Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Chasing the Prophecy

Chasing the Prophecy
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 13+

I bought this third book in the "Beyonders" trilogy on Kindle when the first two installments, A World Without Heroes and Seeds of Rebellion, were still fresh in my mind. Then I forgot to read it for a couple years. Oops. One of the things one discovers, when reading the conclusion of a fantasy trilogy that has so many moving pieces in play, is that it can be a bit hard to get back up to speed. In the early chapters of this book, I had a bit of trouble finding my footing. It felt like there were too many names, too many main, middling, and less important characters, too many people setting out on two separate quests that, between them, were prophesied to represent the only, vanishingly small possibility of overthrowing an evil sorcerer-emperor before he conquers everybody and condemns the entire magical world of Lyrian to everlasting darkness.

To help other readers who may be in my predicament, or perhaps partly just to impress anyone who is sitting on the fence between deciding to read this trilogy and taking up knitting instead, please bear with me while I describe some of the amazing things the world of Lyrian contains.

First, let's talk about the Beyonders. They are people from other realities who have somehow found their way into Lyrian. Two of them from "our" world are teenagers Jason and Rachel. Rachel turns out to be a natural adept at Edomic, the Lyrian language of creation, which enables her to work powerful magic like very few people alive today - making her a natural rival to the dark lord Maldor. Jason, meanwhile, has no idea why he was singled out by a prophecy, since he doesn't know of anything special about himself, but people around him see it - something to do with his kind heart, his good sense, his sense of humor, his strong will, and his knack for surviving against impossible odds.

Then, there are ordinary Lyrian people - well, maybe "human" would be a better word for these often extraordinary people. One of them is Galloran, the heir to the throne of Trensicourt, who has survived being blinded, tortured, and driven into exile and is now ready to take the throne and fight against Maldor - as the prophecy says he must. But the actual hope of success is pretty slim. The only chance of defeating Maldor, out of billions of possible scenarios, requires Galloran to lead an army against the unassailable fortress of Felrook, while Jason leads a second party in search of the last home of a seer who died thousands of years ago. Unless Jason turns up something unimaginably good, Galloran is leading the last resistance against Maldor to its doom.

Other amazing beings inhabiting this fantasy world include several races who were created by ancient sorcerers even more powerful than Maldor. Among them are:
  • the Amar Kabal, or seed people, who live many lifetimes and can come back from the dead, as long as the seed attached to the back of their head is planted. Several of them are among Jason and Rachel's friends, including one whose latest rebirth will be his last - because he was born without a seed.
  • the Drinlings, whose average lifespan is two years. They grow and mature quickly, adapt and learn with amazing speed, work tirelessly and grow stronger with every effort, and never need to sleep. They live to sacrifice themselves in battle.
  • the Tree People, who have bark, leaves, thorns, etc. They also know all the secrets of surviving in the trackless jungles of the south.
  • the Displacers, who can literally lend you an ear or really keep an eye on you. These often treacherous folks can survive being dismembered and even beheaded, because their body parts are connected by a magical displacement field that defies spacial separation. One of them is also in the questing group, though his motives can never be entirely trusted.
  • the Torivors, or shadowmen, who like the Beyonders come from another reality. These sinister beings are enslaved to Maldor's will, and when they aren't attacking people with almost unbeatable swordplay, they are invading their dreams and thoughts.
  • the Half-giants, who are actually dwarves by night, but during daylight hours they grow to enormous size and strength.

These are only some of the more prevalent types of characters in the Lyrian universe. There is also an order of sisters devoted to studying Edomic; a race of apes who practice martial arts; a sometime scout who survived extreme torture to develop super senses and an insensitivity to pain or fear; a unique giant with the ability to turn his body into any substance he touches; another unique monster who can assume the form of anything he has ever touched; and a certain plague that turns anyone it touches into a monster, and that could literally destroy the world.

Some of these critters are with Jason, Rachel, Galloran, and Co.; some are viciously, violently against them. The two questing parties know setting out they will not all survive. For each person named in the prophecy fulfills his destiny, the possibility of sacrifice becomes urgently real. Both Rachel and Jason suffer uncertainty about what their role may be in Lyrian's one slender path to salvation. Will they be doomed to sacrifice themselves for a world that isn't even their own? Or could the whole prophecy be a ploy by Maldor to destroy the last resistance to his rule? It wouldn't be an unprecedented trick.

While Rachel wrestles with temptation to go over to the dark side, Jason goes through some pretty dark places - including a whirlwind tour of a library that has survived thousands of years without a single visitor, an amazing landscape called the Fuming Waste, and relentless pursuit by unspeakably deadly enemies. Each companion's role is a strand in a perilously thin thread of hope, and so many of them perish in one heartbreaking disaster after another, each new problem that confronts them more discouraging than the last. In the end, only by the persistence of faith can our friends move forward at all, as their attempt to fulfill the impossible prophecy rushes to a devastating climax.

After a while immersed in this book, I forgot that it was hard to keep all those characters straight and started caring about them. Each time a member of the party was hurt or killed, I felt the blow. And when a gleam of hope finally became visible in the murk, I watched it eagerly. The book overcame its own built-in weaknesses by making a virtue of them, by making a convincing case that each character's small part in the adventure was necessary to give Jason and Rachel their one small chance. The fate of each of their friends - sometimes mingling tragedy with redemption - was moving, and the cumulative power of all their storylines was overwhelming.

Writing on a young-adult level, Brandon Mull has achieved too many wonderful things to be ignored. He is also the author of the Fablehaven series, of which a sequel series, Dragonwatch, has now begun; the wonderful book The Candy Shop War and its sequel The Arcade Catastrophe (which I have yet to read), and the Five Kingdoms series, now up to four books, of which I have only read Sky Raiders. As I read further in his books, I confidently expect to find a lot more exciting adventure, world-building wonder, likable characters, snappy dialogue, and thought-provoking, emotionally satisfying fun.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Cheap-Ass Shoes

I went to Google Images just now and started typing the phrase "cheap Walmart..." and wasn't surprised when the number-one auto-complete suggestion was "cheap Walmart shoes." I'm wearing a pair right now. My spare pair at home is a pair of CWSes. The pair I just threw away yesterday, when I bought the new pair I am now wearing, were also CWSes. Three different styles, three different prices, but all tantalizingly within the price-point I can actually manage these days. And they're complete rubbish.

I'm not surprised at this. Not at all. I've been buying this rubbishy footwear for years. The shoes' cheapness is offset by the oftenness with which I have to replace them. But every time I scrape together enough cash to invest in shoes of a higher quality and more durable construction, some other more urgent demand arises, and I have to settle for either the $13 running shoes with the velcro closures, or the $20 slip-on ones, or maybe (if I'm really flush) the $24 loafers with a glossy finish. Oh, la la!

And then I have to do it again in about six weeks, feeling like a fool, but unable to break out of the cycle of foolishness.

Like I said, this cycle has been going on for years. But just lately - within, say, the last three months - it has gone into overdrive. Walmart, purveyor of the cheapest of all cheap-ass shoes, has taken its cheap-ass-shoe game to a new level. The superstore chain is now selling shoes that look similar to its cheap-ass-shoe lines of yesteryear, but that are made of noticeably inferior materials.

The soles, in particular, are unprecedentedly non-wear-resistant. They wear out so ridiculously fast that you can practically feel the hope being crushed out of them as they take your weight for the first time. Their tread wears away when you use coarse language in their presence. To puncture their soles, you need only make a pointed observation. After any long fit of standing or walking in them, you are liable to think you would have gotten more arch support in your bare feet. The sensation you get when walking on gravel, sand, or dirt takes you back to your childhood, when you had a potty emergency in the middle of the night and had to stumble blindly through a nursery strewn with Legos while wearing footie pajamas. Bits of dirt, sand, and rock somehow work their way into the interior of the shoes even when there are not yet any visible holes in their soles - which is to say, sometime during the month when you purchased them. At times, while walking across a thick-pile carpet, their well-cushioned insoles convey to you a minute knowledge of the irregularities in the texture of the underlying carpet glue. A stroll down the street in these shoes puts you on familiar terms with the temperature, composition, and condition of the pavement under you - something perhaps of great use to a conscientious taxpayer.

This past Friday, after spending the usual hour or two of my work day with my feet up on the desk, facing the open doorway through which everyone in my office could see the bottom of my shoes from where they sat or walked by,
I realized that my shoes had reached the level of decrepitude made famous by 1952 Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in this Pulitzer-Prize-winning photo by William Gallagher. When I realized it, I felt presidential. I felt historically significant. I felt like I was going to lose all the skin off the ball of my foot as I dashed across the hot tarmac of the Walmart parking lot, only to take another dose of the same medicine.

I'm discouraged by this sudden plunge in quality, from merely horrible shoes to downright insultingly bad footwear. They're so delicate, you're afraid to look at them wrong. Hold a brand-new shoe in your hands, and the oils in your skin are liable to burn right through them. There is no inner-sole on the market that can cushion your feet enough to remove the impression that the latest in shoe soles are providing no support or protection whatever. Walmart should make sure it has a no-backsies policy for shoes the customer puts on in the store and wears to the check-out counter; they'll be second-hand by the time they get there, and no second foot will ever want them.

I don't mean to make Walmart's cheap-ass shoes a hissing and a byword. I wouldn't be seen anywhere without them. Or to be more precise, I can't afford to be seen anywhere without them. I just can't help noticing this example of what happens when the value of money goes down but the amount of it you're making doesn't. You can't even get decent shit anymore.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hercufleas

Hercufleas
by Sam Gayton
Recommended Ages: 10+

Hercufleas is a flea - an unusually large, talking flea, but still, a flea. Nevertheless, from the very day he hatches out of his egg, he wants to be a hero. He gets that chance in short order, thanks to his fleamily's position as employfleas - you see where this is going - of a man who rents out heroes. Along comes a girl named Greta, from a town named Tumber, whose citizens are being guzzled by an indestructible giant named Yuk. They have tried hiring heroes before, but none of them has managed to stop Yuk guzzling the Tumberfolk. Nothing will do but a giant-slayer, Greta says. At first Mr. Stickle tries to refuse to risk his valuable heroes on this foolish venture, but when Greta threatens to spread word of this, he takes her money, has the fleas type up the contract, and then sets her up with a couple of villains who are meant to kill her. Hercufleas, stowing away in her clothes for a taste of adventure, helps her escape, and Greta decides he will be the hero to save her village.

What with one thing and another, they don't even make it back to Tumber before Greta has changed her mind about Hercufleas. They end up having to go on a huge, dangerous quest together before she believes her flea friend can save her town. Along the way, he has to discover a hero he never knew he had within him - one brave enough and wise enough to refuse to fight evil with evil, yet somehow strong enough to defeat a rampaging giant before he comes back to Tumber to guzzle the last survivors.

This is an amazingly entertaining story, for an adventure featuring a bloodsucking parasite. It unfolds in a strange and whimsical world where Czars leave doomsday weapons in Arctic fortresses guarded by mouseketeers; where the woodn't (woods you wouldn't want to visit) is full of deadly creatures such as grizzly squirrels and a cross between rattlesnakes and oak trees called, ahem, rattlesnoaks. It has a flightless bird that can be ridden like a horse, a pig that can shoot bullets out of its snout, a musical instrument that enables its player to fly, and various other magical and alchemical innovations. It also depicts feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and despair with touching honesty, respectfully observing Greta's quest for healing in a world that can, nevertheless, never be the same for her.
It shines a light on the essence of heroism, the ethics of fighting evil with evil, and the links between faith, friendship, and bravery. It carries a suprising amount of weight for something seemingly so lightweight, and carries it, moreover, with flawless charm and grace.

Sam Gayton is an English author and playwright whose other books include The Snow Merchant, a.k.a. The Adventures of Lettie Peppercorn, His Royal Whiskers, and Lilliput. I already want to see more of his work. This book, published in 2015 in the U.K., is scheduled for U.S. release Oct. 4, 2016. This review is based on a pre-publication proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Pawn of Prophecy

Pawn of Prophecy
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 12+

As fantasy quest epics go, this book is relatively slim, simple, direct, and a quick read. It is also incomplete, as it only sets its hero on the start of his quest, and doesn't fully explain to him what it's about (although an alert reader can probably guess). It's no surprise to learn it's only the first part of a larger story, sometimes published in two volumes, most often in five - and that's not counting prequels, sequels, and supplementary volumes. It will turn out, after all, to be an epic epic, requiring a considerable investment of time and Sitzfleisch to get through. Based on this opening move, however, I think it will be a worthwhile investment.

The main character is a boy named Garion who only makes it to age 14 by the end of this book. He doesn't know much about his parents, or who or what he is. All he has known so far is a peaceful farm in the kingdom of Sendaria - a kingdom known for its peaceful farms and its practical, if sometimes foolish, citizens. The only family he has ever known is Aunt Pol, a holy terror in the kitchen. But then Aunt Pol and Mr. Wolf, a traveling storyteller who visits the farm every five years or so, become alarmed about something Garion doesn't quite understand, and together with the farm's blacksmith (who is smitten with Pol), they go on the run. Their party grows as they are joined by a giant from the neighboring kingdom of Cherek and a weasel-faced acrobat, merchant, and spy named Silk.

Garion can't quite tell whether they're running from someone or searching for something; possibly both. As time goes by, he reckons something of great importance has been stolen, and Mr. Wolf and Aunt Pol are trying to get it back before he uses it for some awful purpose. Agents of a race that serves the evil god Torak are on their trail, including a type of sorcerer-priest who has a mysterious hold on Garion's mind. And each day, the hints fall thicker and faster that there is more to Garion's companions than meets the eye - and perhaps more to Garion as well.

Just when they pick up the scent of whoever stole whatever it was, the party is waylaid by soldiers and diverted to a conference of kings where, before everybody can agree what to do, they are set upon by their enemies in an exciting climax. But their journey is only beginning, and the next leg of it will take them into even stranger territory, more complex intrigues, and greater danger. At the bottom of it all seems to be a prophecy, a broken line of kings, and an age-old conflict between nations and gods. Unless I'm off in my guess, Garion will soon find himself at the center of it all.

First published in 1982, this is the first book of The Belgariad, a five-book fantasy epic that also includes Queen of Sorcery, Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanter's End Game. Also connected with it are the prequels Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress, a five-book sequel series called The Malloreon, which starts with Guardians of the West, and The Rivan Codex, a collection of background material for the entire saga. American author David Eddings (1931-2009), sometimes writing with his wife Leigh Eddings (1937-2007), also wrote the fantasy trilogies The Elenium and its sequel The Tamuli, plus a four-book series The Dreamers starting with The Elder Gods.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Kappa

Kappa
by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Recommended Ages: 14+

This 1926 "novel," translated from Japanese by Geoffrey Bownas, is all of 100 pages long; the edition I read was fattened up a bit by the addition of a helpful 47-page introduction. It was one of the last works of an author now considered the father of the Japanese short story, celebrated for the clarity and circumstantial detail of his stories, and their tone of dry humor. His story "In a Grove" was the basis of the celebrated film Rashomon by director Akira Kurosawa. There seem to be a lot of different views about what kind of book this is - a children's story based on traditional Japanese folklore, a satire on the mores of early-20th-century Japanese society, or a cry of existential despair from an intellectual who was possibly suffering the early stages of schizophrenia.

I found a copy of it at a local secondhand bookstore with a sticker on the back cover listing a price in Yen; somehow it seems to have made its way from Japan to the quiet side of the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. It interested me enough to take it home, for two reasons: first, because I still fondly remember the smattering of Japanese I learned in high school, almost 30 years ago; and no less importantly, it features a magical creature listed in the Hogwarts school-book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them..

Kappas, according to Japanese tradition, are scaly critters that live in rivers, where their favorite pastime is drowning unwary animals and children. Their distinguishing features are a beak and an indentation on their head. According to Akutagawa, they also have a society that mirrors the foibles of Taishō-era Japan, including a capitalist system that virtually enslaved its workers, a religious scene that wallowed in futility, a crisis in the arts and the structure of the family, and many other problems that evidently disgusted the author. Toward the end of the book, he increasingly reveals a morbid side to his outlook. A sensitive reader cannot leave this book feeling satisfied; rather, its effect is unsettling, unnerving.

It certainly isn't what I would call a children's book; it has some decidedly adult material in it, including sexual references, cultural criticism, and a depiction of mental illness and suicide that may have been an unheeded cry for help. The year after he wrote this book, Akutagawa died of a self-inflicted overdose of sleeping pills at age 35. This information leaves the reader not with a warm sense of having enjoyed a piece of magical-creature folklore, but with a sad feeling of having witnessed a cultural tragedy. This strange, disturbing, yet curiously whimsical story documents a moment in that tragedy, but it also bears witness - even in translation - to a talent for writing crystalline sentences and blending believable details with bizarre and magical elements.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest

Helen and Troy's Epic Road Quest
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 14+

Having an epic quest in the modern world is a lot different from the experience you read about in the classics. Two young adults on the west coast learn this big-time when their boss at the Magic Burger restaurant tries to sacrifice them to his evil god, who has been banished by the other gods and only gets a chance to make a comeback once very 300 years. When the boss himself falls into the maw of a divine avatar made of raw hamburger, the Lost God sends Helen and Troy on a quest to retrieve an unspecified number of unspecified, enchanted objects within an unspecified period of time. Or, you know, die.

Anointed as official questers by the National Questing Bureau, the seven-foot-tall, horned female minotaur Helen - heir of a family curse going back thousands of years - and the impossibly perfect, too-good-to-be-true Troy hop into a finned Chevy Chimera and hit the road, bound for adventure. To progress on their quest, they must defeat a cyclops, brave a non-slaying dragon preserve, survive the mystery of the Mystery Cottage, and finally, duke it out with an orc motorcycle gang at a mythological theme park. Aided by a three-legged mutt, a trio of fates whose advice is mostly rubbish, and a government agency that may or may not be on their side, the pair must survive opposition from an evil witch, the wrath of various gods who want to stop the Lost God, and temptations including their growing feelings for each other - to say nothing of a final temptation in which the fate of the world, or at least a three-state area, will be decided.

This book is a steadily funny, romantic, knowing riff on the legends of yore. Except for a little PG-13 language, it's a family-friendly fantasy that explores an offbeat, parallel reality in which the firmament theory is established science, while the idea that the stars are distant suns orbited by other worlds is just an outdated myth. It's a bizarre mashup of a present-day world in which a gay biker orc is accepted by his gang, and in which a girl with full-blown minotaurism (horns, hooves, fur all over) just wants people to notice her for something besides her race. It blends well-aimed parody of the tales of Greek heroes with present-day social awareness and a touch of tongue-in-cheek. With a little more sex and profanity, you could mistake it for a book by Christopher Moore or Robert Rankin. Other authors whose fans should dig it include Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Rick Riordan, and Tom Holt.

This is the seventh book I have read by the Texas-based author of Gil's All Fright Diner, The Automatic Detective, and Chasing the Moon. His other books that I have yet to read are, trust me, on my to-read list, including Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain and The Last Adventure of Constance Verity.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Cartographer's Daughter

The Cartographer's Daughter
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Recommended Ages: 13+

Legend has it the island of Joya, where Isabella has lived all her life, was once a floating island paradise. Then the Governor came, closing off the seaport city of Gromera from the other coastal villages, banishing anyone who opposed him to the wild interior of the island, and forbidding the population even to swim in the bay lest they escape his iron-fisted rule. One day a peasant girl, a school friend of Isabella's, is found horribly killed in the Governor's walled orchard. A riot breaks out, which the Governor and his men violently put down. After the fracas, Isabella angrily blames another friend - the Governor's daughter Lupe - for their classmate's death, venting her feelings about the strapping neighbor boy Pablo being imprisoned in the Governor's dungeon labyrinth.

Lupe vows to set things right, and disappears. This leads to another wave of repression, with both Pablo's mother and Isabella's lame, mapmaker father being added to the growing crowd in the labyrinth. Feeling responsible for this, Isabella puts on her dead brother's clothes, cuts off her braid, and passes herself off as the cartographer's son. The Governor, believing she is a boy, decides to take her along on his search for Lupe. But beyond the forests that border Gromera's territory, they find a diseased landscape, haunted by death, fierce warriors, and terrifying monsters.

Spookier still, Isabella catches glimpses of magic - for instance, in a fragment of glow-in-the-dark wood passed down through generations of her family, and in a map left behind by her late mother, that shows a different picture when moistened by the waters of a certain river. It's as if the ancient myths of the island's origin are actually true - as if a female warrior a thousand years ago really did stop a fire demon from destroying all life on Joya after he captured the island and anchored it to the bottom of the sea. And now their thousand-year bargain is up, and someone must once again make a terrible sacrifice to stop an elemental power from extinguishing all life on Joya.

Isabella's cross-dressing behavior does not stem from any boy-girl confusion. She is totally a girl-power hero in the tradition of her country's greatest hero of myth - and myths, Isabella explains to her friend Lupe, are stories so old that people think they aren't true. Isabella's complex friendship with Lupe, her someday-maybe-more-than-friendship with Pablo, her devotion to her family members (living and dead) and even to her chicken Miss La, her toughness and courage, all make her the kind of character on whom readers will fasten their hearts, while the terrifying dangers she must face will ensure a white-knuckle grip on the ears of the book. Her world is strange, original, magical, with some ugliness that has been forced on it, and even more beauty that just wants to burst through. Its story shape has a touch of fall-and-redemption in it, and the suspense doesn't let up until it reaches world-shaking levels. I think most readers Isabella's age and up will love it.

This book was previously released in the U.K. under the title The Girl of Ink & Stars. Under its new title, it is due to be released in the U.S. Nov. 1, 2016. Why the title was changed, I do not know; especially since The Cartographer's Daughter is also the title of a fantasy novel by Karen L. Abrahamson. I like the original title better; but leave it to American publishers. This is the debut novel of a writer previously known for her poems. My review of it is based on a pre-publication Kindle proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Memoirs of a Sidekick

Memoirs of a Sidekick
by David Skuy
Recommended Ages: 12+

Seventh-grader Adrian is a bright, socially awkward boy who is happy playing second fiddle to his good-natured best friend, Boris Snodbuckle. Together, the two of them get into non-stop trouble, usually where the best intentions collide with poor judgment. Constantly receiving detention and one-day suspensions at school, the boys try to adhere to a code that includes such rules as Rule 1, "Don't break school rules, unless there's a really good reason," and Rule 5, "Don't tell on kids - ever - unless you're getting them out of trouble." They want to make their school a better place, and they worry about what will happen when the school's biggest bully, handsome and popular Robert Pinsent, is elected student body president. So Boris decides to run against him, and Adrian tags along for the ride.

A wild ride it is, with brash schemes - actually, code-named operations - to capture the votes of younger kids, tree-huggers, brainiacs, the artsy types, and the popular kids. Thanks partly to bad luck, and partly to Robert's unprincipled ruthlessness, each operation ends either in mayhem, with Boris and Adrian getting suspended again, or worse, in Robert stealing the credit for their success. Usually both. But when the boys decide to crash a conference on feeding hungry children, things really get out of hand, and Adrian finds himself in the rare position of having to take the initiative.

This story featuring two mischief-makers with hearts of gold really touched my heart. It also tickled my funny-bone, with middle-school shenanigans that left me breathless with laughter several times. Any book I have to stop reading more than once, until I can get my giggling under control and wipe tears of amusement out of my eyes, is all right in my books. Solidly well-told, with a good grasp of schoolyard ethics, a cast of goofy characters, and a touch of satire that elevates it to the realm of legit literature without dimming its sparkle of fun, this simply has to be one of the best real-world based, present-day tales of primary-school high jinks and student-election intrigue.

Its author is a Canadian writer best known for his hockey- and soccer-related young-adult novels, such as the five Charlie Joyce books. Something I have observed about writers of sports fiction is their knack for mining emotional truth out of everyday situations - something to be encouraged even by readers who aren't particularly into sports. This is a wonderful example of a book in which a sports-fiction author branches out and uses the same magic touch on a non-athletic subject. It is scheduled to become available in the U.S. Oct. 4, 2016. This review is based on a pre-publication proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Everton Miles Is Stranger Than Me

Everton Miles Is Stranger Than Me
by Philippa Dowding
Recommended Ages: 13+

Recently, Gwendolyn Golden found out she is a Night Flyer - which is to say, a person who can fly unaided. The "night" part is just a strong suggestion, since people are bound to notice you flying around in broad daylight. Gwendolyn also knows her late father was a Night Flyer, but only now does she learn how he died and what it had to do with his talent for flying. Meantime, she has been assigned a Mentor and a Watcher, and she learns the handsome new boy in town is a Night Flyer too, and she is being targeted by a demonic being known as a Rogue Spirit Flyer, and zoom! Her high school freshman year is off to a rocky start.

So many rocks pop up in her path, if she couldn't fly, Gwendolyn would be doing a faceplant a minute. Not only does she have to share a gym class with her personal bully, but they seem to fancy the same boy. Her science lab partner is the boy who gave her the Worst Kiss Ever last summer, and who used to be her best friend. Something is stopping her visiting her Watcher, the old man who lives in a shack outside down surrounded by mounds of used soda bottles, even though Mr. McGillies has fallen ill since he recently saved her life. She doesn't know how to explain what's going on to her best friend Jaz, which puts a strain on their relationship. And now both Gwendolyn and her adorable younger twin siblings, collectively nicknamed C2, have been in fights at school and must see a child psychologist. It's a real mess, and Gwendolyn struggles with a lot of anger and fear - especially about the fallen angel type who keeps trying to abduct her. The good angels, I mean Spirit Flyers, don't seem to be good for much when it comes to stopping this guy. The only thing scarier than being taken by Mr. Black Feathers is seeing him hurt the people she cares about. It's no wonder Gwendolyn's choice at the end of her first year as a Night Flyer - the choice whether to continue to fly, or to become forever earthbound - isn't the slam dunk you would expect.

There is some exciting action, good-and-evil conflict, and awe-inspiring fantasy scenery in this book. But mostly it's about coping with everykid's freshman-year issues - problems with school, family, friends, and all the changes happening inside and outside. The young teen-romance angle, Gwendolyn's struggle to accept her father's death, the mental block preventing her from visiting her Watcher, etc., etc., etc., could all have been part of the interminable, internal psychodrama of the first 300 pages of a "Twilight" novel, with an action-packed climax more or less making it up to us. But unlike that other series, this story has a dynamic heroine whose attitude matures and improves, and who justifies her designation as the heroine by achieving heroics when it really matters, rather than becoming catatonic until her angel in shining feathers descends (or whatever). It has a fantasy concept with a smart spiritual dimension, and an endearing cast of supporting characters who serve as much more than objects of ill-focused lust. So, while Gwendolyn does linger perhaps too long among the same doubts and anxieties, one reaches the end of the journey with her (or at least, this leg of it) with a sense that it was a worthwhile trip.

This book is the sequel to The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden, and Part 2 of a series called "Night Flyer's Handbook." It is scheduled to become available in the U.S. Nov. 8, 2016. Philippa Dowding is also the author of the "Lost Gargoyle" trilogy, starting with Gargoyle in My Yard, and the "Weird Stories Gone Wrong" series, whose third book Carter and the Curious Maze appeared in paperback Aug. 30, 2016. This book review is based on a Kindle pre-publication proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Mystery of the Missing Goop

Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of the Missing Goop
by N. Griffin
Recommended Ages: 10+

Smashie and her best friend Dontel attend third grade together in Room 11. When their teachers announce the third graders from Rooms 11 and 12 have two weeks to prepare for a musicale (a talent show, really), Smashie is only disappointed that her teacher, Ms. Early, doesn't want her to sing. Sure, she's very loud and tends to come on too strong, but she believes in her singing ability. Instead, Smashie and Dontel are invited to choreograph a series of 1960s go-go dance numbers.

Meantime, they take it on themselves to solve the mystery of the disappearing tubs of Herr Goop, a hair-sculpting gel invented by the mother of their classmate Charlene. If the tubs of goop keep disappearing, the musicale may not happen - because some of the students are only willing to perform if they can have their hair sculpted into fantastic shapes. Putting on their thinking caps (or, in Smashie's case, her investigating suit), the two friends try to work out who had the motive and the opportunity to steal the goop.

With Smashie's record of disrupting the class and letting her imagination run away with her, it's no surprise she soon suspects several unlikely people - including herself! Dontel, being keen for math and science, is more fact-oriented, but both of them are fascinated to realize the tubs of goop are being used to transmit coded messages between the thief and his or her accomplice. The final revelation of who stole the goop, and why, must wait until the final number of the musicale, when the whole class is dancing the "mashed potato" in front of their parents.

Teachers cringe. Parents wince. The principal threatens to fall ill from all the strain. Even some of their third-grade friends become a bit miffed at the pair. But readers of all ages will grin and chuckle at the imaginative antics of these sleuths, and sympathize with their often embarrassing predicaments. Their story is written in clear, kid-friendly language that often sparkles with affectionate humor. Only a few times does its style err on the side of being too specific or too flatly literal for its own good. But the plainness of the style sets off the goofiness of the situation in a fun way. The way the kids use third-grade math lessons to solve puzzles suggests that, if this series continues, it could become an important fixture in real third-grade classrooms.

This sequel to Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11, in which the two friends solved the disappearance of the class pet, is expected to become available in the U.S. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. N. Griffin is a New England-based author. Her other work includes the teen novel The Whole Stupid Way We Are. This review is based on a pre-publication Kindle proof, made available through Netgalley dot com.

The Evil Wizard Smallbone

The Evil Wizard Smallbone
by Delia Sherman
Recommended Ages: 12+

Nick, on the run from an abusive uncle and a cousin who likes to beat on him, is pursued through the Maine woods by a pack of coyotes. At the end of his strength, he finds himself on the doorstep of the Evil Wizard Bookstore, whose frizzy-bearded, dented-tophat-wearing proprietor introduces himself as the Evil Wizard Smallbone. Smallbone agrees to take Nick on as an apprentice - an arrangement from the boy is determined to escape. But he soon learns there is a spell keeping him from running away, and if he doesn't do his chores to the wizard's satisfaction, he really might get turned into a spider - or something worse.

Between cooking meals, cleaning the shop, and doing farm chores, Nick starts learning a bit of magic - thanks, in large part, to the bookstore having a will of its own, and providing him with weirdly interactive books. He also learns the people of the nearby village of Smallbone Cove are bound with the wizard in a contract going back more than 300 years. They cannot leave the town limits, but trouble cannot enter to spoil their peace. Only now, the boundaries are starting to fail, and an enemy wizard - a loup garou (French-style werewolf) called Fidelou - wants to take it over and ruin it with his shape-changing biker gang / coyote pack. It will take the combined powers of the evil wizard and his reluctant apprentice to restore the sentinels that anchor the boundaries, keeping Fidelou and his coyotes out.

Just when Nick has started to care about saving the village, he recognizes his Uncle Gabe and Cousin Jerry as the newest members of Fidelou's gang. Worse, they recognize him, and the magical rules giving them a chance to "rescue" Nick from the Evil Wizard Smallbone may be just the opening Fidelou needs to force a final, decisive confrontation on his own turf, while the fate of Smallbone Cove dangles in jeopardy. Together with a couple of former apprentices rescued from animal transformations, Nick gets to witness an awesome duel between two evil wizards, knowing that the difference between them in the degree of evil makes the outcome crucial. But now that he's a wizard himself, he can do more than stand by and watch.

This is a wonderfully inventive book, featuring a home-school route to learning magic, as an alternative to a school like Hogwarts. It is full of gut-shaking humor, hair-raising thrills, spookiness, charm, and quirky but believable magical details. It has characters, relationships, and settings that come alive in the reader's imagination with the heft of a believable reality, and that linger in the heart as dear friends. It has a basic protection spell whose incantation made me giggle, a book with a real personality, and a clever reference to one of my favorite books about young wizards. Its dialogue snaps, its snapshot of small-town politics rings true (with or without shape-changing magic being involved), and its closing lines were one of several passages that made me laugh aloud. I wasn't just satisfied with this book. I loved it.

This book by the author of Changeling is scheduled for U.S. release Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. This review is based on a pre-publication proof on Kindle, made available through Netgalley dot com.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

R.I.P. Tyrone

This buddy of mine, age 14, was euthanized today. He was apparently suffering some kind of thyroid condition. He drank a lot of water, had patches of scaly skin and weird growths on his body, was losing muscle tone and bladder control, and was acting increasingly weird. After more than a week of having to mop urine puddles off the floor near his litter box at least once a day, I took him to the vet and said goodbye.

The last time I lost a pet was in the early days of this blog, in October 2007, when Tyrone's pal Lionel, then 5, met his maker. Lionel's malady was a type of cancer that produced a large mass visible under the fur on his side, possibly a side-effect of a certain rabies vaccine he received early in his life.

I adopted both Tyrone and Lionel in August 2002 from the Yuma County Humane Society in Yuma, Ariz. Tyrone came home first, but I quickly decided I wanted a playmate for him and went back for Lionel.

Actually I visited the humane society three times. The first time, when I wasn't sure whether I wanted a dog or a cat, I looked at some of each. It was only when I saw a little charcoal-gray kitten with big green eyes, and I knew he was going to break my heart someday, because he had it. He wasn't old enough to be adopted that day. I noted down the date when he would become eligible for adoption, and was waiting outside the humane society when it opened on that date, to make sure nobody else got him before I did. I already knew his name was going to be Tyrone, because it was the first name that made me laugh when I was thinking about what to call him.

I think I saw Lionel on that second visit, or a cat just like him - an orange tabby who got his name pretty much the same way. As when I had Lionel put down, I stayed with Tyrone until the end. Unlike with Lionel, I haven't cried yet. I guess the "never again" factor hasn't really hit me yet.

The never-agains are significant, though. Tyrone was a very affectionate feline friend. He used to greet me at the door every day when I came home from work, climbing up on the nearest piece of furniture and stretching to put his paws on my chest and his nose to my lips in what was either a kitty kiss, or a surreptitious attempt to smell what I'd had for lunch. He was the cat who gave me face-bumps, who would let me pick him up and hold him, who would snuggle close and purr and grip my shoulder with his forepaws, who was infinitely patient with my funny little way of playing with his tail (which I always thought was one of his best features), who would throw himself down against my leg with a whap and press hard against me.

He was also a fun, playful pet. As a kitten, I thought he resembled a little monkey, scampering around, leaping and dancing under the type of toy that I would dangle over him on a stick or a length of wire, and chasing balls with jingle-bells in them like a professional soccer player. He always wanted to shoot the balls under pieces of furniture from which I could only extract them by shoving a broomstick after them. Sometimes he would play attack forward around me while I tried to defend the goal.

He was a cat who appreciated music. When I played the piano, he was always right there, spending three-fourths of the time sitting next to me on the bench, watching my fingers press the keys, and only one-fourth of the time walking on the console between my eyes and the musical score.

He was a cat with a marvelous repertoire of vocalizations, from the throaty click that meant, "Hey, bird outside the window! I want to have you for lunch!" to the chirps and trills that seemed to mean "Alley-oop!" or "Uff da!" as he jumped on and off pieces of furniture. He had a tone of meow that I learned to recognize as "Give me a treat right now!" and that was not to be denied if I valued my sanity.

Tyrone was a linguistic researcher. He once used his meow to explore the acoustics of the inside of a Kleenex box, in which his head became stuck. I think one of his meows, translated by my subconscious mind during a recent early-morning dream, may have been the reason I awoke thinking I had heard a voice in the next room calling my first name. Some of his meows have, at times, actually sounded like he was trying to say "Robin." Usually, those seemed to be the meows of a cat looking at his food dish and saying to himself, "Is this really all there is?" At other times, I thought he and Sinead (Lionel's longhair calico successor) were meowing at each other in complete sentences, apparently having a conversation, albeit in no language I understood. These exchanges usually ended with a snarling, pushing, punching fight.

Tyrone was a helpful cat. I will miss having his assistance changing the sheets on my bed - an occasion on which, throughout the last 14 years, I have invariably told him, "How would I do this without your help?" Unless Sinead steps up, I'm about to find out. Tyrone was also a gas during laundry sorting.

He was a good cat for sensing my feelings and responding to them. When I felt really down, he became especially cuddly, or would look at me with concerned eyes.

Everyone who met him, up to the last year of his life, commented on what a beautiful cat he was. He had a fine glossy coat, a well-shaped physique, a handsome face, and a very faint pattern of tabby markings that only showed up in certain lighting. His whiskers, his ears, his eyes, his grippy forepaws, and his tail (which I always secretly envied) are going to be missed.

Toward the end of his life, Tyrone hardly ever moved off the top of the piano, except to eat, use the litter box, or snuggle with me on the couch. It was as if he had an aversion to the paw-feel of the living room floor. His sphere of activity grew smaller and his activities themselves became more repetitive and annoying. I started to entertain thoughts about kitty dementia. I knew the end was near when he actually peed on me one evening. But the decision actually came over Labor Day Weekend, by which time the cat-pee-missing-the-litter-box thing had upgraded from "occasionally" to "daily."

I don't plan on adopting another kitten to replace Tyrone, as I did after Lionel died. I realized something I had forgotten when I adopted Sinead - that I don't really enjoy living with a kitten. I remember now telling Tyrone and Lionel that I thought they were great, but I couldn't wait until they were grown-up cats and we could enjoy each other's adult company. But that knowledge seems to have hidden itself during my grief for Lionel, with the result that I went through the ordeal of needle-like claws, and having to keep two cats away from each other's food dishes, and all the other mischief whereof a kitten is the fuzzy yet excruciatingly definite embodiment.

Until recently, I never felt as close to Sinead as I had felt toward Lionel and Tyrone. Lately, as if by instinct, she has begun to compensate for the distance growing between me and Tyrone. During the last several weeks, Sinead has hardly left my bed at night, always moving to whichever side I am facing and cuddling against my chest. She's going to be a good comfort, I think. And if her health remains good, I could expect to enjoy her company for another decade or so. By that point I'll probably be grown-up enough to be responsible for a dog, if I want to keep having pets.

It's nice not to live alone. I had no one at home from the time I graduated from the seminary until I found Tyrone. I met him very shortly after the beginning of his life, and I enjoyed knowing him until the very end. I don't expect to meet him again; I have no illusions about that. But I am thankful for the company he has been, and I am glad that his discomfort is over.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Wishing World

The Wishing World
by Todd Fahnestock
Recommended Ages: 13+

One rainy night during a camping trip with her family, Lorelei is left behind while a giant tentacled creature abducts her parents and her younger brother Theron. A year later, she remains unable to accept her family's disappearance. Rebelling against the kindly uncle and aunt who have taken her in, she sneaks back into her parents' former house the night before its new owners are supposed to move in. There she finds a portal to a bizarre world where the wishes of certain imaginative children can become reality - and where the villainous Ink King holds her parents captive. She joins a whimsical group of friends - a talking toucan, a wise mouse, and a brave griffon, for a start - and sets off across a varied landscape featuring puking flowers, flying foxes, a blue princess, and a knight in a suit of mirrors astride a giant pug dog.

Lorelei also discovers she has the power to bend Veloran, a.k.a. the Wishing World, to her will in a way no other child ever has - a power that makes her the greatest danger to that place of magic. She is a Doolivanti - one of the children who can become a part of this world made up of the imaginings of many different children, all blended together. But she is so strong-willed, so single-minded in her purpose to get her family back, and so righteously opposed to the evil plans of the Ink King, that she herself could be a threat to the Wishing World. Once she realizes this, Lorelei is faced with a terrible choice - whether to destroy a beautiful haven for hurting children, or to let go.

I wasn't head-over-heels in love with this book at the start, but it grew on me. Lorelei isn't the easiest main character to sympathize with. But her imperfections make her seem true to life, and even more poignantly, they give her a ring of familiarity. I think a lot of frustrated teens will see a bit of themselves in Lorelei, and as they cheer her along in the struggle against cruel selfishness - including her own - they may grow a bit in self-knowledge. The magic is fabulous; the emotional conflicts are powerful; the climax is breathtaking; and the whole concept is strange, captivating, and new. The voice of Lorelei's narrative is engaging and original, with a couple catch-phrases that pull the book together in a unity of style.

Todd Fahnestock is the Colorado-based author of Fairmist and, with co-author Giles Carwyn, of the Heartstone trilogy comprising Heir of Autumn, Mistress of Winter, and Queen of Oblivion. This review is based on a pre-publication proof on Kindle, made available through Netgalley dot com. This book is scheduled for U.S. release Oct. 25, 2016.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Benjamin Dove

Benjamin Dove
by Friðrik Erlings
Recommended Ages: 10+

Benjamin, Jeff, and their somewhat younger friend Manny all live in the same ordinary neighborhood. Together they play ordinary games and try to avoid ordinary bullies, until a new friend moves to town: a Scottish boy named Roland, who doesn't care about football or other sports, but who inspires them with an interest in chivalry. The boys invent their own order of knighthood, fit themselves with appropriate costumes, and begin practicing swordplay in the park with wooden weapons and shields painted with their own heraldic devices - a two-headed eagle for Jeff, a lion for Roland, a unicorn for Manny, and yes, a dove for Benjamin.

Then their harmless little gang gets into trouble with a not-so-harmless one. A bully named Howie the Hood takes offense at them, commits an act of sickening cruelty, and suffers the vengeance of the young knights. Things don't get really confusing, though, until Howie the Hood risks his life to save Granny Adele, who is like a grandma to everyone in the neighborhood. While Howie rethinks his way of life and the other boys start a good-works campaign to benefit Granny Adele, a quarrel between the boys and a power vacuum in the bully's gang lead to the founding of a rival order of knights. When the Order of the Black Feather challenges Benjamin and his friends to a rumble, the weaknesses in even the best of boys combine to turn a well-intended game of make-believe into a vehicle for tragedy.

I could feel the heartbreak coming from a long way off, but the eloquently simple writing of this beautiful story pulled me along until its shape was revealed. My only quibble is that I thought the ending may be too abrupt, letting the main character get off too easily. It would have been interesting to see the consequences of the tragic climax explored in more detail. But maybe I'm a glutton for punishment.

This gentle, intriguingly structured story, written partly in Benjamin's first-person voice and partly in the third person, is the work of an Icelandic author sometimes cited as Fridrik Erlingsson. I think he writes primarily in Icelandic, but I could find no information about who (other than the author himself) might have translated this book into English. All I know about Erlingsson is that he used to play in a band featuring Bjork, that he writes screenplays for the Icelandic film industry, and that two more of his books are available in English: Fish in the Sky and Boy on the Edge.

203. Lightening Hymn

This little ditty occupied me during a segment of sleepless night. It is purposely set in an unusual meter because I was writing it to fit an existing tune, INHERITANCE (see below), which in turn I wrote in 2014 to fit an existing poem, a two-stanza "Inheritance Hymn" I wrote around 1993. I am conscious that the tune owes a debt to Grieg, and that the poem sounds atrocious when read aloud, without the music to go with it. So much for metrical experiments.

"Lightening" Hymn

Light of the world and Author of light,
Image of God in glory bright,
Lighten the darkness, scatter the night
Wherein Your people stumble;
Spirits of blindness put to flight,
Lest in the pit we should tumble!

Once manifest in garments of light,
Christ, clothe us too in gleaming white
When, in Your Father's all-holy sight
We be in You presented;
Lighten our stains, absorb our blight;
Pleasantly let us be scented!

Master, whose yoke is easy and light,
Lift up our burdens with Your might!
Lighten our load, if You deem it right,
Lest we grow faint and falter;
Nor let this tribulation slight
Our loving faithfulness alter!

Way, Truth, and Life, so lighten our way
That we walk as becomes the day!
Dwell in us, working God's works, we pray,
Till, in Your likeness glowing,
We give our neighbor cause to say
Whose life through us is flowing!

Christ, in whose presence life is, and light,
Lighten our hearts of dread and fright!
Send from Your throne's ineffable height
Comfort and perfect clearness;
With holy food nerve us to fight,
Trusting the pledge of Your nearness!

Healer, whose touch restores health and sight,
Lighten our eyes, by hope made bright!
Thus our whole body, filling with light
By faith and hope assuring,
May pass through straits however tight,
Every affliction enduring.

Finally, Lord, across heaven flash
With trumpet-blast and thunder-crash;
Of Satan's work burn even the ash
When all the skies You lighten!
Then lead us forth in triumph brash,
Your new creation to brighten!

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Liszts

The Liszts
by Kyo Maclear
Recommended Ages: 6+

Everyone in the Liszt family makes lists. They make lists of all kinds of things, all the time - except Sundays, which are listless (ha, ha). Then a stranger shows up and finds the front door open. As he introduces himself to the Liszts one by one, nobody has time for him, because he isn't on any of their lists. So the stranger goes about the house, taking care of things everybody else left off their lists. Finally, he meets middle child Edward, who has all kinds of questions to ask, and who stays up nights writing pages of lists to quiet his mind. He hits it off with the stranger, who is also full of questions, and together they discover the joy of the unexpected and unplanned.

Well, that's a book synopsis that runs almost as many words as the book itself. It's a book short on text but long on beautiful, unusual art by illustrator Júlia Sardà. The story is written with amazing economy, with a light, whimsical tone, and leaves much to the imagination of a young reader. Meanwhile, that imagination is fired by imagery sparkling with magic and humor and a hint of affectionate teasing.

Kyo Maclear is a British-Japanese author who lives in Canada. Her children's picture-books include The Specific Ocean, The Good Little Book, Mr. Flux, Virginia Wolf, Spork, and Julia, Child. Sardà is a children's book illustrator from Spain who has a very distinctive and charming style. She as contributed to illustrated editions of Mary Poppins and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This review is based on a pre-publication proof made available through Netgalley dot com. The book becomes available Oct. 4, 2016 in the U.S.

Minion

Minion
by John David Anderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

This "companion to Sidekicked" offers a glimpse from the other side of the conflict between superheroes and supervillains, and their sidekicks and henchmen, depicted in Anderson's previous book. Apparently, it isn't any easier being brought up to a life of villainy than training for the next-generation League of Justice. You basically have the same problems as all other teenagers, except with bigger explosions.

Michael Marion Magdalene Morn was about a year old when he was found abandoned in a White Castle restaurant. Raised to age nine by nuns in a part-orphanage, part-school for wayward boys, he walked the line between the two groups, perfecting a secret power to make people do whatever he wants. All he has to do is look them in the eyes and tell them, gently but firmly, what to do. For a while, he has fun making other kids give him their cupcakes and persuading one of the sisters to do a breakdancing routine.

But then Benjamin Edson comes into his life, an adoptive dad who admits to being a mad scientist planning to take over the world. Soon they are developing Michael's talent together, but not in the interest of world peace. Using Edson's gadgets to jam phone signals and scramble security camera footage, along with Michael's knack for pushing people, they rob a couple of banks, getting away with enough money to pay their bills and buy the ingredients for more gadgets. A cozy relationship with the criminal element in the city of New Liberty comes natural. The neighborhood crime boss brings them business, protection, and a 50-percent discount on their power bill. Edson's gadgets find their ways into the hands of villains, of both the vanilla and super persuasion. Michael's best friend is an up-and-coming supervillain named Zach, who breaks out in porcupine quills when threatened. And most of the uses they find for Michael's talent are on the wrong side of the law. But confused as he is about right and wrong, good and evil, a girl from the right side of the tracks spots him at the mall one day and recognizes right off that he's on the right side.

Naturally, a girl would have to figure in it. The confusion she adds to Michael's adolescent struggle competes even with a plague of masked supervillains and the appearance of a costumed superhero called the Comet. In New Liberty, business as usual has gone out the window. Something scary and unpredictable is happening, and it puts a strain on the relationship between the young homeschooled supervillain/minion and his mad scientist dad. When Edson gets himself mixed up in something he isn't genius enough to get out of, he tries to send Michael out of the way. But Michael is determined to save his dad, even if it means walking both sides of the hero/villain line to a super degree.

This is another nifty adventure in an immersive comic-book reality, with believable consequences for real people, psychological motives and character conflicts that ring true, and a satisfying blend of thrills, laughs, light romance, and touching humanity. It explores the moral philosophies of the light and dark side, as well as the gray middle, represented by Edson's explanation that "power is the realization that you have choices." And it adds once more to the impression that John David Anderson is one of the top writers for junior-high-age readers who are ready to make the jump from graphic novels to novels, period. His other teen fantasy titles include Insert Coin to Continue and The Dungeoneers.

Gears of Revolution

Gears of Revolution
by J. Scott Savage
Recommended Ages: 11+

This book joins an adventure already in progress, as Kallista and Trenton, two mystery-solving, mechanically gifted kids fly a steam-powered dragon they built in a previous book over a landscape ruled by flesh-and-blood dragons.

If you missed Book 1 of the "Mysteries of Cove" series, as I did, this book will do a pretty good job catching you up. The two strong-willed, heroic kids were the first citizens of the underground city of Discovery (a.k.a. Cove) in a 100 years to see the sky, breathe fresh air, and explore the outside world. They were brought up believing the surface world (in an alternate-history version of the early 1900s) was devastated by environmental disaster, and the conditions outside would be deadly. Well, there's air to breathe and water to drink - but with several varieties of super-predators on the wing, it's deadly all right. Kallista is still determined to press forward to follow the trail of her father, brilliant inventor Leo Babbage, who disappeared from Cove after faking his own death. But the latest clues lead them to a very different city, with different rules and attitudes that put the pair in even more danger.

The city they find happens to be Seattle, but you wouldn't recognize it. After years of hiding underground and scratching a meager existence out of whatever game they can catch at night, the people of Seattle have divided up into several factions. The ordinary citizens want to kill Kallista and Trenton outright, because they don't have enough resources to share with outsiders. The Red Robes, otherwise called the Order of the Beast, worships dragons as immortal beings and tries to appease them; if they realized Trenton and Kallista have actually killed a dragon (back in Book 1), they would totally freak. And then there are the Whipjacks, led by a "dimber damber" who controls the city's electricity and water supply; he claims to have met Babbage while he passed through, and to have shared ideas with him. But even under the Whipjacks' protection, the two Cove kids find themselves forced to work on weapons they have doubts about, and they're not sure whom they can trust.

I was sorry to have missed Book 1, Fires of Invention, before I finished reading his book. It wasn't that I couldn't understand what was going on; as I said, this book does a great job keeping late-joiners up to speed. But there are enough hints about I had missed to make me want to go back and read it. On its own merits, though, this book is a marvelous entertainment. Its main characters come alive in the imagination, and their problems touch the heart. Their adventure is thrilling, scary, and full of amazing imagery and stunning Steampunk concepts. There are conflicts and puzzles to keep you on edge, individuals and relationships that show growth, and thought-provoking lessons that go down smoothly (for example, about the harm done by a government that crushes creativity or lies to its citizens). And it leaves a dragon-sized door open for another sequel, at least.

This is my first introduction to the work of J. Scott Savage, an author who specializes in fantasy thrillers for middle-grade readers. His previous books include the four-book "Farworld" series (Water Keep, Land Keep, Air Keep, Fire Keep) and four books in the "Case File 13" series (Zombie Kid, Making the Team, Evil Twins, and Curse of the Mummy's Uncle). This review was based on a pre-publication proof on Kindle, made available through Netgalley-dot-com. The book's U.S. release is scheduled Sept. 20, 2016.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Downside Up

Downside Up
by Richard Scrimger
Recommended Ages: 11+

When we first meet Toronto sixth-grader Fred, he seems to be having trouble getting over the sadness of losing his beloved dog Casey. But then a chance bounce of Casey's favorite tennis ball leads Fred down a storm sewer and into an upside-down, parallel world where Casey still lives - and there are other differences, big and small. For example, his other self - known as Freddie - seems happier and more talkative, as does the upside-down version of Fred's mother. Fred keeps going back to visit, to spend time with Casey, and to have fun with Freddie, but gradually he begins to feel something is not right - something inside himself.

In the pivotal scene of this book, a local author comes to Fred's school to give a talk about how to write stories. When he uses Fred's dog as an example of how to plan a sad story - like about a beloved dog being hit by a car - Fred gut-punches him and gets suspended from school. I'm not sure about the significance of the point the author-within-the-book was trying to make; there may be some irony involved, as in his claim that the story should begin while the dog is still alive (whereas Casey's death is already a fact in Fred's life when this book opens). But Fred definitely misses the point of why he punched the writer, as we learn later on.

This is a very unusual but effective story. On one layer, it is about one boy (and later, we learn, others) exploring a weird, slightly magical world that apparently exists to give grieving people one more chance to see the loved one they have lost. On another level, it plays as an allegory about the nature of grieving itself. It literally features a psychotherapist trying to help a kid face the problems that triggered his depression. But it also visits a place that poses a different way of looking at loss, one that eventually proves therapeutic for Fred and his sister Izzy, if not for some readers who share their journey.

The Downside Up world may not be the only approach, or even necessarily the best, to opening up a heart blocked by sorrow. But I can imagine some counselors sharing this book with their clients, perhaps with therapeutic results. Beside that intriguing thought, I noticed a beautiful and distinctive writing style, full of unique expressive touches and yet direct enough to connect with young readers. The book is cleverly structured to begin in the midst of things, relaying information to the reader just when it is needed, but with each surprise designed to remind you of a detail you may have missed earlier. The expected never happens. All the characters are believably imperfect, yet one's heart goes out to them. Overall, it is an emotionally gripping, sweetly hurting story that guides Fred to the turning point of his grieving process and leaves him there, right where he needs to be. The pacing, plotting, and diction are all good. But what it has above all is heart.

Canadian author Richard Scrimger has published several other novels for boys, including the "Nose" trilogy (starting with The Nose from Jupiter), its companion book The Boy from Earth, Of Mice and Nutcrackers, Me & Death, Zomboy and Lucky Jonah. Their subjects include body-swapping, accepting undead classmates, exploring the afterlife, surviving family dramas, and navigating strange urban landscapes. Their online description gives an impression of a solid body of work that specializes in using young readers' imaginations to fuel a journey through issues that will touch their heart and affect their character.

This book is scheduled for U.S. release Sept. 13, 2016. This review is based on a pre-publication proof on Kindle, made possible through Netgalley dot com.

Sidekicked

Sidekicked
by John David Anderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

Drew Bean, 13, has a rare condition that heightens his senses, especially of sight, hearing, and smell. It could make it hard for him to cope with ordinary life. But thanks to a club called H.E.R.O. - with the slogan "keeping trash off the streets" - Bean has a secret identity as a middle-school-aged superhero sidekick, apprenticed to one of the superest Supers ever: the Titan. While the club pretends to be about fighting litter and saving the environment, it's really about learning to control strange powers, protecting the innocent, and taking a stand for goodness and light. It gives Drew a secret identity of his own (even if one with lame powers and little to no value in combat). It almost gives Drew a sense of purpose. It totally would, if the the Titan would have anything to do with him. But Drew's other secret is that his Super is sad lump on a bar stool, having given up on the hero scene and trying to drown his sense of failure.

Now would be a good time for the Titan to come out of his slump, though. Every week seems to find Drew in more danger than the last. It's bad enough when the Titan can't be bothered to show up when a wacko in a bee costume and his brainwashed drones capture Drew and his best friend Jenna, suspending them over a swimming pool full of acid, and only Jenna's Super - a sword-whirling fox called, er, the Fox - shows up to save them. But when one of Justicia's most notorious criminal gangs breaks out of prison and starts a new crime wave headed toward the city, one would really hope the hero who put them away six years ago would come out of retirement. Soon all the city's Supers except the Fox have been kidnapped, H.E.R.O. has been suspended, and attempts have been made on the lives of Drew and his friends, to say nothing of the mayor. Plus, Drew starts to suspect a traitor has been leading the villains to the Supers' secret lairs, and his own Super - for what he's worth - will be the next target.

It's time for some sidekicks to hero up. And though his friends' skills include martial arts, passing through walls, turning into solid granite, and shooting bolts of electricity, their leader will be the Sensationalist - yeah, that's Drew. Barely teenaged, too-young-to-drive Drew, who has only his nose for trouble to guide him, and who is confused enough as it is about girls, friendship, math class, the sidekick Code, and how to keep his parents oblivious to his Super issues. Happy is the reader who will share his adventure, full of thrilling action, self-deprecating humor, heartache, and bittersweet romance.

This consistently funny, touching, and exciting book comes from the Indianapolis-based author of Standard Hero Behavior, which I have read, and Minion, which I plan to read soon. His other books include The Dungeoneers, Insert Coin to Continue, and Ms. Bixby's Last Day.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World
by Robert Jordan
Recommended Ages: 13+

I didn't particularly like the prologue to this nearly-800-page novel, which is probably why it sat on my shelf for many long years before I made a serious attempt to read it. I still don't think the prologue hit the right tone for this novel, but I'm glad I finally got past it, because it was the last part of the book I didn't like.

These days, I probably don't have to say much about this book to give you an idea what kind of story is in it. Just look at the cover. It's not a bad representation of the contents. The story features a large party of diverse characters who must make a perilous journey, mostly on horseback, in a medieval-ish fantasy world represented within by some beautifully drawn maps. Analogies to The Lord of the Rings abound. The main characters are ordinary folk from a peaceful, isolated, agricultural area who are totally out of their depth in a world full of dangerous adventure and a quest to thwart a cosmic evil; apart from being humans, they're pretty much hobbits. Along the way they encounter queens, princesses, warriors, priests, wizards (of a sort), troubadours, various goblin-like creatures (roughly equivalent to Tolkien's orcs), chilling minions of a dark lord who is trying to break free of his three-thousand-year prison (think ring-wraiths), slow-paced giants who sing to trees (think ents), winged nasties (er...), pacifist gypsy types, a guy who communicates with wolves, a giant made entirely out of plants, a ruined city infested with evil, a country where the trees and flowers actively try to kill anyone who passes through, and lots, lots more.

So, it's pretty much Tolkien, with extras. Among the extras are strong, central, female characters whom you don't forget about when they aren't mentioned for 1,000 pages. Their particular world is distinguished by a cycle of history, called the Wheel of Time, that weaves notable people and events into a web or lace of destiny. It has a long, turbulent history whose epochs bear such impressive (and sometimes terrifying) titles as the Age of Legends, the War of the Shadow, the Time of Madness, the Breaking of the World, and the War of a Hundred Years. It is a world whose magic, drawn from the One True Source (somehow connected with the Creator), has both a male and a female aspect - but the male version has been polluted by evil, and brings madness, disaster, and death wherever it is used. Every now and then a "false Dragon" arises, claiming to be a certain ancient hero reborn, and often bringing war to the lands.

And now this world's he-who-must-not-be-named, variously known as Shai'tan and Ba'alzamon, is trying to bust loose and seize control of the wheel. Somehow he has narrowed his search for a prophesied person, destined to change the shape of the Pattern either for good or evil, down to three youths from the rustic backwater of the Two Rivers - three boys, hardly men, who grew up in the tiny village of Emonds Field, so far from the big-time that they don't even know they are subjects of a queen - one, or all, of whom must either be destroyed or enslaved to the Dark One's will. Just when the minions of evil are about to strike, a member of the order that practices the feminine side of magic - called Aes Sedai - scoops them up and flees across country, desperate to deny whatever the Dark One wants.

Will they all make it to safety? Will they stop the Dark One? Which of the boys will turn out to be the ta'veren, the turning-point in the Pattern? Or will they all? A level-headed reader will have a good guess ready, based on knowing this book is only the beginning of a massive fantasy cycle, and the sense that one particular youth - Rand al'Thor, who suspects he is not really a scion of Two Rivers stock - is singled out as the point-of-view character, except when the party splits into two or three groups. To keep you guessing, his buddies both find their own strange destinies: jokester Mat Cauthon becoming tied to a cursed dagger, and blacksmith's apprentice Perrin Aybara developing a psychic connection with wolves. But what is special about Rand remains a surprise to the end, except perhaps for readers who are paying very close attention. There are more characters you'll get to know too, and some of them may become even more important in later books. Let's leave you with these three young men for now, and a promise that once you meet them, you will care about how the Pattern weaves itself around them.

This 1990 book was the first of 12 books in the "The Wheel of Time" series (including a prequel) completed by Jordan, né James Oliver Rigney, Jr., before his death in 2007. The fact that his plans for the last three books of the series were realized by author Brandon Sanderson may tempt me to bend my personal rule against reading another writer's continuation of an original writer's series. All in good time, however. Book 2 of "The Wheel of Time" is The Great Hunt. Under a variety of pseudonyms, Rigney also wrote seven "Conan the Barbarian" novels in the early 1980s, a western novel, and a historical-fiction trilogy; he is also rumored to have done some non-fiction and ghost-writing work. There is some controversy about his willingness to compromise quality for quantity, but this book is a promising start for a 14- (or 15-) book fantasy epic, and understandably became one of the sacred texts of the fantasy genre.