Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair

expedBefore I actually talk about this book, can I just say how exciting it is to finally win a Goodreads First Reads giveaway? Thank you, Goodreads, and thank you, McSweeney’s McMullens! It’s quite a treat to win a book that I would have been eager to read no matter what.

The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair is the 2nd book in the terrific Expeditioners series, and frankly, I can’t wait for more! Back in 2013, I reviewed the first book, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon, and I was so happy to get book #2 without too huge a wait in between volumes.

The Expeditioners books are set in a steampunk-ish world, where computers have been proven to be failures, travel is steam-driven, and the world that we know turns out to be missing quite a bit — such as all the previously unknown, secret lands. The Bureau of Newly Discovered Lands (BNDL) controls the discoveries and plunders their resources, and the most important people in the new economy may be Explorers of the Realm, who set out on expeditions of all sorts to discover the planet’s secrets, often risking life and limb.

Our main character is Kit West, a teen-aged boy whose father went missing under mysterious circumstances, leaving Kit, older brother Zander, and younger sister M.K. orphans. In the first book, Kit is given a clue left by their father, which propels the siblings on a cross-country adventure to solve the puzzles and cryptic maps strategically hidden by their father.

In the 2nd book, Kit, Zander, and M.K. are students at the Academy, a training ground for the next generation of Explorers. (Think Hogwarts, minus magic, plus gadgets and missions.) Kit is still puzzling over a new map which they found at the end of their first adventure, sure that it contains yet another lead from their father, one that may bring them closer to understanding his secrets and his disappearance. A competition to design and lead the school’s annual expedition leads the three, along with best friend Sukey and arch-nemesis Leo Nackley, to a sea voyage to the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. There, Kit believes the unexplainable ocean phenomenon that has led to countless shipwrecks will also reveal their father’s next clue — but Leo Nackley and his powerful father think they’ll discover oil, which in turn will allow the Realm to wage war against other empires by fueling more deadly weapons of destruction.

The Wests and Sukey end up shipwrecked, and that’s not all. The book includes submersibles, pirates, constrictor eels, telepathic turtles, Caribbean islands, and intrigues and conspiracies galore. There’s also a smattering (but not too much) of teen angst, as Kit’s crush on his close friend Sukey turns to hurt and anger when she seems to fall for Zander instead.

One thing I love about the Expeditioners books is how smart and gifted the characters are. Kit is a cartography expert, Zander studies biology and wildlife, M.K., the youngest of the family, is a marvel when it comes to engineering, and Sukey is a talented aviator. Girls are just as strong and competent as the boys, and just as likely to wield a sword against dangerous pirates or fight off a new enemy with an amazing piece of technology. Kit and the gang use their wits to survive and outsmart their opponents, but they never have it easy and nothing comes without new risk.

Black and white illustrations by Katherine Roy enhance the story’s flow and add greatly to the sense of the characters and their world. The inside of the dust cover includes schematics for M.K.’s submersible, and there are maps and old journal pages sprinkled throughout as well.

The action never stops, and while it’s occasionally a chore to keep straight the various government agencies and the geopolitical factions, the main thrust of the story is the West kids and their quest to follow their father’s clues. By the end of this book, there are cracks forming in the siblings’ unwavering commitment to their quest, however, and Kit and his family seem about to be heading off in different directions, scattered by their new assignments and moving forward separately instead of as a team.

Expeditioners #2 (sorry, that’s a lot easier than typing out the full title) has an open-ended conclusion, clearly laying the groundwork for more to come. From what I’ve seen mentioned on a few websites, The Expeditioners is expected to be a six-part series, which means there’s plenty of excitement ahead.

I highly recommend this series for anyone who enjoys kids’ adventure tales — and that includes grown-ups too! My 12-year-old and I made this a joint reading project, and we both loved it. I can see The Expeditioners appealing to Harry Potter fans as well as fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy… and as a fan of both, I don’t say that lightly. The Expeditioners has a rich and unusual world for its super-smart and super-engaging characters to explore. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Want to know more? Check out my review of the first book in the series, and also this great Q&A with author S. S. Taylor.

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The details:

Title: The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair
Author: S. S. Taylor; illustrated by Katherine Roy
Publisher: McSweeney’s McMullens
Publication date: September 23, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Children’s fiction (upper middle grade; per Amazon, ages 10 and up)
Source: Goodreads First Reads (I finally won something!)

Series Wrap-Up: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede

Enchanted Forest collage

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede encompasses four novels set in one world — and be warned ahead of time: Your enjoyment of this series is by no means guaranteed just because you liked the first book. Each book is quite different, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

First things first: If we were only talking about book #1, Dealing with Dragons, my enthusiasm would be much higher. In Dealing with Dragons, we meet Cimorene, a princess who doesn’t want the typical Happily Ever After with a handsome prince, fine gowns, and a kingdom to be pampered in. So Cimorene runs away and finds herself a large dragon, Kazul, who just so happens to need a princess of her own. In this world, princesses serve dragons — some willingly, some not so much — usually until they are rescued by a brave knight who comes to free them from “captivity”. Cimorene has no patience for such nonsense, and soon finds herself an indispensable assistant to Kazul, keeping house, observing dragon politics, learning about magic, and warding off dangerous wizards who want to steal the dragon’s magic. The book breaks gender roles in all sorts of interesting and unusual ways; my favorite is that the leader of the dragons is called King, which denotes a position, not a person. Kazul is a female dragon, but is still able to vie for the position of King…. and woe to anyone who mistakenly refers to her as the Queen.

Unfortunately, in my view, the focus shifts from book to book. Dealing with Dragons is the only book of the series I rated as 5 stars on Goodreads. I loved Cimorene’s courage and brains, the clever wordplay, and the way Cimorene defies expectations to become the person she wants to be. But suddenly, in book #2 (Searching for Dragons), Cimorene is a supporting player, and instead, the story is told from the point of view of Mendanbar, the reluctant king of the Enchanted Forest. Mendanbar’s story intersects with Cimorene’s as they go on a quest together to find out who is draining magic out of the Enchanted Forest and to rescue the kidnapped Kazul. Mendanbar and Cimorene have good chemistry, and Mendanbar is a fine leading man, but unfortunately, the zippiness of Cimorene’s grrrl power is a bit more subdued here.

In Book #3 (Calling on Dragons), we barely see our familiar characters at all, as the focus shifts once again, this time to the witch Morwen, a supporting player in the earlier books. I came close to abandoning the series altogether early on in this book. True confession: I have a dislike for talking animals, particularly when there’s an overabundance of them — and this book has more than enough to go around. Within the first few chapters, we meet all twelve of Morwen’s cats, each of whom has a name and a distinct personality and contributes to conversation, as well as a bewitched bunny named Killer who transforms first into a six-foot-tall bunny and eventually into a blue, winged, flying donkey. Killer is meant to be the comic relief, but is more annoying than funny most of the time. There’s a quest and an adventure that ends up involving Cimorene and Mendanbar, but they’re quite peripheral. The magical adventure aspects of the book become more enjoyable by the end, but there’s a lot of space taken up by new characters, odd magical rules, and never-ending journeying.

And then we come to the final book, Talking to Dragons, in which there’s a brand-new main character, Daystar, who must travel into the Enchanted Forest and figure out for himself what the purpose of his quest is. There he meets a temperamental young fire-witch named Shiara — clearly there as his love interest — and encounters talking lizards, elves, dragons, and dwarves before arriving at a climactic battle scene. I won’t tell you how Daystar’s story intersects with the characters from the earlier books (spoilers!), but they are all connected and come together for an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

As a series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles feels a bit disjointed. The shift in main characters from book to book didn’t really appeal to  me. I suppose the intent is to broaden the scope of the world of the Enchanted Forest, but in my opinion, Cimorene and Kazul are the most interesting characters — and once they leave center stage, the story loses some of its charm. I was never bored exactly (although I was awfully close during the talking cat chapters), but I did find my attention wandering from time to time, and I found it a challenge to get into each new book, where we readers are required to leave behind the characters we’ve become fond of and start fresh with with a whole bunch of new ones.

All that said, let me now point out that I read this series in partnership with my 12-year-old son — and from that regard, I’d say the series was a success. My kiddo is a very reluctant reader, and so to encourage him, we read these books in tandem. He enjoyed the stories quite a bit, liked the action sequences involving dragons and wizards especially, and liked that there were plenty of funny scenes, humorous dialogue, and even some hints of danger (nothing too life-threatening, but still risky business).

Bottom line: While the Enchanted Forest Chronicles doesn’t strike me as strong enough to really hold adult attention, I do think it’s a great choice for middle grade readers, either to read on their own or as a very fun parent-kiddo reading partnership. And as an alternative for those who aren’t looking for a multi-book series or don’t like the sound of the focus changing from book to book, I think Dealing with Dragons would work perfectly well as a stand-alone. As the best of the bunch, it’s certainly a great read — and maybe if I’d stopped there, I’d have avoided the frustrations I had with the subsequent books.

Series Wrap-Up: Frontier Magic by Patricia C. Wrede

Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic, #1)Across the Great Barrier (Frontier Magic, #2)The Far West (Frontier Magic, #3)

The Frontier Magic trilogy by Patricia C. Wrede presents a puzzling dilemma for me as a reviewer:

On the one hand, I never doubted that I wanted to finish reading the trilogy — and even more importantly, my son remained engaged throughout, which is no small accomplishment.

On the other hand, these books contain certain problematic pieces that remain consistent across all three books.

Is it contradictory to say that I wouldn’t rate this series any higher than three stars, and at the same time state that I mostly enjoyed it all?

In Frontier Magic, we view an alternate America (known here as Columbia) through the eyes of Eff. Eff is one of twins, and is the family’s thirteenth child, in a society which believes that the 13th child will be full of bad magic. Because, yes, in the world of Frontier Magic, magic is part of the every day fabric of life. Magic is an advanced scientific field of study in the academic world, and even mundane tasks are routinely done by means of magic. In this tale of westward exploration and discovery, the civilized world stops at the Mammoth River (think Mississippi), and all land east of the river is protected by the Great Barrier Spell, which keeps out dangerous creatures like steam dragons and medusa lizards. Yet exploration of the West beckons, and expeditions regularly set out across the river, some never to return.

I wrote quite a bit about my reaction to the first book in the series, Thirteenth Child, in my review here. And the same issues that I had with the first book continue into the second. As I wrote on Goodreads about Across the Great Barrier:

Book #2 in the Frontier Magic series continues — for good and for not-so-good — along the same path as the first book, Thirteenth Child.

On the plus side, we continue to explore this alternate history of the United States, in which magic is commonplace and an actual necessity. The challenges and adventure of living life on the frontier are still here, and main character Eff is still pursuing her own non-standard magical skills.

On the negative side, the same problems that detract from the overall success of the first book are still present. The magical systems are overly complicated, so that it’s never quite clear what’s happening, and the solutions and big confrontations are so full of this jargon-heavy magical hoo-ha that it’s hard to tell who did what or why. Eff should be a powerful character, but she never really comes into her own. That is, she clearly has talents that are rare, but she doesn’t get to do a whole lot with them. She’s always just a part of, not the lead actor — she assists a professor, she participates in expeditions, she’s on the team when danger strikes — but she never is out in front, making decisions and standing out. Finally, the plot suffers from odd pacing. Many of the chapters (as in the first book) have time jumps that basically say, well, for the rest of that year, not much happened, or for the next few months, I kept doing my job. There’s a lot of summarizing, with action sequences popping up occasionally, but overall there’s a static feeling, as if the whole plot was being described in synopsis rather than actually taking place.

The Frontier Magic series thus far strikes me as a very interesting idea without the execution to fully back it up.

As for book #3, my feelings are pretty much the same. There’s further adventure, and Eff, now in her early 20s, finally comes into own in terms of flexing her magical powers and being recognized as having unique talents. She’s invited to participate in the most far-reaching expedition yet, and the group’s travels are full of danger and excitement. And yet, the same issues that plague the earlier books show up here as well. Nothing ever feels terribly urgent, despite the fact that a lot does actually happen. Events are described in a way that feels very episodic, and the point-of-view has a distant to feel to it. Eff narrates all that happens, and her voice simply isn’t particularly distinct. We never do really get a full picture of what Eff is capable of, although we do see her pretty much save the day.

The most serious problem, for me, is that the magical systems are fairly incomprehensible. We get long passages describing how Eff uses her magic to save the expedition (and perhaps civilization as a whole) — but it’s practically impossible to envision what she and the others are actually doing or how any of their magic truly works.

There’s quite a bit of outrage expressed in the reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere over the absence of a native population in the world of Frontier Magic. Others have gone into great detail on this issue; I don’t need to repeat them. Suffice it to say that the books are controversial because of this omission, and if you want to know more, there’s quite a lot written elsewhere on the topic.

Approaching these books, then, purely as an adventure tale and leaving aside the social commentary, I find myself back where I started. Unmitigated success? No. But enjoyable and engaging? Yes.

Even when my own attention wandered from time to time, my son remained interested throughout. Neither of us was exactly on the edge of our seats… but we still wanted to see it through and find out more. So all in all, not a bad choice for advanced middle grade readers or for adults who enjoy middle grade fiction featuring magical world-building.

Blog Tour, Guest Post, & Review: When Audrey Met Alice by Rebecca Behrens

Thank you, Sourcebooks, for inviting me to part of the blog tour celebrating the release of When Audrey Met Alice!

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WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE
By Rebecca Behrens
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
February 2014
Ages 9 -12

First daughters just want to have fun.

Thirteen-year-old First Daughter Audrey Rhodes is convinced that living in the White House is like being permanently grounded. While her parents are off saving the world, Audrey Rhodes spends most of her time pining for friends back home, sulking about security restrictions, and suppressing the crush she’s developing on Quint, her only DC friend. After the Secret Service cancels the party she planned, Audrey is ready to give up and become a White House hermit.  What good is having your own bowling alley if you don’t have anyone to play with?

Audrey is ready to give up and spend the next four years totally friendless—until she discovers Alice Roosevelt’s hidden diary beneath the floorboards and starts asking herself…What Would Alice Do? But not everyone is on board with Audrey’s attempts to be more like Alice—especially not her mother’s super-stern Chief of Staff. Will meeting Alice bring Audrey happiness—like the freedom to attend the school trip and possibly a First Boyfriend—or a host of new problems?

The former First Daughter’s outrageous antics give Audrey a ton of ideas for having fun…and get her into more trouble than she can handle. A fun, smart middle grade debut that brings a fascinating historical character to vibrant life and showcases relatable tween issues like fitting in, first crushes, and finding your own way, the White House hijinks of these First Daughters is a story readers won’t want to miss!

I’m thrilled to be participating in the blog tour for this terrific new book aimed at middle grade readers! Author Rebecca Behrens was kind enough to share her thoughts on a question I posed:

What would Alice find most confusing about the lives of girls in the 21st century?

Here’s Rebecca’s response:

Photo from Wikipedia: Roosevelt family in 1903 with Quentin on the left, TR, Ted, Jr., “Archie”, Alice, Kermit, Edith, and Ethel.

It’s only been a little over a century since Alice Roosevelt moved into the White House and became perhaps the most famous girl of the turn of the century. But how times have changed! What would Alice find most confusing about the lives of girls in the 21st century?

Alice lived at a time when girls weren’t allowed to go out with dates, and they had to have chaperones even at dances. According to Alice, “There were always watchful eyes to check on one. Woe betide the girl who emerged from the conservatory at a dance with her hair slightly disheveled. As one’s hair tended to fall down at the best of times it was frightfully difficult trying to keep up appearances.” Alice would be surprised by the dating girls do today—but I think she’d consider it a great thing. From an early age, Alice was fixated on finding a husband, because that was her ticket out of her parents’ home and into the world. If she watched a show like Girls, I think she’d be amazed (and occasionally shocked) at the romantic lives of young women. But she would love how young women can live independently, and how much agency they have in their romantic lives.

Athletics for young women weren’t common in Alice’s youth. She had fun roughhousing with her siblings, swimming, and she reportedly did some yoga—but girls didn’t play on soccer teams or run track. I think Alice would be shocked by all of the athletic opportunities for girls today. Considering what a vivacious person she was—and competitive—Alice would want to start competing, too.

Alice roosevelt color 3.jpg

Photo from Wikipedia: Alice Lee Roosevelt, hand-tinted photograph taken approximately 1903

Considering how strict and modest social standards for clothing were at the turn of the century, Alice would probably find some recent fashion trends bizarre. “Buttoned-up” was the style, literally—Alice wasn’t allowed to visit a friend’s home anymore after that girl emerged from a car with a couple buttons undone! Jeggings and flip flops would seem very revealing and casual to Alice. Clothes in Alice’s time were meant to be lasting and beautiful. Alice wouldn’t know what to think about ironic fashion choices, like trucker hats or grandpa sweaters—anything that wasn’t meant to last and impress would seem like a waste of money. But I think Alice would always understand when someone uses clothing to make a statement, like Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga. After all, Alice herself was an early fashion icon—the most popular dress color when she lived in the White House was “Alice Blue,” after the shade of her eyes—and she loved the attention that brought.

Alice once said of her beloved Auntie Bye that if Bye had been a man, she would have been president, not her brother Theodore. At the turn of the century, there were very limited opportunities for women in politics and government—women couldn’t even vote yet! I think Alice would be surprised and thrilled about the number of female lawmakers today.

Finally, when Alice was a teenager, part of her fame came from her sharp wit and her willingness to be outspoken. Most of her peers were seen and not heard. I think Alice would find the many ways that girls can make their voices heard today—online and off—a little confusing, and a lot refreshing.

My thoughts:

When Audrey Met Alice is such a delight! The author does a wonderful job of weaving together a modern girl’s life and the diary of Alice Roosevelt, making both pieces of the story equally engaging and charming. Audrey is a bright, friendly 8th-grader who loves her parents, but she’s isolated from peers and even from her mom and dad once they move into “1600”. Hurray for progress — it’s Audrey’s mom who is President, and her dad — in addition to “First Gent” responsibilities — is a scientist whose research is intense and time-consuming. It’s hard to find time to just chill as a family when you’re busy running the country and trying to cure cancer — but that means that Audrey is left to wander the halls and miss her old life. Sure, the kids at her new school seem friendly at first — but do they like her for herself, or do they just want the glamor of hanging out with the First Daughter?

When Audrey stumbles across a hidden diary belonging to Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter Alice, Audrey finds inspiration both for improving her own life — and for getting into even further mischief. Alice wants to help her father and be a part of his world, but she also craves adventure and excitement, and she’s not one to listen just because she’s told to behave a certain way. As Audrey reads in Alice’s diary:

… my father simply said, “I can either run the country or I can control Alice, but I can’t possibly do both.”

Audrey’s scrapes may seem tame in comparison to some of Alice’s more out-there escapades (such as wearing a green garter snake around her neck at state dinners or being photographed betting on horses at a time when girls did not do such things), but then again, Alice didn’t have non-stop Secret Service protection, sneaky paparazzi, and ubiquitous social media scrutiny to contend with.

Alice preaches the mantra of “To Thine Own Self Be True”, and proclaims that she is someone who wants to “eat up the world”. As the book progresses, Audrey starts to think in terms of WWAD? — What Would Alice Do? — and becomes determined to find a way to be a good daughter and at the same time make a difference and be true to herself.

My review in short? I loved this book! Audrey is an easy-to-relate-to main character. She has the same hopes, fears, and worries as a typical girl her age — but as the President’s daughter, she has to deal with middle-school drama with Secret Service agents at her side and state protocol officials looking over her shoulder. Audrey narrates with humor and self-awareness; she’s not faultless, and she knows when she messes up — but she means well, and it’s fun to see her apply her WWAD philosophy in ways that are surprising, funny, and with decidedly unpredictable outcomes.

I highly recommend When Audrey Met Alice. I think this would be a terrific read for middle school and young high school students. It’s well-written and a lot of fun — and might even inspire a girl or two to think more about the power of girls to change the world!

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For more information, visit the Sourcebooks page for When Audrey Met Alice, where you’ll find additional resources about the real Alice Roosevelt, including downloadable material for kids and for educators,

About the Author:

Rebecca Behrens grew up in Wisconsin, studied in Chicago, and now lives with her husband in New York City, where she works as a production editor for children’s books. She loves writing and reading about girls full of moxie and places full of history. When Audrey Met Alice is her first book. Visit her online at www.rebeccabehrens.com.

Book Review: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Book Review: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

In this magical story for young independent readers, Ophelia and her sister Alice have accompanied their father to a strange, wintry city where he’s been hired last-minute to curate a sword exhibition at a museum. The girls’ mother has died just months before, and it’s clear that the girls and their father have all been somewhat lost since then.

When Ophelia wanders off to explore the museum, she finds a boy locked in a hidden room, who tells her a tale of a magical mission involving a lost sword, the Winter Queen, herald trees, and a protectorate of wizards. Ophelia is a scientific and logical girl, and can’t bring herself to believe the boy’s story. But her innate compassion, bolstered by her imaginings of her mother’s voice in her ear, bring her to dedicate herself to helping the boy.

Ophelia isn’t a typical heroine. She wears glasses that are always smudgy, and has to stop for quick puffs from her asthma inhaler whenever things get too exciting. Still, she has a big heart and avid curiosity, and so she keeps pushing herself to explore, to collect the clues hidden throughout the museum, and to find a way around the beautiful but menacing museum director.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a fantasy adventure set in the modern world, with magic embedded in a city full of people going about their business and not prone toward belief in evil queens or sinister spells. There are some wonderful touches: a portrait gallery of glum-looking girls sets an ominous tone, galleries of everything you could imagine which seem to change every time Ophelia passes by, museum guards who sit and knit all day until falling asleep, and an older sister who gives up her jeans and t-shirts for a mysterious beauty treatment.

I’m not sure that the climax and resolution of the book necessarily make sense, but it doesn’t really matter. Ophelia is a lovely main character, showing unexpected strength as she pushes herself beyond her normal limits. As Ophelia and her family finally face the danger in the museum, they also finally come to terms with the loss that they’ve suffered and take the first tentative steps toward healing and finding a way forward without their mother.

There are some wonderful magical scenes, as well as moments of danger and excitement. This book should please middle grade readers who like action mixed with fantasy. The reading level seems appropriate for older elementary school grades, easily accessible for children confident in their independent reading abilities.

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The details:

Title: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 28, 2014
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Children’s/middle grade fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Knopf via NetGalley

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen: A book & a movie with the kiddo

Book Review: Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

Hoot

Perhaps you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen’s smart-ass, Florida-centric books for grown-ups — all 22 of them! — that include bestsellers such as Strip Tease, Nature Girl, Star Island, and Skinny Dip. But the way this author found his way into my heart was through his books for kids, now totaling four — and here’s hoping there are many more to come!

Hoot was Carl Hiaasen’s first book for kids, aimed at the middle school crowd and featuring some fun, fearless, and memorable characters with just enough gross-outs and goof-ball mischief to appeal to 10 to 13-year-olds. Hoot certainly appealed to my 11-year-old, who isn’t the easiest kid to please when it comes to books. (Video games are a different matter, but I digress.)

In his younger days — oh, say at age 10 — my kiddo would help me out on my blog from time to time with “Q&A with the Kiddo” posts, where I’d write about books that we’d read together, ask him questions, and then share some thoughts from each of us. Alas, now that he’s reached the ripe old age of 11, he’s no longer willing to indulge me. Luckily, though, he still enjoys a good book, and has not yet decided that he’s too old for a read-aloud at bed time. So for as long as he’ll let me, I continue reading him a chapter or two once he’s tucked in (knowing that our days of reading together are probably numbered, although I’ve told him more than once than I’ll come to college with him if he wants).

Hoot is our most recent reading adventure, and it was a big success. We’d thoroughly enjoyed the author’s most recent kids’ book, Chomp, last year (my review is here), and reading Hoot was actually the kiddo’s idea — he’d seen part of the movie at his after school program recently, and wanted to know the rest of the story.

hoot owlSo what’s it about? In a nutshell: Roy Eberhardt moves to Florida from Montana when his dad gets reassigned for work, and boy, is Roy unhappy about being the new kid all over again. After getting bullied by the meanest kid in school, he encounters a mysterious barefoot boy running down the street, and quickly becomes fascinated by figuring out who the kid is and why he’s running. Meanwhile, Mother Paula’s Pancake House is about to open a new franchise location in Roy’s small town… but someone keeps playing pranks and causing mischief at the construction site, and the Mother Paula’s people are not happy about it. The storylines come together as Roy and his new friends Beatrice Leep and Mullet Fingers try to find a way to save the rare burrowing owls who live at the construction site before the bulldozers start to roll. Hoot is filled with a host of amusing supporting characters, from the well-intentioned but bumbling Officer Delinko to construction manager Curly to the oozily nasty corporate tool Chuck E. Muckle. As the various plotlines and people converge, Carl Hiaasen doesn’t skimp on humor, pranks, or bizarre human behavior.

In both Hoot and Chomp, a dominant theme is the natural wonders of Florida and how greedy humans are encroaching on natural habitats. In both books, the author’s love for nature shines through, and the kids who are heroes are the ones who stand up and fight against the careless, thoughtless, or just plain mean grown-ups who value money over beauty. While the main characters in both books come from homes with supportive and loving parents, the author doesn’t shy away from showcasing kids who come from troubled homes or less wholesome environments. One of the things he does best is dig beneath the surface and show why a kid might be weird, or dressed funny, or be reluctant to trust or share secrets. At the same time, no mercy is shown to the bullies, whether kids or adults: The characters who mistreat others, who are mean and nasty, who like to hurt people for their own glory, or who just don’t care — well, they do tend to get what’s coming to them, and then some.

After reading the book, kiddo and I decided to watch the movie as well — and while I almost never, ever, ever sayhoot this, in this case I’ll admit to liking the movie just a smidge more than the book. The book was great, don’t get me wrong — but the movie just did a better job of showing the natural beauty of the Florida coastlines and waterways, as well as the vulnerability of the little owls (awwwww… baby owls!) being threatened by the big construction machinery. This is one instance where a picture really is worth a thousand words, because the one thing I really didn’t get from the book was enough description of the construction site and the landscape, and that made it harder to visualize the nature of the threat. The movie is mostly faithful to the book, up until the ending — where again, I have to admit that I found the movie ending a bit more exciting and dramatic than the final confrontation and big finale in the book.

The cast was very good, with a young Logan Lerman in the role of Roy, and a nice cameo by Jimmy Buffett as well. Plus, the geek in me and my kiddo (call us Mama Geek and Geek Junior, I suppose) did a little happy dance when Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson!) appeared in the sleazy role of corporate bad guy Chuck Muckle.

Should you read the book or watch the movie?

Yes to both! Why choose?

Meanwhile, I have no hesitation about recommending this author’s books for kids. Carl Hiaasen’s writing is funny and fast-paced, with strong messages about family connections, loyalty, and respect for the environment. I can pretty much guarantee that kids will love these books, and their parents will too.

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The details:

Title: Hoot
Author: Carl Hiaasen
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date: 2002
Genre: Middle grade
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon

Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon by S. S. Taylor

The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man's CanyonIf you love adventurous kids, mysterious maps, hidden canyons, and steam-powered everything, you won’t want to miss The Expeditioners, the first installment in what promises to be a very exciting middle grade series.

The West kids — Zander, Kit, and MK — are the orphaned children of famous explorer Alexander West, who rose to fame and fortune exploring new lands, then died under mysterious circumstances, leaving the three kids to fend for themselves. And when I say new lands, I really mean New Lands: Several decades earlier, after computers and electricity were proven unreliable and were discarded, explorers discovered New Lands hidden amidst the lands already known. Apparently, all those earlier maps were wrong, and the globes we all rely upon are really just quaint relics. The current world includes places such as the New North Polar Sea, Fazia, and Deloia, and exploring and cartography are among the most esteemed and  sought-after vocations.

Unfortunately, the BNDL (Bureau of Newly Discovered Lands) is in control and is awfully shady. Current policy seems to be to discover resource-rich new worlds and then plunder them for all they’re worth. It’s becoming clear to the West kids that perhaps their dad wasn’t entirely pleased with BNDL’s approach — and it’s starting to seem that the feeling was mutual. The kids are being watched, and when our narrator, Kit, receives a package from a stranger in the market, it sets off a chain of events that will lead the kids into danger as well as excitement.

As The Expeditioners moves forward, Kit and his siblings, along with their new friend Sukey, daughter of a famous explorer herself, set out to solve a puzzle left behind by Alexander. Hidden maps and secret codes lead the gang to a daring escape from BNDL agents and on a mad cross-country dash toward a legendary treasure lost centuries earlier in the canyons of Arizona. The government wants the treasure too, and it’s a race to see who will find it first — if it exists at all.

I read this book with my 11-year-old (who still likes me to read to him at bedtime — hurray!). Let me just cut to the chase here — we both loved The Expeditioners.

The world-building is terrific, as we are introduced to a steampunky society in which the ability to build, tinker, and create is of utmost importance, as are big heaps of courage and a willingness to leap into the unknown. The author takes our own world and technology and spins it into something at once familiar yet completely new. There are no cars, but that’s okay: People travel by steam trains, dirigibles, even steam-powered bicycles and IronSteeds, steam-powered mechanical horses.

The West kids are all talented and honorable. Zander, the oldest at 14, is brave and protective; Kit is a budding cartographer like his dad, and little sister MK can fix anything. Along with their pilot friend Sukey, they demonstrate courage and conviction over and over again, relying on their smarts to get in and out of tight scrapes, with an absolute devotion to one another and to their mission.

A hint of preachiness creeps in when the kids begin to understand the unscrupulous dealings of BNDL and realize how poorly the indigenous populations of the new worlds are being treated. Of course, the PC-lecture tone didn’t faze my son, but I found it a bit heavy-handed.

The storyline is tightly woven and packed with action. After the initial chapters, which seemed about to bog down in exposition, the pace picks up, and we get to truly know the West kids through their adventure, seeing their initiative and daring, as well as their commitment to their father’s memory and to their family as a whole.

Black and white illustrations by Katherine Roy add to the hip feel of the book, bringing the kids to life and adding in details such as gears, clockwork, and goggles that really enhance the story.

The ending makes clear that there is more to come, as the children complete their treasure-seeking adventure and are given a fresh opportunity for new experiences in a new setting. (I’m being intentionally vague here — you won’t get spoilers out of me!) My kiddo and I are both looking forward to seeing how Zander, Kit, and MK fare along their new path, and we really can’t wait for the next Expeditioners book!

Summing it all up: The Expeditioners seems like a perfect choice for middle grade readers, and it’s smart, savvy, and hip enough that parents will enjoy it too. A decidedly different adventure story that’s full of intellectual challenges too, with brave, independent characters of both genders and a range of ages, set in a steampunky American Southwest — this book is one I could see appealing to a wide audience for years to come.

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The details:

Title: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon
Author: S. S. Taylor; illustrated by Katherine Roy
Publisher: McSweeney’s McMullens
Publication date: 2012
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: Will in Scarlet

Book Review: Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody

Will in ScarletIn this exciting middle grade adventure story, Robin Hood takes a backseat to young Will Scarlet, born the son of a nobleman, now a refugee on the run from the evil lord who has captured his father’s castle and betrayed the king. When we first meet Will, he is the 13-year-old son of the estate, born to privilege and prone to mischief. Now on the verge of manhood, it’s time for him to grow up and start acting like a lord — but when his family is betrayed, Will escapes to Sherwood Forest, where he meets up with a band of thieves and outlaws. Will the Merry Men kill Will, ransom him, or make him one of their own? Will is forced to finally figure out who he is and what he stands for — and whether he going to allow his thirst for vengeance to take over his life.

In the forest, Will meets Much the Miller’s Son (who is really a girl in disguise), John Little, a big, strong but fair fighting man, and the drunken, smelly man whose tent Will shares — the prickly and rather repulsive Rob. But once Rob sobers up on a key mission, Will starts to realize what a natural-born leader this man is — as well as an expert hand with a longbow.

It’s terrific fun to read this version of the Robin Hood story. Will In Scarlet serves very much as an origin story. Instead of focusing on Robin Hood himself, we see the band of outlaws through Will’s eyes, and as Will comes to appreciate their bravery and honor, so do we. The story is told mostly from Will’s perspective, although Much gets her fair share of the action as well, and she’s… well… awesome, for lack of a better word! Much is clever, skilled with a knife or a lock-pick, fierce and determined — and bloody well certain that she does NOT want anyone to know she’s a girl.

As Will and Much discover each other’s secrets, they also form a strong bond based on trust, respect — and something more as well. They’re both such delightful characters, and it’s wonderful to get to know them and see how they grow and change during the course of the story.

The plot of Will in Scarlet zips along with never a dull moment. There are battles, sword fights, ambushes, trickery, and daring escapes. There are also moments of great kindness, and we see how Will changes from spoiled little rich kid to young man with a conscience. In this version of the Robin Hood legend, it’s Will who is responsible for the “rob from the rich and give to the poor” ethos of the Merry Men, and this turning point for Will and the gang is given a meaningful and powerful context within the story.

There are serious moments and moments of pain and suffering as well, but overall Will in Scarlet is an upbeat adventure story with terrific characters, some cleverly concealed and revealed secrets, and a storyline that bounces right along. With Will and Much as the two lead characters, I can see this story appealing to boys and girls alike, and highly recommend it for kids in the middle grade zone.

While I couldn’t find anything to confirm this, Will in Scarlet certainly seems like it should be the first in a series. Nothing is left hanging at the end, and the wrap-up is well-earned and satisfying — but in Will in Scarlet, we’re seeing the early days of Robin Hood as the leader of his band of Merry Men. I really and truly hope that author Matthew Cody will give us more! I’d love to see what happens next for Will, Much, Rob and the rest of the gang!

 

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The details:

Title: Will in Scarlet
Author: Matthew Cody
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Middle grade fiction/adventure/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House Children’s Books via NetGalley

 

Book Review: Sky Jumpers

Book Review: Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman

Sky Jumpers (Sky Jumpers, #1)If you’re looking for a middle grade novel with a strong female character and lots of action and adventure, look no further! Sky Jumpers absolutely fits the bill.

In Sky Jumpers, we meet 12-year-old Hope Toriella, a spunky, fearless girl living a surprisingly happy life in White Rock, Nebraska. Surprisingly happy — because this book is set some 40 years after World War III, during which the world was destroyed by “green bombs”, which are basically a more environmentally-friendly version of nukes. People were killed by the millions, cities were destroyed, general devastation resulted — and yet Earth itself is still inhabitable, for those lucky enough to survive the initial bombing.

White Rock is a town located in a deep valley formed by a massive bomb crater, surrounded on all sides by huge mountains. Its limited access — only one tunnel in or out of town — gives it an  ideal defensible position. And safest of all, the upper skies over White Rock, and indeed, over the entire Earth, have a layer of mutated air known as Bomb’s Breath — thicker than normal air, instantly deadly when inhaled, yet invisible to the naked eye. The Bomb’s Breath sits over White Rock like a cork along the mountain tops, ensuring that no invaders will ever attempt to invade by crossing the mountains.

But… Hope and her friends have invented a thrilling game, carefully hidden from their parents, that involves holding their breath, climbing up above the Bomb’s Breath layer, and then jumping back through it. As the dense air cushions their fall, they are able to do amazing acrobatics, and dare one another to try riskier and riskier moves. Hope is the absolute best at sky jumping, and finally manages to nail a double somersault as the book opens.

In White Rock, the most valued skill of all is the ability to invent. The green bombs changed not only the air but also the nature of certain metals, so that the survivors have to find new ways to make what they need with the materials readily available — largely wood, water, stone, and the products of their fields. Each year, the townspeople show off their new inventions during a big festival, and everyone from age four upwards is expected to participate. And Hope, to put it bluntly, sucks at inventing. Nothing she makes ever comes off the way she intends, leaving her feeling like the town laughingstock.

The action really revs up when White Rock is invaded by a group of armed bandits, intent on stealing the town’s supply of a rare and valuable antibiotic, and willing to kill in order to get it. However, if the town hands over its supply, it won’t be able to make more until the next spring, by which point a recurring disease may kill off a good portion of the town. All seems lost — but Hope is nothing if not a daredevil, and she knows a secret way out of town. Risking everything, she and her friends set off to get help — but will they get there in time? Can children really save the day?

I won’t say whether Hope’s quest is successful — it’s too much fun to find out on your own! Hope is a brave, strong girl, intensely loyal to her parents, her friends, and her community. Everyone around her can see her strength and her leadership qualities, but it takes this threat to the town for Hope to fully realize that her lack of inventing skills doesn’t mean that she has nothing to contribute.

It’s lovely to see a girl take the lead in a physically grueling plan to escape and rescue her town. Hope is a smart girl who knows the risks she’s taking, but also realizes that if she doesn’t try, the town is doomed. Between her courage and her agility, Hope has pretty much the only chance of success, and you can’t help but root for her as she faces challenge after challenge, thinking ahead, taking chances, and pushing forward even when the odds seem insurmountable.

Start to finish, Sky Jumpers is fast-paced and exciting. The world-building is quite good, portraying a post-apocalyptic Earth that’s different and startling, but not too bleak or depressing for the intended audience. This new world feels like a frontier full of challenge, and even though there are bad guys out there, life itself doesn’t seem particularly awful — just different. Characters are nicely defined — not just Hope, but her parents, teachers, and friends are all distinct personalities with talents, ideas, and inner lives that make them feel like real invidividuals and not just faces in a crowd.

Sky Jumpers is a book I’d have no qualms about handing to a boy or girl in the target age range — in fact, although I read this book both for my own enjoyment and for the purpose of reviewing it here, I’d love to have my 11-year-old son read it next. I think it would be right up his alley.

Well-written, with a dynamic story arc, lots of excitement and adventure, a high-stakes climax full of heroic daring — I’d consider Sky Jumpers a terrific choice for kids in the 8 – 13 age range. And who knows? Perhaps this one will even entice my reluctant reader to read past his bedtime.

Final note: According to the author’s website, Sky Jumpers #2 will be out in Fall 2014. But have no fear! Even though this is apparently an ongoing series, Sky Jumpers is a fully realized story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and stands on its own just fine. But I’ll happily check out book #2 — I’m sure there are great adventures ahead for Hope and for White Rock, and I’d love to see what happens next!

Okay, really the final note: I see from the author’s blog that she’s a Joss Whedon fan. And now it all makes sense. ***happily geeking out…***

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The details:

Title: Sky Jumpers
Author: Peggy Eddleman
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Middle grade adventure
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House via NetGalley

Thursday Quotables: Sky Jumpers

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

This week’s Thursday Quotable:

You would think I’d never jumped off a cliff before, based on how long I stood there. Not jumping.

Of course, I’d never made this jump before.

Sky Jumpers (Sky Jumpers, #1)

Source: Sky Jumpers
Author: Peggy Eddleman
Random House Children’s Books, 2013

Now that’s one catchy way to start a book!

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click below (next to the cute froggy face) to link up your post! And be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables too.
  • Have a quote to share but not a blog post? Leave your quote in the comments.
  • Have fun!