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.
A Hero for WandLa continues the adventures of Eva Nine, introduced in A Search for WandLa. Eva and her alien traveling companion, Rovender, journey to New Attica, the idyllic modern human city founded by Cadmus Pryde, the mind behind the Sanctuaries and test-tube breeding program of which Eva is a product. All is not what it seems, however, and soon Eva is on the run.
DiTerlizzi is both a wonderful author and illustrator, and this book is a great example of that talent. Even though the plot covers several science fiction tropes (paradise with a rotten core? Shocking!), the story is more satisfying than the first novel. The relationship between Eva and Rovender is genuinely touching, and the addition of a certain familiar face adds a nice twist. Unfortunately, this book also ends like the first- smack dab in the middle of great things, as if the author simply decided it was as good a point as any to break for the next installment. I know I will be reading it. Recommended.
Rising oceans put much of the Earth’s coastline under water, and the land-based world survives in overpopulated towers. Meanwhile, humanity spreads to the sea, creating a homesteading society on the seafloor. When Ty, a homesteader teen, stumbles across Gemma, an orphan teen from topside, he soon is embroiled in a search for her brother, and mixed up with the Seablite Gang.
I’ve always enjoy underwater sci-fi, and so appreciate the society Falls has created here. The homes and lifestyle of the families on the ocean floor are interesting and believable, and a great backdrop for the adventure/mystery plot the teens are tossed into. The Seablite Gang may seem straight out of an anime series, but considering the setting, this isn’t a bad thing. A great start to a series, and one I’m looking forward to following. Recommended.
“M is for magic. All the letters are, if you put them together properly.” This tasty tidbit is from Neil Gaiman’s introduction to the book, and wonderfully sums up my view of most of his writing. He has a way of stringing letters together which makes the mundane magical, or at the least, a bit odd. I like a bit odd, and so enjoyed this collection of short stories. It also was interesting to compare stories written earlier in his career to more recent ones, both of which are in this collection. I had read a couple of these tales before, and one in particular (The Witch’s Headstone) became a chapter in Gaiman’s 2009 Newbery winner, The Graveyard Book. Short stories are a great introduction to an author, and so if you are one of the five people not familiar with Neil Gaiman, this collection is a decent place to start. Although it is a collection intended for younger readers, the content is pretty mature, including older cultural references I doubt young readers will understand.
In a fantasy/alternate Colonial America, Billy Bartram joins his father and other members of the American Philosophical Society in a quest for allies in the coming war against the French. They seek the Kingdom of Madoc, a rumored ancient Welsh colony beyond the Mississippi River. Their mode of transportation, a unique air-sailing ship, is also sought by the French, in hot pursuit of the explorers.
The setting and plot are interesting, and I enjoy alternate history and fantasy. The mix here, however, starts to spiral toward the end, until fantasy completely takes over for the final handful of chapters, and situations get increasingly far-fetched. This is a land of mastodons, and a 12-foot-tall bear-wolf capable of tracking a flying vessel across half the continent. To what end other than destruction, I have no idea. Perhaps colonists are particularly tasty. Secret messages tossed from the air into rivers inerringly find eddies and shores for easy retrieval. Convenient! There is plenty to recommend about this book, but I can’t quite give it full marks.
When late returning home from a trip to the market for milk, a father explains to his children why he was delayed. A simple setup for an inventive (and hilarious) science fiction adventure story, told as only Neil Gaiman can. Or, possibly, as Douglas Adams would have, because Gaiman seems to be channeling his spirit. The adventures take the father through familiar time-travelling tropes, but the fun is in how Gaiman ties it all together with a neat bow at the end. I especially like his various descriptions for gelatinous aliens. The illustrations are by Skottie Young, and are as funny as the text.
Jules Verne’s undersea adventure novel gets the graphic novel treatment by artist-author Gary Gianni, best known for his illustrating work on the Prince Valiant comic. Gianni’s beautiful retro art style is perfectly suited for Verne’s stories, so I’m not surprised he was interested in adapting Leagues. The narrative is necessarily pared down, but the tone and major plot points of the original are here, and the art is wonderful. A reprinting of a 1962 essay by Ray Bradbury serves as an introduction, and alone is worth picking up this book. Also included is the full text of Sea Raiders, by H.G. Wells, which Gianni also illustrates. Highly recommended for those appreciative of classic adventure writing and illustration.
The Lovecraft Anthology is a graphic collection of Lovecraft’s tales, adapted and illustrated by a variety of authors and artists. Featured in this first volume are several classics, including Call of Cthulhu, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Beyond the artwork, these adaptations also are quick verbal sketches of Lovecraft’s work. I enjoyed them, but often regretted the stories weren’t covered in more detail. Creating artwork is very time consuming, though, and being exposed to the styles of multiple artists was worth missing out on a few story details. As with any multiple-artist anthology, I had style preferences (D’Israeli!), but this will vary by reader. Recommended as an introduction to dark Lovecraftian worlds.
Fans of H.P. Lovecraft are familiar with the Necronomicon, a mystical book of arcane power which features in several of his stories. Over the years, many have claimed this book to be real, and that Lovecraft was aware of its veracity. In Files, Authors Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III explore these claims, as well as the many versions of the book which have been published, its impact on occult thinking, and its influence on film culture.
I’m a fan of Lovecraft’s work, and many of the genre films featuring the Necronomicon, so was glad to come across this title on our shelves. Of the two authors, I found Harms’ writing to be the most effective and factual- personal asides and commentary are at a minimum. I was interested in Gonce’s chapters on “magick,” but felt they were included more for their interest to Gonce rather than their importance to Lovecraft and his creation of the Necronomicon. He also is quite disparaging of opposing views, often without facts to explain why. Overall, an interesting read for fans of Lovecraft, but little more.
13-yr-old Salamanca retraces with her grandparents the route taken by her mother when suddenly she left Sal and her father, and went to Lewiston, Idaho. Along the way, Sal tells her grandparents the story of moving from Kentucky to Ohio, and of how Phoebe, a new friend, also had a mother leave. The journey west combines with stories of the past to determine the future of Sal’s family.
This novel won the Newbery Award in 1995, and deserves all the praise it has gotten over the years. It is a powerful exploration and celebration of life, loss, new love, and mature love. Creech gives Sal’s voice an aching, coming-of-age truthfulness that should be experienced by everyone, and not just middle readers. If you’ve not done so already, read this book!
In Kolkata, India, 12-yr-old Anand and his sister live with their mother in a tiny, one-room shack, barely scraping by on the combined wages of mother and son. One day, a mysterious old man, Abhaydatta, follows Anand home, and offers him a part in the quest to return a sacred, powerful conch shell to a valley of healers in the Himalayas. Joined by Nisha, an orphaned girl, Anand and Abhaydatta must make their way north, always on guard against the wiles of Surabhanu, former thief of the conch, and powerful sorcerer.
A classic fantasy quest tale with many elements similar to The Lord of the Rings, but with a wonderful Indian setting. Divakaruni’s writing drips with atmosphere, especially when describing native foods and locations. Everyone should hope to fill their lives with children like Anand, and the loving words of guidance and peace shared through this story. I need to look up more novels and poetry by this author!
Horace is the apprentice for Enoch Middleditch, a photographer in 1870s New York City. When hired by the wealthy Von Macht family to photograph them in mourning for their lost daughter, the unscrupulous Middleditch has Horace help him create a fake double-exposure ghost image of the dead daughter within the Von Macht portrait, in order to lure them into continuing to use his services. Soon, however, Horace realizes that more than a scam is at work, for it seems that a real ghost is showing up on his photographic plates.
This tale is equal parts ghost story, mystery, and history. The descriptions of the old photographic techniques are interesting, but it is the interactions between Horace and a servant girl, Pegg, which supply the heart of the story. As the secrets of the Von Macht family are unveiled, and the creepy atmosphere builds, I can see why Avi remains a beloved children’s author.