Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Diabolic

The Diabolic
Image result for diabolic kincaidS.J. Kincaid
Simon & Schuster, 2016 403 pgs.
Grades 9-Up
Science Fiction

Nemesis was genetically created to be a fighting machine, protecting the wealthy person who purchases her to the death. Sidonia is Nemesis' owner on whom she imprinted. Sidonia and Nemesis forge a bond and Sidonia refuses to give up her friend, even when Diabolics become unlawful. When Sidonia is called to the royal court by the corrupt and evil emperor because of her father's heretic ways, the family panics. Instead of sending Sidonia, they send Nemesis posing as the young royal. Nemesis travels to the far off planet of the court where she makes her first friend and learns to navigate the ways of the rich and powerful. The emperor in order to secure his authority over citizens wanting to embrace science and learning, wipes out all of those who pose a threat. This includes Sidonia and her family. Nemesis is devastated. In her grief she befriends Tyrus, the seemingly insane nephew of the emperor and the heir to the throne. The two form an uneasy alliance that evolves to feelings of possible romance. Tyrus wants to overthrow his corrupt uncle and restore the kingdom to that of learning and environmental and humane protection, while Nemesis merely seeks revenge. The two allies calculate a plan which involves deception, inter-planet travel, and extreme danger. Alliances are questioned and players fall as Nemesis learns to think for herself and process emotions that she has never allowed herself to harbor.

Kincaid offers another dystopian novel in a very crowded market, yet manages to find a fresh niche within the genre. Instead of characters running around a decaying earth, The Diabolic is more "sci-fi" than the average dystopian book for teens and is set in outer space with planets long since colonized and space travel the norm. Kincaid visits the end of a civilization ravaged by environmental neglect and gluttony, delivering a cautionary tale to today's youth. The novel is written in the first person and we see inside the head of Nemesis as she learns to navigate an unfamiliar world and how to process feelings and make decisions. The character of Nemesis is unusual and interesting. The romance between her and Tyrus is not totally believable, but adds a crucial element for teen readers and provides motivation for plot development. A love triangle presents itself in an unexpected way, which proves interesting. In fact, there were many surprises and plot twists in the book that made it exciting to read and helped to keep the pages turning. Kincaid knows how to end a chapter with a cliff hanger and is not afraid to delve into extreme violence, making the book more appropriate for older teens. Beyond the environmental message, other themes include loving and excepting the person that you are, overcoming abuse from the past, and the importance of loyalty and trust. Nemesis is a powerful woman, physically stronger than her love interest, which is a positive role model for young women, although she does struggle emotionally. Even though its at opposite ends of the timeline, give to fans of Sabaa Tahir and Sarah Maas. An exciting and enjoyable read sure to be popular with teens.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Furthermore

Furthermore
Tahereh Mafi
Dutton, 2016, 416 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Fantasy

Alice is coming of age as a completely colorless and seemingly unmagical girl in a land where the main commodities are color and magic. Alice's beloved father has disappeared three years before and she is stuck in a small house with multiple younger siblings and a checked-out mother, who appears to not love her. To make matters worse Alice no longer goes to school, thanks to an unfortunate incident with her arch enemy Oliver, and there is no one to guide her in perfecting her talent for her Surrender, which is the gateway to adulthood. Oliver, who had formally been missing for a year, tries to befriend Alice and convince her to help him in his quest, which she naturally resists. After spectacularly failing her surrender Alice finally agrees to journey with Oliver to the unpredictable land of Furthermore where magic is wild and abundant, the inhabitants are tricky and often treacherous, and the main commodity is time. What follows is a series of adventures through very unique and unstable towns, where Alice and Oliver often find themselves in grave danger. The inhabitants of Furthermore welcome outsiders for only one very ominous reason, which is shockingly revealed. Meanwhile, the two enemies learn to trust each other and a friendship develops as they meet more and more interesting folks and find themselves in increasingly threatening situations. Both Alice and Oliver are hiding their secret magical powers, which they both eventually divulge, as they continue on Oliver's quest, which reveals itself to be finding Alice's long-lost father.

Furthermore reminded me a lot of The Lost Track of Time, which I read and posted about recently. Furthermore is longer and meant for an older audience, but contains many of the same messages and seems to be influenced by The Phantom Tollbooth and A Wrinkle in Time. I love the concept of two neighboring magical lands, one controlled and the other wild, and the idea of color being so plentiful and cherished. The story is wholly original, yet somehow feels like an old fashioned fantasy. At 416 pages I felt that the book went on for far too long and I got a bit road-weary as I slugged along. Even though its plot-intensive, reluctant readers will probably give up. Smart, creative kids will fall into the land of Furthermore and want to stay forever, hoping the quest never ends. Alice is a very likable character and kid's will relate to her lack of confidence and feelings of being unworthy. As the story progresses, Alice learns to find value in her own uniqueness and embrace that which makes her special. At points in the story Oliver seems sneaky and unlikable, but Mafi shows his motivations and vulnerabilities and we begin to care about his character as well. Themes include the power of friendship and working in a team, the value of time, facing problems head-on, the importance of honesty and loyalty, and to find your inner-strength and never give up.The story ends a bit too abruptly and cleanly, which is not unusual for books for this age level. At first I was relieved, thinking that at least it was a stand-alone and I don't have to invest in two more books. But then the last page clearly opens the door to the next adventure, leaving the publisher ample opportunity to turn Furthermore into a series if there is interest.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Reader

The Reader
Traci Chee
Penguin, 2016 437 pgs.
Grades 7-Up
Fantasy
Sea of Ink and Gold series #1

Sefia lives a nomadic lifestyle with her guardian Nim after her parents die. When Nim is captured by dreaded Redcoats, Sefia is determined to find her. Among Nim's belongings she discovers a book, only inhabitants of this land do not know how to read. By studying the book every chance she gets, Sefia is able to decipher the symbols. She stumbles upon a boy trapped in a box, who cannot speak. He has been trained to fight other boys to the death and is, judging from the marks around his body, very good at it. Sefia rescues him, names him Archer, and the two become companions and, eventually, partners. Sefia reads to Archer from the book she inherited. The story within her story is that of a group of adventuring pirates who set off to find the end of the world and have many harrowing escapades along the way. Eventually, Sefia and Archer's and the Pirate's story-lines come together in a surprising way, only to break apart again as the Pirates complete their quest and Sefia and Archer continue the journey to save Nim. Meanwhile, we learn of Lon, an appretice to the land's librarian, who is being trained to read and to save the world with the help of "The Book". Lon's story intertwines with Sefina's by book's end in a surprising plot twist. All of our heroes complete their quests, yet, although Sefia has found Nim and discovers the true identity of her enemy, she now must use her powers to save the world from the evil Guard in the next installment in the series.

Whew! I won't lie: The Reader is a lot of book. Maybe because it was the book I kept by my bed to read before falling asleep during a very busy summer reading club, but it took me a long time to slug through and I'm still not sure I fully understand it. Admittingly, I'm not a very patient reader, which might be why reading children's books suits me. This is a book that requires a patient and thoughtful reader. That said, for the right person, it will prove to be a treasure. Chee has penned a beautifully crafted story that reads like a fairy-tale and every word counts. Three separate stories weave through time, coming together at different points, only to break apart again. The plot is original and fresh and the both the setting and the characters are fully realized. My favorite character is the boy Archer, who is both sad and fabulous. He is so interesting with future potential that readers will want to go in the series just to see how he develops. Chee sends strong messages about the power of books and reading, finding your inner strength, taking chances, and the importance of loyalty. The Reader is getting amazing reviews and for good reason: its a beautifully written story that is sure to win awards. It just may not be for the average reader (or for over-tired librarians).

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Weird and Wild Beauty

A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World's First National Park
Erin Peabody
Sky Pony, 2016 181 pgs
Grades 6-8
Non-Fiction

Peabody uses her experience with the National Park Service, including a stint at Yellowstone, to relate the story of our country's first National Park. After a brief introduction, featuring the amazing sights reported back east by the original explorers, the reader is as hooked, as Americans once were over a hundred years ago. After capturing her audience, Peabody goes back in time, tracing the geographical terrain and original inhabitants of Yellowstone. Drawing from original journals, we travel along with the thirty-two men of the 1871 expedition, led by scientist Ferdinand Hayden. The group was sent by the US government to document and find scientific evidence and samples of the wonders described by trappers and adventures, who described the region in such terms that they seemed to be the stuff of fantasy. Hayden journeyed into the land armed with fellow scientists, surveyors, a photographer and an artist. They witnessed the rumored geysers, hot springs and incredible natural wonders and faced many perils, including unpredictable terrain, in-climate weather, wild animals and near starvation. Back home Hayden and company campaign to have the United States government protect the land from being destroyed by the worst threat of all: humans. With all of the evidence presented, the public and government were convinced and our first national park was created. The book ends with extensive maps, scientific explanations, notes, sources, and credits.

I was expecting this book to be more of a travel guide to the park. Once I cracked into it I realized that it is really a historical perspective of the discovery of Yellowstone. Although before and after Hayden's pivotal journey is touched on, this is mostly a book tracing this historical and important wilderness trek. Young readers will appreciate the dangers and sacrifices made by those who have gone before to explore our beautiful country, as they will also appreciate the awesome and unique wonders that make up Yellowstone. The book, although a historical account, is highly readable and photographs and illustrations are offered on practically every page. Text boxes and sidebars clue the read in on extra information. The land, the wildlife, and the unique geographic wonders are all park of the thrilling landscape of this important American treasure. Sociologically, we learn of the shift in American thinking from the importance of taming the wilds of this new country to appreciating its natural beauty and the efforts of some to stall development before all of our precious wilderness disappears. This will be an important resource for reports, but can also be enjoyed for pleasure by both kids who prefer non-fiction and those who don't. Peabody did extensive research and although the book is highly readable, it has not been fictionalized in any way. Everything is carefully documented and credit for photos and quotes are meticulously recorded. This year is the National Park Service's one-hundredth birthday, so what a perfect year to read this book about America's premier national park.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Atlantia

Atlantia
Ally Condie
Dutton, 2014  320 pgs
Grades 7-12
Science Fiction

Rio has always dreamed of escaping her underwater world and living on the land above. She resides in an underwater city called Atlantia, where the residents are led to believe that they are privileged and that the world on dry land is poisoned and of a lower quality. At the day of Rio's choosing she is taken by surprise when her twin sister decides to go above, leaving Rio stuck in a crumbling underwater prison. Rio must cope with the loss of her sister and sole family member, re-imagining her life and starting a new profession, trying to raise the funds to somehow escape to the surface, all while still mourning the loss of her beloved mother. On top of all of her problems, she also burdens another: Rio is secretly a Siren, which is increasingly becoming unpopular in Atlantia for the power that they wield. Rio's long-lost aunt, also a Siren, helps her to learn to harness her powers and offers some answers to Rio's growing pile of questions. Unexpected help arrives in the form of cute boy True, who shares Rio's talent for mechanics and has a secret of his own. Together Rio and True concoct a way for Rio to raise much needed funds to escape their underwater world. Finally, the moment comes and Rio makes a break for it, only to have disaster strike. All is not lost, however, and Rio finally achieves her dream by reaching the land above, although  the means and results are not at all as expected. Bloodshed, chaos, and danger ensue as Rio determines the cause behind the growing demise of her undersea city and finds her inner voice in order to save it.

Condie, author of the popular Matched trilogy offers a stand-alone novel of a fully realized underwater dystopian civilization. The real star of this story is the setting. I loved the underwater world, believed in it and would like to visit. This is what sets this novel apart from the glut of dystopian novels presently on the market for teenagers. Sirens are cool and I enjoyed reading a book featuring them. This also felt different. This story also featured genetically evolved underwater bats, voices from the past trapped into shells and walls, and interesting gargoyle inspired Gods, all which were interesting. The romance was, I suppose, a prerequisite, but felt a bit forced and predictable and I didn't believe it. The romance story line remains innocent, allowing for the book to be appropriate for middle school readers. Much like Frozen, this was more of a story about the bonds of sisters and I believed that relationship more than the romantic one. Condie, as usual, delivers a great plot filled with mystery, twists and turns, and unexpected surprises. Rio starts out as a weak and uncertain young person who eventually finds her inner strength and saves the day, which will prove inspirational to readers, who will relate to the feeling of being an outsider and not fitting in. Atlantia is not the stuff of great literature, but is an entertaining tale, will be enjoyed by a wide audience and makes a perfect summer read. This is a story that would make a beautiful movie. Most of all, it is refreshing not to have to read two more books to get to the plot's conclusion.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

March of the Mini Beasts

March of the Mini Beasts
Ada Hopper
Sam Ricks, Illustrator
Simon & Schuster, 2016  125 pgs
Grades 2-4
Science Fiction/Adventure
DATA Set #1

Meet the DATA Set: three like-minded and diverse science-loving youngsters. While trying to raise money for a field trip for science club, the gang knocks on the door of Dr. Gustav Bunsen. The three friends are intrigued by the advanced equipment the scientist has in his house and he shows them his latest invention: a growth ray. The next day, while hanging out in their souped-up tree house, the doctor shows up with his invention perfected. They try it out on some plastic toy zoo animals. At first it doesn't seem to work and then, suddenly, the animals come to life, although remain small. Overnight a crazy thing happens; the animals start to grow and now the team has a problem. They will not fit in the terrarium originally designed for them, including the stegosaurus who was accidentally zapped with the other animals. What to do? The kids can't leave jungle animals running all over the neighborhood. The doctor helps them wrangle the animals up and then the team decides to take them to the zoo and secretly dump them as if they have always lived there. The plan works perfectly, except for the stegosaurus. He certainly can't go to the zoo. The doctor comes to the rescue again with his time-travel machine, another brilliant invention. He manages to blast the stegosaurus back to prehistoric times, but also blasts the kids along by accident. This will lead the reader straight to the next installment in the series: Don't Disturb the Dinosaurs, which was released simultaneously.

Hopper pens a series perfect for kids transitioning to chapter books that will be enjoyed by both readers who love science and those who don't. The vocabulary is controlled, the print is large, the margins are wide, and illustration grace every two-page spread. The children are racially ambiguous with Spanish last names, yet are not defined by their cultural heritage. The young lady of the group is the team's engineer, debunking gender stereotyping that boys are better at technical science than girls. Further debunking occurs with the character who is always eating for laughs. You would expect him to be a fat kid, which for some reason is funny to people, but he remains skinny, blessed with a fast metabolism. The doctor is charmingly scatter-brained, reminiscent of Doc Brown from Back to the Future fame. Many kid-pleasing elements make up the plot: toys coming to life, a really cool club house, and a live stegosaurus. The heroes seem to have a lot of freedom to explore their interests, which will also appeal to young readers. Word play and puns help to boost confidence as young readers get the jokes.  Gentle humor and non-stop action will encourage kids to turn pages and the ending will naturally lead them to the next book in the series. This series has STEM appeal, which will make it a favorite for school use. Readers will be encouraged to develop their own inventions and, who knows, maybe bring their own toys to life.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Lost Track of Time

The Lost Track of TimeThe Lost Track of Time
Paige Britt
Lee White, Illustrator
Scholastic, 2015 306 pgs
Grades 3-6
Fantasy

Penelope considers herself a writer. The problem is, her mother has her so tightly scheduled that no time is left for dreaming or creating. Even her elderly neighbor and friend, who Penelope use to day dream with, has been blocked out of the schedule. One summer day a mysterious thing happens: there is a surprising gap in the schedule. Penelope runs over to visit her forbidden friend and while day dreaming manages to fall through the hole in the schedule to the Land of Possibilities. Here she make a new friend, a mushroom-loving and like-minded soul named Dill. Dill teaches Penelope all about "moodling", the act of day dreaming and letting your mind wander. He also shares the history of the strange land that Penelope now finds herself in and suggests they wander around looking for the Great Moodler, who is now in hiding since the controlling and evil Chronos has taken over. The two new friends have many fantastical and inconceivable adventures and meet many interesting characters, including a giant talking coo-coo bird, the ancient and decrepit Timekeeper, magical Fancies, hypnotized Clockworkers, and the Great Moodler and Chronos themselves. Penelope must rediscover her ability to Moodle in order to save her friend Dill from a life of drudgery and rescue the land from Chronos' evil and unimaginative clutches.

I probably would not have picked this book up on my own. I only read The Lost Track of Time because kids were raving about it. When asked for a book similar to this title, I mistakenly recommended time travel books. While dealing with the theme of time, it is not about time travel, but time wasting and the problem we have in our current society of over scheduling our children. More Wrinkle in Time than When You Reach Me, this book is similar in mood and structure to The Phantom Tollbooth. Penelope discovers that wasting time is not a bad thing , which leads to setting loose her imagination and creativity. The over-structuring mother is not evil, she certainly puts her daughter first, she is simply a product of our society. Other lessons Britt not so subtlety teaches the reader are that anything is possible, self-doubt is destructive, words can be powerful and fun, and worrying can be toxic. Dill shows the reader the powers of mushrooms, making the reader think that maybe they stepped into Alice in Wonderland. I would not have been surprised if a rabbit scampered across the path complaining about being late. The book is a bit "out there" for the common young reader. It is a story for smart kids with huge imaginations. Britt makes use of puns and word play to build on her themes, which will delight young intellectuals who will appreciate the references. The singular colored and dreamy illustrations add to the atmosphere of the story and help to make the book read faster. This book would work well as a read aloud and would be perfect for family sharing. The Lost Track of Time was a bit too intention driven for my taste and felt a bit old fashioned. That said, readers both young and old seem to love it and there is certainly an audience for both the message and the madcap bewitching adventure that lies within.