Tuesday, October 27, 2015

MiNRS by Kevin Sylvester

Science fiction over the years has reflected the fears and concerns of society. In the 50's, 60's, and 70's there was hype over landing on the moon and exploring space, the fear of alien invasions and nuclear war. The cold war fizzled in the 90's and the war on terrorism and technology exploded. Books such as "Fahrenheit 451," by Ray Bradbury reflected fears over the invention of the television while more recent novels like, " Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins mirrored reality-TV shows and the Iraqi war. From biotechnology to artificial intelligence, science fiction dances across a gamut of topics exploring scientific, political, and social implications in a speculative society. Kevin Sylvester's book, "MiNRS," shows the political ramifications of one company controlling resources needed by a future Earth that has been destroyed by humans. When a war breaks out, the story unfolds from the viewpoint of one boy who is trying to survive and make sense out of violence.

Christopher Nichols appears like a typical kid, going to school and thinking about homework while adults run a mining operation for metals and minerals in his town-like setting; however, there is one itty-bitty detail that is far from typical... Christopher's "town" is a small space colony plopped on the asteroid named, "Perses." For a kid with a slant toward science and math, his life is not only cool, he absorbs the information and world around him like a hygroscopic substance. Perses threatened to collide with Earth until a scientist, Hans Melming, was able to use rockets and gravity to propel it into a habitable part of orbit. He terraformed the planetoid's surface and sent up humans to mine the ore. About twenty children live on Perses and Christopher is one of them.

As time passed, Earth depleted its resources and left Melming Mining Company with the golden rod or rock of invaluable resources. The colony seems unaware of the target on its back but some are worried, like Christopher's parents. Christopher has everything he needs and leads a privileged life with his parents who work as supervisors at the mine. He idolizes Melming and every year the school watches a propaganda movie about the great contributions Melming has made to the survival of Earth.

The inhabitants on Perses are readying for a blackout caused by solar interference and know that communications with Earth will be knocked out for a month. The colony is protected by the Melming Mining Company from Earth but the blackout means no protection or warnings. Their worse fears are realized when they are attacked by "Landers," an unknown group from Earth, intending to steal the ore. They bomb the facility and the adults are killed with only a few children able to seek shelter underground. Christopher's mathematical and scientific brain immediately goes into survival mode and makes plans. His parents had a backup plan if something went wrong during the blackout, except the plan was in code and Christopher is having a hard time deciphering it. With the aid of his friend, Elena, the two seek help from Earth and retaliate against the Landers.

Futuristic or science fiction novels speculate what the world would be like in a different setting. A common trope in these novels is an authoritarian government that is in control with a naive protagonist that accepts the status quo. The government is seductively attractive until the protagonist unravels serious flaws in the system. Such is the case as Christopher believes the propaganda at first before slowing realizing that all is not idyllic. Others are in forced labor and oppressive conditions but this has been hidden from the 20 children. When discovered, most of the other privileged children don't see what is wrong with it but slip into superior, prejudiced views that do not value other human beings. As Christopher's ideal world is exposed to harsh realities, he has to choose right from wrong and it is these internal battles that give the novel depth. Not only is Christopher dealing with problems on a personal level, but he has to analyze and think critically about the political and social issues of how the asteroid was governed and maintained by the adults.

The surviving children are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. They have seen family members blown up by bombs and shot at and respond in different ways. Elena tries to take comfort in military strategies and attacking the enemy. Christopher makes plans and tries to think of the survival of the group. Another character cares medically for the others, while another hoards food. Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events and it adds to the authenticity of the characters. The attack and subsequent deaths are traumatizing making it difficult to move forward each day.

The world-building is well-done and not so scientific that young readers can't follow it. The reader never discovers who the enemy is and the end suggests that the government is seriously messed up down on Earth. I wanted more back story but enough was given to tease me along. While I would normally want to know who the attackers are rather than have these faceless, pirate villains that never interact with anyone, I didn't think it detracted from the novel. I think it was left out to entice the reader to the sequel, but I would have preferred more clues as to who the Landers were that so violently attacked Christopher's community.

The subplot of Christopher's budding romance with Elena adds another emotional element to the story, but is not overpowering. Elena's jealousy of the grinder is never realized in this novel and the cliff-hanger ending leaves more than just that question. The adults that Christopher thinks he sees raises new questions as well. This reminds me a little of the book "Shipbreaker," but less violent. Not that this one isn't. It is. The action adventure will appeal to many of my students along with Christopher's ability to use math and science to survive in dire circumstances.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #1) by Rick Riordan

If you liked Percy Jackson, you will enjoy this first book in a series that follows a similar pattern with a snarky protagonist, humor that balances violence, great monsters, a demigod, mythology-based fantasy plot, mnemonics to learn foreign words, a cross-over with a character (Annabeth Chase appears), and a first person narration. Why mess with a good thing? Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series has sold in the millions. Magnus Chase will satisfy loyal fans. Yah... sure.

Magnus Chase is sixteen and homeless. His mom died protecting him when two monsters burst into his apartment. When Magnus discovers two people looking for him he breaks into the home of his uncle setting in motion a hunt for an ancient and powerful sword. He learns that his dad is a god which gives him the ability to retrieve the sword. And don't cha know, good and evil beings want this sword and once he calls it to him he sets in motion events that signal not only the end of the world, but life as he knows it. That's right. He's killed. This isn't a spoiler. He tells the reader in the first paragraph using the oh-so-familiar Rick Riordan hook. I bit. As Magnus learns what it is like to be a ghost warrior in Valhalla, he tries to save the world with the aide of a Valkarie of Arab descent and two disguised homeless men. The action snowballs to an exciting climax.

In Norse mythology, the gods know that their destiny is inescapable and doomed to a bloody epic battle called, "Ragnarok," that will leave them and humanity dead. From the ashes will rise two people that signify the regeneration of life. The myths show life as cyclical with gods and human beings not in despair over their fate, but attempting to hold it off. Loki points this out when he tells Magnus: “Well what you do is change the details. That’s how you rebel. That’s how you change the narrative. I know how I’m going to die, but between now and then I’m going to make my own game.” You betcha.

Magnus reminds me of the Germanic heroic code found in medieval literature such as Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas where death is heroic and not tragic and destruction is final not life-giving. The heroic code means that Magnus places honor above death and dies saving the lives of strangers. He decides at the last minute to make his death count by taking out a fire demon. Magnus displays courage in the face of overwhelming or impossible odds and remains strong in the face of death. This hero understands that Fate will take everything - power, family, wealth - gained in the world, but it can't take the hero's character. Out of this mentality comes the literary trope where the Germanic hero dies with a quip taking light of the situation. Magnus does not have wealth, fame, or power and he puts his own spin on the heroic code calling the fire demon, "Fire Dude,"and acting like a rebellious teen taunting him and giving him the finger, but he does reflect elements of this type of hero.

Don't worry. All my Minnesota speak that comes from German and Scandinavian immigrants is not in Rick Riordan's book. He does have a deaf person in it that uses sign language to communicate with others. That character is unique and worked into the plot in interesting ways. He does have several characters use Old English that enhances voice and setting, but don't expect to find kennings and alliteration found in Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas. That's probably a good thing for the younger reading audience. Kennings are confusing. Although I do like how Riordan makes it easier to memorize the names of gods using mnemonics. If he could come up with a way to wade through the murky waters of kennings that would be amazing.

The character of the Valkarie that is Muslim-American is a nod to 10th century writer, Ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveler who was part of a delegation sent by the Caliph in Baghdad to help establish Islam for the king of the Volga Bulghars in Russia. Fadlan wrote about the "Rus" or Vikings that had settled there for trade and goes into detail the funeral rites involving a ship burial and human sacrifice. Riordan has the Valkarie character descending from this family. Ironically, Fadlan was a theologian and thought the Rus Vikings were vulgar and primitive. I doubt Fadlan would appreciate his descendant being loyal to the Norse gods; however, no religion is revered by these characters, especially Magnus.

Fadlan's account about Viking funeral practices have been somewhat generalized and it might not be how a funeral was conducted in Scandinavia during the Viking reign. Fadlan met a band of select warriors who became merchants and that adapted to a new culture in Russia. I'm not an archeologist, but I don't think there is an account of Viking funeral rites in Scandinavia. Don't quote me on that. Sorry. This has nothing to do with the book. I'm digressing into my fascination with Viking history. Maybe that is my clue that I've written enough book reviews on Rick Riordan's series. Time to move on.

3 Smileys

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

This book is like a slow boiling pot of noodles. I'm always impatient for the quiet pool of water to heat up. I forget about it and then suddenly boiling water is rushing unexpectedly to the top, steam hissing as it touches the dry sides of the metal pan before spilling over the edge onto the burner. "Circus Mirandus" simmers at the start with the nasty Aunt Gertrudis that cruelly manipulates her nephew, fifth grader Micah, from seeing his dying grandfather. The story erupts at the end with oodles of action as Micah matures into a young man willing to take risks and find happiness in whatever situation life gives him. The writing has beautiful figurative language that had me writing down favorite lines and themes that spilleth over like my pasta pot - although I found it hard to latch onto one. Good book. Thought-provoking. Just hard for me to write about in a cohesive manner. My fragmented sentences truly reflect my thoughts on this one.

Micah Tuttle has heard his Grandfather Ephraim's "Circus Mirandus" stories all his life, but when he finally gets to enter the world of stories for real, he finds magic in illusions that give him hope when things look bleak. His grandpa is dying and Micah needs a miracle to save his life. Micah knows that the Lightbender promised Ephraim a miracle as a young boy that he never used. Micah wants Ephraim to use that miracle now for a cure so he doesn't die and Micah will have to live with the unimaginative and mean-spirited Aunt Gertrudis. Grandpa Ephraim cashes in his "ticket" for a miracle and most of the story is spent seeing what that miracle is. Micah makes friends with Jenny, a girl in his class that doesn't believe in magic but science. She's a loyal friend and grounds Micah in reality as he gets lost in the world of magic.

Illusion in Circus Mirandus is suppose to inspire hope and good-will for children that represent the future. Not everyone understands the power of illusion. Aunt Gertrudis felt deceived by the world of illusion as she never got to see Circus Mirandus. Victoria believes that magic is power and should be spent on oneself and not children. She uses magic for the wrong reasons. Micah and his Grandpa believe in the good and joy that magic brings to their lives. The Lightbender is the master of illusion and a metaphor for storytelling.

Micah and Ephraim tell the Lightbender that he has "changed" them. Storytelling in its own right is a form of illusion with the goal of changing the reader. Readers must be able to enter another world and identify with the characters. In that alternate make-believe world they can interpret what is happening in the plot, apply it to themselves and develop new understandings of themselves in a complex world. In this case, Micah is dealing with death and the choices he makes in life. He realizes that he can't control the adults around him, but he can control his attitude and beliefs. Storytelling is passed from generation to generation and as Ephraim passes his stories on to Micah the tradition and history of this craft is highlighted. Stories as a form of entertainment, socialization, ethics, and education can be found in every culture from ancient times (i.e. Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Vedas, Shijing) to the present.

The friendship between Jenny and Micah reveals the complexity of relationships from acquaintances to interpersonal bonding. Jenny is skeptical of magic and at times embarrasses Micah with her lack of understanding when she meets others from the circus. She's not sensitive to what she is saying and only realizes something is up because Micah seems upset. But Micah doesn't abandon their friendship because of a fight. She helps settle him down during emotional moments and gives sound advice at critical moments. Micah knows this and reminds himself of her strengths when he feels let down or angry with her. The two disagree but they are respectful of each others opinions.

Aunt Gertrudis is an archetype like Dicken's Scrooge or more accurately Roald Dahl's Aunt Spiker. She is wicked and more of a caricature that represents human qualities than a three-dimensional character. I understand that hyperboles are a good way to to point out the details of characters, but it doesn't work for me if the character is cliched or stereotyped. Aunt Gertrudis is neither, but she was plain ole frustrating with her lack of compassion and use of authority to keep Micah from seeing his grandpa. I thought the plot's action got slightly repetitive as she kept preventing him to see his grandpa.

Aunt Gertrudis' description is delicious: "On the inside, Aunt Gertrudis was probably cough syrup. She wore her dust-colored hair twisted into a bun so tight it almost pulled her wrinkled skin smooth, and she starched her shirts until the collars were stiff enough to cut. She made black tea every day in a bright steel kettle. The tea was scalding and bitter, a lot like her, and she wouldn't let Micah add sugar because she said bad teeth ran in the family."

Now compare the above description to Aunt Spiker in Roald Dahl's book. "Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy overboiled cabbage. Aunt Spiker, on the other hand, was lean and tall and bony, and she wore steel-rimmed spectacles that fixed on to the end of her nose with a clip. She had a screeching voice and long wet narrow lips, and whenever she got angry or excited, little flecks of spit would come shooting out of her mouth as she talked. And there they sat, these two ghastly hags, sipping their drinks, and every now and again screaming at James to chop faster and faster. They also talked about themselves, each one saying how beautiful she thought she was."

Grandpa Ephraim explains to Micah that if you hold on too hard to something you break it. When something becomes too important in life such as magic, money, power, fame, it leads to self-centered choices that are distorted in reality. Victoria thought she was so important and special that she murdered animals to prove a point and didn't see anything wrong with it. For her, the future did not exist in the children she brought happiness to but existed in satisfying her own needs and wallowing in her magical powers. She desires to be special, to stand out. Like Aunt Gertrudis she is an archetype  villain whose perspective is distorted in the quest for power.

Circus Mirandus nutures magic. But magic is what is inside of people. For Micah, magic is in the knots he can tie that reflect the complexity of others. For Jenny, magic is in her friendship to Micah and ability to be open to new ideas. Magic for the Lightbender is to create fantastic illusions that give hope in the impossible. Magic is the part of a person that is too big to keep to himself or herself and must be given to others in order for a person to reach his or her potential. Magic is a metaphor for giving to others. Individual talents are not for personal gain but used to nuture and share with others. Like I said, I had a hard time pulling out one strong overall theme that the character development points back to. I think its magic. In the end, I feel more like Big Anthony who loses control of his pasta pot. Perhaps someone else can take my mishmash and make sense out of it. I'm done drudging through my thoughts and I'm hungry for spaghetti.

5 Smileys

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Perfect Place by Teresa E. Harris

Treasure has more on her plate than the normal kid. Her father periodically abandons his family and she is usually left with taking care of her sister while her mom struggles to get out of bed. As of yet, her dad always comes back. However, this time, it has been longer than normal so her mother goes after him leaving Treasure and her younger sister, Tiffany with Great-Aunt Grace, a.k.a. GAG. Grace is a curmudgeon with a tender heart that doesn't reveal itself until later in the story. She's been single her whole life and doesn't quite know how to handle Treasure and Tiffany. One sasses back and the other wails. Both girls long for the "perfect place"; a permanent home to live in without a father that always moves them every few months due to his restless, meandering personality.

As the two girls adjust to Grace, Treasure makes friends with another new kid, Terrance. Treasure can't admit he is a friend, she doesn't want to become attached to anyone as she knows her "homes" are always temporary. The two are "associates" and while Treasure has a tough exterior, Terrance knows how to reach her in a nonthreatening way. Treasure is a prickly kid. She loves her younger sister and looks out for her, but with others she talks back and is sarcastic making for a strong female character that reminds me of the Gaither Sisters series by Rita Williams-Garcia or "Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere."

The characters have strong voices that are distinct from each other. Mom swears quite a bit. Grace is harsh at first and softens toward the end. Tiffany offers comic relief along with Treasure's sarcasm. Grace and her friend, Moon, can smoke up a blue streak but Grace shows she's willing to change her ways when she sees Treasure have an asthma attack. As you can see, this is not the perfect family. People lose their temper. They are disrespectful toward each other. And in the beginning everyone is plain ole' miserable about everything.

Treasure is a bright kid that loves words. So does her father. He isn't a villain in the story. It is clear that Treasure really loves him and that he loves her. This offers hope at the end when things don't go the way they want. At one point Treasure tries to remake herself by changing her name to her middle name. She doesn't want people to know that she is related to Great-Aunt Grace who is not liked by the any townspeople except Moon. This part of the story needed a little balance as Grace owns a store in town and she would have some customers she gets along with; however, every character met is up against her.

The plot has some nice twists, especially with Treasure's asthma. Other parts were slow. And other parts were funny. The woman running the Bible camp yells at Treasure, "This is Camp Jesus Saves for God's sakes!" Another fun dialogue is between Grace and Treasure: "'I wish we could stay here,' I say... / 'But you can't, because y'all don't listen,' she says. / 'You don't clean'/ 'You got a smart mouth.'/ 'You can't cook.' / 'You talk back.' / 'I kind of like you,' I say. / 'I kind of like you, too," Auntie says. 'Now, go on, git.'"

Strong character arcs show the protagonist changing in some way emotionally as well as through events that happen in the story. The author creates a strong emotionally charged character that changes throughout the story and this kept me more engaged in the narrative than the plot. I found some of the events sort of slow, but Treasure's slow acceptance of a friends and her relationship with GAG as the two bumble along like stubborn fools until they start to get along made for great tension. The asthma added more strength to the plot when the author used that as a twist. If you are looking for a realistic book that does not have the perfect family (or perfect place) then give this a go.

4 Smileys