single ancillary that has lost all other connections. Ancillaries are dead soldiers that have been modified to work as many units linked to one starship or in this case, Justice of Toren. Basically, the main character is in a human or ship's body but has artificial intelligence. I didn't "get" this out until well into the book which is why I think my two young readers abandoned it. Breq is in the current story and on a mission to kill the creator of the universe while the alternating story is about One Esk that is serving a Lieutenant in a city in outerspace. The robot is detached from events and doesn't express emotions except anger now and then. However as the story progresses the robot's actions show that she cares for others and is committed to doing the right thing.

The setting and world building are complete with religion, politics, and social structures. The setting takes place thousands of years in the future with one Radchaai ruler and an autocratic government. This ruler has lived for thousands of years and controlled human beings making the Radch citizens believe they are superior to others. I never got a good grasp on how the ruler, Anaander Mianaai, lived so long. She's portrayed as human and leans on the Justice of Toren's artificial intelligence to make decisions, but she can't be human to have lived as long. Maybe she's alien? I probably missed something here. The Radch economy is not clear, but the society and its classes are divided and distinct creating a caste system of sorts. I didn't have a clear sense of the Gerentate people where Breq is from except her planet is in another galaxy. The discs Breq carries that have holograms of people are not explained in great detail, but they hint at the Gerentate's religion and her personal background. They left me with several unanswered questions. Perhaps the sequel will address some of my questions.

Breq's narrative is detached emotionally which might make it hard for some readers to connect with her. Her actions show compassion and she even puzzles over why she does something that seems emotional. Toward the end it seems that human beings have affected her a bit more and she expresses anger and indignation at treatment that puts her in an uncivilized class. The fact that Breq collects songs and sings to calm herself was enough to make her more "human" for me. She's definitely a robot, but has human characteristics. I did find her hard to visualize along with the other characters which has more to do with the authors creation of a culture that doesn't use gender pronouns to show what sex the characters are in the plot. At one point I thought I read a description of One Esk having three mouths, but later my brain kept dropping the extra mouths as she showed more human characteristics.

Throughout the story almost everyone is referred to as "she." I found myself a bit confused at first and wondering if it was going to be an androgynous society, but then found it interesting how my brain kept forcing characters into gender groups. I found I couldn't stick with the androgynous society. Later the author shows how the Radchaai society does use gender pronouns and once in a while, (not every time), the sex of some characters is revealed; several whom I had originally thought were the opposite sex. Rather than be annoying, it became fun and surprising. In our society, gender identity is a formation of social identity. One of the most unique aspects of this book is that it takes away this socialization process. I admire the author's risk-taking and originality that actually works throughout the novel as a whole. I did have problems with it at first because I felt so disoriented, but that reinforces the whole point, doesn't it? Gender identity is such a strong component of societies that if it is taken away it is discombobulating.

An ongoing theme is the examination of being civilized or uncivilized. The Radchaai are the oppressors with one ruler that doesn't value human life. People are easily killed and disposed of if they oppose the leader. They consider themselves superior and tolerate different religions from conquered space colonies. Control is based on military might and ancillaries are a way to accomplish stability in society. Breq is designed to only follow orders given by Mianaai and it puts her in a unique position as an enforcer and an outcast because she is considered "uncivilized" by the Radchaai. The fantasy world is closest to the Roman empire that conquered nations but let people keep their religion and language making integration with Roman society less difficult. However, the Romans received more privileges based on their citizenship and considered themselves superior to other conquered cultures. On a side note - I wonder if Ann Leckie made all the pronouns a "she" or feminine to make a point that women can be science fiction writers in a mostly male dominated field. Just a thought. This ambitious book is nothing short of unique even with its flaws. The sequel is sitting on my desk. Can't wait to read it this weekend.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pennyroyal Academy (Pennyroyal Academy #1) by M.A. Larson

This book was hard for me to get through. I almost abandoned it several times, but a student recommended it so I kept plugging away. Actually I started speed reading. The plot is all over the place, information is given in either large doses or not enough, and the characters are stereotyped along with the whole princessie thingamajig. Except for Basil. He's a boy that is with the princesses instead of the knights. He says it is because his mother had 22 boys and he's being the girl she always wanted. He stays pretty flat as a character and never becomes interesting. The setting is vague at the start along with the world building and I couldn't figure out why Evie was in the enchanted woods. It seemed that she had amnesia but then later she mentions some things about her parents, so I wasn't sure what the heck she was doing in the forest. I thought there was more to it but she's just lost and has been for three days. The reader is plopped in the middle of the action with not much explanation. That's fine if the author unfolds the plot in a logical way. That doesn't happen in this novel.

Evie rescues a prince from an evil witch accidentally. Evie stumbles into a witch's cottage who is gone. When the witch arrives towing a captured prince that she cages before planning to kill him, Evie is hiding under a table in terror. She frees the prince with some encouragement and carries him on his horse because his hands are tied behind his back and there is no time to stop. The prince directs Evie toward water knowing it will protect them from the witch. Evie's in the woods trying to find the Pennyroyal Academy, a school where girls are trained to become princesses and boys trained to be knights. For the first time in its history, the academy is open to commoners which Evie is. The prince is on his way there to become a knight. Few can survive the academy and Evie struggles to fit in before discovering her true parentage and courage.

The obstacles in the plot and the solutions are odd most of the time. Enchanted trees hit people and witches are trying to rise to power. The woods are dangerous and the head mistress is not fair to students. Evie faces a witch and then acts like she hasn't at the academy that left me scratching my head. Her fierceness doesn't come out until the end when she roars like a dragon. The girls tend to see their worth through the eyes of the boys and fight over one boy. Evie cries and runs off too much for my liking and her reactions to obstacles in the plot are often contradictory. I couldn't figure out why the boy, Forbes, that was cursed as a pig kissed Evie. She's mean to him because she reminds him of the picture that cursed him. Rather than find out and ask Forbes questions, she refuses to talk to him. He in turn, is mean back. Ugh. I really started skimming then. The injured dragon sister is a loose end that is not tied up.

The characters don't have much voice. Evie is timid and fearful most of the time. She doesn't trust people and tells the girls her parents were dragons. But when the girls see a dragon by the school no one puts it together. Instead, they shoot it. I thought the characters acted foolish most of the time. The subplot of romance follows the princess and princess fantasy trope that is dull and predictable. And what was the deal with the spiderweb dress? I really had problems envisioning that... I kept thinking of Milla Jovovich's white bandaged-style bodysuit in the movie, The Fifth Element. I know I'm more picky than student readers about books. I also read this so fast that I probably had more questions than if I had slowed down, but I would have felt like a fly in a spider's web. This one missed the mark for me.

2 Smileys

Monday, March 9, 2015

Hook's Revenge by Heidi Schulz

Heidi Schulz mirrors J.M. Barrie's, "Peter Pan," using a narrator that interrupts the story and gives adult-like comments as a satire on society's views. However, Barrie's narrator satires parenthood, keeping up appearances, and wanting to be special, (to name a few), while Schulz's narrator is light in tone and pokes fun at etiquette, manners, and finishing schools. Peter Pan is a boy that lives in childhood for eternity. Peter staring through the glass window of the nursery listening to Mrs. Darling tell bedtime stories to her children is a symbol of Barrie's yearning for a romantic or simplistic childhood that doesn't really exist. Heidi Schulz uses Jocelyn Hook as the protagonist who wants to grow up and does throughout the story. There is nothing romantic about her characters. While her plot takes elements from Barrie's classic structure she tries to modernize the politically incorrect parts and create her own piece. It's an ambitious task. She succeeds for the most part in a very clever book.

Captain Hook's daughter Jocelyn is being raised by her grandparents. She's wild and has no manners turning the household into chaos. She's sent to a boarding school where she is rejected and singled out by the head mistress. Unhappy, she makes a friend with a boy her age, Roger, who works in the kitchen. Roger is unfairly fired because the head mistress thinks he and Jocelyn are interested in each other romantically. On the same day that he leaves, Jocelyn receives a posthumous note from her father, Captain Hook, asking her to avenge his death by killing the monstrous crocodile that ate him. She sets off to Neverland and hires an inept pirate crew that is similar to "Peter Pan"; yet, this updated version takes out most of the stereotypes, racism, and sexism while creating characters that do want to grow up. Humor is littered throughout that will have you singing yo-ho and yapping like a pirate.

Barrie portrays Wendy, Tiger Lily, and Tinkerbell as damsels-in-distress that are dependent on Peter to save them. The jealous interactions between the female characters result from them seeing their importance, self-worth, and identities through Peter not within themselves. Wendy plays the stereotyped housewife that won't go on the Lost Boys adventures and is content to feed them, give them medicine, and read them stories. Heidi Schulz presents the exact opposite. Jocelyn is the author of her own adventures and is in the middle of the action. She saves Roger and is the hero of her own story. She is not larger than life at the finishing school, but is in the imaginative world of Neverland.  She's not always that likable, but she's a strong person and willing to face her fears of being abandoned, making friends, and failing her father. Neverland not only represents Jocelyn being imaginative, it shows her learning to believe in herself and have the confidence to grow up and be the captain of her own adventures.

The plot takes certain elements from the Peter Pan series but mostly when Jocelyn goes to Neverland. The first part shows Jocelyn feeling trapped in school and wanting adventures. This is the school girl story with the misfit girl being bullied. This is the author's creation that has references to "Peter Pan," such as Roger, jolly chap, who is named after Hook's ship "The Jolly Roger" and the skull and bones  pirate flag. Or there is maidservant Gerta that sounds like she'd make a good pirate and the school girl, Nanette, that sounds a bit like Nana the nurse dog in the original. Jocelyn and Peter can't wait to explore the world and plan on having great adventures. They are excited to grow up. It isn't until an enormous raven named, Edgar, flies Jocelyn to Neverland that nods to the classics are seen from mermaids to natives.

When Jocelyn ends up being taken to Neverland, the author has the plot follow elements of Barrie's books although it is completely her own adventure and explores a character doing the opposite of Peter Pan. The book gets more silly here and pokes fun at the classic. Her pirate crew is the 16th best on the island and they pretend that they've lost limbs in a battle. One-armed Jack has two perfectly good arms but pretends he lost the other in an epic fight with enemies on a rival pirate ship. He's so thrilled when the crocodile actually bites it off it takes the violence out of the scene. One-armed Jack yells in joy as his arm disappears that he doesn't have to pretend anymore and can brag all he wants. It made me think of Mr. Darling in Barrie's story who wants to be important and is thrilled when he gets media attention for sleeping in the dog's house as a vigil after he believes Wendy and his two sons have been kidnapped by villains.

Then there is the whole mother business. In Barrie's book, Peter and the Lost Boys want a mother. Captain Hook and his pirates kidnap Wendy because they want a mother. When Jocelyn screams at her crew to pay attention, they respond, "We're sorry, Mother." "Mother? Mother! Which of you dogs dares to call me mother?" She didn't wait for a reply. "I am not your mother. I am your captain, and you would be wise to address me as such." In "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens," Peter gets one wish from the fairy, Queen Mab, and he wishes to see his mother. At the climax, Jocelyn does the same thing but her experience is the opposite of Peters. While Peter's mother has forgotten him, Jocelyn's mother gives wise advice that allows Jocelyn to grow up.

The Cannibals are stereotyped with their choppy English language and desire to be English. There is a bit of colonialism in that the natives want to meet royalty. In an ironic twist Jocelyn teaches them manners and table etiquette. The author pokes fun at the absurdness of how complex eating is for royalty. Critics have cited the cultural insensitivity of Peter Pan toward Natives that are presented as savages. Schulz presents them as idiots as well and while its funny, the humor is at the expense of the indigenous people. It is interesting to examine classic and modern literature as it relates to current cultures. It is easy to see why Huck Finn, for instance, is controversial in its portrayal of African Americans. I found the portrayal of Joe offensive at the end but can see how Twain was imitating the minstrel shows that were acceptable at that time. Here, Barrie is representing commonly held conventions such as presenting Natives as savages or wimpy Victorian women with specific motherly roles in society. I don't like it, but find it interesting from a historical perspective. What I don't like about Schulz's portrayal of the Natives is her poking fun at languages and how people speak. She's actually showing Jocelyn being a dip by shouting at the Natives - a common and annoying trait people do when someone doesn't understand a foreigner attempting to communicate in the native language. What I don't like is making fun of people that speak broken English. Of course, most people laugh at my Chinese (I live in Taiwan) because it is so bad so I know I'm overly sensitive to this. Take it for what it is worth.

Roger has forgotten who he is in Neverland. He can't remember Jocelyn and is stuck in childhood. In the real book Peter Pan wants a kiss from Wendy but never really understands what it is. Schulz uses the same feature in her book except by the end Roger and Jocelyn know exactly what a kiss means and seem to be okay with that. The two want to grow up and move on. They don't want to be stuck like hamsters on an endless wheel-of-childhood.

Peter Pan makes an appearance in this book and is a selfish braggart just like in the original. He takes credit for Jocelyn's actions and is fearlessly cocky. He likes to put himself in danger rather than take the easy way out which is also the same as he was in "Peter Pan." He fights Captain Krueger's pirate crew by joining Jocelyn's crew, but then decides to battle Jocelyn's crew. He isn't going to fight her crew in the same way. That would be too easy. Instead he decides to have the Lost Boys find poison apples to kill them. Peter is playacting one of the stories he's been told called, "Snow White." He just can't separate stories from his reality. Schulz does a terrific job with melding the classic with her own original ideas. Weigh anchor with this fun tale and hit the seas.

4 Smileys

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Blue Moon (Dead City #2) by James Ponti

I like how this author writes dialogue and humor. The bantering between family members is a hoot. Actually, they go beyond bantering and have a competition as to which member can outwit the other. It begins with their dad wanting family time with Molly, the protagonist, and her sister, Beth. Mom is dead. The father takes away one's phone and the other's Internet for one night. They get him back by making him scrapbook and miss a football game another night. They all have a great time in the end on their "family nights," and the girls have a say in how they want to handle their night. It's a clever way to show how children have to bend to parents rules while they oftentimes don't have any say in the matter. Here, the children do have a voice and the father respects them. The three have a blast with whatever the family night is and the author even ties it into a mystery that Molly is trying to solve. The domestic family gatherings are contrasted with zombie-fighting Molly who is trying to locate the thirteen original undead with her secret Omega team that was formed at her school in the previous novel. Read book one before diving into this one. You'll need the backstory to understand what the heck is going on. The Omega team is back teasing each other in another fast-paced novel.

The Omega team of Grayson, Alex, and Natalie are tracking down the Unlucky 13 who died over a hundred years ago while blasting out a subway tunnel. The four banter back and forth with the ease and humor of good friends that is engaging and helps build their characters. Grayson is such a nerd about facts that when Molly is stalling a security guard by asking a question the guard doesn't know, Grayson answers the question because he can't help himself. The plot has some predictable twists and unexpected ones, while the action scenes are tense with zombie limbs or faces getting crushed from the martial art expert fighters. My favorite was Molly and her mom swing dancing moves to defeat two zombies.

I'm not a fan of flashbacks or cliff hangers. I thought here the flashbacks slowed the pacing down. There are three chapters that are 10 pages each giving the backstory on the Unlucky 13. I didn't think it worked. I don't know if it would have been better to make the chapters smaller or if there was enough to make a separate point of view that had its own mystery going. Or maybe it was competing with the main strong storyline and I just couldn't rouse enough interest in Milton's adventures. Fortunately, there are only three chapters as such that interrupt the flow of the story.

The ending is a cliff hanger and the loose ends are not tied up. I wasn't surprised by the twist because the Frankenstein scene in the hidden bunker made it a bit too obvious. I did like that two new characters are explored more in this book giving the sequel some freshness. While I really liked the first book, sometimes I get bored with second books because it seems a bit of a rehash and I'm too familiar with the characters. New characters help move the plot forward and add novelty.

Molly's character arc in the first book has her dealing with grief and loyalty issues. This book she is still dealing with learning to trust her teammates and work as a team, but she is no longer grieving the death of her mom. Instead her family is bonding, moving forward, and having quality time together. Molly is also trying to face her fear of heights and fear of scary movies. The author has her insisting that she flinches when she screams. While she is tough she also has some vulnerabilities that make her character well-rounded and interesting.

4 Smileys

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Dreamwood by Heather Mackey

Lucy's father has put her in a boarding school temporarily. She hates it there and doesn't fit in. When he doesn't send for her like he said he would, Lucy decides to find him herself in the town of Saarthe. He's is a ghostologist and inventor using science to find ghosts. When Lucy arrives at the town where he is supposed to be working, she discovers he has been missing for three weeks. As his apprentice she knows how to think like her father and she figures out where he has gone. Many obstacles from ghosts, protected lands, and competitors threaten to derail Lucy's search but with the help of her friend, Pete, she is able to proceed with her dangerous journey.

Lucy is naive, stubborn, and acts superior to Pete. While Lucy's actions are from people criticizing a dubious profession and laughing at her father and herself for what they do, Pete feels dumb around Lucy who is a smart girl. Pete is also trying to save his family that has gone into debt because of the trees that are dying in Saarthe's forest. The timber industry is the main economy for the people in the town and they are suffering. A reward is being offered to anyone that can figure out why the trees are dying. Lucy and Pete work to uncover the mystery of what is happening with the help of Lucy's father's journals.

The plot is setup so that Lucy is told to not do certain things in the forest but she is absent-minded and always forgets. Tension is built as the reader knows that Lucy shouldn't take anything; yet, she picks up something. Later Pete makes the same mistake. While the technique is fine to use I find I am lose interest when authors do this. I know that the character is going to make the mistake, an obstacle will occur that threatens his or her life, and then he or she overcomes the problem. I prefer when the plot is surprising and this isn't. So while the story is well-written, I found myself skimming these predictable parts.

The villain is presented as more three-dimensional than one-dimensional. I appreciate a complex villain, although I did think his demise was rushed at the end. Plus, his motivation to risk all that he had achieved to gain more, didn't make sense. I thought he would have retreated when everyone was dying in his crew. That had an Indiana Jones feel to it and I know students will like those action scenes even if they seemed unlikely. The end wraps up the loose ends well. I just finished a book on nightmares and read this book on dreams, all of which is making me sleepy. I'm off to bed. Sweet dreams.

3 Smileys

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Nightmares! (Nightmares! #1) by Jason Segel, Kirsten Miller

A witch has been haunting 12-year-old Charlie Laird's dreams for the past three weeks. He's terrified every night and has resorted to sneaking his parents coffee to stay awake. His mom has died and dad remarried. Charlie is convinced his stepmonster is the witch tormenting him each night. His anger and fears make him belligerent to others and mean to his younger brother. The ghost story is not too frightening but creepy enough to be fun. The pacing is well done and the tension unfolds as clues are slowly doled out to pull the reader along. Charlie goes from tired and out-of-it to downright cranky and rude. Just when I was getting tired of his attitude he gets swept into the alternate world of his nightmares where he saves others, lightens up, and learns to face his fears.

Charlie is so exhausted, I wanted to crawl under my desk and go to sleep. Night-after-night he is tormented by a witch that comes to him in his sleep. He tries to deal with the witch on his own but when she visits him when he isn't sleeping he gets really frightened. This isn't a nightmare anymore but reality. He decides to include his best friends, Paige, Rocco, and Alfie, on what is happening to him each night. Charlie has two deep-seated fears that are so crippling that he has opened a portal allowing the nightmare creatures a chance to enter the real world. The main villain is trying to change Neverworld, the alternate nightmare world, by causing Charlie to be permanently afraid to keep the portal open and take over the real world. Charlie tries to stop the villain and shows that not only does he care about others, he is willing to risk his life to save them.

The characters are really respectful of Charlie not laughing at his fears. I end up dealing everyday with students who have hurt others feelings because they laugh at them in mean-spirited ways. I appreciated the group not laughing at Alfie's doofiness or Charlie's fears. As Paige says, "Only weak people need to make others small." Mean-spirited teasing is where it begins so often in the classroom. The characters model for readers how to deal with these every day occurrences that happen in school or with siblings. That's not to say the characters don't have flaws. They do and they learn from them. But the subtle message of not laughing at others to be mean, is not didactic, and is a good discussion point.

The nightmares that exist in Neverworld are a nod toward Peter Pan's Neverland a metaphor for a never-ending childhood. Neverworld is a metaphor for never-ending fears. The characters must learn to face their fears and deal with them otherwise they will turn bitter and lonely. Fear makes it impossible to live a full life and its a universal theme for adults as well as children. It takes courage to root out what is frightening and face it. While this is the main theme there are others that add depth to the story. Additional points for discussion include grief, friendship, courage, and bullies to name a few.

This book reminds me of "Nightmare Acadamy: Charlie's monsters" by Dean Lorey (UK title) or "Monster Hunters" (US title). That story has children who have nightmares and the monsters come to life. They have to go to an academy to learn to control them. It is loaded with more action than themes. This book has more to discuss than the other, they are both are fun reads.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Edison's Alley (The Accelerati Trilogy #2) by Neal Shusterman (Goodreads Author), Eric Elfman (Goodreads Author)

I seem to like sequels more when new characters are introduced. I have gotten so familiar with the previous characters that I find myself less interested in them unless they are going through an interesting emotional change. This sequel's main character did have an emotional arc but it wasn't as powerful as in book one. The plot kept me going with its wacky situations and weird, twisty ending. Don't read book two unless you have read book one to get the complete backstory and historical facts on Nikola Tesla. It is not going to make a whole lot of sense otherwise.

Fourteen-year-old Nick moved into a Victorian house in book one that his dad inherited. Nick chooses the attic for his bedroom but finds it is full of junk. He sells it off only to discover that the junk-like pieces fit together creating a Far Range Energy Emitter, a Nikola Tesla invention meant to bring free wireless electrical energy to people. Each piece has its own unique properties. A weight machine is an antigravity conductor. A bellows can create wind vortexes. A camera lens allows the user to look into the future. The inventions are more magical than scientific, so prepare to go with the flow and not look too closely at the inventions' unbelievable parts. A secret society called, The Accelerati, wants the unique items and will kill to get them. The race to see who retrieves them first is on. Team Nick is winning until an obstacle appears that looks like everyone will lose. Humor and fast-paced action make this a page-turner.

In book one, Nick's dad helped saved the world by keeping an asteroid from hitting Earth. Now that asteroid is causing a dangerous build-up of electromagnetic energy and Nick knows that he has to rebuild the Far Range Energy Emitter to stop it from destroying Earth. With the help of Mitch, Caitlin, Vince, and Petula, the teenagers race to recover all the items from the garage sale that were sold before the asteroid zaps Earth. They must outwit the Accelerati that keep getting in the way as they want the pieces for their own profit.

Each time the teens try to recover a piece, they face a wacky situation and problem that they must solve. The unpredictability and silliness of these issues was fun at first but in the middle I got a little tired of it. The emotional changes involve Caitlin and Nick's romance. Nick wants to be more than friends with her and she still has a boyfriend she hasn't broken up with. Nick carries a load of guilt over the death of his mother and forces he's unleashed discovering Tesla's inventions. Mitch is still angry over his dad's incarceration. Vince seems to be pulling away from the group learning to deal with living as an undead person. And Petula is still the same self-absorbed egomaniac from book one. None of the character changes are that complex or in-depth and they continue the arcs from book one. The authors do a good job explaining character motivations, revealing their flaws, and adding humor.

In real life Nikola Tesla was an inventor and engineer who worked for Thomas Edison's company at one time. Edison told Tesla to fix his direct current generators and he'd give him $50,000. Tesla did and asked for the money to which Edison said he was joking. He gave him a raise instead, but Tesla quit and started his own rival company. Tesla worked on a project to create wireless electricity and this book focuses mainly on that invention making Edison, represented by the Accelerati group he formed, the villain and Tesla the unsung hero. Tesla was screwed by his own company as well in real life and lost many patents. He had over 300 patents in his lifetime. 

The villain is deadly yet buffoonish which makes it hard to be really frightened by him. The ending is a cliff-hanger but wraps up the story nicely. I appreciate an author that concludes the story rather than just cutting it off in the middle of the action which happens in many cliff-hangers. The " be continued" endings drive me a bit crazy. This doesn't do that. If you liked book one then you'll enjoy this one. The pacing is good and the ending has a terrific twist.

3 Smileys

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mark of the Thief (Mark of the Thief #1) by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Books that have an unreliable narrator oftentimes have terrific plot twists and turns. Jennifer Nielsen used it in her first book, "The False Prince," that had me captivated as a reader. The formula she used in that story had nonstop action, in-depth plotting, and a complex character. This book attempts to use the same formula with the setting in Rome during the time of slaves and gladiators, but it didn't work as well for me. Part of the reason was I looked more closely for clues pointing to an unreliable narrator again and I didn't think the character's inner monologue was as interesting and the plot had some holes. Students are not going to care. They'll clamber for and enjoy the fast-paced action scenes, fights in the arena, and facts on Rome with magic tied to the gods and goddesses.

Nic is working the mines as a slave when a Roman General asks for his assistance to retrieve Caesar's bulla, said to have the power of the gods. One slave has already died in the recovery attempt and another has gone mad. Unfortunately, slave Nic is next in line to be forced to give it a go. He not only gets the bulla, he accidentally absorbs its magic getting god or goddess-enhanced superpowers he doesn't understand or know how to control. He gets caught up in the Praetor War conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor and destroy Rome. Nic is a puppet to Senators and Generals being tossed into their deceitful fights when his heart's desire is to just live free from slavery with his sister.

While the action is nonstop, the plot didn't surprise me often. The unreliable narrator works when the reader doesn't know the twists and turns of the plot. I guessed the main twist way too early and it took much of the fun out of it. Of course, I'm onto Nielsen having read her previous Ascendence series so perhaps if I hadn't been on the lookout I might have overlooked the clues. So I'm not sure if her plot signals were too obvious or my brain was just too engaged. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Nic reacts more than he thinks about things deeply. Part of this is to setup for the end and it didn't quite work for me. The pathos behind some of his decisions seemed ad hoc at times. At times Nic is too trusting. Other times he doesn't take action when he is exposed such as when Sal spots him in hiding. The villains don't kill when it seems obvious that they would. As a slave, Nic is rebellious versus being demoralized by those oppressing him. He doesn't act with much fear toward situations and his thought progression from being a slave to wanting freedom at all costs was somewhat contradictory. I wished the author had explained he remembered a time when he was free and the power of that memory made him get over his fears. I kept thinking for someone who'd been oppressed, Nic was awfully bold (another clue).

I would also think if he really wanted to flee with his sister, why didn't he run when Horatio gave him the chance and use his powerful magic to rescue his sister on his own? That would have been less risky than going into the arena. He had been there before and it sounded terrifying. And why did the General ask for Nic's help in the first place? Was Nic the only person that could get the bulla? Wouldn't he have picked a different slave than risk what he knew. Why didn't Nic take the bulla from the General when given the chance? These questions are revealed at the end with the plot twist, but I thought it weakened the plot by causing contradictory actions in several different characters. I had several "Huh?" moments.

Aurelia is a strong female character that is good with a knife and bow and arrow. She saves Nic at times when he is in bad situations - which is most of the time. She had a great character but Nic spends too much time distrusting her. It started to not feel authentic. When Nic ends up in a colosseum where only he can help himself, the author shines. Nic uses his superpowers in unpredictable ways that will make readers flipping the pages for more. The cliff-hanger ending will have students asking me nonstop when the sequel will be released. A story that will get students excited about reading.

3 Smileys