Saturday, June 21, 2008


Gregor and the Code of Claw
by Suzanne Collins
Recommended Age: 12+

The fifth and last book in the "Underland Chronicles" brings twelve-year-old Gregor to the end of his adventures in the strange world deep below New York City. This time he must truly come into his destiny as the great warrior with "rager" powers, whose deeds will decide the fate of a world where humans aren't the only people.

Faced by a war with the rats led by the fanatical Bane, the giant, talking mice, bats, cockroaches, spiders, and others look to Gregor to save them - together with his delicate, anxiety-prone sister, who may be the key to breaking the rats' code. But who will save Gregor from a prophecy that decrees his death? Who will save his family from being held hostage to ensure his loyalty?

This book puts Gregor through a wringer. Besides his own, terrible powers, Gregor must deal with the fragile health of his mother, concern for his sisters, and his growing love for Regalia's young queen. Meanwhile, military command has been restored to the icily pragmatic Solovet, who engages Gregor in a brutal battle of wills. Yes, this is the same Solovet who was condemned to death for war crimes; her sentence has been suspended now that the city needs her strategic, leadership skills. As Gregor chafes against Solovet's authority, he finds himself in nearly as much danger from his allies as from the enemy - who, by the way, have dreadful plans in store for the Regalians and their allies.

This is an intensely violent book with an "anti-war" message. It is the concluding chapter in a saga that, like some of the best stories, leaves an aftertaste of regret and uncertainty instead of tying up all the loose ends in a blazing triumph. The ending may even make your heart ache, if the rapid unraveling of many tangled threads doesn't leave your head spinning. Filled with the pain of injustice, young love, wartime wounds and losses, and the sense that the world one fights for can never again be home, it combines a strong emotional impact with a lesson about the cost of violence and warfare. See if you don't find the conclusion as engrossing as the first book promised; see if you don't come to the end wishing for more.

EDIT: For more information, see Ms. Collins' website.

The Three Musketeers
by Alexandre Dumas père
Recommended Age: 14+

The père after the author's name means, roughly, "Sr." and is meant to distinguish him from his son, Alexandre Dumas fils (Jr.). These French words literally mean "father" and "son," which tells you two things about this book. First, it is the product of a literary dynasty, for both the father and the son were celebrated writers. Second, it was written in French, and if you don't speak French, you will have to find a translation.

You may not find the same translation I read, so the words may not be the same in your copy, but here's a quote from the second paragraph of this novel, a paragraph that gave me an accurate clue to how much I would enjoy the rest of the book:
In those times...there were nobles, who made war against each other; there was the king, who made war against the cardinal; there was Spain, which made war against the king. Then, in addition to these concealed or public, secret or open wars, there were robbers, mendicants, Huguenots, wolves, and scoundrels, who made war upon everybody. The citizens always took up arms readily against thieves, wolves, or scoundrels, often against nobles or Huguenots, sometimes against the king, but never against the cardinal or Spain.
As soon as I had read this, I perceived that Dumas had a sparkling wit, and that this "historical romance" (set in France and England between 1626 and 1628) was going to come over light on the history and strong on the romance. It was a promise that Dumas fufilled throughout the book's nearly 600 pages (in my edition).

The Three Musketeers isn't "classic literature" in the sense of being longwinded, mannered, and boring. It is, rather, a marvelous entertainment, crammed with vendettas, love affairs, duels, intrigues, daring exploits, drily funny dialogue, scintillating melodrama, and side-splitting farce. It has an imperfect but captivating young hero - an ambitious youngster named D'Artagnan, who comes up from Gascony to make his fortune in Paris. It has a group of heroically devoted friends - Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, each intriguing in his own way. It has two unforgettable villains, from the intriguingly ambivalent Cardinal Richelieu to the truly monstrous Milady de Winter. It mixes fictional and semi-fictional characters with well-known historical figures, such as the cardinal, King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, and the Duke of Buckingham - though Dumas adapts historical events with a great deal of freedom, proving once again that his history is handmaiden to the romance. It has memorable lines, of which "All for one, one for all" is only the best-known example. It has horrors and intrigues that will fill you with dread while you turn page after page, as well as merry adventures that will thrill you with joy.

It may have been harder for an earlier generation of young readers to tune into this book, for one big reason: we don't understand the period it is talking about. But for today's internet-savvy kid this won't be a problem. Whenever something comes up in the book that you don't know about, Wiki it. That's how I found out that "Monsieur" was the title of the King of France's oldest living brother (in this instance Gaston, duc d'Orleans). I learned more about the astonishing character of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who really proves that truth is stranger than fiction. I figured out what on earth a "procurator" was (apparently, some kind of lawyer). I also read up on the other historical characters, including Gaston's successor as Monsieur, Louis XIV's brother Philippe who, in history, did not wear an iron mask.

The "iron mask" bit doesn't come into this book, though; that belongs to one of the sequels. Dumas (1802-1870) wrote two further "D'Artagnan Romances," titled Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne: Ten Years Later. The latter is typically published in three or more volumes, with titles such as Louise de la Vallière and The Man in the Iron Mask, each of which is about as thick as The Three Musketeers. Dumas père specialized in stage plays, but also wrote numerous novels that were serialized in French newspapers with great success. Their titles include The Count of Monte Cristo, The Two Dianas, The Knight of Maison-Rouge, The Black Tulip, and The Knight of Sainte-Hermine, a nearly-finished novel that was only discovered in 1988. Dumas, whose grandmother was black, also wrote an early novel on racial themes, titled Georges.

Princess Academy
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Age: 13+

From the author of The Goose Girl and Enna Burning (both of which have been recommended to me) comes this Newbery Honor Book set in the fictional country of Danland, in a world similar to medieval Europe. Too small and remote to be a province of Danland, the territory of Mount Eskel consists of one village and makes its living from one natural resource: the mountain itself. Apart from what they can get from raising goats and rabbits, the villagers rely on a mineral called linder - similar, perhaps, to marble - which they quarry out of the mountainside and trade for other goods. From time to time their vein of linder gives out, and the whole village has to move to another digging site.

Though this may provide only a meagre subsistence, it satisfies the people of Mount Eskel...until a delegate from the government arrives one trading-day and announces that the next Queen of Danland will come from their village. Every girl between the age of 12 and 17 must attend a Princess Academy, which has been set up in the mountain pass below the village, and learn letters, history, geography, commerce, diplomacy, poise, and whatever else a lady of the court should know. Their stern tutor Olanna cracks the whip of discipline, warning the girls that whoever scores highest will be the first to dance with the Prince at his upcoming ball, where he will choose his future bride from among them - and whoever fails will be sent home without attending the ball at all.

One of these girls is Miri, a pretty 14-year-old who lives in shame because her father refuses to let her set foot in the quarry. She only wants to prove herself useful enough that her father will change his mind. Fiercely loyal to her sister Marda, beginning to yearn for a village boy named Peder, Miri isn't sure she wants to marry a prince. And more than the other girls, she chafes against Olanna's authority. But Miri is also driven to succeed, to learn, and to use her knowledge to help the community. She discovers qualities in herself, such as friendship and leadership, that no one expected; and she learns some amazing things about the linder that is so central to life on Mount Eskel. Plus, the chance of giving her family a better life fills her with confusion as to what she really wants.

The ball comes and goes. Guess who gets the first dance with the Prince? But he leaves suddenly without making a decision; a storm closes the pass for the winter; and while the girls and their tutor are still taking stock of the situation, the academy is threatened by a danger no one has foreseen. Guess who saves the day?

By the time the prince comes back, a year later, to make his final choice, you may think there are no surprises left. But I'll bet you won't guess how it all turns out! Like a sophisticated fairy tale where "happily ever after" doesn't mean what you expect, this uplifting story focuses on a girl whose wit and character improve the lives of everyone around her. If you would like to know such a girl, meet Miri in Princess Academy.

The Book of Story Beginnings
by Kristin Kladstrup
Recommended Age: 12+

Lucy Martin has just moved into a century-old farmhouse in Iowa, overlooking the Missouri River bluffs, which her father inherited from his Aunt Lavonne. It seems like a nice place for her parents to work out problems in their marriage. But what will Lucy do? Why, Lucy will have an adventure.

The adventure begins when Lucy finds journals belonging to her long-lost Uncle Oscar, who disappeared in 1914. This is the reason Aunt Lavonne took such an interest in magic; she believed her brother's disappearance had to do with magic. But no one ever believed Lavonne's story that she woke up one night, found the house surrounded by an ocean, and watched her 14-year-old brother row away in a small boat, never to return.

After reading Oscar's journals, Lucy still has no clue as to what became of him. But then she finds a rowboat in the shed - the boat that had turned up empty some time after Oscar disappeared - and hidden nearby, an old "book of story beginnings." Some of the story beginnings are written in Oscar's hand, including one where a boy realizes that the farmland around his house has turned into the sea. Lucy adds her own story beginning to the book - something about a girl whose father was a magician - but before she can write further, she finds herself living in the middle of the story she has begun.

The book, you see, is magical. Whatever story you begin to write in it must be finished, not by writing it, but by living it. The book also judges what you write, so that if you try to bring your story to a too-neat conclusion, the book may erase what you have written. So you're stuck in the story until you find out how it ends.

Next thing Lucy knows, her father has turned himself into a bird and flown away. Oscar, who should be elderly or dead, turns up exactly as he was when he disappeared. The two children realize that they have to see all the stories they have started through to the end if they want things to return to normal. And they have to do it before Lucy's mother gets too concerned about her father's disappearance. It may be too late to save Oscar's family from a lifetime of grief and uncertainty, but Lucy is determined not to let that happen to her family.

If the fantasy concepts of The Great Good Thing, Thursday Next, Inkheart, and The Neverending Story intrigued you, you will especially enjoy this book. The story that Lucy and Oscar fall into is full of quirks, dangers, and surprises. The characters, both in their real lives and in the story-within-the-story, are treated with an affectionate warmth that you, too, will feel toward them. And the idea of a story taking over your life may challenge you to think strange thoughts about the boundary between reality and fiction.

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Age: 12+

Book Two in the "Fablehaven" series brings Kendra and Seth back to their grandparents' magical-creature preserve, but not for a laid-back summer vacation. The Society of the Evening Star, which wants to destroy the preserves and unleash the evil powers they hold in check, is closing in on Fablehaven. Already a hideous kobold has infiltrated Kendra's homeroom class (disguised as a good-looking new student), and because of the ability to see magic which the fairies gave her last summer, Kendra is the only one who can see what he truly is. Then an agent of the Society tricks Kendra and Seth into helping him steal an artifact that will cause even more trouble than a halitosis-challenged kobold. It is with relief that the two children accept a high-speed ride to Fablehaven.

The news Grandpa and Grandma Sorenson give them is not good. The "artifact" Seth turned loose is actually an unstoppable demon that will eat, grow, and stalk Seth until it devours him. The Society has brought about the fall of a secret preserve in Brazil. Each of the secret preserves, like Fablehaven, conceals a powerful magical object that must not be allowed to fall into the Society's hands. Fablehaven's artifact must be found and removed to a place of safety. But one of the three magical specialists helping to find it is a traitor. Soon the security of Fablehaven is breached, the enemy is inside - to say nothing of the giant, froglike demon that wants to eat Seth - and everything depends on Kendra, who has just learned that she is "fairykind," learning to use her powers to stop the Society from destroying Fablehaven and stealing its artifact.

Before you open this book, brace yourself. It is a scary, thrilling, complex adventure that moves so fast you may have to run to catch up. It is hard to believe a young readers' book could pack so much danger, humor, and emotional power; so many puzzles, tricks, surprises, and thrills; and such an intriguing theory of magic between its two covers. If you thought The Candy Shop War cast magic in an interesting light (in which children are the only ones who can really do magic), try this book's riff which suggests that children up to a certain age are immune to magic! They won't, I'll warrant, be immune to the magic of this book, or the anticipation of Book Three: The Grip of the Shadow Plague.

The Wine-Dark Sea
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

This sixteenth book of the "Aubreyiad," featuring the exploits of Royal Navy Capt. Jack Aubrey and his physician-musician-naturalist-secret agent friend Stephen Maturin, opens with the British privateer frigate Surprise chasing an American ditto through the South Pacific. Nature brings the chase to a terrifying conclusion, thanks to the explosion of a volcano. This stunning act of God sets the stage for the remarkable tragedy that unfolds in the pages that follow.

Let's put the pieces together. (1) A French visionary named du Tourd becomes Aubrey's prisoner: a man with dangerous, egalitarian ideas that agree with those of a certain religious sect on board. (2) At the same time, a member of that sect becomes one of Jack's lieutenants, filling a vacancy caused by a well-aimed volcanic missile. (3) Du Tourd recognizes Stephen and is prepared to compromise his cover as a British naval intelligence agent. (4) Stephen's top-top-secret assignment in Peru is to ignite the fuse of the independence movement, though Spain is still at the time an ally of England. So, (5) when one of Jack's officers helps Du Tourd escape, Stephen's plans are exposed, forcing the doctor to flee for his life through the high Andes while Jack and a hand-picked crew suffer thirst and hunger in an open boat. Reunited after two harsh tests of survival, the friends then undergo one of the most desperate chases ever - talk about being caught between an iceberg and a hard place!

There, I have made the plot seem very direct and simple. But the pleasure of reading this book is its subtlety and variety, its depiction of exotic scenes, complicated situations, many-layered characters, and an adventure whose hero, at the end, may call it a failure while you, the reader, revel in its success. Don't let the ending fool you; the adventure is not nearly over, as the next book (The Commodore) picks up nearly where this one leaves off.

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