Sunday, January 29, 2012

Far World: Water Keep by J. Scott Savage

This book suffered from being the one I read just after Goliath. It was a decent fantasy, I guess, but it just couldn't compare. This book starts out with a handicapped boy, Marcus, who lives on Earth and has some subtle, but special powers. He has an imaginary world, called Far World that he dreams about when he is discouraged or lonely. Big surprise, he discovers that Far World is real and travels there and meets a girl, Kyja. She has her own handicap because, in Far World, she is the only one who does not have magic. The children discover that they are the subject of a prophecy (another big surprise) and they are destined to save both Earth and Far World.

It has been interesting this week to try to analyze why this book didn't work as well as the Westerfeld books. One issue was originality. The whole "children of prophesy who have to save the whole world" thing has been done so many times. All you writers out there, unless you are J.K. Rowling, don't write a fantasy book with a prophesy. It is just too overdone. More than that, though, it felt like the author came up with the story first, and then tried to fit the characters into the story. As a result, the children felt almost like action figures that a child was moving through the adventures. They never did feel like real people. I think one of the problems here was that there were so many action sequences that there was no time for the reader to get to know the characters. Looking back in my memory, it is hard to count how many times the children were almost caught, or about to be killed, or were caught and had to escape. After a while I thought to myself, "not again. Can't we just finish this." We needed more back story and emotional motivation. Why would two 13 year old children buy into this impossible quest and be willing to risk their lives when they didn't really understand what was going on?

So, I am being overly harsh. It wasn't all that bad and a 3rd grader probably would have loved it. The main message to you authors out there is that a writer needs to care about his characters more than he cares about the storyline. The story line has to come from the characters, not the other way around. (419 p.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

I had more fun reading this book this week than any book I have read in a very long time. All week it made me smile. It is the third and final book in the Leviathan series and it actually has less action and cool technology than the other two, but it is the relationship between Daryn and Alek that makes it a pure delight. The Leviathan rescues the famous and somewhat crazy scientist, Nicholai Tessler, in Russia. Once on board ship he claims that he has a weapon so powerful that it will end the war. Alek gets caught up in the claims and wants to help Tessler with his plans use his ultimate weapon, Goliath, to force all nations to live in peace. Meanwhile, Alek hasn't figured out Dylan/Darrin's secret yet, and she is having all kinds of conflict, wanting to tell him, and then not wanting to tell him. The Leviathan is assigned to take Tessler to America where our heroes meet such famous historical characters as William Randolf Hearst, and Pancho Villa. I won't say any more because you have to read it yourself, and I don't want to spoil the ending. I will only say that when you do read it, be sure to read the afterward. It is amazing how much of the story is based on historical facts. (543 p)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Web of Air by Philip Reeve

This is the second in the Fever Crumb series. In this one two years have gone past and Fever and the children are living with a group of traveling players. They stop at a city and Fever meets a young inventor who is trying to create a flying machine. It is fun to watch logical rational Fever fall in love, but the reader can't help but sense that the relationship is doomed from the beginning. This is not a bad middle book. Writing a middle book in trilogy has to be hard. (though I am not sure this is a trilogy) Something has to happen, or the book is totally boring, but nothing can really be resolved because the big conclusion comes in the third book. The main purpose of the middle book is to keep the reader interested enough that they are willing to continue to the finale. This book accomplishes that OK. Warning, this book is pretty anti-religion. At one point Fever states something like, "Isn't that what religion is for, to suppress the truth and manipulate the masses." (293 p.)

Monday, January 16, 2012


On Saturday we had our Family Literacy Symposium at the library where I work. Each year the Children's Department Staff do a "60 books in 60 minutes" kind of presentation where we highlight our favorite books from our section from the previous year. I order the 800's in my library (and the 600's, but someone else did all the nonfiction) and here are my favorite picks from last year.

Lemonade and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word by Bob Raczka
Sometimes we think about poetry as an old and venerated form of literature, but there are creative souls out there who are still thinking of new things to do with words. In this book, Raczka takes a single word, and uses the letters from the word to form other words. Then he uses those words to create a free verse poem. In the book, the typesetting is very clever. The poem is presented twice, once vertically with the letters dripping or tumbling below the original word to show how the new words were arranged, and again in normal horizontal form, so it is easier to read. Some of the resulting poems aren't so great, but some are not bad, "Halloween/ all alone/ an owl/a howl/ oh no".

A Dazzling Display of Dogs: Concrete Poems by Betsy Franco
In this book, the text of the poems is fully incorporated into the illustrations. It is hard to explain without actually seeing the illustrations. For example, for the poem, Baloo Got Out, the dog gets out of the gate and eats a bunch of stuff he was not supposed to. The list of things he ate appears in the dog's belly, on illustrations of each item. The illustrations are busy, bright and fun. The thing that impressed me the most, however, is almost all the poems rhyme and scan. Usually concrete poetry is free verse. I guess poets think it was hard enough to make the poem have visual impact, that they aren't going to worry about rhyming too. But Franco, and the illustrator, Michael Wertz pull off both.

Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems by Kristine O/Connell George
This one doesn't have any clever gimmicks. It is just a collection of sweet poems about a little sister. The poems explore the full range of emotions one might feel about a younger sibling, from affection to embarrassment to jealousy. The poems are honest, but never bitter and often tender. Nancy Carpenter's illustrations are also sweet, and match the tone of the peoms

Spot the Plot: A Riddle Book of Book Riddles by J. Patrick Lewis
I included this one just because it is fun. This is a collection of poem riddles about classic children's literature. You read the poem and try to guess the book it refers to. The answers are in the back of the book but most people will be able to answer without consulting the back. Lynn Munsinger's illustrations add more clues. This book shows how a few of the best children's books really have touched all of our lives.

The other one I highlighted was Book Speak: Poems about Books by Laura Purdie Salas, but that is one I reviewed for SLJ, so I won't include a review here. You can google my name and the title and find the review I wrote for SLJ.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

Here is another steam punk that are all the rage right now. At first I thought it was a Leviathan wanna be, but then I realized it was actually published before Westerfeld's series. Anyway, this one was loads of fun. Matt, is a young cabin boy on a lighter-than-air ship in an alternate early 1900's. His ship, the Aurora, is a luxury passenger liner and one of his passengers is a wealthy girl, Kate, in search of a mysterious flying mammal her grandfather claimed to see right before his death. A series of thrilling events, including attacks by a pirate and bad weather, brings them to be shipwrecked on an island where the creature lives. Matt is torn between his duty to the ship and his interest in the fiery girl as they search for evidence of the strange creature. This is a Sci Fi action/adventure and Oppel does a good job with the pacing. Each chapter has something interesting, and the energy never does flag. Kate and Matt are fully developed characters, and their relationship to one another is interesting, but the other characters are mostly amusing caricatures. Still, the descriptions of the airship are fun and detailed. There are all kinds of fun nautical terms, and the description of the creature is creative as well. There were a few physics gaffs in the book. One was particularly bad, and made me groan out loud. I think they should require all editors to take at least one basic physics class before they are hired so they can catch those kind of errors. Still this was a fun book and will interested both boys and girls who like fantasy/sci fi. It was in the YA section of our library, but there was nothing in it that wouldn't work for 5-6th graders. (355 p)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Witch & Wizard by James Patterson

Here is a very typical teen dystopia novel by a very popular author. In this book a brother and sister, age 17 and 15 are dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and thrown into prison. A new government has taken over and Whit and Wisty have been accused of being a wizard and a witch. As it turns out, they really do have magical powers. Their parents are captured at the same time, and they spend the rest of the book looking for them. There are things I like about the book. There are some funny references to pop culture. They take familiar names and twist them a little. So Woodstock becomes Stockwood. I also like that the teens have really good relationships with their parents. Still, this is really B level fantasy. The writing is melodramatic and the magic system is undefined. The kid's magic works in amazing ways when it needs to for the plot, and then at other times, it doesn't work at all, when the plot demands. There is no rhyme or reason to it. I kept rolling my eyes while I read it, but I also know the exact type of teen who would totally eat it up. As Ranganathan says, "Every book its reader, Every reader his/her book". Caveat, this first book is not terribly dark, but they get darker as the series goes on. (314 P)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows by Jacqueline West

I haven't been going through books very fast this month. I did finish one this week. It is a fun little fantasy about a little girl who moves into a new house and discovers that the paintings in the house are magic. It reminded me a little of the book 100 Cupboards, by N.D. Wilson, and I am not sure which one I liked better. They both have a similar premise: a child finds passages to different worlds in their home, goes through them, and inadvertently causes all kinds of bad things to happen. Like the 100 Cupboards book, this is the first in a series, but is able to stand alone if you don't want to read the rest. One funny thing about this book was that the main character's parents are both mathematicians. They say all kinds of silly mathematical things to each other. It is funny because I am married to a mathematician, and these characters are nothing like any mathematician I have ever met. It is interesting to see the popular conception of what mathematicians are like. There is an under-riding message in this book about the importance of having faith in yourself and believing you can make a difference. It is also a good book for a young reader (grades 3-6) who might want a book that is a little spooky, but not too spooky. (certainly not as creepy as Coraline by Neil Gaiman). (241 p)