In the walled, dystopian city-state of Quill, each year brings the Purge, when children turning thirteen are sorted into two groups. The Wanteds are allowed to stay in Quill, and continue training at the university. The Unwanteds, those displaying any sort of artistic creativity, are taken from Quill to the Lake of Boiling Oil, as a death sentence for their transgressions. When Alex Stowe is taken with other Unwanteds to their fate, they instead discover their salvation- the Lake of Boiling Oil is a front for Artime, a magic refuge and school, where the artistic talents of the Unwanteds become spells capable of amazing things, including the inevitable defense of Artime when the High Priest Justine of Quill discovers the ruse.
At first, the similarities to Harry Potter were distracting, and I found some of the magical artistic powers and creatures to be a bit silly. As the story progressed, though, I was drawn in a little more with each chapter. By the end, I was enjoying it all, and wanting to continue to the next book. I just needed to keep the intended audience in mind, and let fantasy be wild. This Mark Twain Award winner is a great beginning for a creative series.
The year is 1821, and Celeste is a mouse living a harrowing life at Oakley Plantation in Louisiana. John James Audubon is staying at the home, as well, using it as a base and studio as he hunts and poses birds for his life study paintings. Accompanying the artist is a teenage helper, Joseph. He also is a budding artist, but one with a far gentler approach. Celeste’s growing friendship with the boy provides her with opportunities to explore the world around the plantation, and the chance to meet other animals living there.
Celeste is a gentle, loving protagonist with a skill for weaving baskets. Her adventures are quite short, but seem just about right for the intended middle reader audience. The novel is heavily illustrated with beautiful pencil sketches by the author, and combine well with the narrative. Audubon’s flawed methods are shown for what they are, yet Cole doesn’t diminish the importance of the works of art to the study of birds. Enjoyable.
Jeremy Logan has a highly-unusual profession- one which brings him to the strangest of places and experiences. He is an enigmalogist, an expert investigator of the bizarre and paranormal, and has been hired to work some of the most puzzling historical hauntings and mysteries in the world. When clandestinely hired by Porter Stone, the world’s most successful treasure hunter, he wonders why his expertise is needed. Porter believes he is about to discover the tomb of Egypt’s first unified pharaoh, Narmer, buried deep within the Sudd- a massive, nearly-impenetrable marsh on the upper Nile. The threat of what is protecting this tomb is what has prompted Porter to seek Jeremy’s help.
Lincoln Child is best known for writing as a team with Douglas Preston, but I’ve enjoyed his standalone adventures nearly as much. The setting and quest of this one couldn’t be much more up my alley. Porter’s base of operations in the Sudd is wonderfully inventive, and the search for the tomb exciting. Unfortunately, a twist in the tale is hinted at far too many times to be surprising, and the novel quickly fades at the end, offering frenetic action with little emotional impact, before fizzing out in the muddy Sudd. I was hoping for a little more.
Antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his assistant, Chase Kolpath, are back for another galaxy-spanning hunt for ancient artifacts, and to help rescue the travelers stuck on an interstellar liner, the Capella. The artifacts are from Earth, several thousand years in the past, during the early days of space exploration. The Capella is caught in a space/time warp, which has the liner resurfacing into normal space every few years, but only a for a short time, before being swallowed again by the warp. To the passengers and crew, only a day or two have passed.
McDevitt returns now and again to tell another of Chase and Alex’s adventures. I’ve lined up for each, but had a tough time getting into this one. The dual plots don’t intersect enough, to the point that I wished he had just focused on one, and fleshed it out. Much time was spent jumping back and forth to Earth, yet most of what they accomplished here didn’t matter much in the end. An average mystery, combined with a reasonably-exciting rescue adventure.
Fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are no strangers to his unique form of satiric humor. In this collection of Pratchett’s non-fiction writing, we are introduced to Sir Terry’s real world, filled with speeches, articles, and never-ending promotional tours. In particular, the tours provide fodder for the most wry, grumpy, and amusing anecdotes. As Neil Gaiman brilliantly observes in the introduction, Terry Pratchett is not a jolly old elf. He does, however, produce some of the best satirical writing on the planet. He also doesn’t come across as mean spirited. This is a wonderful collection!
An unscheduled, pilot-less passenger jet arrives at an airport gate. In each seat is an unattended baby. Thirteen years later, cryptic messages are being sent to these children, many of which don’t realize they were adopted, let alone that they are connected to the mysterious plane. Jonah and Chip have received messages, and are determined to find out why.
The search for answers to the children’s mysterious beginnings makes for a decent mystery adventure. The payoff isn’t quite what I had hoped for, but it certainly sets the stage for many sequels, and adventures through time. I’m interested in continuing, but not with much enthusiasm.
A powerful, poetic, and haunting myth set in Scotland, and spun by a master storyteller. A small man tells the tale of an earlier journey, during which he hired a guide to lead him to a treasure-filled cave. Being a Neil Gaiman story, however, the trek is much more than a search for riches. The tale slowly twists as truths about the past are revealed. Highly recommended.
The continuing adventures of Anand, and his companion, Nisha, following the events in The Conch Bearer. Both children live and train with the Brotherhood of the Conch, in the Silver Valley within the Himalayas. While practicing his far-seeing ability, Anand discovers a wise-woman desperately in need of help for her village. Coming to her aid thrusts Anand, Nisha, and Master Abhaydatta into the past, and into a confrontation with a powerful sorcerer.
What may sound like a typical fantasy plot is much more in execution. The author weaves just the right mix of history and mysticism, and maintains complex and lovable characters with ease. Possibly the best character of all is the Conch itself, the power of which is matched by its humor and love. This is a wonderful followup to The Conch Bearer.
This final book in the WondLa trilogy puts Eva Nine amidst the war between humans and alien species, to decide the fate of Orbona. It also illustrates how much she has matured, and how powerful she has become, since The Search for WondLa. She has gained abilities which put her on par with most anyone on the planet, and she will need all of them in order to do her part in stopping the machinations of advisor-turned-usurper, Loroc.
This isn’t my favorite story of the trilogy, but even so, it is far from disappointing. Former antagonists become allies, treachery is revealed, and in the middle of it all is Eva. She is a great character, and her companions just as strong. Their effectiveness is enhanced by DiTerlizzi’s artwork, which is consistently excellent throughout the trilogy. His character and world designs are wonderful, and the perfect guide in case someone wishes to put all this on the big screen. Please?
Private Richard Sharpe remains stuck in India, and things could not be worse for him in the British ranks. Hakeswill lives, and is doing his best to get him lashed to death on trumped up charges. Worse, Major Dodd’s traitorous actions have allowed Sharpe’s enemies a chance to get their revenge on him. Luckily, the nastier things get, the more Sharpe is in his element. Soon, he is teamed with Colonel McCandless, tracking Dodd down.
India remains a wonderful setting for these military adventures, and Cornwell’s writing (especially when describing sieges) is second to none. He is meticulous in his research, and honest (in endnotes) when taking liberties with history. Revisiting this series continues to be a blast, even though I have to admit it isn’t for everyone.
Richard Sharpe is Bernard Cornwell’s most famous creation, a very flawed British war hero of the Napoleonic era. Following the wild successes of other Sharpe novels, Cornwell decided to jump back in time, and provide some of Sharpe’s back story, mentioned in bits and pieces throughout the series, but not fully fleshed out. This, then, became the “first” Sharpe novel, when he is less than twenty years old, and miserable within the British ranks serving in 1799 India.
For fans of the Sharpe novels, being reintroduced to those pivotal in Sharpe’s later life (especially the detestable Hakeswill) is a joy, and I found the writing nearly as effective as the core Sharpe favorites. India is a fantastic setting, even under horrific conditions during a questionable campaign. Sharpe finds himself in the usual mess, but this isn’t a bad thing, especially when armed with the knowledge of where it all eventually leads. This series isn’t for everyone, but a must-read for those interested in painstaking recreation of actual battles, handled by a master of the genre.
Mark Watney is in real trouble. His EVA suit has been punctured, as well as his side. He is leaking atmosphere, and blood. This is the good news. The bad news is that the rest of the crew just lifted off the planet, believing he is dead. He is stranded on Mars, with the next mission from Earth due to arrive in four years. His current supplies are enough for a couple months.
This is hard science fiction at its very best. Either author Andy Weir knows a mind-boggling amount about science and NASA technology, or he knows an army of real scientists. Nearly every word of this novel rings true to space exploration and science, which may be the largest hurdle for readers not interested in such things, because through Watney, Weir explains a ton of science. It’s the backbone of every step the astronaut takes on Mars, and is crucial to his possible survival.
The bulk of the novel is a first-person account, told in Watney’s regular mission journal entries. At first, his sarcastic sense of humor grated a bit, but soon I realized how vital it is to his ability to roll with increasingly-deadly events. Sometimes things are so bad that you just have to laugh. For anyone with a love of realistic space travel, exploration, and science, this is a must-read. I can’t imagine an actual tragic space event happening any differently than this. It’s Apollo 13 times ten. Very highly recommended.
Dorothy isn’t an ordinary girl. For that matter, she isn’t even a girl. She is the most advanced artificial intelligence ever created by NASA, and was designed to operate autonomously within a probe destined for the largest of Saturn’s moons, Titan. Her creator, Melissa Shepherd, designed her so well that Dorothy realizes she is destined to die, and desperately wants to do something about it. Soon, Dorothy is loose on Earth, and wondering why humans should be allowed to live.
Douglas Preston takes a familiar killer A.I. scenario, and adds just enough twists to keep things interesting. As Melissa and former CIA agent, Wyman Ford, attempt to track Dorothy down, an unscrupulous Wall Street trader hopes to do the same, for very different (and lucrative) reasons. At whatever cost, even in human lives. I’ve always enjoyed Preston’s work (both solo, and with Lincoln Child), and this is no exception. Several moments reminded me of the film, A.I., but that’s not such a bad thing. Enjoyable, if not quite believable.
Eccentric billionaire Luigi Lemoncello, creator of the most popular board games in the world, has designed the most amazing library in the world. 12-yr-old Kyle Keeley and eleven other fellow students have been chosen to be the first to experience the library during an overnight lock-in event. The thrills of that night are nothing compared to the challenge given by Lemoncello the following morning- the first tween able to discover a secret exit from the library will earn a very special prize.
I’m sure nearly everyone reviewing this book makes an instant connection between this adventure and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The influence is obvious, but not in a negative way. The library is a fantastical place which any fan of reading and puzzles would die to visit for a lifetime or two. The array of characters also are familiar, from the win-at-any-cost rich kid to the bookworm more interested in keeping her nose in a book than solving any sort of riddle. Kyle lands squarely in between, and has a small, likeable group of friends, as well. Several of the trivia challenges the author has the tweens solve are quite out of time for a younger generation, but they work as a whole, and keep the game hopping. References to popular (and slightly dated) books are peppered throughout the adventure. I’m not twelve anymore, but I would be happy to join these kids. Time to build a library!
A new era is arriving on the Discworld, in the form of a steam-belching engine running along tracks. When Mr. Simnel begins demonstrating his new invention, even Lord Vetinary is surprised by the inexplicable draw Iron Girder has on the populace. One thing is for certain- the city needs to be part of this enterprise, and the Patrician believes Moist von Lipwig is the right (if not upright) man to oversee things. Meanwhile, dwarfs are revolting, and so the new train is tasked with getting the Low King of the Dwarfs to Schmaltzberg in time to put things right.
This is the 40th book in the Discworld series, which I adore. Unfortunately, my reaction to this entry is similar to the one I had for Unseen Academicals. All the familiar faces are here, but the Pratchett magic is a faded shade of octarine. There are plenty of dwarfs doing dwarfish things, and an interesting new invention for the world, but it simply isn’t as humorous or satirical as usual. Even the footnotes seem a shadow of their former selves. I will continue reading every bit of output Sir Terry manages to produce before being unable, but also hope for a bit of the old spark next time.
Melody is a bright, confident 11-yr-old, blessed with a photographic memory and the ability to “taste” music. She also has cerebral palsy, is unable to speak, and has extremely limited movement. Nearly everyone in her life assumes she is “slow,” and the frustration of not being able to prove otherwise is overwhelming. When a device to help Melody communicate finally is available to her, her intelligence is obvious to everyone. But, will she finally gain acceptance?
I appreciate how Draper refuses to take the easy, expected path with Melody’s story. Melody knows she is one of the smartest girls in any room, and she’s not afraid to make that fact known. Children (and adults) can be cruel when faced with someone deemed “different,” and Draper doesn’t wrap everything in a neat bow of acceptance. Making your place in the world can be tough, and Melody shows she is exactly that. A worthy award-winner.
Princess is a bad unicorn. That’s why she is called the Destroyer. When unicorns are bad, entire worlds tremble at the thought of the carnage to come. Accompanied (reluctantly) by Magar, her wizard, Princess is crossing worlds and time in order to track down the Codex of Infinite Knowability, give it to an evil sorcerer, and eat Max. Max is a rather geeky human middle-schooler, completely unaware that he is a descendant of the greatest wizard of all time. Soon, thanks the Codex, which only he seems able to read, his lineage is revealed, and Max, his friends, and a cranky dwarf are in training with frobbits on a future world, preparing to face down Princess. It all makes sense, right?
Obviously inspired by the likes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, Platte F. Clark starts his humorous fantasy trilogy with a bang (and possibly a large belch). There are several groan-worthy moments when the jokes fall flat, but otherwise, I can’t imagine why middle school readers wouldn’t eat this up. Peppered throughout the book are excerpts from the Codex, one of which (concerning screaming trees and druids) makes it all worth while on its own. Onward to Fluff Dragon!
The continuing adventures of Ty and Gemma, introduced in Dark Life. Someone has dragged under and chained a huge floating township, trapping the inhabitants inside to die. Ty and Gemma are swept into the mystery of the deaths, which soon involves Ty’s family, the infamous Seablite Gang, and those forced into a harsh existence on the ocean’s surface.
Nearly the entire book takes place above water this time, which partially is to blame for my lessened enthusiasm. Ty and Gemma face an array of characters and places straight from the set of Waterworld, or any other number of post-apocalyptic movies. There are to-the-death boxing matches, dirty dealings (and people), and a race against time which didn’t seem very hurried. A second novel can’t possibly capture the enjoyment of being introduced to a fantasy world, but even so, I can’t wait for these two to leave the surface behind, and swim down to where things are far more interesting.
Mix equal parts Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz, stir with a Victorian pen filled with modern ink, and soon the outline of this exceptional fairy tale starts to form. September, a twelve year old from Omaha, Nebraska, is swept away to Fairyland by the Green Wind, and eventually ends up Circumnavigating Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making for a purpose which I won’t spoil. What happens between these events is some truly inventive, wildly imaginative wordplay, filled with classic (and very strange) characters, and off-kilter plot developments which can only take place in Fairyland. This is both a bright and cruel place to live, two sides which are contrasted, compared, and even mixed throughout the book.
Normally, it takes a Terry Pratchett or a Neil Gaiman to get me to tap my wife on the shoulder, and repeat sentences aloud. I was sharing bits and pieces from this tale the entire time I read it. Highly recommended.