Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Main Characters: (Almost) Thirteen-year-olds Jonah and Chip, and Jonah's younger sister Katherine
Location: Undefined
Time Period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Science Fiction, Time Travel
Series: The Missing #1

A plane mysteriously appears at an airport terminal. It was not scheduled, it was not on radar, it did not land. It just appeared. When airport personnel boarded it, they found no crew. But in each of the thirty-six seats on the plane was a crying baby.

Thirteen years later, Jonah receives a letter. There is no return address, no signature, just a single sentence: "You are one of the missing."

Seriously, do you need more than that to want to read this book?

This is the first book in a new series by the author of the Shadow Children series (better known--in my library, at least--as the Among the... series) and as such has to lay a lot of groundwork for the rest of the series. But Haddix keeps the story moving along to the climactic reveal--which is so much more complex than I was expecting. As with the Shadow Children series, there is the potential to follow many different characters through various adventures and some who were minor characters in this book could become major characters later. According to her website, there will be seven books in this series, just as in the Shadow Children, and the second one, Sent, will come out in August 2009. I can hardly wait.

Found is on the 2009-2010 Texas Lone Star Reading List.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall

Main characters: Rosalind, Jane, Skye, and Batty Penderwick
Location: Massachusetts
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Family
Sequel to: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy

The delightful Penderwick family is back. The story starts with a flashback to the hospital where the mother is dying of cancer. She writes a letter to her husband, asking him to start dating, and gives it to Claire to pass on in about 3 or 4 years. Jump forward 3 or 4 years, and the family is anticipating a visit from their beloved Aunt Claire. But Claire chooses this visit to pass on the letter.

The girls are dismayed at the thought of their father dating and possibly even re-marrying. After all, they've watched Rosalind's friend Anna go through too many stepmothers to count, and they all remember the disgusting Dexter, stepfather of their friend Jeffrey from the first book. Their father is no less dismayed at the thought of dating, though he agrees to go out with at least four women before he calls it quits. The girls know they have to come up with a plan that allows them to maintain the Penderwick family honor without risking a horrible stepmother.

But that's not all they have to contend with. There are soccer rivalries, first crushes, switching homework, and Batty's mysterious Bug Man (who may or may not be in her imagination.) There's also the nice new neighbor and her darling baby boy to balance out all whatever unpleasantness arises.

There is a warm, comforting quality to these books that is reminiscent of older, much beloved titles such as the Melendy family books, the Ramona books, or the Moffat family books. Whatever crises the family goes through, the reader knows that all will turn out well and that the strong love these sisters and their father have will not waver. I hope that Jeanne Birdsall plans to write more stories about them.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee list.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

47 by Walter Mosley

Main Character: 47, a young slave boy
Location: Early 19th-century Georgia
Time period: Before the Civil War
Genre: YA Fiction, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction

Since I am a librarian, my young patrons believe that I have read and know intimately every book on my shelf. I cannot begin to tell you how far that is from the truth. I read reviews, I select books for purchase based on those reviews, patron requests, and what I feel will be necessary to fill my patrons current and future needs. When new books come in, I pull some to read, but there are so many more than I can possibly read (even if librarians do just sit around reading books all day long as so many patrons think.) Sometimes I need a nudge to pick up an overlooked book.

That's what happened here. I was reading one of many book-related blogs that I subscribe to when I ran across an entry on this book, Walter Mosley's 47. (Sadly, I cannot remember which blog it was. If I find it again, I'll add a link down below.) The description of a science-fiction novel which centered on slaves in the deep south was too intriguing to resist, and lo and behold, there it was on my shelf.

47 is a young slave boy who has never been given a name. Because his mother had been a favorite of the plantation owner's wife, he has been allowed to grow up near the house, protected and coddled by Mama Flore. But when the owner deems him big enough to work out in the fields, he is sent down to the slave quarters and given the number 47--in fact it is branded into his shoulder. One day he encounters a new man who calls himself Tall John. Tall John appears to be an escaped slave from a neighboring plantation, but he tells 47 that he is really a creature from another planet who has come to find 47, knowing that 47 will one day be the salvation of his planet.

Fortunately, the science fiction aspect does not detract from the slavery story, but it does allow Tall John to teach 47 that he is a slave as much because he believes it as because Mr. Tobias says it's so. Once 47 learns the lesson to think of himself as a man instead of a slave he is able to recognize the first steps to freedom.

One balancing act that books about slavery for young readers have to master is how graphically to describe the conditions the people lived under. (Books about the Holocaust have the same hurdle.) How much can you describe? If you don't go deep enough, you run the risk of the reader thinking "well, that's not so bad," but if you get too graphic then you are no longer appropriate for your audience. Though Mosley does not shy away from some physical torture, like the branding of 47's shoulder, he shows more the psychological enslavement. What could be more dehumanizing than not even getting a name? Not only are the slaves known by their numbers, but the numbers are interchangeable--Tall John is given the number 12 because the previous number 12 has just died. Names give you an identity; 84 is a bitter and angry slave until Tall John names her Tweenie. Watching her transform under John's attention shows 47 that she is a person. (Maddeningly, 47 never gets a name of his own--Tall John says that he has one, but we never learn what it is.)

This is not a feel-good book or a science-fiction adventure romp. You have to be in the right mind-set to appreciate it. It is a thought-provoking (oh, that overused term!) piece of literature. And for those who are in the right mind-set to have some thought provoked, it is a rewarding read.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Silks by Dick Francis and Felix Francis

Main character: Lawyer Geoffrey Mason
Location: London, mostly
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: Adult Fiction, Mystery, Horse racing

Though Dick Francis novels are not in the the subset of mysteries known as "British cozies," they are still very comforting. You know that the hero will be at heart a thoroughly decent fellow who will somehow become the target of villainous thugs but will ultimately prevail. Oh, and there will be horses on the racetrack.

Geoffrey Mason is a defense lawyer in London's Old Bailey but his heart belongs to steeple chasing; he is an amateur rider on his own horse though he knows that he's getting a bit long in the tooth for it. Through his riding, he is on nodding acquaintance with professional jockeys Scot Barlow and Steve Mitchell. When Scot is murdered and Steve is the prime suspect, Geoffrey is the one Steve turns to for help. Soon after, Geoffrey becomes the target of harassing phone calls, mysterious notes, and threatening photos.

Dick Francis is now writing with his son, Felix, who gets co-author credit, but the story is vintage Francis. I noticed a few places where he repeated himself, but those were easily forgiven. The storyline moves forward at a steady pace, the descriptions of the horse races are vibrant and heart pounding, and it all comes to a very satisfactory conclusion. What more can you ask for?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters

Main characters: Amelia Peabody, and her ever expanding family
Location: Thebes, Egypt
Time period: 1920s
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Archaeology

Oh, I do love the Amelia Peabody mysteries! In the volume, we finally witness the opening of King Tut's tomb--something that we have been anticipating ever since Howard Carter showed up as a character in the series. Of course, we've also known that Emerson cannot be directly involved in the exploration of the tomb; he is forced to watch from the sidelines because he has (yet again) offended the powers that be.

But of course there's plenty to keep the Emerson clan busy. Besides their own excavations, there are mysterious happenings going on. Ramses's daughter, Charla, is lured away by a strange man in the marketplace, though she is soon found unharmed. Even their ancient and loyal butler, Gargery, has an adventure when he is kidnapped--though also released unharmed. Ramses and Emerson walk into an obvious trap to try to get to the bottom of it; their captors repeatedly ask "where is he?" which begs the question--which he? It could only be Sethos, still in the spy business even though it threatens to destroy his marriage.

I have to admit that I no longer read this series for the mysteries. My greatest joy is just revisiting this lively group of characters. It's like attending a family reunion each time a new book comes out; you catch up on what's been going on since the last time we met, marvel at how the children are growing, and enjoy lots of energetic conversation about history ancient and modern.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Field of Blood by Eric Wilson

Main character: Gina Lazarescu
Location: Various places, mostly Romania and the southern United States
Time period: Late 1990's
Genre: Christian fiction, supernatural, vampires
Series: Jerusalem's Undead Trilogy #1

I received this book as part of a program being run by Thomas Nelson publishers. Bloggers who register with them can get a free book as long as they agree to blog about it. I thought it would be a good challenge for me to write up a book that I might not otherwise pick up to read, and this is the first one I chose. Let me say that I have not read a lot of Christian fiction--when I look for an adult book, I generally head for the mystery section--so the thought of a Christian vampire book was too intriguing to pass up.

An archaeological dig in Jerusalem disturbs an anicent burial place, allowing a group of demons to inhabit and regenerate the bodies inside. These demons are called Collectors; at one point they refer to the time that the Nazarene (they never refer to Christ by name) expelled them from a man and sent them into pigs which were then drowned, apparently referring to the incident related in Mark 5:09-13. Since then they have been trapped in an incorporeal existence and are rather out of touch with the rest of their kind. (Other demons have survived and since moved to Romania, giving rise to the legend of the vampire.) Demons are able to inhabit and possess any living being--human, animal, or insect--but these particular demons, led by Lord Ariston, are the first to be able to revive the dead.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Gina has been raised by her mother in a very remote part of Romania. Gina's mother, Nikki, is ruled by superstitions and Gina is longing to escape her tight reins and to be seen as an independent young woman, not as a little girl. Then one day a man arrives, a man her mother obviously knows, tells them they are in danger and takes them away. They escape to America, change their names and start their new lives. What Gina does not know, what her mother does not want to tell her, is that Gina is an immortal, the daughter of one of the Nistarim, and as such will always be a target of the Collectors.

The events in the book span great distances in time and space, and it is not always clear when the setting jumps. For example, Gina is hit by a truck; she should have been killed but walks away with barely a scratch. Shortly afterwards, her mother refers to the accident as having been two years ago--but there was little indication that that much time had elapsed; I thought it had been a few weeks at most. I found the references to the Nistarim confusing--I am not familiar with the Talmudic tradition of the Nistarim and had to look it up. I am still not clear on how Gina can be the child of a Nistarim but not a Nistarim herself but her child could be one. When it seems as if Dov, a young orphan boy that Gina takes under her wing, is a Nistarim, it is unclear whether he has always been one from birth or has become one. A framing device, of a person reading a letter marked with four drops of blood, and seeing the memories of different characters through these drops of blood, also raises more questions than it answers, but will most likely be addressed in the future books.

On the other hand, I really liked the image of a Collector's bite creating a thorny vine which grows within the victim and the blood that collects in the thorns being a purer form of blood which they find more nourishing. I also liked that the demons find a single, sometimes petty, vice to exploit in their victims, creating a sense of discontent. (It reminded me of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, or Peter Cook's devil in the 1967 movie Bedazzled: in both those cases, the devil's most effective work was not the great disasters but the little daily annoyances.) Even Dahlia's self-righteousness was shown as a vanity which could be exploited.

I'm not going to waiting expectantly for the next book in the trilogy, but I will read it to find out what happens next.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone

Main Characters:  Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva
Location:  High School 
Time period:  Contemporary
Genre:  YA Fiction, Fiction in verse

Josie is a freshman when HE notices her.  HE tells her she's the only one that HE can open up to, the only one HE can tell his reveal his deepest, truest feelings to.  Nicolette is older, more experienced (though she mostly hooks up with guys from another school so she doesn't get a reputation) when she meets HIM and breaks her own rules.   Aviva, too, falls under HIS spell.  And each of them discovers that HE was just playing them, racking up points.

The girls do get a bit of revenge.  No, they don't take HIM down and make HIM change HIS ways.  But they do band together and discover they are not alone.  Josie finds a copy of Judy Blume's Forever on the school library shelf, and writes a note on one of the blank pages in the back.  Soon the empty pages are filled by many more than just these three girls.  

As a librarian, I know I should cringe at the thought of the book being defaced (and if I found a book written in like this in real life, I would most likely weed it out of the collection) but in context it felt so right.  I will point out that this is for more mature readers--there are no graphic descriptions, but two of the girls do have sex.  That said, I enjoyed this book, and I liked the girl power solution that the girls found to cope with their shared pain and to warn other potential victims.   

Friday, December 5, 2008

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Main Characters: Sadima and Hahp
Location: undefined
Time period: undefined, but Sadima's story feels Medieval, while Hahp's is hundreds of years later
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: A Resurrection of Magic #1

Sadima lives in a world without real magic, though there are hucksters and charlatans aplenty. When Sadima is born, a magician robs the family instead of helping, leaving the mother to die. Her father and brother then distrust any talk of magic, so Sadima keeps secret her ability to understand animals. Then one day she encounters Franklin, a young man who also has a talent for magic and who convinces her to come to the city and join him and his master, Somiss, who are trying to revive the old ways. Sadima soon discovers that Somiss is a abusive master, but cannot convince Franklin to leave him.

Hundreds of years later, Hahp is sent by his father to the magic academy to learn to be a wizard. There are ten boys joining the academy at the same time, and they discover a strange and cruel world where they are barely taught but left to discover things on their own--with the admonition that they will learn or die. Literally. They are forbidden to help each other, but some of the boys develop small ways to give hints. Oh, and did I mention that Franklin and Somiss are running the academy?

Sadima and Hahp's stories are told in alternating chapters, which is a format I usually dislike--it seems that just as one story begins to get interesting, the author switches to the other. But Duey carries it off well. Sshe doesn't use a lot of cliff-hangers; each chapter is complete in itself so the switch between Sadima and Hahp's narratives is not jarring. And though they live hundreds of years apart, there are definite connections between the two characters--something Sadima learns in one chapter can shed light on Hahp's story later on.

Because this is the first in a trilogy, there are many questions left unanswered. I look forward to the rest of the books and the answers that they contain.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two-Minute Drill by Mike Lupica

Main Character: 6th-grader Scott Parry
Location: undefined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Sports, Football
Series: Mike Lupica's Comeback Kids

Mike Lupica has written some good sports novels for YAs and now turns his sights towards younger readers with his Comeback Kids series. Reading this book put me in mind of when I was in grade school and reading Matt Christopher, which were the epitome of sports books for kids then and still popular now.

Scott Parry is the new kid in school, trying very hard to make new friends. He is smart but clutzy, which makes him the target of Jimmy Dolan--football player, son of the football coach, and school bully. Things get worse when Scott gets on the football team and Jimmy treats him like his personal tackle dummy. Fortunately, Scott does make friends with Chris Conlan, the team's quarterback. The two get together and practice on the field Scott and his dad marked off behind his house. Chris discovers that while Scott is not very good at catching the football, he is very good at kicking. But Chris has his own problem--he has trouble reading and if he can't pass an upcoming test his parents won't let him play football anymore. The two make a deal--Chris will help Scott with football, and Scott will help Chris with reading.

I enjoyed this book, even though I'm not a big football fan. Scott is a good kid, who is trying to be independent and solve his own problems. His friendship with Chris has its ups and downs, but they are both willing to work at it, and to apologize when they hurt each other. Jimmy isn't as fully fleshed out as the others, but he isn't just a cardboard character; early on, Chris offers some insight as to why he acts as he does. And while Coach Dolan seems to be blind to his son's misconduct, he is still trying to be a good coach.

Two-Minute Drill is on the 2009-2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award List.