Monday, November 10, 2008

Six Book Reviews

Travel Team
by Mike Lupica
Recommended Age: 12+

Danny Walker's dreams of basketball glory are dashed when he doesn't make the seventh-grade travel team in his small New York town, simply because he doesn't have the all-important height advantage this year's basketball dads are looking for. It doesn't matter that he is one of the best basketball players in town. It doesn't matter that he played on the fifth- and sixth-grade travel teams. It doesn't even matter that his father is the Richie Walker, who led his own seventh-grade travel team to a national championship, only to have his pro career cut short by a disabling car accident. Or maybe that last one does matter, because this year's seventh-grade team is coached by a bitter rival of Richie Walker.

To Danny Walker, basketball is life. So when he starts talking about giving it up, his Mom and his friends get very concerned. Concerned enough to bring Danny's deadbeat Dad back into his life. Concerned enough to risk money, friendship, public embarrassment, and total failure by starting a new travel team, just so Danny can play.

Slowly, painfully, a group of misfits, rejects, and average players who didn't even try out for the "real team" shape up to become a real team themselves. Aided by his "supernatural basketball powers" (as Danny's mom calls them), he makes the kind of basketball magic that can turn even a little guy like him into a giant. Gradually Danny emerges as a leader, kids used to losing learn how to win, and the Middletown Warriors prove that the game is at its best when it's about kids having fun.

New York-based sportswriter and kids' basketball coach Mike Lupica seems ideally qualified to write this book, which will appeal to all athletics-minded kids; though his hip, grammatically loose, IM-savvy writing style may cause some Moms and teachers to frown. Because it is such a book of this moment in American culture, and loaded with basketball lingo to boot, I will not predict that it will become a classic. Rather, I will predict that, for right now, it holds a lot of appeal: enough to keep up a kid's habit of reading even when he tires of magical fantasies, teen melodramas, and serious literature.

Wicked Lovely
by Melissa Marr
Recommended Age: 15+

Welcome to Huntsdale, an American industrial city in decline. Factories are decaying. The streets are getting meaner. Even the Catholic prep students are deep into the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll scene. And the town is infested with faeries.

Yes, faeries: magical beings, most of them unseen by mortals, some wearing glamours that make them look human. They range from impossibly beautiful court faeries - members of either the Summer, Winter, Dark, or High Court - to bizarre and grotesque creatures combining features of man and beast. They treat each other savagely, and they play tricks on unsuspecting mortals, who can't see them. Mostly.

Aislinn can see them, though. So can her strict and protective Gram, who has taught her the rules of dealing with these fair folk, so long of life and so short of pity. The rules are: Don't look at faeries. Don't answer when they speak to you. Don't run from them (for they love the chase above all things). Do nothing to attract their attention. Besides these, and the fact that they are allergic to iron, Aislinn has nothing to protect her when, in spite of all her precautions, a couple of court faeries start paying particular attention to her.

The gorgeous Keenan is, in fact, the King of the Summer Court. Because of a magical binding placed on him by his evil mother, the Winter Queen, Keenan has spent most of the past millennium searching for Miss Right, the girl who can set him free. When he chooses Aislinn as his next candidate, he pursues her relentlessly. And there is so little she can do to resist, as her very mortality is slipping away.

Soon Aislinn must face a terrible choice between being one of Keenan's immortal bimbos and the endless, bitter cold of becoming the Winter Girl. Unless she is, after all, the true Summer Queen. Yet she doesn't want that, either. Irresistable as Keenan is, the boy Aislinn wants is the very mortal, down-to-earth Seth, who lives in a train and collects tattoos and piercings.

The choice couldn't come at a worse time, just as Seth and Aislinn are ready to accept their tender feelings toward each other. Yet choose she must, or the Winter Queen will suck all the life out of the world, beginning with Huntsdale. Throw in the little detail that the Winter Queen is prepared to take lives to prevent Aislinn from becoming Summer Queen, and you're set for the long buildup to a huge climax.

The author of this dark, gritty, romantic fantasy laces it with quotes from scholary authorities on faerie lore. In the Harper Teen edition's "Extras," Marr also provides a hard-rock play list to go with her tale. Teen girls should especially enjoy the way Marr depicts the conflicting emotions swirling inside Aislinn. Parents and delicate readers should beware of the book's mature themes and sexually-charged situations, playing out in a teen scene and a faerie world that has little by way of moral scruples. For this is a faerie tale that inhabits the shadowy side of our age; and it is the first book in a series that continues with Ink Exchange.

The Hound of Rowan
by Henry H. Neff
Recommended Age: 10+

A MuggleNet reader named Tracy recently asked me to point her toward the series of books most nearly just-like-Harry-Potter. At the time I could think of a baker's dozen of series, including Diane Duane's Young Wizards, Emily Drake's Magickers, Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci books, and so on. If I had read this book by then, I would have put it near the top of the list. The Book Trolley's main idea is "If You Like Harry Potter, You May Also Like..." And this book is exactly what it's all about.

How would this book appeal to Harry Potter fans? Let me count the ways. First, we meet a brave, magically talented boy named Max McDaniels who has tragically lost his mother. Second, Max gets a letter inviting him to a magical school after a strange incident at a museum. Third, the school (at a secret location) surrounds Max with quirky teachers and colorful students - some friend, some foe - in buildings and grounds that have a mind of their own.

Fourth, Max meets amazing magical creatures and beings on a daily basis, from the ogre and hag who work in the kitchen to the Sanctuary full of rare animals, one for each student to bond with. Fifth, there are magical sports (none, alas, involving broomsticks), school dances (complete with a touch of adolescent romance), and a battle against a powerful force for evil that is trying to infiltrate the school. Actually, that's more than one thing, so I'm kind of losing count. Count on this, though: Max will be at the center of the battle. His destiny is linked to a dark power that needs Max's blood to reawaken... and, as he learns along the way, Max may need to make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat it.

All right, so I lost count of the ways. Let's take it as read (no pun intended) that Max McDaniels has a lot in common with Harry Potter. But he also has some cool things Harry didn't have. Like an amazing dorm room that tailored itself to him and his roommate. And his roommate, David Menlo, is pretty amazing himself. If you want another Ron Weasley, you'll have to look elsewhere - perhaps to a stocky, smartmouthed kid named Connor Lynch - but David is so freakishly powerful and brilliant that it's sometimes scary. It's good to have him on our side.

Not everyone is. Max has his own equivalent of Draco Malfoy, a second-year student who gets pulled with him into the dark, menacing climax of this adventure. And it soon becomes clear that Max's six-year program at the Rowan Academy will develop at a faster pace than Harry's adventures at Hogwarts. For it seems as if five or six years' worth of trouble squeeze themselves into Max's first year.

The trouble has something to do with a series of art thefts around the world, plus the disappearances of several prospective students - Potentials, as the faculty at Rowan call them. There is reason to suspect that a traitor is in the school. And in spite of the heavy security around and within the gates, a mysterious and dangerous figure named Ronin dogs Max's steps; huge, horrible, werewolf-like things called Vyes keep popping up; and a climactic confrontation in a graveyard proves only the beginning of a new magical war.

The Hound of Rowan is the first book of a new series titled The Tapestry, written and illustrated by a Chicago-born high school teacher. The next installment, titled The Second Siege, is already available. For more information on this author and his work, visit his website.

Blue at the Mizzen
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

War is hell, but peace can be mighty inconvenient, too. Jack Aubrey feels this strongly as a Royal Navy post-captain near the top of the seniority list. Very soon he will reach the point where he may either hoist the blue flag of an admiral or be passed over for promotion: a terrible and irreversible disgrace, popularly described as being "yellowed." And now that Waterloo has come and gone, and Napoleon is out of the picture, and the world's oceans aren't full of enemy ships ripe to be plucked as lucrative prizes, there isn't much chance of an officer like Jack distinguishing himself.

But a slight chance there is. Aubrey's friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, has proposed a way of combining a hydrographical expedition with a bit of off-the-record intelligence work, supporting Chile's drive for independence from Spain. Under the pretext of surveying a chain of Pacific islands, Aubrey will help the fledgling Chilean republic develop a strong enough navy to ensure their independence, while the doctor does secret agent stuff among the conflicting juntas on land. Meanwhile, as Stephen woos a woman he wants to marry, Jack locks sabres with real historical figures - some of them tragic - and nurses the career of a promising young protegé.

This is (deep sigh) the last completed book in Patrick O'Brian's twenty-volume novel of British naval life in the early 1800s, which began with Master and Commander. And though it does leave some loose ends that were apparently to be tied up in the unfinished and untitled Book 21, Blue at the Mizzen is a very satisfying book. In some ways - or at least one way - it really does give fans of this series a sense of closure. Jack Aubrey's naval career passes through a significant crisis. Stephen's perception of maritime reality reaches a higher degree of maturity. And, let's face it, nothing beats the battle in which the frigate Surprise (28 guns) attempts to cut out the 55-gun Esmeralda while under fire from a Peruvian shore-battery.

There are other thrilling incidents in the book, to be sure: another battle, storm and shipwreck, a risky dalliance with a superior officer's wife, and urgent intelligent work galore. But not all of its pleasures are of the pulse-quickening variety. The developing relationships between truly remarkable personalities, the beauty of the language they speak to each other and that O'Brian uses to describe them, the seemingly limitless variation in the faces of sea and sky, the close observation of unusual flora and fauna (especially birds), the awesome delicacy of 19th-century manners, and the effortless flow of wit (in which, for example, one character says, "So you have come back," and another replies, "I could not agree more") sparkle about this book like facets of a fascinating jewel.

If you enjoy books that immerse you in another world with its own language, customs, and ordering of reality, do plunge into this series. You may find that it is painful to have to come up out of it again, as one must do after this book ends. But in twenty novels there is a lot to enjoy. And O'Brian has left us several other novels that I mean to read, including Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore.

The Glitch in Sleep
by John Hulme & Michael Wexler
Recommended Ages: 10+

Becker Drane is the young hero of this book, the first in a series titled The Seems. The Seems is the world behind our world, a place that manufactures all the bits and pieces of our reality, from gravity to the weather, from time to your sense of smell. Most of these industries operate smoothly, but now and then something goes wrong in the Seems - and when that happens, it becomes a disaster in our world. That's when a Fixer is called in.

Unlike other careers in the Seems, Fixers come from our world. It has something to do with the "7th Sense," an instinct for when something happening in our world is the result of a glitch in the Seems. Without this 7th Sense, Fixers would be unable to find the cause of the problem and figure out how to fix it. So, from time to time, candidates are invited to cross the In-Between and train to become Fixers.

The youngest Fixer is 12-year-old Becker Drane, who has been working his way up from a mere Briefer since he was 9 years old. The story of how he got his job is charmingly loopy, but that is all background to this book, his first adventure as a full-fledged Fixer. It's a big one, too. For a nasty glitch has somehow gotten into the Department of Sleep. If the glitch isn't found and captured by dawn, the entire world will lose a night's sleep. And while that may not sound like much of a disaster to you, there is a lot riding on a good night's sleep. Planned chains of cause-and-effect. Moments of serendipity that could change lives, even the world. The structural integrity of the universe, etc.

Becker doesn't trouble himself (much) with questions about why things happen the way they do, whether or not there really is a Plan behind everything that happens, or whether that Plan is any good considering, for example, how Becker tragically lost his two best friends within a year or so. But then one of them turns up again, lurking in the shadows, whispering of plans by a dissident group that will probably cause lots of trouble for Becker in future installments.

For now, however, he has to concentrate on completing his first mission. It's a tough one, and though no one has a better chance than Becker of succeeding, he has soon made enough mistakes to put his job in jeopardy. And since it really is the best job in the world, failure is literally his worst nightmare.

Young fantasy readers will enjoy this quirky adventure, which builds a lot of suspense from a sense of time ticking down to the catastrophic unraveling of reality. Like some other current series, such as D. J. MacHale's Pendragon cycle, this book communicates on the level of the hip, street-smart, techno-savvy kid of today - which makes it fun to read right at this moment, though it will probably seem lame and dated in a few years. So hurry up and enjoy this charming entertainment piece before it becomes a museum piece; and if you like its off-kilter sense of humor and reality, look out for Book 2, The Split Second.

Flora Segunda
by Ysabeau S. Wilce
Recommended Ages: 12+

The full title of this book is: Flora Segunda: Being the Magical Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Remember that for the quiz. And while I may not be quite serious about that quiz, this book could be seriously studied. Why? For one thing, because it contains a lot of vocab-building words that I had to look up (such as aiguillettes, barouche, and gorget); but also because it introduces a truly original fantasy world, complete with its own native patterns of speech. At least, introduces it as far as a novel goes, though I believe author Wilce previously published short stories based on this world in various sci-fi/fantasy magazines. But until an anthology of those stories is published, this is the first book you are likely to notice in what I suppose could be called the "Crackpot Hall series."

I want to describe the world of Crackpot Hall to you, but I'm not sure where to begin. It's not a period in past or future history. It's not another planet. I'm pretty sure it's not an alternate historical timeline of our world. Yet it is somewhat like the American Southwest, where Spanish lingo has made inroads into English. And it is somewhat like a past era of history, in which a wood fire was a central feature of every household, and in which most forms of transportation had something to do with the horse. At the same time, however, there are elements that students of the pre-20th-century American Southwest will not recognize; and I'm not just talking about place names. I'm talking about magic.

I'm talking about terrible beings with the bodies of people and the heads of birds. I'm talking about butlers who draw strength from the Will of the family they serve. I'm talking about guerilla-like rangers who use magic and deceit to outfox their enemies. I'm talking about powerful spells using a language called Gramatica whose alphabet (perhaps fortunately) you can't read, so there need be no fear that you will accidentally speak it aloud and turn your sister into a turnip; a language in which certain verbs are so powerful that they take on a physical form.

Flora Fyrdraaca belongs to one of the major houses of the city of Califa. Her mother is the Warlord's military commander. Her father, having been captured and tortured by the enemy during the last war, is a crazy drunk. Her older sister has followed family tradition by going into the Army. And another sister, also named Flora (on whose account our Flora is "Flora Segunda"), died in the war. So everyone assumes Flora is going to enlist as soon as she comes of age, i.e. 14. Her catorcena (14th birthday) is coming up, an important affair. But Flora isn't ready for it. Not only is she woefully behind on making her dress, sending out invitations, and so forth; but she also doesn't want to become a soldier.

Instead, Flora wants to be one of the magic-wielding rangers. Only, the rangers have been outlawed since Califa made peace with its enemy, the Huitzil empire. So Flora and her best friend Udo are taking a big risk when they try to help the last known ranger, the legendary Boy Hansgen, escape on the eve of his execution. What Flora doesn't realize is that she has already taken an even bigger risk by offering to revive her butler, the banished Valefor, so he can help her with her chores around the increasingly run-down Crackpot Hall. Once Valefor starts siphoning off Flora's will, both of them begin to fade. Unless something can be done either to restore Valefor completely or to break the link between them, both he and Flora will sink into oblivion.

Few can advise Flora and Udo on what to do. Unfortunately those few include Flora's mad father, the lingering denizen of an extinct house (rumored to keep himself going by eating trespassers), and worst of all, the Huitzil ambassador himself: Lord Axacaya, whose defection to Califa caused the late war that devastated the country, and whose betrayal of Califa nearly destroyed it. Flora can scarcely imagine a more evil person, or a greater enemy of her own family... yet her survival will ultimately depend on what Lord Axacaya knows.

As you can perhaps guess from my lengthy synopsis, it may take a while for you to find your footing in the strange world of Califa and the Fyrdraaca family's Crackpot Hall. Nevertheless I trust that you will be charmed by the heroine's spirit, amused by her glass-gazing sidekick, intrigued (if not totally creeped out) by the two ominous butlers (one blue), and moved with affection for a certain highly-excitable red dog. Whether or not you actually want to move into their 11,000-room house with the Fyrdraacas, you will probably come to the end of this book dying to start its sequel, titled Flora's Dare.

No comments: