Firefight

Firefight.jpgTitle: Firefight
Series: Reckoners #2
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
ISBN: 9781501278099 (audiobook), 9780385743587 (hardcover)
Pages: 416 pages
Discs/CDs: 9 CDs, 11 hours 41 minutes
Publisher/Date: Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC c2014. (Audible, Inc. and distributed by Audible, Inc. and Brilliance Audio)

I pass through the crowd and knelt beside the corpse. She’d been a rabid dog, as Prof had put it. Killing her had been a mercy.
She came for us, I thought. And this is the third one who avoided engaging Prof. Mitosis had come to the city while Prof had been away. Instabam had tried to lose Prof in the chase, gunning for Abraham. Now Sourcefield had captured Prof, then left him behind to chase me.
Prof was right. Something was going on. (31-32)

David and the Reckoners have fought off three new Epics successfully, but something isn’t adding up as to why they are making the effort to travel to Newcago and engage a team of Epic assassins. All clues point to Babylon Restored, formerly known as Manhattan but currently ruled by a mysterious High Epic named Regalia, who flooded the city in order to maintain control. David, Tia, and Prof leave the rest of the team behind and join up with a new team that has become entrenched in the city. Their plan involves taking out Regalia before she takes out them, but with Regalia seemingly one step ahead of them at every turn and secrets being kept on all sides, David’s famous improvisational skills may be put to the test.

If you enjoyed Steelheart, you’re going to love Firefight. MacLeod Andrews is back as narrator, and the one scene that swept me away was when David is getting choked to within an inch of his life by an Epic. You hear the distress, you hear the rasping, frantic breath leaving his body, and you hear the fear. We leave behind in Newcago Cody and Andrew, and get Mizzy, a manic pixie like character who is a new recruit training to be sniper and point who also does equipment repairs, operations leader Val who is just as close mouthed and serious as Jonathan, and Exel, an ex-mortician giant of a man who is half gregarious infiltrator/reconnaissance  and half big man of muscle. Each new character and Epic are given equally appropriate voices. Mizzy is delightful in terms of comic relief. In one of my favorite scenes early in the story, she is given “scribe duties” during a meeting, and her notes include:

Reckoner Super Plan for Killing Regalia at the top of the sheet. Each i was doted with a heart. […]
Really important, and we totally need to do it on the paper, with three big arrows pointing at the heading above. Then after a moment, she added Boy, it’s on now in smaller letters beside that one. […]
Regalia totally needs to get with the business. […]
Excel needs to pay better attention to his job […]
Step One: find Regalia, then totally explode her. Lots and lots. […]
Step Two: put Val on decaf. […]
Step Three: Mizzy gets a cookie. […] (131-135)

She plays off David extremely well, maybe because they are both the newest ones to their teams, or maybe because they are closest in age to each other.

“Well, trust me,” I said. “I’m more intense than I look. I’m intense like a lion is orange.”
“So, like . . . medium intense? Since a lion is kind of a tannish color?”
“No, they’re orange.” I frowned. “Aren’t they? I’ve never actually seen one.”
“I think tigers are the orange ones,” Mizzy said. “But they’re still only half orange, since they have black stripes. Maybe you should be intense like an orange is orange.”
“Too obvious,” I said. “I’m intense like a lion is tannish.” Did that work? Didn’t exactly slip off the tongue.
Mizzy cocked her head, looking at me. “You’re kinda weird.” (115)

And yes, David’s bad metaphors are back, but it seemed like they were less frequent than in the first book, which is okay by me. Although as someone determines near the end of the book “You’re not actually bad at metaphors […] because most the things you say are similes. Those are really what you’re bad at.” (414) It, among other things, shows David’s growth from the last book. The intensity of the Reckoners’ situation has also changed, as they fight not just one but two Epics that are intertwined in a long term goal that no one sees coming. David starts questioning what they are doing as more information about Epics comes to light and he starts to wonder what makes Epics go bad and if there is a way to prevent them from being consumed by their powers. We see David in true assassin mode, questioning his motives and beliefs as he tries, usually unsuccessfully, to come to grips with his feelings and hatred towards most Epics but with an ever growing list of exceptions.

We get way more information about the creation of Epics then I ever expected. All the pieces of the puzzle start coming together, and the ending simultaneously wraps up the problems found and creates whole new ones that we need to face in the recently published third and final book in the trilogy. We may have lost some friends in the process (shhhh, no spoilers here), but knowing David, he’ll figure something out, and being in a tight spot just makes him try harder to succeed.

Steelheart

SteelheartTitle: Steelheart
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Series: Reckoners #1
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
ISBN: 9781480569133 (audiobook), 9780385743563 (hardcover)
Pages: 386 pages
Discs/CDs: 10 CDs, 12 hours 20 minutes
Publication: Brilliance Audio, c2013. (Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. c2013.)

Eventually the Reckoners led me around a corner that looked like every other one–only this time it led to a small room cut into the steel. There were a lot of these places in the catacombs. […]
I took a hesitant step backward, realizing I was cornered. I’d begun to think that I was on my way toward being accepted into their team. But looking into Prof’s eyes, I realized that was not the case. He saw me as a threat. I hadn’t been brought along because I’d been helpful; I’d been brought along because he hadn’t wanted me wandering free.
I was a captive. And this deep in the steel catacombs, nobody would notice a scream or a gunshot. (48-49)

Ever since his father was killed by the Epic Steelheart, David has been spending the last decade studying these super powered people who inevitably battle each other for control over the cities and populations of the dystopian United States. They all have a weakness, and David knows he holds the key to Steelheart’s, if he could only figure it out. David’s not the only one fighting the Epics, and he’s been following the Reckoner’s efforts for years. After intentionally stumbling into an assassination attempt and helping (sort of) he’s able to convince the team of Reckoners to let him join them on their quest. But convincing them to go up against the most powerful Epic ever is going to take a lot more than hunches and guesswork. It’s going to take stealth and strategy, neither of which David is particularly good at imbuing.

Think of the X-Men world, but only with the Magneto team and not Professor Xavier’s humanity; then add Superman’s obscure weakness, only it’s different for every Epic, and you’ll have a good approximation of the world Brandon Sanderson has created for his Reckoners series. And what a world it is, with adaptations to the culture while still maintaining enough recognizable references to modern day to orient readers. It’s a bloody existence being a Reckoner, surrounded by war and death. The opening scene of David’s father’s death is also gritty and gruesome in it’s realism, which might turn off some more sensitive readers. I was somewhat disappointed that we didn’t see more of the day-to-day life during an Epic’s reign, but what we do glimpse is impressive. With only one or two chapters of info-dumping back story, readers are submerged into David’s internal monologue.

David’s life after his father’s death is like those of kids during the Industrial Revolution, working grunt jobs due to his size and ability to be exploited, although he doesn’t mind as it guarantees him a roof and food. Much has been said about David’s horrible yet humorous metaphors, and they definitely are memorable and add to his personality.

I tried not to stare, but that was like trying not to blink. Only . . . well, kind of the opposite. (48)
Megan’s eyes could have drilled holes through . . . well, anything, I guess. I mean, eyes can’t normally drill holes through things, so the metaphor works regardless, right? Megan’s eyes could have drilled holes through butter. (103)
“It’s like . . . a banana farm for guns.”(142)
They looked so dangerous, like alligators. Really fast alligators wearing black. Ninja alligators. (149)

But there is also depth and incredible insight from David. He objects to being called a nerd because not only does he make a distinction between smarts and persistence, but he also realized that the smartest students lost their freedoms by being scrutinized and under surveillance working for an Epic. He recognizes he’s been living a life motivated by revenge and death, but isn’t quite sure how to focus on anything else.

Not just David, but all the characters are multidimensional, and readers focus on what little information they can gleam from the narrative about everyone. MacLeod Andrews has been added to my list of top narrators. David’s youthful and playful but committed demeanor, Cody and Abraham’s back-and-forth banter, the more serious and solemn tones of Prof, the skeptical and scholarly Tia, and Megan’s sarcastic quips are all captured with precision and excellence. Cody is the spot of humor, with his southern accent, Scottish vocabulary, and intentionally insane side-comments. He throws you off guard leaving both readers and David wondering just how much of this is an act and how much of what Cody says does he actually believe, but rest assured he is much more than the village idiot. Abraham is a mystery, with Andrews alluding to a James Bond character with his clipped accent, but Abraham’s personality is probably the most predictable and stable out of all of them. Megan is the stereotypical unrequited love interest for David, who hasn’t had much past experience with girls. But Megan is anything but stereotypical, as David realizes when she turns out to be an extremely capable point-man with an astonishing knowledge of weapons. She challenges him, which is good for both of them. Rounding out the team is Tia, the typical brains of the bunch who holds information and her cards close to her chest, and the esoteric and reclusive leader Prof, who leads with equal parts discipline and democracy. The whole cast is memorable, not just because of Sanderson’s writing but Andrews’ portrayal of them.

Like the movie Saving Private Ryan, team members share only the basics about their life in an effort to avoiding tipping off the Epics if one of them ever gets captured. Prof actually asks David how old he is and if he would have anyone who would come looking for him if he were to disappear. By the end of the book, we’ve realized not everyone is as they appear, and it’s questionable where and how the story will continue. We know more about all the members of the team then we did when we started, but there is one big question that needs answering, and hopefully will be resolved in the sequel.

Pingo

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a 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.

Pingo.jpgTitle: Pingo
Author: Brandon Mull
Illustrator: Brandon Dorman
ISBN: 9781606411094
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Shadow Mountain, c2009 Creative Concepts LC

This books is unfortunately not what I expected. Pingo is Chad’s imaginary friend, looking mostly monkey with oversized ears, small horns, and a eerily human face. It’s all fun and games for Chad and Pingo, until Chad has had enough of the teasing and wants to abandon Pingo. As the text states, Pingo’s against the idea and Chad now has “an imaginary enemy” who keeps him up and pulls mean-spirited pranks. When Chad is finally alone in a nursing home setting, he welcomes Pingo back and they resume having adventures together. Personally I’d be trying to get rid of Pingo if he pulled those pranks on me, not welcoming him back. It’s a surprisingly unoriginal story by an author who gave us such a fantastical and well loved world in his Fablehaven series. Maybe that’s why, although there is a sequel, he’s since stuck with the middle grade audience.

Breakthrough!

Breakthrough.jpgTitle: Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780547821832
Pages: 130 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2015.

It wasn’t only that the operation was very complex and risky. The surgery he was about to perform on Eileen’s struggling heart had never been done on a human before, let alone one so tiny or frail. This was why the balcony-type observation stand along the west side of room 706 was packed with curious Johns Hopkins staff and why a movie camera had been set up pointing at the operating table. If the operation worked — if the patient survived — history would be made.
Moreover, Blalock had never performed this procedure, not even on an experimental animal. In fact, the only person to have done it successfully start to finish, wasn’t an official member of the surgical team. According to hospital rules, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the room. But he was there now, at Blalock’s request, standing just behind the surgeon on a wooden step stool. His name was Vivien Thomas, and most people at the hospital thought he was a janitor. (xiii)

On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, history was made. The first ever operation on a child to increase blood flow to the heart was scheduled to take place. Not only was it a moment in medical history, but it was also a moment in women’s rights and African-American rights. For over a year Dr. Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his African-American research assistant Vivien Thomas had been studying the research of hearing-impaired pediatric physician Dr. Helen Taussig. At Taussig’s request, they had been searching for a means to solve this reoccurring problem of abnormal development of the heart, which had cost her the lives of over two hundred patients. When they finally develop what they think is a solution, they find themselves in a race against time with undeveloped technology and unpracticed procedures to save the life of a young child.

An interesting introduction to a rarely considered medical event, this narrative nonfiction provides background contextual information, primary source photographs, and simplified descriptions of scientific concepts. Mentioned in the short description above, this book could be used to spread knowledge about medical, women’s, or African-American history. Vivien Thomas is unable to attend medical school due to the economic collapse of the 1930s, and ends up being essentially educated on-the-job after he is hired by Blalock, ten years his senior. With his boss and upon first arriving at Johns Hopkins, Thomas is forced to confront racist tendencies that had been culturally ingrained for decades. Dr. Helen Taussig also had to confront others’ prejudices against her, including not being allowed to take more than one or two classes at a time and not being allowed to study in the same room as her classmates for fear she would “contaminate” the other students. Her gradual hearing loss also proved unique problems that she solved in order to continue the professional career track she had fought so hard to achieve. Other social issues at the time that are still prevalent today, including animal testing, sterilization methods, and insider industry information, are touched upon to provide context.

It’s the personal vignettes behind the discovery that create the compelling narrative. The inclusion of period photographs featuring the people and places involved all bring the incredible story to life. The medical concepts are broken down into the barest, most simplistic terms. While that makes it easy to understand for readers, additional visuals to aid in comprehending the surgery and the anatomy involved would have been appreciated. The sequence of development of the heart on page 28 and the drawing of the chest cavity inside a child on page 49 was extremely helpful in envisioning it, although the captain makes it sound like the drawing was done by Thomas. Even enlarging the newspaper clipping found on page 77 would have sufficed, to make it easier to read the information contained and see the drawing provided, although it is a remarkably clear and readable scan.

For a fuller picture of the historic event, it’s implications, and aftermath, readers should read the detailed source notes, which contain information that regrettably did not make it into the primary text. It’s my impression that most people neglect to read the included back matter in informational texts. For instance, while the text vaguely mentions that Thomas was later recognized, including a formal portrait, an honorary doctorate, and made head of the laboratory, the significance of his becoming an “instructor of surgery at the school, an extraordinarily rare appointment for someone who was neither a surgeon nor a doctor” is only mentioned in the source notes. Overall, the book does a solid job recognizing the accomplishments of scientists that no one has heard of or probably even considered investigating.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a 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.

Dog that Nino Didn't Have.jpgTitle: The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have
Author: Edward van de Vendel
Translator: Laura Watkinson
Illustrator: Anton Van Hertbruggen
ISBN: 9780802854513
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Originally published in Belgium in 2013 under the title Het hondje dat nino niet had by Uitgeverij De Eenhoorn BVBA, c2013.
First published in the United States in 2015 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

An unusual book that tells the story of Nino’s dog, who happens to be imaginary. You know this initially by Van Hertbruggen’s retro drawings that portray a light-colored dog with dark spots that readers literally see through. Then the text reveals that everyone else has trouble seeing this creature. When Nino finally gets a real dog, it’s different than the one he imagined, but that’s okay because this lonely boy can still find joy in both the real and imaginary creatures he calls friends. The final double-paged spread showcases all these animals watching over Nino as he sleeps. The beautiful pictures help readers decipher the sparse but carefully worded text, and I’m curious to learn what children’s reactions have been. This is not a book to be read quickly, but slowly and reflectively, possibly before bed time.

Blackbird Fly

Blackbird FlyTitle: Blackbird Fly
Author: Erin Entrada Kelly
ISBN: 9780062238610
Pages: 296 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“You may be on the list, Apple, but it could be worse. At least you aren’t Big-leena Moffett.” She paused. “Unless . . .”
“Unless what?” I said. The socked-gut feeling was still there. I wouldn’t have been surprised to lift up my shirt and see a big bruise.
“Unless you’re above Heleena on the list,” said Alyssa. She frowned.
Gretchen rolled her eyes. “That’s not possible.” She looked at me and said again: “That’s not possible, Apple. And the list is stupid anyway. Who cares?”
But we all knew that everyone cared. (46-47)

When Apple was four years old, her father died and her mother moved her to America, specifically Chapel Spring, Louisiana. As the only Filipino in her entire school, she was never the most popular, but at least she has been allowed to hang out with that crowd for years. Until the annual Dog Log is circulated around the school, and rumor has it she’s on it. Now she’s realizing that the folks she used to call her friends really aren’t all that friendly. She starts hanging out with new kid Evan, but he’s not going to help her popularity, and her mother’s constant refusal to get her a guitar, call her by a name that isn’t also a fruit, and order pizza instead of cooking Filipino food, just adds to her frustrations. How did sixth grade get to be so hard so fast?

This slice of life tale didn’t really stand out to me, to the point where I had to skim it to write this review a month after I finished reading it the first time. Apple’s classmate Alyssa was the most realistically written, with dialogue that was self-serving but laced with sarcastic sympathy at the same time. “This is the worst thing that could possibly happen right before the dance. You can’t go by yourself when me and Gretchen have dates, can you? That would just be the most embarrassing thing ever.” (98-99) You cringe every time you hear her talk, because most readers are familiar with someone like that in real life.

Evan is the stereotypical new kid who doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him. As someone who was the new kid several times, I have a hard time believing that a sixth grader, who had friends at his old school, would enter into a new environment with a skin that thick to begin with and make no effort to find friends. Before he is even introduced to the popular posse, he wants nothing to do with them. While it proves to be good instincts on his part, it’s not realistic. More realistic is Heleena’s avoidance of the group, because she has suffered from the repeated ostracism and alienation of her peers and has resigned herself to her fate of simply keeping her head down and attempting to escape notice.

Apple’s insight in how popularity works seem to happen fairly quickly, although the eight week timeline during which the story takes place is difficult to pin down. We see the start of school and the Halloween dance, and there is talk of a quickly approaching field trip slated to occur just before Thanksgiving. But the escalation of teasing is shown in starts and stops, with multiple chapters spent on one day and then almost a whole month passing between two chapters. While I feel Apple’s self-consciousness about her race are accurately portrayed, her mother’s cluelessness seems over done. For instance, according to Apple she hasn’t eaten carrots in years, and yet they have what’s described as a “merry-go-round” style conversation, talking about the same things over and over.

By the end of the story, it’s frustrating to see this fractured family resolve it’s deep seated conflict in just a few minutes of discussion. The same could be said about how Apple’s ostracism at school resolves itself, which reminded me of a scene from Stargirl. However, Stargirl’s rise and subsequent fall from popularity rings truer than this overly optimistic conclusion to a tale where Apple has always been on the outside, but is just beginning to realize it, and isn’t sure she anymore if she wants to be part of the popular crowd. A good message for middle school students struggling to find their place, I just wish the story had been more memorable.

We Forgot Brock!

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a 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.

We Forgot Brock.jpgTitle: We Forgot Brock!
Author/Illustrator: Carter Goodrich
ISBN: 9781442480902
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

The weird thing about Philip’s friend Brock, dressed in garb reminiscent of a pirate, is that nobody else can see him and everyone calls him “Philip’s Imaginary Friend.” After a day at the fair, Philip falls asleep and Brock gets left behind. Luckily, a girl named Anne and her own imaginary friend named Princess Sparkle Dust find Brock and bring him home with them. Will Brock and Philip ever find each other again? Watercolor illustrations portray the imaginary friends in childish, crayon like states very different from the rest of the more detailed drawings, although if you look carefully you’ll notice they still cast shadows. The problem is neatly solved and everyone makes a new friend in the end. The story is realistically childlike, down to Philip posting “Lost” flyers, which prove surprisingly effective! A sweet story perfect to share with children who may have their own imaginary friend.

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