Tag Archives: children’s literature

Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia, book two), by C.S. Lewis, 1951, Book Review

prince caspian

In this second Narnian installment, the four Pevensie children return to the magical land they once ruled, called back by Queen Susan’s horn. They land at the ruins of Cair Paravel just in time to free the Old Narnians from the evil, usurping King Miraz and put the rightful heir on the throne. For though Prince Caspian is the descendent of the conquering Telmarines, he wishes to make the land safe once more for Narnia’s magical talking natives. It is the beasts remember that “Narnia was never right except when a Son of Adam was king.”

Prince Caspian has a whole new plotline and a whole new set of wonderful characters (like the vastly endearing Reepicheep), but my favorite thing about it is the nostalgia and wonder Prince Caspian exemplifies when he hears the stories of Old Narnia. It’s the same feeling I get when I return with the Pevensies centuries after their rule. For I, as a reader, remember how good Narnia once was, so I can understand even more than Caspian how tragic the Telmarine takeover was. The heroes and heroines have a reader’s complete support as they, with the help of the good and awe-inspiring Aslan, strive to return Narnia to its rightful state.

Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this one also has many Christian parallels. For example, there are those who believe in the old stories and those who have lost their faith. There are those hostile to the old stories who would persecute those who believe and rewrite history to match their own way of thinking. And conversations with Aslan always have a particular depth of meaning. Consider when Lucy first meets Aslan again:

“Aslan,” Lucy said, “you’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

I enjoy rooting out those elements and understanding the author’s hidden meanings. Oddly enough, Lewis also includes “non-Christian” elements in his stories—like Bacchus, other creatures from pagan mythology, and a favorable view of astrology as studied by the centaurs—which I believe give it a greater depth. I, for one, am glad he didn’t feel bound to the limits others may have imposed. This is, after all, magical fiction, not a Bible story.

Unfortunately, the plotline has been thoroughly massacred by the recent movie. In an effort to make it more complex, a good many events are added to the story, Caspian and Peter bicker like little kids, and the kids have to go searching for Aslan, who is taken out until the very end, giving it a bleak, hopeless feel as the children strive to win a war without him. It raises the stakes, I guess, but I much prefer the book. The movie does, however, have some brilliant special effects. I particularly like when the river god rips out the bridge at the Ford of Beruna. The producers also do a very good job giving the Telmarines a distinctively foreign look, sound, and culture. The costuming is also very well done. But I’d recommend the book over the movie any day. It’s a particularly strong second episode in a whole series of good children’s fiction. Highly, highly recommended for ages 9+.

My other reviews:prince caspian wallpaper

The Secret War (Jack Blank Adventures trilogy, book two), Matt Myklusch, 2011

 

MMGM is a weekly meme hosted by middle grade author, Shannon Messenger.

jack blank

Matt Myklush did it again. The Secret War, book two of the Jack Blank series, is 525 pages of awesomeness. It’s fun, it’s dynamic, it’s unpredictable, and it’s clean. My son and I read it together for homeschool. We never seemed able to stick to our allotted real aloud time and finished it in less than two weeks! It’s just as good as book one. If you haven’t read it, start with that review.

Jack Blank isn’t your average kid. He was raised in an orphanage in the real world, but when he turned thirteen, he was taken to the Imagine Nation, an obscure part of Earth where superheroes and super villains reside. There he learned about and developed his own powers. Jack can talk to machines and make them do what he wants. A handy skill when dealing with Rüstovs—bionic robots that seek to take over the universe.

In book one, Jack found out he’s infected with a virus that turns normal folks into Rüstovs. It proved ineffectual against him, but plenty of people still wanted him dead, including the Imagine Nation’s smartest, richest, and most egotistical resident, Jonas Smart. But when Jack saved the world at the end of the book, he gained rock star status with the public at large. That’s where book two starts.

Jack was signing autographs left and right, succeeding in superhero training school, and enjoying the company of his two best friends, Skerren and Allegra. But the secret he learned about his future which connects him to the worst Rüstov agent in history (I won’t explain further in case you haven’t read book one) catches him up in a web of lies and separate him from his friends just when he needs their help most. The virus is part of a Rüstov plan to take over every machine on earth. To make matters worse, the virus inside Jack begins to speak to him. And then Jonas Smart learns Jack’s darkest secrets. With a major shadow of doubt hanging over him, Jack must overcome the most insurmountable odds in this race against time.

This book is very involved and cleverly woven, with lots of suspense, twists, and turns. It’s a fun one with absolutely no objectionable content. And it sets up book three beautifully. I can’t wait to read it. I’ll be sure to post my review!

Find the books:

The Accidental Hero
The Secret War
The End of Infinity
 
 

Horton Halfpott or the Feindish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset, by Tom Angleberger, 2011, Book Review

horton halfpott

If I might add yet another subheading to the title of this most unusual book, it would be “or  Whimsical Wit and Lyrical Nonsense,” because those happen to be the two most notable assets of this particular scrap of literature. The story is sort of a whodunit with very stylized characters and a not entirely predictable plot. It’s also a rather meaningless tale with a lot of random details and very little takeaway value aside from entertainment. But it is the very precise placement of well-picked words that make this story noteworthy. It’s rather nonsensical, but it’s whimsical, it’s witty, and it’s lyrical. And that makes the entire thing rather fun.

Everything started one morning when M’Lady Luggertuck ordered her corset loosened—an Unprecedented Marvel. The whole house sensed the Loosening, from the lowliest kitchen boy to the good lady’s son, and the deeds that followed were most unusual. They included thievery, a costume ball, a kidnapping by Shipless Pirates, and the beginnings of true love (on which it’s been decided we shall not dwell). We’re also treated to one young man’s honor, the loyalty of true friends, justice granted, and one young lady’s ability to judge wisely between suitors. All told, a very satisfactory and smile-inducing read.

I’d recommend Horton Halfpott for ages eight and up.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, 2011, Book Review

a monster calls

This was a tough read, though I made it through the entire book in one sitting. You could say it was timely.

Connor has been having the same nightmare over and over for months. The one where—oh, he can’t stand to think about it. He’s been having trouble at school with three bullies. He’s distanced himself from his best friend. His dad lives across the ocean with a new wife. He can’t stand his grandmother. And his mom’s cancer treatments don’t seem to be working. He feels invisible.

Then the yew tree in the back yard comes walking. It appears late at night and tells Connor a series of stories. More dreams. They must be. But each morning his floor is covered with evidence of his late night guest—twigs, leaves, berries.

The yew tree. A tree of healing. That is what his mother needs.

The stories the tree tells are wild, for “stories are the wildest thing of all. They chase and bite and hunt.” And these teach Connor much about the mixed up way life works. “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one.” Life doesn’t always make sense. But the yew tree helps Connor sort out truth and error. It helps him face life head on. For “if you speak the truth, you will be able to face whatever comes.”

The tree hasn’t come to heal Mum at all. It’s come to heal Connor. And it demands that Connor tell the last story. It demands he tell the truth—and the outcome of his recurring nightmare.

Though this story is beautifully told, it is not happy. It’s a terribly emotional look at one boy’s struggle with his mother’s approaching death. And it doesn’t really provide any hope. There isn’t much comfort in telling the truth. But it does have some sound advice; facing reality is the only way to begin healing.

I think this one is appropriate for ten-year-olds. It has two minor profanities, and one of the yew tree’s stories does involve “coupling,” but it does have some deep thoughts and some valid wisdom. And the subject matter is handled very tenderly. I recommend A Monster Calls, especially for children who may find themselves in similar, tragic circumstances.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg, 1967

mixed-up-files

Can you believe I’ve never read this book before? This Newbery winner is a heavy hitter, well-known and well-loved by the generation that grew up with it. Except me. But now I see why it has such a reputation.

Claudia Kincade is a sixth grader who is so unhappy with the routine of her life that she decides to shake things up. She recruits her third grade—and rich—brother and runs away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. (My only critique is that brother Jamie seems much older than nine.) At first it’s all about the adventure: stashing their bags in a sarcophagus, hiding in the public bathroom after visiting hours, sleeping in a display bed from the 1600’s, rationing their money, and bathing in the fountain. But Claudia doesn’t really like to be uncomfortable, and she misses the clean smell of freshly washed laundry. The constant hunger gets tiresome as well.

Then the children discover Angel, a small marble statue that may or may not have been sculpted by Renaissance great Michaelangelo. It’s under investigation by the museum experts. Claudia becomes fascinated with the statue. She has to find out the truth about it. As she searches, she also learns that her running away, her seeking, wasn’t really about the adventure at all. It was about finding out what makes her Claudia.

From the Mixed-up Files is beautifully written, thought provoking, and fun. I loved the adventure. I would have been all about hiding out in a museum for a week when I was a kid. (It’s still a little tempting now.) But as an adult, I really got on board with the conflict raging within Claudia. In a large family, she wants to feel special. She wants to know she’s an important individual. She does find out what makes her unique, but her search becomes as important as the answers. I just wouldn’t recommend her methods. Ages 9+

The Riotous Rocket Ship Robbery (St. Viper’s School for Super Villains, book one), by Kim Donovan, 2011, Book Review

MMGM is a weekly meme hosted by middle grade author, Shannon Messenger. (Finally! A meme that fits perfectly with my content!)

st. viper's

This book is funny, perfect for young readers, and truly unique. It’s all about raising up villains, not heroes. But don’t worry, it’s written with a full measure of humor that keeps the tone lighthearted and silly.

St. Viper’s is a secret boarding school set within the cone of a volcano where hopeful young villains study subjects such as “World Domination” and “Sinister Science.” Together, the team of wicked teachers works to create “an elite team—a Syndicate of Supreme Evil, heh-heh—a force of unforgettable fear, ho-ho—a team of terrifying tricksters, har-har—to TAKE OVER THE WORLD.” Yet in the midst of one such mad moment of instruction, Dr. Super Evil takes a call from his mother and quietly assures her he’s wearing a clean vest and fresh pants.

Into this silly world of supreme evil, Demon (who bursts into flame when he’s in a rage) and a few of his First Year friends end up on the wrong side of Senior super, Chill, and his assortment of terrible cronies. A bully with super powers is a fearsome thing, especially in a school that encourages villainous behavior. Along with worries about his own survival, Demon fears he’ll never be able to live up to his father’s reputation, and he’s concerned that his friend Stretch–a girl–is showing him up. But in a display of supernatural plot twists and tongue-in-cheek humor, Ms. Donovan manages a satisfying ending in which “the best baddie wins.”

Yes, this book has young readers cheering for the “wrong side,” but it does so in such an ironic, witty way that I didn’t see any harm in it, just a lot of good-natured fun. It flips the traditional super hero story on its head and leaves kids laughing all the way to the back cover. It’s also clean (thanks, Ms. Donovan!), professionally edited, and appropriate for seven- to nine-year-old readers. I give St Viper’s my wholehearted recommendation.

Open Minds (Mindjack Trilogy, book one), Susan Kaye Quinn, 2011, Book Review

open mindsI am so excited to share this book! I have read over two hundred MG/YA books since reading The Hunger Games, a series that totally floored me. Out of those hundreds, Open Minds is the only one that glued my butt to my couch as The Hunger Games did. In fact, this review will be a little off-the-cuff, because I didn’t slow down to take notes like I usually do.

In an aside, the world of juvenile self-publishing does seem to be a small one. I first saw this book on D. Robert Pease’s design website. He’s the one who created this incredible cover art. (He’s also the indie author of the very excellent book, Noah Zarc, which I loved. I have to get the newly released book two.) I remember being totally struck by this cover. But it wasn’t until I saw the book again, in a BookBub promotion, that I picked it up.

Open Minds has a dystopian feel to it. Kira lives in Chicago in a world very different from ours. Because of a mutation linked to chemicals in the water supply, people have developed the ability to communicate telepathically. The skill kicks in roughly with the onset of puberty, and the rare child who fails to develop it is destined for life as a zero, the bottom of society. Kira is one such child. By age 16, she still hasn’t changed to a reader. She’s become something far worse.

Kira is a mindjacker. She can control other people’s minds.

Kira’s confusion, anger, and fear draw us into her story. We learn about her new skill as she does. Fortunately, she has Simon, a classmate and fellow jacker who guides her development. Unfortunately, Simon carries an undercurrent of danger, a hint of the underworld. Kira can’t tell her family about her new abilities for fear of their safety. Neither does she tell Raf, her best friend, and their relationship fills with lies.

Then Kira learns there are far greater dangers when one is a jacker. And in a world that reads minds, a secret is a very difficult thing to keep.

Let me say again, this is a riveting read, one I highly, highly recommend. And I’m proud to say it’s written by an indie author who did an amazingly professional job. The huge popularity of the book is testament to that. I do have a few negatives to mention, though. First, the terminology alienated me in the beginning, but that was probably just me. I was overwhelmed by the new culture (slang/music) as well as new technology like “hydrocars” and “nove-fiber.” Also, the catalyst that prompted this monumental, worldwide mutation felt coincidental and insufficiently explained. Finally, the flow felt a little rushed in some places, particularly at the seams where hard-hitting scenes mesh together or when Kira is reflecting. The prose grows a little matter-of-fact in these few spots. I found myself wishing the author had lingered a little longer, fleshed these moments out, given us more detail to savor.

But don’t let my little quirks sway you from checking out Open Minds. (At .99 it’s a steal!) They certainly didn’t affect my five star rating. Rarely has a book mindjacked my attention like this one. The premise is wonderfully unique, the action fast and hard-hitting, the prose clearly and smoothly written. Details tuck into a tight, intelligent package. All around, it’s the best book I’ve read in a long time, Big Six offerings included. I’ve already downloaded book two.

Geared for a YA audience, but completely appropriate for 10+. I’d honor it with a Bookworm Blather Squeaky Award except for a few omg’s.

View the Mindjack Trilogy trailer.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, book one), by Philip Pullman, 1995

I’ve heard a great deal of controversy over this book in recent years, particularly when the movie came out five years ago. It was time to tackle it and make my own judgments. What I found was a complex, evocative, skillfully crafted tale with breathtaking scenes, highly developed characters, and a plot that is out of this world. It was entertaining and challenging at the same time. My overarching caution, however, is a blatant bias—almost an animosity—against Christianity.

Lyra is an uncontrollable ten-year-old who is abandoned in a college by her father to be raised by the resident scholars in Oxford while he pursues his life work. The world she lives in is very similar to ours, though there is a fantastical element to it. The date is not given, but it feels like the late 1800’s or so. It is a world dominated by the Magisterium, the worldwide religious organization that closely resembles the Catholic Church. It is also a world in which alternate universes have been discovered, but fear prompts the church to forbid research along such lines and label such notions heresy. But Lyra’s father is determined to pursue it anyway. In the meantime, the Gobblers, a church-sanctioned institution officially called the Oblation Board, has their own agenda, and it involves the kidnapping of children and the most vile of experiments. Lyra’s friend Roger has been taken. She’s determined to rescue him and also assist her father in his quest, unaware that she is destined to play a pivotal role in the history of universes.

Let me say again that this one is very complex. There are many institutions mentioned, a good deal of politics, and a lot going on. But it is skillfully wrought, and everything does make sense in its time. I especially love the fantasy woven into this world. For you see, every human is born with a dæmon. Yes, that is an archaic way to spell demon, but in this case, a dæmon is a spirit who takes physical animal form and is attached to a person’s soul. It is their closest companion who shares their thoughts and loves, a vital part of their existence that accompanies them even to death. They’re quite endearing. Even brief spacial separation from a dæmon is physically and emotionally excruciating. The book also creates intricate sub-societies like the gyptians, a tight-knit, nomadic water people often shunned by other societies, and witches, who love and breed with men, though they suffer centuries of heartache because they long outlive their sons and husbands.  And my favorite, the society of armed polar bears in the far north. This fantastic world is rich and compelling and a proper basis for a plot of this magnitude.

Despite the high quality of writing, I do have plenty of cautions to issue. There is a smattering of mild profanities, a good deal of spiritual content and mysticism, and the book dips into lots of subject areas that to my way of thinking seem too adult for kids under 12. In fact, I would not let my kids read this till high school. They include castration, drunkenness, exorcism, messy love affairs and discussions of sexuality, some atrocious acts of barbarism, and a variety of graphic scenes. But the religious statement the book makes is the one that caused all the controversy.

The Golden Compass, originally titled The Northern Lights in the UK, has been called a parody of Pilgrim’s Progress, the 17th century epic poem by John Milton, so let me divert for just a moment with some background. Pilgrim’s Progress is an example of Puritan literature. Puritans lived in a day when the Church of England was extremely powerful and intolerant of views which were not their own. (Think Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ desperate escape.) Milton’s poem was a challenge to the Church, a protest that cut through their traditions and powers and made a clear doctrinal statement of the Bible, particularly the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden and God’s promise and means of restoration through Christ. It also makes much of the choice given to men, free will to chose or reject God. Mr. Pullman’s novel does much the same thing, rightfully protesting the power of a corrupt Church, only it twists the text and message of the Bible to its own purposes and, in essence, applauds the rejection of God. The language and doctrine laid out in the novel are quite explicit. If your faith, like mine, lines up more with Milton’s, consider this an extreme warning. If my high school kids picked this up, I’d be sure to initiate questions, discussion, and comparisons with actual biblical text.

Interestingly enough, the movie didn’t do very well in America because it was strongly criticized by groups on both sides of the religious spectrum. Producers toned down the content enough to incense secular groups but not enough to please Christians. As a result, the two sequels were never put into motion. I have not seen the film, but now I’m very curious.

In conclusion, from a technical standpoint, The Golden Compass is a fine piece of literature. From the viewpoint of a conservative mom, its message is not one I condone. This is considered middle grade fiction, but my recommendation is age fourteen along with a dose of healthy guidance.

Book two: The Subtle Knife
Book three: The Amber Spyglass

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, 2012

Ivan has lived at the Exit 8 Big Top Circus Mall since he was a juvenile gorilla, just off I-95 and under the billboard lauding “The One and Only Ivan.”  His best friends include Stella, the aging elephant, Bob the stray dog, and Julia, the daughter of the janitor.  But the Big Top isn’t faring well.  “You’re old news,” Bob tells Ivan.  Mack, owner of the Big Top, seems to agree and purchases a new, frightened, sad-eyed baby elephant.

This is a very emotional story of captive wild animals.  Ms. Applegate gives them wonderful personalities, lively dialogue, and boatloads of sympathy.  It’s just a little too sentimental for my tastes.  And I don’t agree with the social statement that people are horrible and wild animals should never live in cages.  I agree that we shouldn’t mistreat animals.  And I don’t think it’s necessarily wise for regular Joes to keep large, dangerous animals, especially after last year’s tragedy in Ohio.  But these aren’t humans.  They aren’t “slaves” as PETA has said in a ridiculous lawsuit citing the 13th Amendment on behalf of captive orcas.  They aren’t the wistful, long-suffering, loving family of characters in this book.  They’re animals.  Bored, perhaps.  Aggressive, probably.  In need of laws to regulate who, and for what purpose, can keep them, definitely.  But to put them on the same level as humans (gorillas and humans are called “fellow apes”) is absurd.

Now that I’ve struck down the reality and whole premise of the book, let me tell you what I did like.  The characters.  The animals are extremely loveable.  It’s told from Ivan’s point of view, and that gives it a gentle tone.  I love the fact that Ivan is an artist, which gives him common ground and a special ability to relate with Julia, the human girl.  Bob the dog is funny.  The baby elephant is sweet.  The chapters are short, short, which is nice for young or struggling readers.  And the ending is feel good.  It’s original.  I am an incurable animal lover, so it’s fun to pretend animals could really be like this.  Yet The One and Only Ivan uses emotion and sentimentality to very subtly place animals on par with humans, and that can be dangerous.  Such evolutionary thought lessens the value of human life.

A Look Forward and a Look Back

What a year! There are things about 2012 I’d like to repeat and things I never want to go through again. I suppose that’s like any other year. As far as my writing is concerned, it’s also been a mixed bag. Now it’s time once again to pick out the highlights, celebrate the goals met, and start planning for next year.

having-goals

Of course my list of accomplishments has to start with the publication of not one, but TWO books during 2012: Beneath the Slashings, which finished off my Civil War trilogy (whew!) and Song of the Mountain, a project that spanned several years. I also released my first podcast and put together my first blog tour. I learned a good deal in both cases. The first I will repeat; the second, probably not. In addition, my blog experienced substantial growth this year as I added over one hundred middle grade and young adult book reviews and shared many posts about the ins and outs of self-publication. I am well-satisfied with all these accomplishments.

One thing I am not satisfied with is book sales. I pulled in just under two thousand dollars this year. While that’s three times the amount I made my debut year, it’s a ridiculously low amount. As my books have been given very fair ratings from strangers as well as friends, I’m left to assume obscurity is the biggest culprit. Second is the lack of enthusiasm among adult readers for children’s literature. I cannot change the latter (and I will not change my genre), but the former does leave room for improvement. I confess my promotional efforts have been pretty much nonexistent. So my first goal of the new year is the implementation of a marketing plan. Fortunately, I have a lot of ideas. I’ve just been lazy in this regard.

My second goal, of course, is publication of my current MG manuscript by summer. I’m not sure that I can also bring my YA manuscript to print this year, but I am setting a substantial word count goal. I also plan to release 2-3 more of my titles as podcasts. I may even dabble a bit at submitting to traditional publishing houses, though I cringe at my loss of control. (Obscurity…control…obscurity…control…hmmm…)

Hee! Hee! I loved this one.

Hee! Hee! I loved this one.

These are some lofty goals that far exceed last year’s. The only way I can hope to meet them is to break them down into monthly and weekly chunks. I’m also giving myself permission to read less and cut my blog reviews to only once a week. While I love to read—and might later give myself permission to write less and read more—it takes a lot of time. This balance is always tricky for me. I don’t want to be a servant to my writing, my reading, or my blog. But I do know if I don’t set some solid writing goals, I’ll have nothing to show for myself next year at this time.

And so I continue to try to turn this hobby into a career. I’m eager to see what 2013 brings!

What goals did you meet this year? What do you hope to accomplish next year?