Friday, September 30, 2011

The Alchemist: the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott

This book gets brownie points right off the bat for having a very cool cover. The author was also very clever, because it has two main characters, twin brother and sister, Josh and Sophie. That way the book can appeal to either boys or girls. In this story the world is populated by humani, or regular humans, immortals, or humans who have somehow become immortal, and the ancient ones, creatures and characters from myth and legend who really exist, but keep themselves a secret from the humani. Josh and Sophie are regular teens who live in San Francisco. Josh is working for a man who calls himself, Nick Flemming, but who is really the legendary alchemist, Nicolas Flamel. Flamel has kept himself and his wife alive for centuries by brewing the elixir of life found in a magical book. When evil immortals steal the book, Sophie and Josh are sucked into a world of magic and danger they never knew existed. One fun thing about the story is that the "immortals" are all famous people from history, and all the "ancient ones" are versions of ancient gods and goddesses from a variety of cultural mythologies. This is the first in a series, and is full of fantasy cliche. Still, it is fast paced and fun with an interesting and novel magic system. Benjamin has read the whole series and assures me that they get even better as they go along, so I have already started book 2. (375 p)

A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

When you see the title of this book, you think it is going to have something to do with the Tale of Two Cities, but it doesn't. It is a story about a girl. Elodie, who travels to a new city in hopes of becoming an apprentice to some traveling "mansioners" or players. When she arrives she discovers that she does not have enough money to pay the apprentice fees, so she starts working for a dragon named Meenore. In this town there are, of course, two castles. One is owned by the king who is human, and the other by a duke, who is a shape shifting Ogre. The dragon is a detective, and Elodie gets to use her mansioning skills to help him discover who is trying to kill the king and the ogre.

Gail Carson Levine is best known for her retelling of well known fairy tales, most notably, Ella Enchanted and The Princess Tales. Elodie, in this book, is like all of her female protagonists. She is clever and brave, yet caring and loyal.The story is kind of odd, a fairytale mystery, but it is well written and interesting. At the heart of the story is the friendship that slowly develops between Elodie, Meenore and the ogre. Levine ends the book well, but leave the door open for sequels. I don't think this is Levine's best book, but it is fun and worth the effort. (328 p)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

Do you know what "Steampunk" is? I was at a conference yesterday where an author was speaking and she said that librarians know what Steampunk is, but nobody else does. Steampunk is a trendy genre right now; science fiction set in a pseudo-historical setting, often Victorian England. The book I reviewed last Winter, Larklight, falls into that category, and so does this book. Fever is a girl who lives in England in the far distant future, but in her time England has lost most of its technology and has reverted back to conditions mirroring the 1800's. Fever is the only girl in a colony of engineers, having been raised by them as a foundling. The colony is run by strict rules of logic. No emotion of frills of any kind are allowed because they are seen as distractions. The book starts when Fever has her first assignment outside of the colony and becomes aware of the very illogical world of the low-life of the city. While in the city, she stumbles on clues about her own identity and how she came to live with the engineers. At the same time, the city comes under attack by outside forces that travel from city to city in moving buildings. The Engineers decide to side with the invaders because of their advanced technology, but Fever must decide which side she is on. I was half way through the book before I realized that it is a pre-quil to Reeve's Mortal Engines series. Reeve has an amazing imagination and is able to paint the most outlandish and creative realities in believable hues. I think the key to his success is his ability to create realistic and complex characters. Since the characters move and function in the incredible world, we are able to go along with them. This is definitely a YA book and has a fairly high violence level and body count. It also ends without really ending, and there are at least two more books about Fever in the works. Still, it is worth reading, especially for those who have enjoyed Reeve's other books. (325 p.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty

This was an interesting book. About half way through I almost gave up on it. I dislike books about teens that are socially inept, because I was a socially inept teen and reading about them brings back bad memories and makes me feel embarrassed about myself all over again. I stuck it out and finished the book. There were some things I liked about this book, and others that didn't quite work for me.

In the book, Bindy is really brilliant and she likes doing well at school. She is a bit arrogant, so none of the other kids like her much and are often unkind to her. All of her life she tries to be nice, anyway, but her junior year she decides to fight back and tell all the kids in her FAB class (social skills class) just what she thinks of them. Of course, that just makes things worse. As the year continues she begins to let her school work slip. She is often sick and becomes spacey and disoriented. During the same time, she begins to figure out how arrogant she has been, and starts building tentative friendships with the other kids. Then the book goes cock-eyed. The kids in her FAB group begin to believe that the reason she is so sick and spacey is because she has been poisoned. The question of whether she is poisoned or not takes up the last third of the book.

What I liked about the book was how well the author represented Bindy's fall into mental illness. It was an interesting psychological study. She also did a good job portraying the other kids. She manages to make it clear how Bindy could think of them as horrible, when they really were pretty normal kids. Something that didn't work was the format of the book. It was written as if it were a collection of documents, rather than a narrative. Some of it is Bindy's journal, but other are supposed to be memos and phone messages that characters write to each other. Also, Moriarty has Bindy write "transcripts" of what other people say. It is just too improbable. Teens don't really write memos to each other and copy down transcripts of what other people are saying, even really smart teens. Avi did a better job of using documents to tell a story in his book Nothing But the Truth.

This is definitely a teen book, not recommended for anyone under 13 or so. Some teens might really like it, but I wasn't really won over. (494 p)

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Buccaneers by Ian Lawrence

I enjoyed The Seance so much that I decided to read another Ian Lawrence book. This book is actually the 3rd in a series that includes, The Wreckers, and The Smugglers. I didn't realize it was in that series when I started it. I had read The Wreckers before, but I haven't read The Smugglers. Still, this story is only slightly dependent on the earlier books, and can be enjoyed as a stand alone. Lawrence must do huge amounts of research before he writes his books. Just as The Seance faithfully reproduces the 1920's, and The Lord of The Nutcracker Men recreates the time of WWI, this book totally recreates life on a merchant ship during the early 1900's. And like those other books, this is one thrilling adventure sequence after another. This book reminded me a lot of Treasure Island. A teenage boy, John Spenser, goes on his first sea voyage on a ship owned by his father. Early on in the voyage, they come across a sailor in a life boat, far from land, and bring him aboard. Some of the crew fear that he is a Jonah, (i.e. bad luck) but he turns out to be invaluable when the merchant ship happens to come across a ruthless pirate and his terrible crew. This book has it all, cannon battles, storms at sea, and buried treasure. This is another great historical fiction for boys. (244 p)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Legend of Saint Valentine by Sidney Kuhn

I don't usually choose books published through vanity press. A vanity press is a company that, for a fee, will publish your book and distribute it to Amazon and local book stores. There are some books that started out in a vanity press, and were later picked up by a major publisher, most notably is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. Usually vanity press books, because they have not gone through the rigorous selection and editing process, are not as good as books published through major publishing houses. This book, The Legend of Saint Valentine, was written by the friend of a friend so I said I would read it.

I must admit I actually liked the book. It takes the various legends about Saint Valentine and reconciles them into a person who is a Zorro-like Roman vigilante. It is a fun view of the historical character about which we really have very little information. Unfortunately the book does have some of issues that are commonly found in vanity press. In the forward of the book the author states that this book is the first of a series. Mr. Kuhn obviously put a great deal of effort into creating the book, so I want to give some suggestions that will make his future writing more polished. So Mr. Kuhn, if you are reading this, know that I am writing this with admiration for your accomplishment and best wishes for your future endeavors.

Dear Mr. Kuhn
There are few things you could change with very little effort that would instantly and greatly improve the readability of your book. First of all, for some reason, you decided to put and extra space between each paragraph. Visually that chops up and slows down the narrative. You can add an extra space if there is a change of scene, but certainly not more than once a chapter. Likewise, restating the characters each chapter also slowed the chopped up the narrative. You can have a character list at the end of the book, but not at each chapter break.

The other suggestions I am going to make are not as easy to fix, but I think it could be done. One is to keep track of your target audience. The parts of the story about the children sound like they are written for a reader that is about 8 or 9 years old, but the parts of the story that about the political intrigue of third century Rome are more at an adult level. I am impressed with your knowledge of the details of Roman geography and political systems, but few 8-9 year-olds would be willing to wade through all the technical jargon and political monologuing.

Finally, you need to change how you think about your narrative. In your writing you are trying to explain what is happening. You give exact and detailed descriptions, as if you were explaining a crime scene to a policeman and wanted to get all the facts right. Good storytelling doesn't explain a situation, it recreates it. It gives you just enough detail that you can see what the character sees, and notice what the character would notice.

Ok, this blog is getting really long, but I want to explain what I mean. I am going to copy a paragraph from the book, and then suggest a rewriting of it.

From the book:
"Valentine immediately flinched and shot up straight in the saddle of the horse, which reared up on its hind leg, letting out a loud whinny. When the horse came back down the children could see that Valentine had a complete look of awe and wonder on his face. He began immediately grabbing underneath his breastplate and searching through his clothes, which reminded Caleb of what Valentine did in the storehouse. "

My revised version:
"Valentine flinched and straitened in his saddle. The horse reared and Valentine struggled to calm it, yet his eyes stayed riveted on the children. His hand flew under his breastplate and he groped through his tunic, searching for something. Caleb had seen him do that before, in the storehouse."

So how did I make the changes? First of all take out almost all adverbs. Most verbs are strong enough that adding words like "suddenly" or "immediately" just weakens them. Then tell what the character sees, and let the reader interpret from that what the character is feeling. How do we know when someone is feeling awe and wonder? They keep staring at something even though their horse is rearing.

Good luck, Mr. Kuhn. I hope this has been helpful.