Saturday, June 21, 2008
by Michael Scott
This book drew my attention immediately because of the Nicholas Flamel connection - some may remember him as the creator of the Philosopher's Stone in the first Harry Potter book. I was curious to see what another author had done with him and this being a teen novel, I was hoping for something meaty.
This weighty novel did not disappoint. The action begins quickly, as Sophie stands on a regular summer day in the coffee shop where she works and sees chaos break out in the bookstore across the street, where her twin brother is employed. She runs to him, and the pair are drawn into a whole new world, where the unassuming bookseller Nick Fleming and his wife Perry turn out to be the ages-old alchemist and his wife, kept alive for hundreds of years through a formula he uncovered in an ancient text. Coming after them and that same text is another magician, this one from Elizabeth I's court and also immortal through magic, Dr. John Dee, who has allied himself with ancient and dark forces who wish to reclaim the world for themselves and enslave the human race.
As they flee Dee, Josh (the other twin) manages to rip two very important pages from the book - pages which Dee will want badly enough to continue hunting for the twins and Flamel, though he has captured his wife. Flamel, and later Dee, also begin to suspect that these twins are something special, something referred to in one of the book's prophecies, and that the fate of the world may well rest with them and how well they can be protected and taught along the way.
The action is nonstop in this book, and as the plot twists and progresses, the author has drawn in a wide variety of historical figures and legends, weaving them together to form a background that he notes took years to piece together before he truly began writing the book. Without giving away too much detail, he incorporates myths from Egypt and the British Isles, as well as legends that have cropped up in cultures around the world, topping it off with a sprinkling of real historical figures such as Flamel and Dee. (An excerpt at the end reveals that we can look forward to Nicolo Machiavelli joining the fray in the next book, where the chase has moved to Europe.) The result is something so well-thought-out that it becomes convincing in the reading, and allows for easy suspension of disbelief - something I struggle with sometimes in reading fantasy-type fiction, and I must admit, the use of real mythology certainly helps for me. The book's construction and backstory is clever and interesting, the plot keeps you reading, and the characters sympathetic enough that even where you don't feel that you know them well (as in the enigmatic ancient warrior Scathach), you care about their fate. It all comes together to mean that I read this book in record time, sacrificing valuable evening flake-out time and nearly missing my subway stop on more than one occasion. Yes, I was riveted, and devoured it in mere days, quite a thing for a slow reader like myself to say of a 375-pager.
This book was terrific - I am handing it off to a coworker who was looking for something to read, and I am more than a touch disappointed to see that the next installment is not available in the catalogue yet, though it is to be released in hardcover later this week, according to Indigo (which I had to go and check, having just finished the book today!). Perhaps it might have to be a rare teen purchase...
Monday, June 16, 2008
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
This first of three (so far) is an interesting blend of diary-style book and graphic novel, much in the style of the Amelia books by Marissa Moss, with handwriting for a font, and little comics illustrating it throughout.
It is essentially the journal of a middle-school kid who is not at the bottom of the food chain, but definitely not at the top. He isn't exactly admirable, letting his friend get in trouble for things he's done, for example, but isn't a total jerk, either. He's just a kid. Self-interested, somewhat obnoxious, occasionally kind, trying to find his way through school without being eaten alive.
My favourite thing here is how the illustrations complement the text by showing a bit more truth or detail, or by adding what he wishes had happened or been said. They are a fun added layer, something that would have to be embodied in the text of a more conventional book.
I see this as a great find for a reluctant reader, for it is quick, short, funny, and eminently relatable. The fact that there are two more to devour once you've read it only mkaes it that much better as a starting place into reading for a kid who'd rather not.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
The Talented Clementine
I adored the first Clementine book, which really stands out from the pack of other early readers about the misadventuresof young, precocious girls for the fact that Clementine isn't bratty or snotty, just doesn't always get it right.
In this followup, she panics when her class starts organizing a talent show, and she can't think of an act. Avoiding it doesn't seem to be working, trying to learn a new talent is a bust, and by the time the show has snuck up on her, she is convinced she is bound to disappoint her parents, teachers, and classmates.
Some of her true talents shine as the show starts coming together, however, and while she doesn't notice them, others do. so she doesn't get on stage after all - but she does get her due recognition, just in a different way. And I love the way she describes the feeling when she does, as "the proud feeling: like the sun was rising inside my chest." Perfect.
The Case of the Left-handed Lady
Enola has set up, since the first mystery, a reasonable semblance of an existance for herself, complete with a few different identities and associated disguises. Although set up as a "scientific perditorian," she is mostly concerned, at first anyhow, with keeping herself hidden and figuring out how much her brothers know about her whereabouts, as well as adapting herself to keeping safe on the dangerous streets of Victorian London. Her newfound passion for helping other disguised as a nun doesn't help any, as she performs this role at night, wandering among the slums.
Through the book, a strange series of events turn out to be related as she is drawn into the mystery of a missing girl, learns about some radical new political movements of the time, and set upon at night herself.
Parallel to this runs the continued avoidance of her brothers, complete with a trick message left by one to trap her, a bit of snooping on her part, and a direct run-in with the ever-so-sharp Sherlock Holmes. Thsi plot will clearly continue to push through any future volumes as well, and at the end of this book, she is determined to keep herself from their grasp, telling them via newspaper ad to 'rot.'
I like the blend of suspense from the two plotlines here, I like Enola's spunk and intelligence, and I especially like the high level of explanation as to Victorian customs that is done throughout, somehow without being overly intrusive. This is a great series for a girl who likes some adventure and some smarts in her reading, but won't leave the girlier girls behind, either.
Invasion of the IQ Snatchers
Something weird is going on in Nanaimo, BC, where plates of nanaimo bars are being delivered, and a few of them stolen away by a large, hairy thief. And why do the parents all seem so strange, all of a sudden, what with the curlers and the TV-watching and the obsession with clean ears?
Determined to find out, a pair of friends and friendly competitors set out after the thief to find out what she knows. A fair bit, it turns out, but joining forces, the three just barely manage to stop the brains of Nanaimo from becoming fuel for intergalactic flight. No, really. But it's okay, everyone turns out normal in the end, and the thief becomes a friend - for future volumes, perhaps?
Strange and silly, this one reminds me a bit of Daniel Pinkwater's style, and is sure to have the same appeal, especially to reluctant readers. Teachers may appreciate the author, who is notable on the Canadian kid lit scene, while kids will pretty surely enjoy the thin size and the fun, quirky, fast-paced content.
Sunday, June 08, 2008
Publisher Review: Nobody's Princess
(A word about publisher reviews)
You would expect that a book of historical fiction about the classical figure Helen would have something to do with Troy? In this case, no. Instead, Friesner looks into Helen's younger years, envisioning her as a princess itching for something different, more adventurous out of life, long before Paris ever enters the picture.
Helen starts learning to hunt and use weapons, avoiding needlework whenever she can, and accompanies her brothers on their errand to deliver her sister to the land of her new husband. On the return, they are drawn into adventures, and she in turn creates a few of her own, including meeting up with Atalanta to learn to ride a horse and take part in a boar hunt. By the end of the book, she has found a companion, given her guards the slip, and is headed out to try and join the crew of Jason with her brothers.
This book is pure imagining, but is fun for anyone who enjoys the spunky heroines of authors like Tamora Pierce or Nancy Springer, for example. I did find her rebellious streak and the ways in which she indulges it a bit formulaic, having read others like her, but that is to take nothing away from the book - it is still a good read for the teen who enjoys this style, and I particularly liked the way the author wove in references to ancient personages while making them more realistic. All in all, it was a solid, enjoyable read. I think I will be reading the sequel, Nobody's Prize, to see where Friesner takes it from here!