Posts tagged ‘300-349 pages’

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkTitle: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Narrators: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
ISBN: 9780385368261 (book on cd), 9781250012579 (hardcover)
Pages: 328 pages
Discs/CDs: 9 hours, 7 CDs
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2013. (audio from Listening Library)

“You can’t sit there. That’s Mikayla’s seat.” [...]
“I have to sit somewhere,” The girl said to Tina in a firm, calm voice.
“Not my problem,” Tina snapped. The bus lurched, and the girl rocked back to keep from falling. Park tried to turn the volume up on his Walkman, but it was already all the way up. He looked back at the girl; it looked like she was starting to cry.
Before he’d even decided to do it, Park scooted toward the window.
“Sit down,” he said. It cam out angrily. The girl turned to him, like she couldn’t tell whether he was another jerk or what. “Jesus-fuck,” Park said softly, nodding to the space next to him, “just sit down.”
The girl sat down. She didn’t say anything–thank God, she didn’t thank him–and she left six inches of space on the seat between them.
Park turned toward the Plexiglas window and waited for a world of suck to hit the fan. (8-9)

This is how Eleanor and Park meet. Eleanor, described by Park as “big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like. . . like she wanted people to look at her.” (8) Eleanor, when comparing Park to the other, meaner classmates on the bus, “couldn’t tell if the Asian kid who finally let her sit down was one of them, or whether he was just really stupid. (But not stupid-stupid- he was in two of Eleanor’s honors classes.)” (11) But then Park notices Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder, so he lends her some more. And he realizes that they like some of the same bands and music, so he lends her some cassette tapes. And then batteries. It’s when Park invites Eleanor home with him that they both realize two things: they are becoming more than just two teens who share the same bus seat, and their lives couldn’t be more different. It is those differences that ultimately put their relationship to the test, and Eleanor asks Park to give her something he truly doesn’t want to give up on.

What is it about books lately that are making me see the world so differently? Obviously books are supposed to make you view the world through a window or a light that isn’t your own. But I have never heard Eleanor’s analysis of Romeo and Juliet before, and I loved how contrary she was to the teacher. It’s also a little eye-opening and a little unnerving to have a historical fiction title that takes place during a time (1986) I was alive! Finally, after reading about the censorship scandal last September, I guess I should give fair warning that there are a multitude of swear words and some sexual content, although they don’t make it to home plate.

The relationship between Park and Eleanor I initially thought of as cliché, with two people who originally hate each other slowly falling in love. Really though, they didn’t hate each other in the beginning, they just had to get to know each other better and overcome this huge space between them. The bus seat and their body language while riding to and from school becomes symbolic of their feelings, as they start out avoiding each other, but then slowly migrate closer and closer, first ducking down so no one can see and then not caring what anyone on the bus thinks of them. Park starts off being this stereotypical Asian boy, smart, small, and silent, but then there’s that scene between him and Steve (if you have read the book, you KNOW which one I’m talking about), and it just smashes your entire opinion of Park. It also smashes your entire impression of Eleanor, as her response is just… wow.
Eleanor is getting teased by the kids on the bus. Park gets upset, and Eleanor tells him:

“It’s not worth it.”
“You are,” he said fiercely, looking at her. “You’re worth it.”
“This isn’t for me,” she said. She wanted to pull at him, but she didn’t feel like he was hers to hold back. “I don’t want this.”
“I’m tired of them embarrassing you.” [...]
“Embarrassing me?” she said. “Or embarrassing you?” (130)

You realize how mature she is and it’s sad that her abusive home life is what caused that maturity. Your heart hurts for Park that he gives so much and asks so little, but Eleanor isn’t really in a position to offer any more than she does, and she is forced to keep her guard up around everyone.

Speaking of families, Park’s is the polar opposite of Eleanor’s family. While yes we have the stereotypical absent and/or abusive parents in Eleanor’s case, we also have Park’s involved, loving, and caring parents. Park’s parents can empathize with the spot he finds himself, and while they are not perfect, they play off each other beautifully. They are willing to change when circumstances change, and they are overall some cool parents to have who support and mentor Park with his tough decisions.

Another opinion altering moment comes at the end. That is NOT how I expected this book to end. Not in a million years. But it works, and it makes sense. The book’s ending is so gut-wrenching yet hopeful, all at once, that you may just find yourself smiling even as a tear or two runs down your cheek. Whether you listen to the excellent audio or curl up next to the fire for a cover-to-cover binge reading, be prepared to have your heart stretched.

Elvis and the Underdogs

Each month for my job, I write a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ll be expanding that idea to the blog in a new feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Elvis and the UnderdogsTitle: Elvis and the Underdogs
Author: Jenny Lee
ISBN: 9780062235541
Pages: 300 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2013.
Publication Date: May 14, 2013

“Hi, doggy. My name is Benji. What’s your name, huh?”
The dog opened his mouth again. I thought he was going to lick the other half of my face, but instead he said, “Very nice to meet you, Benji. My name is Parker Elvis Pembroke IV. You may call me Parker Elvis Pembroke. Or Mr. Pembroke, if you prefer. So . . . this place is much smaller than I imagined.”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, did I just read that correctly? Did he say the dog talked? Well, I’m here to tell you that you did read correctly, and yes, the dog did talk, and that’s exactly what he said, word for word. But if you’re surprised, you should be, because when it happened, I was just as surprised as you are. So much so that I didn’t even know what to say. My first thought was that the twins were playing a joke on me, and my second thought was that perhaps I was having some weird allergic reaction to the dog, and my third thought was that I’d imagined the whole thing, because I’m a pretty smart kid and I know that dogs do not talk! [...]
And then I fainted. (72-74)

Ten-year-old Benji was born premature and as a result is small for his age, has lots of allergies, faints frequently, and finds himself at the hospital more often than school. The doctor offers Benji an ultimatum; wear an ugly padded helmet everywhere or get a therapy dog. When the dog arrives, it’s not a cute, furry creature but a 200 pound, two feet tall, TALKING Newfoundland named Parker Elvis Pembroke IV, who Benji promptly nicknames Elvis. Only Benji can understand him, which might not be as great as it sounds since bossy Elvis was destined for the White House and is unimpressed with his current situation. Both Benji and Elvis struggle to make sense of this mix-up and determine who’s really top dog. But will Elvis come through for Benji when it matters the most?

The One and Only Ivan

One and Only IvanTitle: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
ISBN: 9780061992254
Pages: 305 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2012.

“I just thought of a story,” I say.
“Is it a made-up story or a true one?” Ruby asks.
“True,” I say. “I hope.”
Ruby leans against the bars. Her eyes hold the pale moon in them, the way a still pond holds stars.
“Once upon a time, I say, “there was a baby elephant. She was smart and brave, and she needed to go to a place called a zoo.”
“What’s a zoo?” Ruby asks.
“A zoo, Ruby, is a place where humans make amends. A good zoo is a place where humans care for animals and keep them safe.”
“Did the baby elephant get to the zoo?” Ruby asks softly.
I didn’t answer right away. “Yes,” I say at last.
“How did the get there?” Ruby asks.
“She had a friend,” I say. “A friend who made a promise.” (166-167)

Ivan the gorilla and Stella the elephant were both born in the wild, but they now live next to each other in a mall circus where they serve as the main attractions. The circus is failing, and Ivan and Stella feel changes in the air. Their caretaker Mack has plans to save the failing circus from bankruptcy, and brings in a baby elephant named Ruby to add to the show. While they were resigned to their own fates, Ruby’s arrival forces Ivan and Stella to reexamine their surroundings. This is not the ideal space for a baby elephant to grow up. With old wounds causing Stella’s health to decline, Ivan must come up with a plan on his own to get them out of their cages and into a better life. But will all his hard work be for nothing?

I thought this was an interesting way to present a memorable animal rights story. Rather than suffer from outright abuse, Ivan and Stella, and eventually Ruby too, suffer more from neglect. Readers witness Ivan’s early years when he was a small but pampered primate, and then his size slowly restricted him to his cage. Mack recognizes that Ivan needs stimulation, allowing him a television and crayons, but has no real idea on how to care for the animals. The lack of funds occasionally leads to lack of proper nutrition for the animals, Stella’s health fails frequently without the veterinary support, and there is one instant of elephant abuse that anyone who saw Water for Elephants might know what is coming.

Grown accustomed to his life, Ivan rarely considers his time before captivity because he knows this is his new normal. He’s even taken to calling his cage his “domain”, even when corrected by a stray dog named Bob who hangs around the circus looking for scraps. This mind over matter philosophical look on life is intriguing, and fits his seemingly easy-going nature and artistic outlook, as he draws what he sees and isn’t particularly driven to create outside those limitations. It’s the appearance of Ruby that changes things. This curious, inquisitive, but scared little elephant brings to light the problems with their situation. I seem to recall a quote about this very idea (which of course I can’t find now) that amounted to not wishing your life or hardships on others, and that’s exactly what Ivan and Stella are feeling. They have some internalized drive to protect and shield her from the hardships of the world.

The author note admits the tale is loosely inspired by a true story of a real gorilla named Ivan who was kept at a circus themed mall in Washington. The timing of this story is ironic, since in August the real Ivan passed away, just seven months after this book was published. The full story of Ivan can be found here: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2018964123_ivan23m.html with many more sites coming up through Google searches. An interesting “look back” is provided by an article in the New York Times from the 1980s when the fight to transfer Ivan to a zoo was in full steam. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/17/us/a-gorilla-sulks-in-a-mall-as-his-future-is-debated.html If that irony wasn’t enough for you, the Atlantic Journal-Constitution did an article about Ivan just one day before his death: http://www.ajc.com/news/lifestyles/gorillas-cruise-into-golden-years-at-zoo-atlanta/nRMLm/

While the story itself is interesting, it lacks immediacy that might have otherwise added to the plot progression. Truthfully, the fight for the real Ivan’s release from confined captivity took much longer than the implied timeline that Applegate portrays in her novel. The primary efforts of getting Ivan and his friends released occurs “off-screen”, and Ivan’s limited viewpoint prevents readers from witnessing it first-hand, although I’m not sure how interesting delayed and drawn-out political wrangling would have been to the intended audience. While this lack of first-hand knowledge of events is frustrating at times, it may have been done intentionally to give readers a sense of how the actions of others (actions that Ivan doesn’t completely understand) have influence on Ivan’s situation. Also unrealistically is the instigation that Ivan in the story provides for his release, which I guess is why so many people see this as fantasy. Yes, we do have communication across species, but it’s I think true fantasy fans would be severely disappointed by this novel, as there is no magic, fantastical creatures, or spells. I think the appeal here is the animal story, especially because it is influenced by actual events. You can’t help but root for Ivan and readers will be satisfied with the conclusion.

Freakling

FreaklingTitle: Freakling
Author: Lana Krumwiede
ISBN: 9780763659370
Pages: 309 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2012.

“You might as well accept it,” Taemon said to Da. “I have no psi. None.”
“Shh!” The door slammed shut with Mam’s psi. “If someone heard that, you’d be carted off before first light.”
Taemon frowned. “Don’t worry: no one will know. I’ve faked it this far, haven’t I?” [...]
“Still, I’m not sure you can pull this off,” Da said. “We should work on finding your psi.”
“It’s not like I’ve misplaced it,” Taemon said, frustrated. “It’s gone.” Completely. (56-58)

Everyone in the city of Deliverence has a form of telekinesis known as psi. If you don’t, then you are sent to the Powerless Colony where everything has to be done by hand. Taemon has never felt lucky to have psi, just normal, until an accident caused by his brother Yens results in him loosing his psi. Now simple things like eating and getting dressed are incredible difficult and dangerous as he must learn to do things without controlling objects with his mind. But a very public mistake forces him to the Powerless Colony, where he learns that the people there aren’t so powerless after all. In fact, they might have more power than they think when Yens is granted a position of power and will stop at nothing to get more.

I’m sensing a theme here. I read Island of Silence just before this one. Both have one gifted brother and one not so gifted brother. Both have the brothers fighting each other. Both stories ultimately involve the different worlds that the brothers inhabit. Neither war escalates like gang warfare would where an increasing radius of people are affected, but instead the wars escalate quickly and involve the whole community. And again, a lot of the political maneuverings that happen to facilitate this conflict are glossed over so quickly, you’re left with a confused idea of what exactly they’re fighting over. This time around, we’re cheering on the non-magical brother, as opposed to Island of Silence where the magical one was the hero. I feel like there’s a fascinating discussion just waiting for whoever wants to tackle the comparisons and fantasy tropes/archetypes.

Looking at this book specifically though, it feels like the lessons are laid on a little thick. Taemon’s inner dialogue doesn’t sound like a scared, confused kid, but more like a philosophy or religion professor’s lecture. “…Anyone else who had a mind to do evil. But he’d need a way to distinguish the good people from the bad ones. How would he do that? And did he really have a right [...]? That sounded awfully like something the priests would do.” (303) But I thought the idea of people using only telekinesis to do everything, basically rendering their arms and hands useless, was unique and well thought out. The details were definitely there for Taemon’s life, and the humor was in the little things, like when Taemon’s mom actually yells at him for picking up his dirty socks with his hands.

I thought the cover was really cool, with allusions to events in the book with the clockwork and water intermingling, but the clockwork on the cover made me think that it would have steam punk elements, which it really doesn’t. I think overall this book was just so similar to Island of Silence that it was hard for me to really dive in and enjoy the book to the fullest. I think other readers will find the concept unique and enjoy it because the idea of not lifting a finger to do chores is just so tempting. The possibly too-tidy ending will definitely give readers something to talk about, although apparently there’s also a sequel scheduled for this book in 2013, so maybe the ending wasn’t as final as I thought it was.

The Dragonet Prophecy

Dragonet ProphecyTitle: The Dragonet Prophecy
Series: Wings of Fire
Author: Tui T. Sutherland
Dragons Illustrator: Joy Ang
Map and Border Design: Mike Schley
ISBN: 9780545349185
Pages: 304 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2012.

Clay clenched his talons under the water. They had to be talking about Glory.
“Well, I’m not doing it,” Webs said.
Dune shot him a withering look. “No one thought you would.”
“Even though this is all your fault,” said Kestrel. [...]
“So how and when,” Dune said in his no-nonsense military voice. “Drowning would be simplest.” He glared at Webs.
“I joined the Talons of Peace to stop killing dragons,” Webs said. “I won’t argue with Morrowseer, but I’m not doing it myself.” [...]
“I’ll do it tonight while she’s sleeping,” Kestrel said. “I can get in there and break her neck before the others know what I’m doing, especially with the bossy one safely chained up.” [...]
Clay had heard enough. He sank down below the surface and swam toward the gap in the wall.
What do we do? What can we do? What can I do?
There’s no time.
How do I save her?
(53-55)

Clay and four other dragons have been living under a mountain for years in the hopes that they were meant to fulfill a prophecy and end a war between the dragon clans. After Clay overhears his caretakers threatening to kill one of his friends because she doesn’t fit the prophecy’s specifications, the five dragons make an escape attempt. Their attempt is foiled almost immediately, and their separation and capture puts them in an even more dire situation. As their entire lives are called into question, doubts begin to surface about their abilities and loyalties to each other. If one of them dies, will the prophecy ever be fulfilled?

Readers picking up this book need to be patient from the beginning. What begins as a slow start quickly turns into a confusing situation, with five dragons, each a different breed and with different abilities, being cared for by three caretakers, also each a different breed of dragon and with different abilities. There are seven types or breeds of dragon total, but two of the breeds aren’t involved in the war, although they are represented by two of the young prophecy dragons, and one prophecy dragon was a “substitution” and isn’t mentioned in the prophecy at all. Sutherland tries to make it easier for readers by opening with “A Nightwing Guide to the Dragons of Pyrrhia,” but for the first third of the book I found myself flipping back and forth. The dragons are sometimes referred to as type and not by name, so getting them straight takes some effort. And is anyone else confused by the cover, which has the series name in BIG BOLD font, and then the actual title of the book looking like a subtitle?

Once you get into the story and the young dragons have been captured, it gets a little better, but only a little bit. I do like the different attributes given to each breed, some of which are explained by the end of the book. The whole premise of the prophecy is a little sketchy simply because of the slow start, but I’m assuming with book number two we’ll get more details about what the young dragons intend to do in order to save their world. It brings into question the whole aspect of destiny. Does choosing these dragons put them on the path to fulfill their destiny, even if one is a “substitution?” Friendship is also a major theme in this book, as the dragons’ loyalty to each other is called into question, and they must play up their strengths and weaknesses to help each other.

The book has some violence that I think sensitive readers might be bothered by, especially when we encounter the gladiator style fighting arena. The callousness of some of the dragons is also eye-opening if we think of them and their relationships in human terms. This behavior might ring truer to character if we compare the dragons to other wild animals and how they act, which actually makes sense considering Sutherland is part of the team of writers responsible for the Seekers series. I do appreciate the fact that the dragons are the main characters here, as opposed to most fantasy when they are merely secondary or supplemental (think Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffrey, or Christopher Paolini). Overall, the quest and multitude of characters and species brings to mind Lord of the Rings, and complicated fantasy fans would more than likely enjoy the developed characters and unique setting. I know that’s why I’ll be reading the second one, since spending all that time figuring out who was who would be a waste otherwise.

Liesl and Po

Liesl and PoTitle: Liesl and Po
Author: Lauren Oliver
Illustrator: Kei Acedera
Narrator: Jim Dale
ISBN: 9780449015025 (audiobook), 9780062014511 (hardcover)
Pages: 307 pages
Discs/CDs:  5 CDs, 5 hours and 55 minutes
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2011.

“I must take his ashes to the willow tree,” Liesl whispered suddenly, with certainty. “I must bury my father next to my mother. Then his soul will move Beyond.” She looked directly at the place where Po’s eyes should have been, if Po were not a ghost, and again Po felt the very core of its Essence shiver in response.
“And you must help me,” Liesl finished.
Po was unprepared for this. “Me?” it said unhappily. “Why me?” (92)

When a ghost appears in Liesl’s attic prison, Liesl asks for help in sending a message to her recently deceased father. The message Po brings back is anything but cheery, as Liesl father insists that he must go home to the willow tree, and that Liesl should be the one to take him there. Liesl steals the container of ashes from the mantle and rushes off to her old house, leaving her wicked stepmother behind. Little does Liesl know that the box she carries does not contain her father’s ashes, but a powerful magic that accidentally got delivered to the wrong address. Soon joined by the “useless” delivery boy called William who is fleeing his angry alchemist master, the three of them are thrust into events that they don’t quite understand, but nevertheless are intent on preventing in their efforts to improve their lives (or in Po’s case it’s death) for the better.

I thought I’d get behind this newest book about a girl and her ghost by Lauren Oliver. It’s narrated by Jim Dale for heaven’s sake, the one who did all those cool voices for The Emerald Atlas and Peter and the Starcatchers not to mention Harry Potter. But for the first time, I wasn’t feeling it with Dale. His attempts at the female voices fell flat to my ears, which I did not anticipate at all, and I didn’t pick up the suspense or excitement that I think this reading could have had.

But maybe he was tempering his voice to match the gray and bleak environment of the story’s setting. Maybe it was the material, because the story itself fell flat for me. Maybe I’m just not cut out for Lauren Oliver. For plenty of other people the story has really resonated with them. After reading the author’s note in the back, I truly wanted the book to resonate with me too. Oliver reveals that she wrote this story “during a concentrated two-month period.”

At the time, I was dealing with the sudden death of my best friend. The lasting impact of this loss reverberated through the months, and it made my world gray and murky, much like the world Liesl inhabits at the start of the story. [...] And so my fantasies were transformed into the figure of a little girl who embarks on a journey not just to restore the ashes of a loved one to a peaceful place but to restore color and life to a world that has turned dim and gray.” (309-310)

If she had succeeded in doing this, I would have claimed her attempt a success, and that synopsis of the book makes it sound wonderful, but I didn’t really pick-up on that meaning and depth upon listening to the book. But upon reading the author’s note, I feel like I should have gotten A Monster Calls and instead got Casper.

It’s also meant to be a story of coincidences and mix-ups, but it just seemed like Oliver threw a whole bunch of bumbling characters together and loosely tied their stories to each other in a comedy of errors. Yes, mix-ups and coincidences are sometimes the basis for every story, but do there have to be so many of them in one story? For instance, if Liesl’s step-mother was such an evil woman, why did she bother locking Liesl up in the attic in the first place, an attic window that Will noticed but no one else? The Lady Premiere, the evil lady who ordered up this powerful magic in the first place, feels like a minor general “bad character” with almost no motivation for her actions presented to readers. Why in the world would so many people who have no connection to the events at hand continue to chase after the children? It reminded me towards the end of those old-fashioned black and white movies where the whole town is chasing a dog for no other reason than the dog stole and by this point has eaten a sausage.

Kei Acedera’s black and white drawings are appropriately dark and murky, and I thought Po was very well rendered considering the description of a non-gendered, cookie-cutter child-shaped ghost. In fact, all of the characters were instantly recognizable, and while the facial expressions seemed relatively uniform, the postures told the emotions of the characters very well. For fans of Casper, this mad-cap tale of a ghost and it’s girl will find readers, but while it was an interesting story, it just didn’t do it for me.

Horten’s Incredible Illusions

Title: Horten’s Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery, and Another Very Strange Adventure
Series: Stuart Horten #2; Sequel to Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms
Author: Lissa Evans
ISBN: 9781402798702
Pages: 349 pages
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing, c2012.

They looked at each other. “Once you start using magic, it’s very hard to stop,” quoted April, her voice breathy. “It’s another puzzle, isn’t it? Another adventure?”
Stuart closed his hand over the star, and felt the six prongs dig into his skin. His heart was suddenly thumping; he felt both excited and slightly frightened, and he knew from April’s expression that she felt the same. The hunt for Great-Uncle Tony’s workshop had been a wild and exciting chase, sprinkled with danger and magic, and now another quest was beckoning. But for what? What was the prize this time? (37-38)

Stuart and April have just finished solving Stuart’s Great Uncle Tony’s clues about where his secret workshop was. While the legal battle ensues over who the contents rightfully belong to, the local museum takes possession of the tricks found inside, and Stuart and April help catalog them. In the process, they find a mysterious six-pronged metal star and a damaged note encouraging them to use it to become the true “owners of the illusions”. Each of the surviving tricks lead them to a magical world of its own, where they must solve riddles and puzzles in order to get back. But when April’s sisters insist on being involved in the secret and cause problems, it becomes Stuart’s responsibility to save the day and get everyone back home safely.

Another fantastic tale about Stuart and April. I almost wish there were more stories about the two sleuths. And maybe there will be, who knows, but the series is well done as it is and I wouldn’t want the author to drag it out unnecessarily. The challenges that Stuart and April face seem almost tailor-made for their strengths and weaknesses, and when Stuart’s father unknowingly becomes involved, it leads an even bigger impression of the magic being malleable. The sheer variety is impressive, with author Lissa Evans proving that she’s able to craft unique and individual tricks and puzzles.

While Stuart’s father is completely clueless as to what’s going on and Stuart’s more observant mother is sent on a business trip, it’s still extremely humorous to see Stuart interact with him. I think I forgot to mention in my review of the first book, but Stuart’s father writes crossword puzzle clues, and talks like a walking dictionary, which can be very entertaining to read.

His father was looking thoughtful. “Do you think it might aid mutual colloquy if I endeavored to converse in a less polysyllabic manner?” he asked.
“What does mutual colloquy mean?”
“Our conversation.”
“And endeavor means try, doesn’t it?”
“Indubitably.”
“So what you’re saying is, Would it be easier for us to talk if you used shorter words?”
“Yes.”
Stuart nodded cautiously. “Well, it might speed things up a bit.” (130)

Not only is the dialogue spot on, but the reactions are accurate too. Even if Stuart’s dad is clueless, the triplets’ parents aren’t, and Stuart is often at the mercy of April, May, and June’s parents regarding where they can go or when they can aid him in his search for clues. All three of the girls try to assert their differences from each other, and I’m thoroughly pleased that they each get their own reactions, talents, and personalities when any other writer would lump them into non-descriptive blobs. It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect May and June to insist on being involved in this hunt, and I appreciate the dynamics between the three that we get to witness. I also liked the fact that Stuart only befriended April in the beginning, further emphasizing the differences between the girls.

Observant and intuitive readers might figure out some of the answers before Stuart, but everyone has plenty to look forward to as the book quickly comes to a climax and satisfying ending. All the loose ends are wrapped up in a bow very neatly. A great choice for a read-aloud in a class room or in a bed-time sharing, I charged through it in about three hours, and anyone who finds anything objectionable about this very family friendly read is looking too darn hard. This rollicking good reading series has found a permanent place on my recommendation list.

Ghost Knight

Title: Ghost Knight
Author: Cornelia Funke
Translator: Oliver Latsch
Illustrator: Andrea Offermann
ISBN: 9780316056144
Pages: 345 pages
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown & Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., c2011 (English translation c2012)
Publication Date: May 1, 2012

But there they were.
Three riders. Very pale. As if the night air had gone moldy. And they were staring up at me.
Everything about them was drained of color: capes, boots, gloves, belts–and the swords hanging from their sides. They looked like men who’d had their blood sucked out by the night. The tallest one’s straggly hair hung down to his shoulders, and I could see the bricks of the garden wall through his body. The one next to him had a hamster face and, just like the third ghost, was so see-through that the tree behind him seemed to grow right through his chest. Their necks were marked with dark bruises, as if someone had tried to slice their heads off with a very blunt knife. But the most horrible thing about them was their eyes: burned-out holes filled with bloodlust. To this day those eyes scorch holes into my heart.
Their horses were as pale as the riders. Ashen fur hung from the animals’ skeletal bodies like tattered rags.
I wanted to cover my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see the bloodless faces anymore, but I was so scared that I couldn’t even lift my arms. (24-25)

Eleven-year-old Jon has just been shipped off to his father’s old boarding school. He is certain it’s because of the pranks he pulled trying to get his mother’s boyfriend (aka The Beard) out of his life for good. But Jon’s “banishment” has just gotten worse, as instead of making friends he quickly discovers he is the descendant of an old dispute involving a knight from the 1500s who is out for revenge. Jon enlists the help of a classmate Ella, who shows him how to call upon the Ghost Knight William Longspee for protection. Things get complicated when Jon learns that Longspee might not be such a good guy after all. Jon must decide who to trust fast after Ella get kidnapped and he must face his ghostly past, with or without Longspee’s help.

Fans of Cornelia Funke’s work will jump for this newest book before even knowing what it’s about. While still containing elements of fantasy, Funke strays toward a more realistic setting and plot. In an author’s note and glossary, readers discover that William Longspee, Jon’s “ancestor” William Hartgill and the vengeful knight were real people. The boarding school that Jon is sent to has existed in one form or another for almost a century. Jon mentions his eight-year-old sister’s desire to go to a boarding school based on her readings of the Harry Potter series, and I think quite a few kids harbor that desire, although I’m not sure how much they would have enjoyed running from ghosts.

The combination of ghosts and knights is a sure hit with readers. The battles are described beautifully, and while Andrea Offermann’s drawings sometimes remind me of an anime movie, they deftly portray the action. She’s really in her element when it comes to the scenery, with portrayals of the cathedral and old style architecture containing detailed stained glass windows (pg 203) and intricate above the head shots (pg. 90) featuring two-page spreads of the columns and “spandrels” (76-77) and the ghostly atmosphere (pg. 50-51).

Although Funke weaved real aspects with her own creations almost seamlessly, at one point Jon is reassured that the ghosts can’t hurt him, but that he should run anyways. It’s only later that we discover what ghosts can do that is so dangerous, but until then his fear of them seems incongruous. Once you’re willing to forgive and forget that detail (and as I said, it’s sort of explained later what makes them so fearsome), it’s a wonderfully entertaining story. Another part I don’t think was really necessary was little hints that Jon is telling this story from the future including foreshadowing comments like “That’s more than eight years ago, and I still remember it perfectly.” (5) and “I tried to drag her to the stairs, but she was–and still is–stronger than me.” (228) How his relationship pans out with Ella is left a little hazy, but the ending clearly ties up any loose ends, even if Funke does leave it open enough for a sequel that I think most readers would appreciate if it ever came about.

Robopocalypse

Title: Robopocalypse
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
ISBN: 9780385533850
Pages: 347 pages
Publisher/Date: Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. c2011.

“Stop. You have to stop. You’re making a mistake. We’ll never give up, Archos. We’ll destroy you.”
“A threat?”
The professor stops pushing buttons and glances over to the computer screen. “A warning. We aren’t what we seem. Human beings will do anything to live. Anything.”
The hissing increases in intensity. Face twisted in concentration, the professor staggers toward the door. He falls against it, pushes it, pounds on it.
He stops; takes short gasping breaths.
“Against the wall, Archos”–he pants–”against the wall, a human being becomes a different animal.”
“Perhaps. But you are animals just the same.” [...]
His breathing is shallow. His words are faint. “We’re more than animals.”
The professor’s chest heaves. His skin is swollen. Bubbles have collected around his mouth and eyes. He gasps for a final lungful of air. In a last wheezing sigh, he says: “You must fear us.” [..]
This is the first known fatality of the New War. (19-20)

After this initial uprising, it takes this highly intelligent and adaptable robot a year to hack into the computers governing every robot on the planet and coordinate a highly effective plan of attack. The robotic aids for the elderly, the computerized auto pilot cars, the military machines and computer controlled weapon systems, even the mechanized elevators and mail delivery systems, all systematically and simultaneously turn on their owners and controllers. Some survive the initial attack, either fleeing into the wilderness away from civilization or burrowing into what remains of the city, fighting for survival and standing against the machines. But with these scattered groups of resistance fighters unable to communicate with each other and barely able to move, it’s going to take all their ingenuity, unpredictability, and human spirit to fight off machines that can think, learn, and evolve.

This book is eye-opening and fear inducing, simply because it’s portrays something that could happen in the not so distance future. This isn’t just Star Trek’s Data going haywire and revolting. This book’s concept is so scary because it’s not just humanoid robots, it’s every computerized mechanism in the world that communicates with other things. Think about that for a second, because Wilson sure did. The smart cars of the future (Or even of today!) that can drive themselves start running over their owners and crashing into things, killing the occupants. The planes that talk to the tower and even today contain autopilot also take over the controls. Keypads on doors can lock people in or out of areas. Water and air purification and filtration systems can malfunction at a moments notice. Even houses today have computers where the lights, locks, mechanicals, and even your fridge can talk to each other and be controlled remotely. We saw a brief glimpse of what could happen during the 2003 Northeast Blackout that affected eight US states and people in Canada, and that was just an inconvenience. What if robots had gained control of the facilities and withheld the electricity for over two years?

The presentation of the story as collected flashbacks gives readers a vision of this war from the beginning to the climatic end. It also however proves to be a little choppy, and I found myself flipping through to read the accounts and actions of specific characters, rather than from the beginning to the end for a more well-rounded view. However, it gets better when the counter assault gets underway, as the various perspectives give you a clear view of how the war effort is progressing.

I’m presenting a review of this book during Banned Book Week because it’s inclusion on a summer reading list this year for a STEM-based class at Hardin Valley Academy in Tennessee was challenged by a parent for language. I’m actually somewhat surprised that language was the only complaint behind Mr. Lee and his wife’s objection to the book, although their counting the number of f-words (93 according to this article) leads me to believe that they did not read the entire book and simply searched for the objectionable word. There are some rather graphic descriptions of people getting injured and/or killed throughout the war that I would think some parents might find more objectionable than the language. If their excuse for the violence falls under the reasoning of “Well, that’s what happens when robots and humans enter all out war,” then I would think strong language would be just as justified by that reasoning. Ironically enough, this book is one of four choices that students at a local high school can read for required reading. We’ll have to see if they are faced by the same challenges and objections.

One of ten books to receive the Alex Award from YALSA for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18″, Robopocalype is an involving read and I can see the comparisons between Wilson’s writing and that of Michael Crichton in weaving science and scary together. But where Crichton had tension, Wilson relies heavily on action, technical details, and coincidences. I can see the appeal as the story because the fear it generates and questions it raises stay with you, but ultimately this is yet another robots take over the world tale similar to Transformers. The unique aspects of the story is the insidious nature and patience involved in getting to that point.

Between Shades of Gray

Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Narrator: Emily Klein
ISBN: 9780142428979
Pages: 344 pages
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours
Publisher/Date: Penguin Audio, c2011.

“Davai!” An NKVD officer grabbed Jonas by the shoulders and began to drag him away.
“NO!” screamed Mother.
They were taking Jonas. My beautiful, sweet brother who shooed bugs out of the house instead of stepping on them, who gave his little ruler to splint a crotchety old man’s leg.
“Mama! Lina!” he cried, flailing his arms.
“Stop!” I screamed, tearing after them. Mother grabbed the officer and began speaking in Russian–pure, fluent Russian. He stopped and listened. [...]
Mother pulled a bundle of rubles from her pocket and exposed it slightly to the officer. He reached for it and then said something to Mother, motioning with his head. Her hand flew up and ripped the amber pendant right from her neck and pressed it into the NKVD’s hand. He didn’t seem to be satisfied. Mother continued to speak in Russian and pulled a pocket watch from her coat. I knew that watch. It was her father’s and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back. The officer snatched the watch, let go of Jonas, and started yelling at the people next to us.
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch. (26-27)

Fifteen-year-old Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother are violently taken from their home in the middle of the night by the Soviet police. Being deported to who knows where, it’s a constant struggle to survive as they travel by train car to first one labor camp and then another. Forced to do back-breaking work in deplorable conditions with little food or medical care, Lina spends her days alternatingly fearing the worst and hoping for the best. But when you’re faced with insurmountable odds, is there really any difference between hoping for life or begging for death?

It really amazes me the coincidences that happen when no one is aware of them. The fact that this book and Breaking Stalin’s Nose could both be about Stalin’s rule during World War II, events that most Americans including myself have very little knowledge of AND be published within six months of each other is amazing enough in my mind. To have them both be recognized by the various awards committees is even more remarkable, with Breaking Stalin’s Nose receiving a Newbery Honor and Between Shades of Gray receiving a host of recognition, including nominations for the Cybils Award for Young Adult Fiction, the William C. Morris YA Debut Award and the ALA Teens’ Top Ten list. I feel like I should go hunting for more books about Stalin’s regime! The beauty of this coincidence that with these two books you have perspectives from both sides of how life was like from authors who both have personal connections to that time in history. The fear that Sasha suffers from in Breaking Stalin’s Nose is almost incomparable to what Lina and her family go through in Between Shades of Gray, although it did slightly prepare me for what I would find in Between Shades of Gray.

Ruta Sepetys stresses at the end of her book that to this day, seventy years later, still no one talks about the horrors that happened at the beginning of the war. Librarians, teachers, military professionals, lawyers, and doctors along with their families were just some of the professions that were rounded up, shoved onto trains, and forced to hard labor in the camps for years. As a librarian, knowing about this left me thinking if I would have survived the journey, and the answer would have most likely been no. They took the educated, the informed, and the influential, and reduced them to scavengers, sickly citizens, forcing them to sign documents that marked them as criminals and labeling the train car they rode on as carrying prostitutes and thieves to further demean their existence.

There were so many scenes in this book of the torture that these people endured that stand out to me so vividly even after finishing the last page and closing the cover. I can’t lock those descriptions away and put them on the shelf as easily as I can close the book and put it away. From being threatened with being buried alive to suffering from lice, scurvy, and other diseases to picking up and eating the trash that is pelted at you just so you have something to eat that night, to watching a new mother be shot for mourning the death of her new-born, which suffered the irrevocable fate of having been born to someone on the “list”. The United States, as far as I’m aware of, doesn’t share the histories of atrocities that other countries do, as even slaves back in the 1700s were taken care of to some extent because they had value. These people were seen as worthless by the NKVD and made to feel worthless by any means necessary.

Sepeyts spares nothing and no one when portraying the hardships, but the book is also filled with instances of caring and the small actions that helped Lina, her brother, and everyone around her maintain a shred of hope and decency. When asked to undress for the first time in the open air for showers, the women avert their eyes and turn around so as to give the boys some modicum of privacy. Jonas gives his school ruler as an ineffective splint for a crotchety and pessimistic man who broke his leg in a failed suicide attempt. The prisoners share what little knowledge, food, and warmth they have with each other because they recognize that sometimes the littlest things could mean the difference between hope and despair, between another day above ground or the first of many below.

Emily Klein narrates the book, and the part she excels is Lina’s varied feelings and the clipped and impatient tones of the NKVD officers, many times shouting just one hated word: “Davai!” While her differentiation between characters is only really noticeable with Lina, Jonas, and one or two others, the emotion is raw and palatable and certainly is a welcome addition to the experience. However, you should also take a look at the map included in the printed text, which gives a visual of how far Lina, her family, and the rest of the captives had to travel over the course of more than a year.

Ruta Sepetys summarizes the conflict succinctly in the video on the book’s website. She also recently wrote a piece for NPR, explaining how her book is frequently confused with that “other shades of gray book” but that’s she’s embracing the opportunity to educate people who wouldn’t normally have been interested and claims the “mix-up is a victory.” It’s a powerful novel, both informative and inspirational in the same way that Anne Frank’s diary was for the Jewish Holocaust, and I highly recommend not only for book groups and school reading, but for individual reading as well.

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