Sunday, July 11, 2010

Clements, Dale, Hulme-Wexler

Things Hoped For
by Andrew Clements
Recommended Ages: 14+

This short novel is the sequel to the teen invisibility caper Things Not Seen, published in 2006 by the author of Frindle and some fifty other books for children. This time the narrator is seventeen-year-old Gwen Page, a violin prodigy living in New York City while she prepares for some big college auditions. In the midst of her final weeks of feverish rehearsal, Gwen must deal with her grandfather's disappearance, an uncle with anger issues, a creepy criminal mastermind, and a boy with a cute smile. It all adds up to a test of one girl's confidence in the face of an uncertain future, a demanding art form, a big and fast-paced city, and a spooky mystery.

One day after her violin lesson, Gwen comes home to a message from her Grandpa saying she has to take care of herself for a while. He urges her not to worry about anything. But how can she not worry when she doesn't know where her grandfather has gone or why? How can she not worry when Uncle Hank keeps coming around, loudly demanding that Grandpa sell the brownstone they jointly own? How can she keep up the charade that Grandpa is still there while practicing for an exacting violin teacher and the crucial performances of her young life?

Well, it helps to have friends. Enter Robert, whom readers of Things Not Seen know as Bobby Phillips of Chicago. Three years after his month-long invisibility ordeal, Robert has become an outgoing young man, a fine classical trumpet player with a passion for jazz, and (yes) the owner of a nice smile. If he didn't keep bringing up his blind girlfriend back home, Gwen might develop a thing for him. As it is, they become good friends just when each of them needs one.

Together they don't feel quite so alone in the big city. And with all Gwen's hopes and dreams riding on the next few weeks, she needs a resourceful friend like Robert to help her dodge Uncle Hank, restore confidence in her musical ability, and deal with the mystery of the missing grandfather. Plus there's an even bigger threat that I won't tell you about, because I don't want to spoil the surprise...

Fans of Clements' school-kid adventures will be intrigued by this book's insights into a very specialized educational track. Having been a music geek myself, I can vouch for the authenticity of Gwen and Robert's studies and the quality of the music they perform. This would be a great book to package with a CD of selections from the music the characters play and listen to. Think about that when you buy it for a musically gifted kid, or even to read it yourself.

Apart from everything else, it is a moving and uplifting book, with a message of hope for young ones nerving themselves to leave the nest and take wing on their own. Biblically literate readers may be especially interested in the book's references to Hebrews 11:1 and another verse which, again, I don't want to spoil for you. Whether your interests lie in music, religion, the "invisible man" concept, or all things New York, this slim book delivers the goods. As a bonus, this is the middle book of a trilogy continuing with Things That Are.

Anna Dale
Recommended Ages: 11+

The author of Whispering to Witches conjures up another magical fantasy, based in--or rather, under--the countryside of Somerset, England. It begins as an ordinary family vacation, and develops into a quest full of magic, danger, desperate hopes, cruel disappointments, and surprising friendships. Plus, its main character develops from an obnoxious brat into a emotionally convincing heroine.

You won't be very pleased with Athene when you first meet her. Selfish, bossy, and wantonly cruel to her sweet little brother Zach, she's the type of protagonist you couldn't put up with for very long. But lo, how rapidly her adventure changes her! It begins when she meets the Gloam, a race of night-dwelling people who keep pretty much to themselves. She befriends two members of the Humble Gloam clan, and right away she begins learning to consider other people besides herself. But she doesn't learn fast enough to take it kindly when Zach horns in on her discovery. Mad with jealousy, Athene tricks her brother into falling into a trap set by the underground clan of Low Gloam, who enslave everyone who wanders into their domain. Forever.

This leads to a crossroads for Athene's developing character. Will she leave Zach entombed in darkness and go on as if he never existed? Or will she go after him on a seemingly impossible rescue mission? In a way, this decision is the turning point of the whole story. But it is only the beginning of a quest into a dark world ruled by irrational hatred and fear. It is only the beginning of a test of a sister's love for her brother, of one friend's ability to forgive another, and of whether a spark of determination, resourcefulness, and courage can find a way around a spell that has remained unbroken for generations.

Anna Dale tells this story with charm and skill, with sensitivity and a knack for pacing. So young readers can feel both the thrills and suspense of the escape caper and the touching relationships between the characters. Its ending is perhaps better than many fantasy-adventure yarns, as it values kindness over comeuppance. And it opens up possibilities of future encounters with the delightful Gloam. Meanwhile, I look forward with interest to reading Anna Dale's latest book, Magical Mischief.

The Split Second
by John Hulme & Michael Wexler
Recommended Ages: 11+

The second book of "The Seems" re-introduces us to a 13-year-old Fixer named Becker Drane. In our world (a.k.a. The World, in capital letters), he's an ordinary, baseball-playing middle-school student with a tiresome younger brother and a couple of parents who are desperate for some vacation time. In the world that makes The World go round (a.k.a. The Seems), Becker is a member of the crack team of trouble-shooters who take charge when something goes out of whack. What do you do when the landscape artist in charge of creating all The World's sunsets goes on strike? Call a Fixer! What do you do when someone sets off a Time Bomb that threatens to age the entire World to a pile of ashes before its time? Well... That could be tricky.

The "somebody" who does this is a terrorist organization known as the Tide, whose members include one of Becker's buddies from Fixer training--see The Glitch in Sleep for details. The Tide, and its mysterious leader Triton, aim to overthrow the Powers That Be and replace The World as we know it with something designed according to their own ideas. Destroying everything and everyone may or may not be part of their plan, but it will be the result if the Essence of Time unleashed by splitting a Second contaminates populated areas of The World.

To fix this problem, Becker will have to face his own weaknesses, witness the death of a friend (twice, actually), swim through a puddle of melted Frozen Moments preserving the peak experiences of fifty different people, face a ruthless rival in hand-to-hand combat, and deploy a plethora of gadgets with whimsical trade names. A healthy appreciation for puns can be enough, by itself, to make this book a pleasure to read. But the danger is genuinely exciting. The fantasy concept is engrossing, even if it doesn't stand up to serious scrutiny. The hero is an intriguingly flawed but appealing character. And although The Seems is quite silly at the level of detail, it might trigger some interesting classroom discussions about philosophy and religion.

The authors know how to pace the paying-out of tension and mystery. They know almost as well how to juggle the storylines of several equally interesting characters. (To be honest, there is one character who could have been deleted from the book for all his usefulness to the plot.) They have designed a romp through time so diaboloically clever that I can hardly wait to find out what their third book holds. Now available in paperback, its title is The Lost Train of Thought.

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