Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Two Book Reviews

Al Capone Shines My Shoes
by Gennifer Choldenko
Recommended Ages: 11+

Thanks to a friendly marketing associate at Penguin, I was privileged to receive an Advance Reading Copy of this book. Though the published form of the book will have corrected some misprints - a few serious enough to disrupt the flow of the text - I am confident that folks who loved the Newbery Honor book Al Capone Does My Shirts will love its sequel. It may even bring new fans to Choldenko's work. It is a warm, powerful, sometimes exciting, always thoughtful story about a kind boy growing up on the prison island of Alcatraz in the 1930s. Less emotionally crushing than the first book, it lets us see beloved characters moving forward with more hope in their lives... though still with many complex and even dangerous problems.

Moose Flanagan tries hard to be all things to all people. He wants everyone to feel good. It's a mature outlook for an eighth grader, perhaps, but he realizes that it's a small island and everybody has to get along. He could be the glue holding everyone together. But at times in the fall of 1935, he feels as if everyone is angry with him. His island best friend, the brainy Jimmy, is put out by Moose's city friend Scout, who is good at baseball. His other best friend, the tomboyish Annie, is mad because Moose favors the warden's daughter Piper. Piper is always mad at Moose, in a way that keeps him off-balance. Away at her special school, Moose's autistic sister Natalie is upset because he doesn't visit her. Some of the prison guards who work with his father push his good manners to the limit. When Moose begins to worry that legendary gangster Al Capone might get angry with him, he breaks out in hives.

Why should Scarface get mad at Moose? It all has to do with a favor. Natalie didn't get into her school without help. Now the notorious crook wants something in return. Alcatraz inmates are not to be trifled with. Nor will Moose's father keep his job for long if anyone finds out that Moose is exchanging notes with Capone through the prison laundry.

Baseball, puppy love, changing family relationships, worries about a creep in Natalie's past, and the subtle play of politics among the prison guards and their families add layers to Moose's growing pains. Moments of crisis and hours of suspense alternate, before and after Natalie comes home for a week-long visit. Somebody is having a baby. Somebody may be dying. Somebody may be trying to break out of prison. The kids who will make the difference between life and death are not always on good terms with one another. They don't understand each other, trust each other. Until one foggy day when a quietly growing plot matures into an hour of frenzied action.

This story is fiction, but it is based on some amazing facts. Perhaps even more than Al Capone Does My Shirts, this book takes a swing at everything a young reader could want: excitement, romance, emotional depth, compassion, a sense of historical realism, and a myth-making harmony of material and shape. Told in the first-person and the present tense, it brings the reader right into Moose Flanagan's moment, right into his heart. The world through his eyes looks wonderful, and the language he thinks in is crisp, vivid, and memorable. In a lonely little world apart, a small community grows up to decorate one's imagination. It is a world I, for one, would love to visit again.

by Eoin Colfer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Conor Broekhart was born to fly. Literally. Born when the lives of his parents hung in jeopardy as their hydrogen balloon plummeted from the sky, he saves a princess and earns a peerage at the tender age of nine, by improvising a parachute from the flag on a burning rooftop. His tutor is a famous balloonist who emphasizes martial arts and the principles of flight. In the 1890s in which this tale is set, the invention of a workable, fixed-wing, motorized aircraft is still on the horizon. For all anyone knows, Conor Broekhart may be the first to reach that horizon.

In this freestanding novel from the author of the Artemis Fowl series, we discover a tiny island kingdom in the channel between Britain and Ireland. For centuries, the Saltees have flourished under the Trudeau line of kings, and on top of the world's richest diamond mines. Nevertheless, corruption brews at the highest levels of the nation's elite guard. The island of Little Saltee has become a hellish prison where inmates slave, and frequently die, in the mines. And now that an American war veteran sits on the throne, a cunning nobleman sees his chance to grab power. All that stands in his way are the king, a French balloonist who manages the king's spy network, and a clever, spirited, fourteen-year-old boy named Conor Broekhart.

Marshall Hugo Bonvilain has no trouble disposing of the first two, but the boy is trickier. Deciding to use Conor as leverage to obtain the loyalty of his military father, Bonvilain secretes the boy away in the bowels of Little Saltee. There, under the new identity of Conor Finn, the boy survives three years of hell - and more than survives. He grows into a strong and formidable fighter. He gains control of a vicious gang. He scratches designs for flying machines into the walls of his cell. And he plans his escape. Escape and revenge.

Or maybe just escape. Conor isn't sure about the revenge bit. Maybe it isn't worth it. As far as he knows, his parents and his beloved princess think he killed the king. As far as they know, he died a hero. The potential for great tragedy lies in this misunderstanding - exactly as Marshall Bonvilain has planned. But he little knows what he has unleashed on himself until Conor makes good his daring escape from Little Saltee. Then, between sorties of a menacing, flying man, Bonvilain begins to wonder whether he shouldn't have killed the boy in the first place. And Conor, now a young man, begins to wonder whether he should run away and start a new life... or go home and set everything right.

This is the story of all that leads to his decision, and what immediately comes of it. It's a thrilling one, too. It is filled with the agony of unjust and cruel punishment, the suspense of seeing a beautiful soul pressured to turn ugly, the perils of early flight, and the exquisite dilemmas of friendship, family, romantic love, and service to one's country - particularly when the same sword hangs over them all. It comes to a gripping climax in which guns, swords, poison, treachery, and aeronautics share equally. It's like The Count of Monte Cristo with wings. If you don't love it, seek help.

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