Monday, October 31, 2011


Best scary book ever for kids? Forget Goosebumps, forget all those YA paranormal novels; I'm voting for Eve Merriam and Lane Smith's Spooky ABC, previously published as Halloween ABC. Here's a phantasmal sample, under G:

More gruesome than any groan,
more dreadful than any moan,
most trembling, terrifying sight:
white silence in the dark of night.

I'll give you an art sample, too. If you can't guess what P stands for, it's Pet. Mwa-ha-ha-ha! These poems never fail to give me the shivers. There are scarier ones than "Ghost," believe me you. The cumulative effect is really something, especially alongside Smith's hauntingly off-kilter illustrations.

So, what's your favorite spooky children's book? Leave a comment and let us know.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Trio of Mice

Earlier this year I wrote a post about two new mouse books, one by Lois Lowry and the other by Cynthia Voigt. I also listed a number of great mouse books already in print.

So. With Halloween right around the corner, just begging to be a blog post, I'm really more in the mood to talk about mice again. Why? Because the great Richard Peck has thrown his hat into the ring of the mouse boxing match. (I wanted to say "mouse circus," but I looked up the origin of "throw your hat into the ring" and discovered it's a boxing expression.) What I mean to say is, Peck has written a mouse book, too: Secrets at Sea.

I have two questions about all of this. One is, why did three of the best children's books writers of all time come out with mouse books this year? The other is, quite frankly, how do the three books compare?

I'll start by summarizing each book for you, with a lot more detail for Peck's story, since his wasn't around for my February post.

Lowry's Bless This Mouse features a tribe of church mice who live in a Catholic church called St. Bartholomew's. Their leader, Hildegarde, must keep her people safe. She must also fend off attempts by a sneaky rival to take her top spot. In order to maintain the status quo, Hildegarde enforces a strict policy of birth control in the mouse population. I know, it sounds like China's Communist oligarchy, but the book is actually light-hearted, the proverbial rollicking read. It turns out Hildegarde faces a bigger threat than Lucretia—the humans have learned of the mice and are planning to exterminate them. Hildegarde decides that the best way to protect her tribe is to evacuate to the outdoors till the danger has passed. Meanwhile, the human parishioners are gearing up for a ceremony in which children bring their pets to be blessed by Father Murphy, a tradition honoring St. Francis of Assissi. Hildegarde takes note of the fact that the church mice are not exactly invited to the blessing of the animals, adding another wrinkle to the story.

Voigt's Young Fredle is a sort of Jonathan Livingston Seagull character. (If you're too young to get that reference, here's the Wiki article.) He's a house mouse living on a farm, but he winds up outside quite by accident and doesn't know how to get back inside to his family. Fredle manages to stay alive, has all sorts of adventures, and becomes such a different person that he no longer fits in with his clan. He learns about snakes, raccoons, reliable and unreliable friends, and the stars. He's a bit of a philosopher, and his growing view of the world permeates the book.

In Richard Peck's Secrets at Sea, Helena and her three younger siblings—Louise, Lamont, and Beatrice—live with a nouveau riche family in turn-of-the-century New York. Our story begins when Louise bursts in with the news that the Cranston household is in an uproar, planning to go on some kind of journey because older daughter Olive "must be given Her Chance." The sisters hardly have time to parse this information before Lamont bursts in, missing his tail.

You get some idea of just how determined and brave Helena is when she makes Lamont take her to the scene of the crime to get that tail back. They make it out alive—barely. Then Helena sits right down and sews Lamont's tail back on.

The little mouse family realizes that the Cranstons intend to take a sea voyage in hopes of finding a fashionable husband for Olive, who appears to be in danger of becoming an old maid. (The teenage Cranston daughter Camilla is actually friends with Louise, which makes Helena nervous.) Following the counsel of her eccentric, oracular Aunt Fannie, Helena and her siblings accompany the Cranstons on their voyage. Once onboard ship, they discover a large number of mice crew and passengers whose behavior quietly mimics that of the human crew and passengers. Helena and her family also intervene in the lives of the Cranstons, who could certainly use the help.

Peck's wording, as always, is perfectly crafted, and his humor is sly and witty. Here are a couple of examples:
We are mice, and as Mother used to say, we are among the very First Families of the land. We were here before the squirrels. The squirrels came for the acorns. We sold them the acorns. (8)

From the rear Lamont looked ridiculous without his complete tail. He paused and put a finger to his chin, though he has no chin. He was stalling. (27)

"Why don't boys ever want to be themselves? Why do boys always want to be somebody else?" asked Louise, who wanted to be Camilla. (124)

As Aunt Fannie points out, Helena has her hands full with her siblings: Louise consorts with humans, Lamont takes wild, life-threatening risks, and Beatrice sneaks out to meet unsuitable mouse boys. Between them and the Cranstons, Helena can hardly keep it all straight. But she's quick on her four little feet, and this ocean voyage promises to be the making of both human and mouse families in unexpected ways.

Humor, action, plot twists, romance: Secrets of Sea has it all, just as you'd hope for when reading the latest from a dab hand like Richard Peck.

Now, let's consider the three books together.


Bless This Mouse—The church mouse premise and setting makes for some very fun jokes as well as a nice counterpoint between the human and mouse users of the building. Lowry has a good time with things like the mouse-eye view of the stories of the martyrs depicted in the stained glass.

Secrets at Sea—An ocean voyage evocative of the Titanic, only without the iceberg. Throwing mice into this supposedly elegant mix is clever and often funny.

Young Fredle—The farmhouse, barn, and outlying land become an entire universe for a small mouse. This setting is the most realistic of the three, especially the way Voigt uses it.


Bless This Mouse—Clothes are never mentioned in the text, but the mice are depicted on the book cover and in internal illustrations as wearing clothes, something the author would have had to approve. Hildegarde and her people all talk, and they are aware of human history and doings.

Secrets at Sea—It threw me a little when Helena explained that mice wear clothes in their own homes, but not when out where humans might see them. The mice in this book act like humans in a lot of ways, but must hide from humans and especially from cats.

Young Fredle—No clothing here. The mice in this book really do act like mice, but they do think, and they talk to each other and other animals.

Main Character

Bless This Mouse—Hildegarde is determined and often exasperated, but she has courage and leadership that go for miles, or at least for feet.

Secrets at Sea—Helena has a wonderful, strong voice and you'll be cheering for her every step of the way. She's not perfect: she's bossy and she thinks she's always right. But then, that's a pretty good take on a lot of oldest sisters (I say, speaking as one)! This book is the only one of the three written in first person, which quite suits the story.

Young Fredle—Fredle is a very rich character. It's so easy to put yourself in his place and/or worry about him as he learns about the greater world. Fredle is hopeful and yearning and kind and quite bright, even though he's lacking in all sorts of knowledge.

Suspense/Plot Twists

Bless This Mouse—The peril keeps this plot popping, as do Hildegarde's attempts to deal with everything that comes up. There are two plot twists that you may not see coming.

Secrets at Sea—Peck twists his plot like a pretzel, and the ongoing threat of discovery by humans makes this book a game of cat-and-mouse, sometimes literally.

Young Fredle—Like Fredle, you will never know quite what to expect, though there is some foreshadowing about dangers such as a snake in the barn.

Favorite Scenes

Bless This Mouse—The mousey interpretation of the church and its doings is amusing throughout (e.g., thoughts on the edibility of crayons), but I particularly liked the town meetings Hildegarde holds, filled with interruptions, colorful personalities, and political maneuvering.

Secrets at Sea—There's a lot to love here, but I was especially fond of a scene in which Helena and a little boy with a bed full of contraband sweets face down a mean nanny.

Young Fredle—One of the most intriguing sections of the book has to do with a group of rowdy raccoons who take Fredle prisoner. Their captain finds a fellow thinker in Fredle, but he's perfectly realistic about the likelihood of eating the mouse should other food options fail to present themselves.

Themes and Spirituality

Bless This Mouse—Lowry has interesting things to say about which animals humans value and which they don't. (I suspect the author is a vegetarian, but couldn't find confirmation of that.) Other themes are the importance of community and of focusing on what needs to be done rather than on status. Religion plays a key role in the book, but you will feel you are wrapped in a warm blanket of spirituality rather than being urged to follow any particular tradition.

Secrets at Sea—We are told more than once that mice must live in the moment because their lives are short and indeed, are often cut short. Helena tries to control her siblings and their fates, but she learns to let go in many ways. Another message is that you have to take risks, and just plain take action, to make your life better. On another note, the mouse perspective on human antics makes those interactions seem sillier than ever, for a nice slice of satire.

Young Fredle—This feels like a very philosophical coming-of-age story, but it manages not to preach. What matters most in life? Is surviving all there is to our existence? These are the kinds of questions Voigt raises in her book.


Bless This Mouse—Eric Rohmann is the illustrator. The jacket art shows a handful of very cute mice, with Hildegarde front and center. Interior illustrations, some full page, continue to highlight mouse personalities, focusing on body language and facial expressions. The artwork adds to the book.

Secrets at Sea—Illustrator Kelly Murphy's jacket art shows the four mouse siblings jauntily holding onto some sort of ship's tackle, with the sea in the background. These mice are a bit less cute than the ones in Bless This Mouse, but are still appealing. Interior illustrations do include some full-page spreads. The art is nice, but I didn't pay a lot of attention to it. Peck's words outgunned it at every (page) turn.

Young Fredle—Louise Yates is the illustrator. The cover art makes Fredle look a little too cartoony for my taste, with a touch of Quentin Blake to the style. But having him look up at the stars is nice, as well as thematically correct. He does appear a bit hapless, which also fits. The interior illustrations are sparse, mostly spot art. They actually distracted a little from my experience of the story when I noticed them.

Overall Success

Bless This Mouse—A very fun story. I wasn't sure the ending worked with everything that had come before, but maybe that's just me.

Secrets at Sea—Clever and outrageously entertaining.

Young Fredle—Deeply involving and moving. Fredle instantly leaps to the front of the pack when it comes to animal and even people stories about young people finding their place in the world.

Of course, now that I've done it, I'll admit it's entirely unnecessary to compare these books. I can happily recommend all three for your bookshelf. Unlike the Disney group, this Mouse club consists of exalted company indeed.

So why did three Newbery award-winning authors write mouse books at this stage of their careers? The obvious answer is, to have fun. To take it a little farther, however, I think once you pass a certain point in your life and work, you might just have room for real, I-know-exactly-who-I-am humility. And what could be more humble than a mouse? Through the little voice at the baseboards, these authors give us timeless truths, whether in Lois Lowry's comfortable church lady-running-a-committee persona, Peck's erudite tongue-in-cheek style, or Voigt's yearning, wondering tones.

Note: If you're feeling deprived on the spooky front, please visit my best Halloween post ever, "Enter Three Witches."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Picture Book Proclamation

Be sure and read the Picture Book Proclamation, a project Betsy Bird tells us was spearheaded by the very creative Mac Barnett. He is joined by such luminaries as Jon Scieszka, Erin E. Stead, Adam Rex, and Sophie Blackall.

The group reminds us that the picture book is, at heart, a maverick form, and should not be allowed to stagnate, especially considering the loud talk about its impending demise.

This pleasingly off-the-wall manifesto insists that we celebrate creativity, concluding, "Every day we make new children—let us also make new children's books."

Note: Carson Ellis designed, lettered, and drew the proclamation. She is best known as the wife of Decemberist lead singer Colin Meloy and illustrator of his book, Wildwood.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halloween Giveaway: Mythological Creatures Stamps

A couple of years ago, I ordered a few sets of the British "Mythological Creatures" stamps, thinking they'd make a great Book Aunt giveaway. Besides their topic, they are linked to children's books because Neil Gaiman—a good stand-in for Jack Skellington, the Halloween King, in more than one way—wrote the text that describes each stamp on the lovely enclosure card. How cool is that? In fact, Gaiman teamed up again with his favorite illustrator, Dave McKean, who did the darkly beautiful artwork. Here is a sample of Gaiman's writing, from the description of giants:
The remaining giants sleep, lost in deep slow dreams, covered in earth and trees and wild grass. Some have clouds on their shoulders or long men carved on their sides. We see them from the windows of cars and tell each other that from some angles they look almost like people.

So here's how this works: leave a comment describing your favorite monster or mythological creature in 1-2 sentences. On October 31, I'll pick the best of the comments that actually do some describing, as opposed to simply naming a beast. You're welcome to throw in a metaphor or two! I have three of these stamp sets, so after selecting the best and second-best comments, I'll simply do a drawing for stamp set #3.

Meanwhile, I hope your costume plans are coming together, your leaves are turning orange or gold and falling in slow motion, your spiderwebs are trembling in the moonlight, and you have at least one jack-o-lantern on your porch, maybe even a tribe.

Note: As usual, this giveaway is open anyone on the planet. I'll be happy to pay the postage if you're a winner in Japan or New Zealand or Kenya! Wherever you're from, you should either leave your contact info in your comment, or just be sure to check back on November 1 to see if you won.

Update: Participants, see my note in the comments!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Review of Circus Galacticus by Deva Fagan

I hang out with Deva over at the Enchanted Inkpot, so I heard about her new SFF some time ago and have been looking forward to it ever since. After all, while the idea of an unhappy child running away with the circus goes back a long way, the idea of that circus being intergalactic is all new!

Orphan Trix lives in a boarding school aptly named Bleeker Academy where everyone looks down on her. Popular Della bullies Trix, but Trix is the one who gets in trouble with Headmistress Primwell, who is quick to remind her that she is a charity case and therefore should be grateful and cooperative. (Shades of Miss Minchin!) To punish Trix for Della's latest infraction, Headmistress Primwell refuses to let the girl go to the state gymnastics meet.

Meanwhile, the circus has come to town. Why is it that Trix can see more in the circus posters than anyone else? (I'll confess that I thought this book would have humans openly journeying through space, but instead, the people of earth are unaware that the circus travels across galaxies.)

There's something special about Trix, and not just because she is the keeper of a mysterious chunk of space rock.

Pretty soon a creepy alien is trying to get the rock away from Trix, and yes, she is running away to join the circus, which is led by the charismatic Ringmaster with the assistance of a cold-hearted computer entity, Miss Three.

You'll find a touch of Hogwarts in this section as Trix settles in with her roommate and tries to get along with various cliques in the circus. (Thanks to another fantasy trope, the spaceship/circus is a lot bigger inside than it looks.) Because Trix has no magical/super-scientific abilities such as telekinesis, she is assigned to work with the clowns. In this stage of the book, Della is replaced by a new mean girl called Sirra, while Headmistress Primwell is replaced by the hostile Miss Three.

Of course, joining the circus brings up new mysteries for Trix to solve, and the alien from the evil Mandate is still after her meteorite.

Fagan gives us a theme of self-worth ("Am I special or not?") as well as a grand conflict between an imperialist/authoritarian government and freedom-loving rebels.

I will mention that the Ringmaster has a nearly Edward Cullen-esque romantic appeal, but Fagan makes sure that Trix notices this here and there without getting too YA of a crush on the guy. The Ringmaster may also remind you of Pierrot because of his melancholy, solitary nature. Or you may find him more like Willy Wonka, or perhaps Dr. Who.

Trix herself is a likable main character, though often filled with self-doubt. Thrust into a great adventure, she embarks on her role of heroine with good sense, creativity, and determination.

The author's style is clean and reader friendly. Here's a sample:
Miss Three's simulacrum winks out, her taunting smile lingering in a ghost of photons. Nola starts packing up her tools, moving about as slow as molasses. She gives me an encouraging nod, but there's a worried crinkle between her eyes. I try to smile back. Then finally she snaps the toolbox closed. The door shuts behind her, and I'm alone with the Ringmaster.

I stand miserably, trembling all over from the aftereffects of the test and the fear of what he's about to say.

"So, would you prefer nachos or cakes?"


"Ah, you're quite right. Why choose? We'll have both. Excellent!"

I stare at him, wondering if one of the aftereffects of my thrashing is hallucinations.

Oh yes, the book is written in present tense. I didn't find this distracting, however. Circus Galacticus is a fun new take on science fiction for the middle grade/tween reader, with action and suspense building alongside moments of comedy. It's also one of those books that leaves you eager to read the sequel.

Note for Worried Parents: There's a little peril here and a hint of romantic attraction. I think the book will be most appealing to the older end of middle grade, the 10- to 13-year-old crowd.

Also: I requested a copy of Circus Galacticus from Amazon Vine. It will be on shelves November 15.

Finally: Check out Deva's blog, where she talks about
Circus Galacticus and shares the book trailer.

A Review of Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

The main character in this book is arguably Princess Celie, but the Castle itself runs a close second, often stealing the stage. This self-remodeling castle usually rearranges itself on Tuesdays, but has been known to surprise people on other days. If you are a visitor, you had better hope the Castle likes you. It will give you an ugly, cramped little guest room with few comforts if it does not.

Celie and her siblings see their parents off on a journey, but then King and Queen Glower disappear in an ambush and are presumed dead. Creepy Prince Khelsh comes to visit almost immediately. He offers to help, but is obviously intent on stealing the throne from Celie's teenage brother Rolf.

Other key characters include Celie's older sister Lilah, a helpful commoner named Pogue, and another visiting prince, Lulath, who seems to care for nothing but his fluffy little yappy dogs.

It's important to understand that the magical Castle has historically held the role of choosing the next monarch. The Castle has already selected Rolf as Crown Prince, but does it think young Rolf is ready to be king?

For that matter, can it be that some of the kingdom's ministers are scheming against Rolf?

What follows is a cat-and-mouse game as the royal children—especially Celie—spy on the "guests" and try to find out what really happened to the missing king and queen. But even with the Castle on her side, all does not go smoothly for our girl Celie. The action escalates nicely to a final showdown and resolution.

I really enjoyed seeing the various ways the Castle helped Celie and the ways it expressed its more-than-brick-and-mortar personality. The pranks Celie and her siblings play on their unwanted guests are another fun piece of the action.

Jessica Day George's work has a cheerful, imaginative middle grade feel, a nice change from so many darker, YA-influenced books. George is more of an Eva Ibbotson type than, say, a Neil Gaiman. I'll give you an excerpt so you can see what I mean:
She paused for just a moment in the hallway, but she heard Lilah say, "Oh, let her go, Rolf. She's determined to be difficult."

So Celie stomped off down the hall. She found some stairs, and climbed them, and then a hallway and more stairs and just kept going. She didn't have her atlas with her, and wasn't sure she'd ever seen this particular staircase, but she was trying too hard to hang on to her disagreeable mood and told herself she didn't care if she got lost.

Not that she thought she'd get lost. All of the royal children knew the Rules very well, and besides, it was fairly obvious that the Castle liked them. But Celie was trying to make an atlas of Castle Glower, the first ever, and normally carried colored pencils and paper with her to sketch anything she hadn't seen before. So far she had three hundred pages of maps, and could get to most of the major rooms (Winter and Summer Dining Halls, Chapel, Library, Throne Room) in record time as long as the Castle wasn't bored and looking to stretch.

The interplay between siblings, the invasion by nefarious "ambassadors," the treachery within the kingdom, and the ongoing question of just what the Castle will do next make this a light and delightful read for the fantasy crowd, especially those with a fondness for rambunctious princesses and magical architecture.

Note: I requested a copy of Tuesdays at the Castle from Amazon Vine. This book will be on shelves October 25.

Visit the author's website for more info about the book, as well as signings, etc.

A Review of Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber

This is one of those books I wanted to read mostly because of the title, also because it seemed to have that Cohn/Levithan flavor. While Au Revoir is certainly a clever read, it zooms by a little too fast and will most certainly make you think of a screenplay treatment (as another blogger pointed out—can't remember who!). Big surprise: I did a Google search and discovered that this book is already being made into a movie. Oh, and the author is another crossover from the adult side. He's been writing horror novels.

So. You are likely to feel like you are reading a movie novelization with this one, and you wouldn't be too far off. Check out the action flick premise—a teenage boy has had a dull Eastern European exchange student staying at his house for a few months. Unlike the girl in Better Off Dead, this one is not attractive. She lacks social skills, too, and Perry Stormaire has been razzed by his friends for having her around. Even so, he has persisted in being kind to her. Then, just when his band finally gets a gig, his parents make him take Gobija to prom instead.

Pretty soon we've got what the book jacket copy bills as "Ferris Bueller Meets La Femme Nikita" because Gobi turns out to be, not only more hot than previously anticipated (Where are Clark Kent's glasses when you need them?), but also a woman with a mission. The kind that involves getaway cars (Perry's dad's Jag, to be precise) and flying bullets.

Perry handily plays the scared-but-decent schmuck in this scenario. He even gets to stop by for his band's performance. Meanwhile, the bullets just don't quit. Neither do Perry's gripes, shrieks, or attempts to escape. But one way or another, Gobi's going to get the job done. Leaving Perry to figure out just what she's up to, and why.

During the course of the evening, these two form an odd and somewhat romantic bond. Teens might get a kick out of the non-stop action and humor here, but actual readers may find themselves annoyed by the lack of multi-dimensional storytelling, not to mention by an overall sense of being commercially manipulated. That evokes an analogy, doesn't it? You, the reader, can be hapless Perry, while the marketing machine can be dark, driven Gobi. She basically holds him captive, as you can see in this passage:
She glanced at the lit office window twelve floors off the street, then back at me. "Here," she murmured, leaning over to wrap the plastic handcuffs from her bag around my wrists.

"Wait, what's this?"

She hooked the restraints through the Jaguar's steering wheel, cinching them to the skin.

"Ow, that's too tight!"

"Stay here."

"Like I could go anywhere!"

She reached into the bag and took out the gun I had seen earlier.

"Gobi, wait—"

She got out and sank into the shadows half a block off Pearl Street, a Lithuanian ninja. I jerked tentatively on the wrist restraints but that only made them tighter. She had left her bag sitting on the passenger seat, and I wondered what else she had in there—passports, more weapons, a bazooka?

Thematically speaking, we learn that Perry's dad has been really hard on him and kept him from developing his own identity. I'm not sure this works because the speed of the plot doesn't leave much room for it to be convincing. Gobi's mysterious backstory also suffers from the pell-mell pace of the book. Schreiber does manage to throw in a few plot twists, which I appreciated. The one truly great thing about Au Revoir is the chapter headers, each a supposed entrance exam essay question from a university. I think my favorite is "You've just written a 300-page autobiography. Send us page 217. (University of Pennsylvania)."

I won't say it wasn't fun reading this book, but I do feel a little cheap after the fact, as if my virgin strawberry margarita wound up having alcohol in it, maybe even a roofie.

Note for Worried Parents: There is a lot of violence in this one, as well as a couple of mature plot details having to do with sex. The book has a kind of comic book feel, however, so it's not as bad as it sounds. Still, we're definitely talking teens.

Also: I requested a copy of this book from Amazon Vine. Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick will be on shelves October 25.

You can watch the book trailer here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Crossing Over: Adult Authors Writing MG/YA

You've heard of Philippa Gregory, right? She's the British author of best-selling historical novels like The Other Boleyn Girl, which is already out as a movie. Now Gregory is joining what's starting to feel like a mad rush for authors of adult fiction to write Young Adult and sometimes even middle grade books.

First it was celebrity authors, now it's the crossover crowd. Those of us who've been writing for younger readers all along—well, it is for to sigh.

But onward. In an online article from USA Today, we read:

"Asked if she is 'genre-poaching,' Gregory says that 'the important thing—surely—is that young-adult readers should get the very best writing that might be available to them so that they extend their reading into adult life.'"

I am tempted to dissect that statement, but will limit myself to giving you a list of other authors who've already done the crossover dance, along with any insights I have about their relative success in making the switch. After which I will freely offer some advice, i.e., rules, for other adult authors who are feeling inclined to write MG/YA fiction.

Meet the Crossovers

KELLEY ARMSTRONG (YA)—Known among adult paranormal fans for her Otherworld series, she started her Darkest Powers YA books with The Summoning and has since finished that trilogy and moved on to a new group of books called Darkness Rising, beginning with Book 1: The Gathering.

How Good Is It?—With teens who have magical powers trying to evade an evil organization, Armstrong's work transitions easily to the YA format. Scroll down through my Scary YA Extravaganza for a review of The Awakening (Darkest Powers, Book 2). I liked The Gathering even more.

Adult Overlap—If you've read the adult series, you'll see the connections and meet the occasional familiar character. But you can read these books without knowing anything about Armstrong's adult paranormal writing, so that's a plus.

DAVE BARRY and RIDLEY PEARSON (MG)—Dave Barry is famous for his nonfiction humor writing, which is truly funny stuff, while Ridley Pearson wrote adult thrillers in the 90s. When Pearson's daughter asked him how Peter Pan met Captain Hook, a series was born, beginning with Peter and the Starcatchers. (Pearson is also known for writing the Kingdom Keepers, a series unabashedly set at Disney World. I'll admit the in-your-face commercial aspect of those books has kept me away.)

How Good Is It?—I've only read the first book in the Starcatchers series and was not thrilled out of my gourd. Then again, I wasn't especially disappointed. From all accounts, i.e., reviews, these two are doing a pretty darned good job. They're now on Book Five, The Bridge to Never Land, which came out in August.

Adult Overlap—None.

CANDACE BUSHNELL (YA)—The Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City: A Carrie Diaries Novel, about a young Carrie Bradshaw. I'm sure you've heard of, if not watched, the TV series Sex in the City.

How Good Is It?—I haven't read these books, but the professional reviews for Book 1 are quite positive.

Adult Overlap—Tons! According to reviewers, Bushnell is very successful at writing a teen Carrie who is turning into the person you've seen in Bushnell's adult novels and in the television series.

HARLAN COBEN (YA)—This author is well known for his mystery/suspense novels, especially the ones featuring Myron Bolitar. His first book for teens stars Myron's nephew, Mickey.

How Good Is It?—Here's my recent review of Shelter. The sex trade plot premise is pretty harrowing, and overall you get a kind of Alex Rider feeling. It's not a bad adventure series start.

Adult Overlap—As mentioned above, the hero is the nephew of this author's well-known adult character. But Mickey dominates the book; he even distrusts and avoids Myron!

RICHARD PAUL EVANS—You will no doubt either be thrilled or dismayed to learn that this author of maudlin, popular books like The Christmas Box has just had a teen superpowers novel published by none other than Glenn Beck. No, really! I read somewhere that RPE wanted to write a less violent heroic sci-fi/fantasy. The result is Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 wherein teens have electric powers and are pursued by an evil organization that wants to harness those powers for nefarious purposes. ('Twas ever thus.)

How Good Is It?—Evans and possibly Beck fans are giving this book a lot of love on Amazon. I personally haven't read it, but it sounds like another solid teen adventure. One reviewer did mention the ethical/moral dilemmas Michael faces, which makes me hope it isn't too messagey.

Adult Overlap—None, except perhaps for the feel-good factor that characterizes Evans' adult work. Of course, this may work just fine in a good vs. evil sci-fi story!

JASPER FFORDE (MG)—The author of The Eyre Affair and other Thursday Next literary fantasy novels turns his hand to middle grade fiction. The Last Dragonslayer is already out in the UK, so I expect it to hit the U.S. next year.

How Good Is It?—This book has gotten a number of glowing reviews in the UK, and the plot sounds like a lot of fun: In a contemporary-type world in which magic has been fading away, a girl named Jennifer Strange runs an employment agency for washed-up wizards. But now something big is happening, and Jennifer's right smack in the middle of it.

Adult Overlap—None, but I predict you'll enjoy Fforde's style as applied to a new genre.

JOHN GRISHAM (MG)—Two books so far, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer and Theodore Boone: Abduction. (Trust me, Encyclopedia Brown is rolling over in his grave.)

How Good Is It?—Where do I begin? Perhaps with a quote from Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom, who remarked of Book 1, "As you've probably already predicted, I want to punch this book in the face." Here are her succinctly scathing reviews of the first and second books, along with my lightly damning review of Book 1 and two more reviews from Monica Edinger and Kim Werker, respectively. I'll just point out that Grisham breaks rules 1-3, 5-7, and most definitely rule 9 repeatedly. (See below.) Per Leila, he also throw in things I don't even touch on in my list, such as sexism, ethnic stereotyping, and trying to turn a supposedly contemporary town into some kind of lawyer-loving Mayberry. Too bad—I like the guy's adult fiction.

Adult Overlap—Technically none, except that Grisham never actually leaves the land of adults when writing these books. If only Theo were half as cool as 11-year-old Mark Sway from The Client!

KIM HARRISON (YA)—Known for her urban fantasy series about Rachel Morgan, she launched a young adult series with Once Dead, Twice Shy, about a girl named Madison Avery who dies, almost, and winds up caught between life and death, dealing with light and dark reapers, guardian angels, and more. There is the requisite teen love triangle, of course. The third book in the trilogy came out in May 2011.

How Good Is It?—Book 1 was a bit of a muddle as it tried to set things up, but Madison is a pretty appealing character. I haven't read the other two books; however, the pro reviewers gave Book 2 mixed marks and felt that Harrison really hit her stride with Book 3.

Adult Overlap—None. Harrison has built a different world from her adult fiction. It will remind you of a lot of the other YA paranormal out there, though.

SHARON LEE and STEVE MILLER (YA)—Fledgling, Saltation, and Ghost Ship take this husband-and-wife author duo's Liaden universe to the teen reader with heroine Theo Waitley, who is considered a "nexus of violence" at school but a potential spaceship pilot by her mysterious father and the powerful clan he left behind.

How Good Is It?—I'm a real fan of space opera and Theo Waitley is a very fun character. But if you haven't read the adult series, you might get lost at times.

Adult Overlap—Lee and Miller clearly continue the story they've been telling in their adult novels about Clan Korval with the Theo books, including scenes driven by adult characters. I like these YA novels very much, but then, I have read the adult series. The new books may be a little difficult unless your teen is an avid sci-fi fan and a fairly sophisticated reader.

KATHY REICHS—The creator of a series of adult novels about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and the related TV series Bones has come out with two books about Temperance's teenage niece, Tory: Virals and next week's Seizures.

How Good Is It?—I haven't read these, but the reviews are pretty positive. Reichs is a seasoned writer who, like Harlan Coben, brings a knowledge of pacing and thrills to her new teen books.

Adult Overlap—Prequels about the adult series' heroine as a teen.

DAVID WEBERA Beautiful Friendship is a prequel to the author's adult novels about Honor Harrington; here we meet his heroine's ancestor, Stephanie, at ages 12 and 13. See my review.

How Good Is It?—Not bad, though he does wax pedantic and political in spots (as he does in his adult books, frankly!).

Adult Overlap—Prequel about an ancestor of the adult series' heroine.

PAUL WILSON—Another author who turns back the clock on the hero of his adult series, Repairman Jack, with Secret Circles and Secret Histories. Take a look at my review of Secret Circles.

How Good Is It?—The books read like an amped-up version of the Hardy Boys. Pretty good, but not great, especially as compared to the adult books. Wilson does deal with an intriguing moral dilemma in Book 2.

Adult Overlap—Prequels about the adult series' hero as a teen.

A Few Thoughts and Questions

Of these crossovers, how many are publisher initiated? Or market impelled?

Is the line between YA and adult fiction blurring to the point of disappearing? The audiences have certainly been mixing, but what about the books themselves? What continues to differentiate the two genres?

Compare also adult fiction about teens to YA books, which are always about teens... E.g., The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold vs. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

Books about an adult series author's main character as a teen are a special bunch—they mostly seem to work, but do they have more appeal to people already reading the adult books than they do to the teens they supposedly target?

When adult authors start fresh, are the books more successful than when there's clear overlap?

And now...

Tips for Adult Authors Writing for Kids or Teens

Rule #1—Do NOT talk down to young readers.

Rule #2—Do NOT talk down to young readers.

Rule #3—Do NOT talk down to young readers.

Rule #2, for Real—Okay, I'll get a grip and give you a few more pointers. This may seem like the flip side of Rule #1, but please try to separate them: Do not blithely ramble into adult concerns or get all caught up in telling us about your adult characters because they're what you know and not-so-secretly like best.

Rule #3—Closely related to Rule #2 and even more important: The young main character should not only dominate, but drive the plot. Especially when it comes to solving the major plot problem. Though minor ones, too, of course. (Are you listening, John Grisham?)

Rule #4—Ease up on the setting descriptions. Lay it in, then move on. Kids don't want endless vistas; they'll feel like they've been dragged on one of those educational vacations in the family car by their parents: "Look at the beautiful scenery, my child!"/"Uh, right. How is this different from the beautiful scenery we saw five minutes ago?"

Rule #5—Watch out for anachronisms. No, today's kids really don't listen to the music or watch the TV shows that were popular when their parents were young.

Rule #6—Make sure you don't misrepresent children for their age group. One stunning John Grisham example was saying that 13-year-old boys have no interest in girls. You should be able to pinpoint the earlier "girls have cooties" stage, let alone know that middle school boys do have girlfriends, especially (for better or for worse) in the 21st century.

Rule #7—If you're writing any kind of action-adventure or sci-fi/fantasy, make the peril sufficiently perilous. And no matter what you're writing, challenge your main character! Children's or teen fiction does not equal tame. If this bothers you, keep in mind that kids know fiction is meant to provide experiences that are unlikely in real life. (The same reason adults read the Jason Bourne books or watch the movies.) Kids also watch a lot of TV, just like you. This should give you some inkling as to why characters in MG/YA books are able to sneak around and have some truly scary experiences without their parents noticing. For that matter, it's why the mothers in fairy tales are usually dead!

Rule #8—YA fiction can have sex and violence, but it is less likely to go into detail. (For examples of sex scenes that don't take pages and pages, see Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road or Simone Elkeles' Perfect Chemistry.)

Rule #9—PLEASE, PLEASE: Read extensively in the genre before you try it! For YA contemporary realism, start with Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Looking for Alaska by John Green, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, also Sarah Dessen's novels (e.g., The Truth about Forever and Along for the Ride). For YA paranormal, you obviously need to read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, but should also try Holly Black's Tithe, Maggie Steifvater's Shiver, Becca Fitzpatrick's Hush, Hush, and many more. For YA dystopian, read Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner. For YA fantasy, try Franny Billingsley's Chime, Cassandra Clare's City of Bones, Garth Nix's Sabriel, Erin Bow's Plain Kate, Terry Pratchett's Nation, Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty, and Tamora Pierce's Terrier, among others.

For MG, I hardly know where to begin. See my post about 110 years' worth of great middle grade fiction over in the right margin for starters. But my Top 5 if you're utterly clueless about MG novels would probably be Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Okay, top 6: add When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. But there are soooo many more! (Adult to YA is less of a jump, which is probably why more people do it.)

Rule #10—YA fiction is about the overwhelming feeling of being on the cusp; not a child anymore, but not quite an adult. There's joy and there's darkness, uncertainty tempered by boundless hope. Things hit hard when you're a teenager. You care with every ounce of your being about things grown-ups might scoff at—uncomprehending, boring fools that they are. Most important, you do NOT think of yourself as a child. And always: your friends are more real and dimensional than anyone else on the planet.

MG characters aren't quite as self-absorbed as teen characters, but they are also relatively uninterested in adult concerns. They want to be up and doing! So let them out the door and into the bright, awaiting world.

What most adult authors bring to the MG/YA world is professionalism and a solid knowledge of storytelling. As long as they don't condescend to their young audience and aren't completely driven by commercial motives, I think they have something to add to the genre. (Are you listening, Philippa Gregory?)

Note: I'm sure I've missed some authors, so feel free to add suggestions in the comments. I would just ask that you stick to post-2000 examples.

Additions from the Comments

Amy of Amy's Library of Rock brings up James Patterson and Terry Pratchett, who strike me as representing the depths and heights of crossover work. I began reading Patterson's (or, as Amy implies, his ghostwriter's—looks like that would be Michael Ledwidge, who eventually gets credit as co-author) first Daniel X book and couldn't get through more than a couple of chapters because it was so blatantly created for commercial reasons following a market-driven template. If the later books improved, feel free to share! As for Terry Pratchett, I'd like to think that he honed his craft by writing the adult Discworld books before trying MG/YA fantasy in the form of The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, award winner Nation, and the wonderful Tiffany Aching books.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Review of The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Sit up and take notice. Rae Carson has done something new and amazing with her book, The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

First, I really like the premise: What if the Chosen One were kind of a schlub? An insecure, overweight second princess with a pretty serious eating disorder? And she's married off to a too-handsome young king who, while not unkind, has ulterior motives? Then there's the trip through the jungle, where they're attacked by the forest people. Elise shows her hidden steel in this encounter, mostly because she can't think what else to do besides get her maids out from under a burning carriage and try to stab the bandit who's about to kill the guy she just married.

What's nice is that none of this seems unrealistic. Elisa fumbles around, often getting things wrong and misreading people, then occasionally showing flashes of potential and good sense. It would seem her lessons and reading over the years haven't been entirely wasted.

World building? You got it. The setting is reminiscent of sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Spain and North Africa, but this is a place where every hundred years or so, one baby has the blessing—or curse—of being the bearer of the Godstone, a jewel-like object that is embedded in their young navels by a shaft of light. The Godstones appear to be magical, but mostly seem to set their bearers up as handy targets who only occasionally live to do anything deemed truly heroic. Or so it seems. Carson has interesting things to say about heroes in this book.

In addition, she creates an intriguing religion in which worshipers are ceremonially pricked by a rose held by the priest as part of church services. The implication is that blessings are only bought through pain. There's a vague feeling of Medieval Catholicism to the religion and, indeed, to Elisa's culture, but the author goes on to make this material into something fresh.

It's really a joy to accompany Elisa as she tries desperately, and on occasion petulantly, to figure out just who she's supposed to be, including the history of her predecessors. That's even before she gets kidnapped by a whole new faction.

And just when you think Elisa will be able to show her awesome superpowers—she doesn't. She can't. Which means she has to get out of more than one tight situation by just being gutsy and using her head, after which things often backfire in unexpected ways. Of course.

I will note that there is some political maneuvering here that reminds me a little of the goings-on in Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series as Elisa gets more involved in court life and in plans for handling a coming war.

Plus you get some crazy action-adventure involving spies, guerrilla warfare, and enemy sorcerers.

Elisa eventually loses weight, but it's not because she goes on a diet; it's just an outcome of the situation she's in. Thus, while her weight loss is admirable, it's not pushed on the reader in a preachy manner. Instead, it's presented as part of her overall struggle and character growth.

Consider this a coming-of-age story. Elisa becomes a better person and a leader mostly because events conspire to force her hand. Her development is no less satisfying because of its impetus, however. When things get tough, Elisa takes action, despite her self-doubt.

The author's writing is very well crafted. It has a slightly formal tone that seems entirely appropriate to its apparent time frame and Elisa's educated, though personable, voice. Take a look at this passage, when the carriages bringing Elisa to her new home are about to be attacked:
The jungle rages with noise. Screaming birds, chittering spider monkeys, and buzzing insects all battle for attention. The wind cannot penetrate the foliage to cool us as we travel, but we hear it, whooshing through the canopy above. It is, truly, the most deafening place I've ever been.

On the morning of day four, the jungle goes silent. It happens so suddenly, so profoundly, that I peer around the curtain, expecting to find that God has whisked us to another time and place. But the silk-cotton trees still loom above me, their dark buttresses impenetrable in the filtered light. The same palm fronds twist desperately around them, seeking sunlight.

Two carriages ahead, Lord Hector drops from the roof to the ground, sword in hand.

Our procession has been large and clamorous with its carriage wheels, snorting horses, and clanking armor. Yet the jungle never saw fit to honor us with silent fear. Beside me, Lady Aneaxi mutters in prayer.

You do get a few melodramatic moments in this book, including a bit of romance in spots, but the overall storytelling is just plain terrific. The characters are also rich, especially Elisa herself and her maids. The young king, Alejandro, is more complicated than one might expect—not Prince Charming, but still a person with problems of his own. Elisa is his second wife (the first one died), and she has some great interactions with her husband's young son as well as with his hangers-on.

You'll be glad to see that the princess who starts off handling every problem she encounters by stuffing her face with pastries winds up facing down an enemy invasion with considerable courage. Fortunately for anyone who finds this first book as marvelous as I did, Rae Carson is busy writing the rest of a planned trilogy about our girl Elisa and her Godstone.

Note for Worried Parents: There is a little talk about sex in this book, but it's pretty discreet. Elisa doesn't actually sleep with her new husband, partly because he has a mistress and this is a political marriage. The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a teen book, with some mature storytelling and themes, but it's not too rough. You will come across some violence as a result of warfare.

Also: Check out Rae Carson's website or watch this video in which the author rather charmingly introduces her new book.

Book Picks: If you like this book, try Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and the Queen's Thief books by Megan Whalen Turner.

A Review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

I liked Laini Taylor's Blackbringer and Silksinger, so I knew I was going to like this book. And... I did. But I will say, it has a yearning, angsty tone worthy of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, especially after the romance kicks in. Be warned!

Karou is an art student in Prague, and her classmates love looking at her fanciful drawings, never dreaming that they are not fanciful at all. Even though Karou has a tiny student flat, she runs back to her childhood home whenever she is summoned by her foster father, who just happens to be a Wishmonger named Brimstone, a ram's-headed, reptile-eyed chimaera. Creepy creatures come to his shop to buy wishes. It's very hard to get in, and once they're inside, customers have to wear poisonous snakes around their necks to ensure good behavior. Three other chimaera work in the shop, where Brimstone collects the teeth of dead animals—and humans.

Karou grew up learning the different types of wishes: scuppies, shings, lucknows, gavriels, and bruxes. She turned her hair blue and gave herself certain tattoos with scuppies she earned making tooth runs all over the world for Brimstone. He thinks she wastes wishes on trivial things, e.g., when her cheating ex-boyfriend shows up in her art class as a model just to mess with her and she gives him a highly unpleasant little curse.

As for the eyes tattooed onto Karou's palms? Well, that's a different story, and it has to do with the reason Brimstone won't ever let her through a certain door deep inside his shop and maybe even with the wishbone that hangs around his neck.

Meanwhile, people are seeing seraphs: austere, angelic warriors who have begun to mark with charred handprints the myriad hidden doors leading to Brimstone's wish shop from all over the world. The seraphs and the chimaera are at war—have been for millenia—and the war is about to reach Karou.

There's some wonderful world building going on in the first half of the book. I was a little less sold on the star-crossed lovers' subplot that takes over during the second half. However, Taylor is a darn good storyteller no matter what she's doing, and Karou is a very fun main character. I also like her best friend, Zuzana, who is not initially privy to Karou's secrets but is a staunch, if pocket-sized, supporter throughout the book.

The seraph, Akiva, is a little more difficult to like, but that's deliberate. Here's a glimpse of him:
Overhead, darkness massed where a shape blotted out the moon. Something was hurtling down at Karou on huge, impossible wings. Heat and wingbeats and the skirr of air parted by a blade. A blade. She leapt aside, felt steel bite her shoulder as she slammed into a carved door, splintering slats. She seized one, a jagged spear of wood, and spun to face her attacker.

He stood a mere body's length away, the point of his sword resting on the ground.

Oh, thought Karou, staring at him.


Angel indeed.

He stood revealed. The blade of his long sword gleamed white from the incandescence of his wings—vast shimmering wings, their reach so great they swept the walls on either side of the alley, each feather like the wind-tugged lick of a candle flame.

You see? The girl can write! I love Taylor's luxurious style and her attention to detail. Of course, I'm also a sucker for a great metaphor. The author's sense of humor adds, as well. Take this bit: "'Oh, yes,' Karou muttered to herself later that night as she dragged three hundred pounds of illegal elephant ivory down the steps of the Paris Metro. 'This is just so much fun.'"

Or this little aside: "They ordered bowls of goulash, which they ate while discussing Kaz's stunt, their chemistry teacher's nose hair—which Zuzana asserted was braidable—and ideas for their semester projects."

Much as I loved Taylor's (and Karou's) version of Prague, this book is about something much bigger: the endless war between the self-righteous, militant seraphs and the beast-like chimaera, their former slaves. Karou is on the side of the underdogs, of course. (Well, in some cases, the chimaera literally look like dogs!) Daughter of Smoke and Bone is obviously a series launch, with an unabashedly cliffhanger ending.

Face it, Laini Taylor does fantasy/paranormal, not to mention broody romance, better than just about anybody out there right now. Maggie Steifvater, Becca Fitzpatrick, and Holly Black, et al., you have been challenged!

Note for Worried Parents: Daughter of Smoke and Bones is a book for teens, and it's fairly open about sex, even though that's not a major emphasis here. The p-word is used early on, for example, in the context of a lecture on why not to sleep with just any good-looking guy.

Also: Check out the official Daughter of Smoke and Bone trailer. Then there are two more trailers I like even more; I'm not sure who made them, but they're really good! Here are Part I and Part II. Finally, you can visit Laini Taylor's blog.

Book Picks: If you like this book, try
Chime by Franny Billingsley, The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle, and Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge, besides the authors mentioned above.

A Review of A Beautiful Friendship by David Weber

If you are a fan of adult sci-fi, you may be familiar with David Weber's Honor Harrington series. I've read most of the books, and while they can get bogged down in lengthy descriptive, technological, or political passages, I really like Weber's space opera heroine. Now the author joins the ranks of adult writers crossing over into the hot YA market with a prequel novel about an ancestor of Honor Harrington named Stephanie.

Twelve-year-old Stephanie's parents have moved the family to a colony planet named Sphinx in the Star Kingdom of Manticore. An aspiring zoologist/botanist and forest ranger, Stephanie is excited until she is told that she cannot explore the forests around her new home without adult supervision. After all, the planet is home to some very dangerous species, most notably the hexapuma, an oversized puma-like predator. Stephanie's parents try to keep her occupied by giving her glider lessons, and her mother challenges her to solve a mystery: who or what has been stealing small amounts of celery from the colonists' experimental farms and greenhouses?

Then we hit Chapter Two and find out that Stephanie's isn't the only point of view in the book. Many of the chapters are presented from the perspective of Climbs Quickly, a member of the sentient species that will come to be known to humans as treecats—imagine a six-legged cross between a squirrel and a cat, with the forepaws more like a monkey's and therefore capable of using tools. For now, though, Climbs Quickly and his people are keeping out of sight of the "two-legs." Spying on them, even. So far, only their incredible attraction to celery puts them at risk for discovery.

What's really fun is that the treecats (who, like most tribal societies, call themselves the People) are trying to figure out if the two-legs can communicate with each other. The treecats communicate mind to mind, and their initial observations lead them to call the new species they are observing "mind blind."

After Stephanie sets about solving the mystery of the celery thieves, she and Climbs Quickly cross paths. Their meeting is all the more astonishing because Stephanie and Climbs Quickly form an unexpected psychic bond. The discovery of a new sentient species is big news, but Stephanie keeps it to herself for the time being. When the girl takes an ill-fated glider trip over the forest to hone in on Climbs Quickly's psychic location, she runs into trouble. Only the intervention of the secretive treecats can save her. But that would mean blowing their cover...

As the story evolves, some interesting ideas about what it means to be sentient are bandied about. In addition, we see how politics affects interactions with primitive tribes, let alone brand-new species. Stephanie becomes the treecats' champion, but just how well can a twelve-turned thirteen-year-old protect these beings from the various human threats that stalk them?

Stephanie finds a few allies and makes mistakes, but she is able to rescue her new friends, who have previously rescued her. Her bond with Climbs Quickly (or Lionheart, as she names him) doesn't overcome all of the language barriers between the two species, but it's a start.

Besides a broader environmental theme, A Beautiful Friendship addresses how advanced civilizations assess and affect less civilized groups. You'll probably smile, as I did, when you hear how one scientist tries to explain away the treecats' net-weaving activities on the basis of animal instinct. Climbs Quickly's people are hunter-gatherers, but they begin taking notes on what the humans are up to right away and apply some of what they have learned.

The author does wax pompous in spots, and the storytelling isn't always fast paced. But I thought that overall, the suspense built nicely. I especially liked seeing the difference between Stephanie's point of view and Climbs Quickly's viewpoint.

Young Stephanie, like her descendant, Honor, is a great character. She is smart, strong, stubborn, brave, and completely fallible. Our heroine's high-tech hang-gliding, along with her grace under pressure, add to the more adventurous parts of the plot.

I also appreciate the author's efforts to be properly scientific, e.g., by explaining how an alien species would be able to digest a human-grown plant. Another fun fact is the way the massive, terrifying hexapumas have a healthy respect for what an entire throng of angry treecats can do.

Fans of the adult Honor Harrington series will either love this book because it gives them a glimpse of the heroine's heritage (and because they get the celery reference right away) or hate it because it's written for a younger audience, but preteens and teens who like science fiction or even animal stories will probably enjoy A Beautiful Friendship.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some animal violence, shooting, and peril here. Even though the book is listed as YA, I think it's an appropriate read for the science-minded tween crowd, maybe 10- to 12-year-olds.

Also: You might want to stop by David Weber's website. It's rather complex!

Book Picks: If you like this book, try
Starswarm by Jerry Pournelle, the Dragon and Thief books by Timothy Zahn, Fledgling and Saltation by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Flight of the Outcast by Brad Strickland, and Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein.

Update: Thanks to the anonymous commenter who pointed out that this book is not about a young Honor Harrington, but about an ancestor of hers named Stephanie. Corrections have been made accordingly.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Review of Shelter by Harlan Coben

Yet another writer for adults crosses over into the lucrative YA market, this one an Edgar-award winning mystery/thriller author who's been writing books about Myron Bolitar, our new MC's uncle. In fact, Mickey Bolitar was apparently introduced in Coben's latest adult novel, Live Wire, but here the focus is on him—and we're clearly talking series starter. Coben doesn't pull any punches: he starts off with a white slavery/sex trade plot in his very first book. No middle grade fiction for him!

Mickey watched his father die in a car accident, and now his grieving mom is in rehab. He's not crazy about his new school, either, at least until he meets an odd but lovely classmate who becomes his girlfriend. Then Ashley disappears, and Mickey is determined to find her.

Along the way, he'll run into some seriously scary characters, as well as "Bat Lady," an old woman who gives him some clues about his father's secret life, things Mickey never knew before. The trail of his father's secrets extends back to other people's stories, events from the World War II era.

Meanwhile, Ashley is linked to a strip club owned by some real thugs. Mickey gets in and out once without any real damage, but he won't be so lucky twice.

At school, Mickey finds more clues about what happened to Ashley; he also has run-ins with a bully and a pretty girl who knows more than she should. But my favorite characters are goofy Spooner and sour Ema. Spooner is a bit of a cliché, the over-talkative geek—still, he's rather appealing. Ema is sort of goth, a hostile fat girl who's bright and loyal and willing to break the rules for her friends. Though it seems obvious Ema could never be a romantic figure to Mickey, whether due to her weight or because she makes such a great friend, she is nevertheless a powerful character who really adds to the story. This is from the scene where Mickey meets Ema. He saves her from participating in an unpleasant school activity, but she's not exactly grateful:
"Is it mandatory?" I asked.

"Excuse me?"

"Is participating in this particular exercise mandatory?"

"Well, no, it's not manda—"

"Then I'm sitting out." I looked over at Ema/Emma. "Would you mind keeping me company?"

We walked away then. Behind me I could hear the world go silent. Then Ms. Owens blew a whistle, stopping the exercise and calling for lunch.

When we were a few more feet away, Ema/Emma said, "Wow."


She looked me straight in the eye. "You saved the fat girl. I bet you're really proud of yourself."

Then she shook her head and walked away.

One amusing plot component is that Mickey doesn't trust Uncle Myron, though many readers will come to the book thinking Myron is a pretty great guy thanks to the author's adult series. Mickey sneaks around quite a bit trying to solve the mystery of Ashley and of his father's death, rarely turning to his uncle for help.

Neither Coben's prose nor his storytelling is extraordinary in this book, but it's not a bad series start. Shelter is a pretty solid adventure which should appeal to fans of Alex Rider and the like. Of course, while the Ashley story wraps up, the author leaves the door open for a sequel that will continue to pursue the mystery of Mickey's father.

There's definite reluctant reader appeal here, with an easy style, plenty of action and suspense, and a likable main character. I suspect Book 2 will take hold even more successfully. And I look forward to seeing more of Ema and Spooner!

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens, with some peril and violence, as well as a mature plot about the sex trade—though it is handled fairly tastefully and the good guys win. Also: Take a look at Harlan Coben's website, where you can find a book trailer for Shelter.

A Review of The Pearl Wars by Nick James

This debut novel enters the growing ranks of YA sci-fi with strong boy appeal; it's also another dystopian offering. In James's future U.S., most of the population is divided between a corrupt government on the Surface and a group of Skyship dwellers who are political dissidents. Both groups compete to capture the Pearls: small spheres that fall from space and contain vast quantities of energy that can be used to keep the machines of civilization running.

Of course, there's a third faction here, though it's not well organized—those who live between the ruins of post-apocalyptic cities outside the protected areas run by the government. The worst of these are called Fringers because they live in Fringe Town and are the equivalent of roving street gangs. But others eke out an existence in quietly pathetic little communities.

Jesse Fisher lives on a Skyship. He encounters ruthless Cassius Stevenson from the Surface agency when both are in pursuit of a fallen Pearl. As they clash, the boys nearly die; then, as the two of them dangle from the rooftop of an abandoned building, they feel a strange flash of energy flowing between them. Just what connection could two such different people possibly have?

Back in their respective realms, Jesse and Cassius discover that the adults they trust are keeping secrets from them. When they meet again, is it to kidnap, kill, or help each other? Each boy seeks for answers, but the politics of Skyship and Surface conspire to keep them from learning what they need to know.

James deliberately makes Cassius less likable than Jesse, who seems more like the main character. But the two subplots do intertwine, and you may feel a bit of sympathy for cold-hearted Cassius before all's said and done.

Jesse has friends on the Skyship, but it's hard for him to know who to trust. Why does Captain Alkine take an unusual interest in him? Then there's an older girl named Eva. She seems to keep an eye on him, but why? Is Skandar really that good of a friend? And what about Avery, a girl who might be attracted to Jesse?

Then Jesse starts having strange interactions with the falling Pearls. Who is he really?

As for Cassius, he begins to question the intentions of Madame, leader of the Surface government and the closest thing he has to a mother. Does she care about him at all? As his body reacts bizarrely in the aftermath of his meeting with Jesse, he becomes determined to find the Skyship boy and see if he can make things normal again.

But neither boy is exactly normal. Eventually both of them are on the run, running from each other and after each other, fleeing from larger forces as they head for the ruins of Seattle, where they believe they will find the truth.

Here's a sample of the action:
Just as the guy's about to crack my skull open, an explosion rattles the street.

All three Fringers release me and spin around. I crumple to the ground, face on fire.

Framed by their tense, ready-to-pounce bodies, I see the silhouette of Eva Rodriguez. A trail of sandy smoke winds up into the air beside her like a serpent. It came from a detonator, the spherical shell of which lies on the cracked pavement in front of her right foot.

She looks older than her fifteen years, and far more intimidating than me with her cropped hair and well-practiced battle scowl. A bulky burlap pouch hangs over her shoulder, barely containing a radiant green glow. Resting inside is the Pearl we were sent down to retrieve...

"I've got more where that came from." Her dark eyes lock onto each of them as she moves the barrel of the pistol from one to another. "Leave. Now."

You'll find more action than character development in The Pearl Wars, but Jesse is a nicely dimensional character, while Cassius is sufficiently dark and complex to create a good contrast to his Skyship counterpart.

Nick James's vision of the future is an intriguing one, and his storytelling is suspenseful and fast paced—obviously influenced by TV, movies, and comic books. Watch for some great plot twists as you give this first volume of his new Skyship Academy series a try!

Note for Worried Parents: Like many YA dystopian novels, this book has a grim, dreary world marked by violence and betrayal. There's a little boy-girl attraction, but not much more than you'd expect from a teenage boy protagonist.

Also: The jacket art is great, but I think it looks a bit steampunk, and this is not a steampunk book.

Don't know how long it will last, but here's Nick James explaining his blog tour contest, and then you can check out his his very cool website, where you'll find more info about the blog tour and Nick, his book, etc.