This Week in Reviews: November 17, 2011

FICTION

4Q 4P M J S

Haines, Kathryn Miller. The Girl Is Murder. Roaring Brook/Macmillan, 2011. 352p. $16.99. 978-1596436091.

Iris Anderson has taken a giant leap from her former life.  Formerly a private school girl on the Upper East Side, living with her mother and barely thinking of her father in the Navy, Iris is now in public school on the Lower East Side, her mother has committed suicide, and she lives with her injured veteran father who is trying to make ends meet.  After he comes home from Pearl Harbor, Iris knows money is tight and thinks she can help with her father’s private investigation business, much to his dismay.  After one of her classmates disappears, and Iris’s father is given the case, Iris knows she has to find out what happened to Tom.

The setting of this book—World War II home front New York City—is not a common setting for young adult historical fiction novels of this era.  The focus is not on the war, or the horrors going on overseas—it is on those left behind.  Iris has to confront the reality of her mother’s death and the consequences of her father’s injury, and also learn an entirely new way of life.  Haines paints an intriguing backdrop for her mystery, and characters and language ring true.  Fans of Nancy Drew will enjoy meeting a new girl detective.—Kate Conklin.

SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY/HORROR

3Q 3P J S

Castellucci, Cecil. First Day on Earth. Scholastic, 2011. 160p. $17.99. 978-0545060820.

Castelluci offers her own unique take on the adolescent problem novel.  The narrator, Mal, feels distant from his classmates.  Years ago, Mal’s father left the family, leaving his mother to suffer with her alcoholism and Mal, with often unbearable emotional pain.  Mal is not just any troubled teen, however.  He believes he was abducted by aliens and one day he stumbles into a support group for other abductees.  There he meets Hooper, a strange man who claims to be an extraterrestrial.  As Mal and Hooper become friends, Mal dreams of escaping Earth even as he doubts Hooper’s story.  A girl at school tentatively starts to reach out to Mal, but Mal is torn between his earthly connections and his dreams of interstellar freedom.

Mal is a sensitively drawn, complex teen character.  Underneath all his anger and hurt, he is a kind, caring young man.  Castelluci evokes Mal through a skillful use of his voice and sparse prose that sometimes borders on poetry.  Readers will sympathize with Mal and will be drawn into his emotional universe, while the element of aliens adds a sense of mystery.  The novel’s main problem is one of pacing.  It is a slim book, mostly taken up by Mal’s internal monologue and little action.  The ending, however, moves a bit too quickly and does not ring completely emotionally true.  Teens who like stories full of emotion, and those who, like Mal, have a hard time reaching out to others, will appreciate this heartfelt novel.  It is also a quick read for reluctant readers.—Jennifer Rosenstein.

3Q 3P M

Cowell, Cressida. How to Break a Dragon’s Heart: How to Train Your Dragon, Book 8. Little, Brown, 2011. $12.99. 320p. 978-0316176187.

Underneath all the silliness in How to Break a Dragon’s Heart, the latest in the comical fantasy series How to Train Your Dragon, are themes of loyalty, friendship, and courage. Part sword-and-sorcery and part swashbuckler, the story’s action is easy to keep track of with characters named Stoick the Vast, Norbit the Nutjob, Toothless Dragon, and Tantrum O’Ugerly; and landmarks such as Dangerous Reefs, More Dangerous Reefs, Huge Hill, and Tallest Mountain. In this farcical saga, Hiccup the Viking (otherwise known as Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III) sets out (at his own great risk) to save his best friend’s life; the forest landscape and mighty seas, with hidden caves, cliffs, treetop villages, and dungeons, decorate a tale chock full of witches, sea monsters, mini-dragons that fly, giant bees, and Scarers (bat-like creatures who can smell the fear hormone and boast a “7” on the scare-you-to-death scale).

Young teens will enjoy the book’s potty humor, zany shenanigans, and tongue-in-cheek chapter titles like “The Fiance-Before-the-Fiance Before Last” and “Definitely Not the Perfect Camping Spot.”  Amateurish drawings, “handwritten” comments, and footnotes add to the book’s visual appeal and expose readers to new conventions of text.  Like the other books in the series, book 8 is a stand-alone read, but the author’s teasing references to other stories in the series will make readers want to relish them all.—Christina Miller.

3Q 5P J S

de la Cruz, Melissa. Lost in Time: A Blue Bloods Novel. Hyperion, 2011. 352p. $16.99. 978-1423121299.

The sixth book in the main Blue Bloods series finds Schuyler and Jack travelling to Egypt in pursuit of the Gate of Promise, with Mimi and Oliver not far behind, visiting the underworld to rescue Kingsley Martin. The story is rounded out with flashbacks to Allegra’s life in 1989.  With short chapters jumping among the three parallel plot lines, there is a lot going on in this story, none of it all that exciting.  Literally thousands of miles away from the high society fun of the first books, this installment is all plot, much of which seems repetitive as the three heroines each deal with a broken vampire bond and what the choices related to that mean to their lives.  Readers should have full (and recent) knowledge of the Blue Bloods mythology to appreciate this book; reading Lost in Time so long after Misguided Angel felt like what it must be like to watch the Harry Potter movies having not read the books—you get the gist of it, but you know you’re missing something.

With its focus on doomed love, the underworld, angels, and demons, de la Cruz’s writing can tend toward the melodramatic.  The scenes in the underworld are almost clever but fall flat, and the author’s tendency to use the word “boy” to describe male characters in their twenties is simply irritating.  That said, it is unlikely that passionate fans of the series will care about those details, but will instead snatch this volume up as soon as it hits the shelves.—Vikki C. Terrile.

4Q 4P M J

Elkeles, Simone. Chain Reaction: A Perfect Chemistry Novel. Walker Books, 2011. 320p. $17.99. 978-0802720870.

This third Perfect Chemistry entry (Perfect Chemistry [Walker, 2010/VOYA February 2000]; Rules of Attraction [Walker, 2010/VOYA June 2010]) features Luis—at fifteen, the youngest Fuentes’ brother—a charming daredevil planning to study aeronautics.  Luis lives in Colorado to avoid the Chicago gangs who had permeated his family, but returns for his brother’s wedding and is instantly attracted to the feisty Nikki.  Nikki, however, has just told her supposed soul mate about her pregnancy—later failed and cruelly dumped.  Crushed, she erases males from her life, although captivated by Luis.  Two years later, Luis is again living in Chicago and ardently pursuing the reluctant, but increasingly desirous, Nikki.  When his area’s gang leader reappears and blackmails him into joining to assure his family’s safety, Luis complies, hiding his progressively dark activities until learning shocking family secrets that clearly indicate he must choose the gang or an exciting future with Nikki.

Alternately narrated by Luis and Nikki, fans of the series and other females will gobble up this exciting, suspenseful novel. Back-story returns former series characters, adding depth to  Luis’s family and actions.  This is steamy rather than graphic, but lags somewhat with many repetitive near-misses regarding Nikki’s dating acceptances, sometimes appearing more callous than cautious, before dissolving into love.  A crowded epilogue, twenty-six years later, wanders slightly, but provides a satisfying close to the series.—Lisa A. Hazlett.

3Q  2P  S

Friedman, C. S. Legacy of Kings: Magister Trilogy, Book 3. DAW, 2011. 448p. $25.95. 978-0756406936.

In this final volume of the Magister series, the Witch Queen, Sidera Aminestas, has formed an alliance with the Souleater queen and plans to take over the land and take vengeance on the sorcerers who betrayed her.  In the High Kingdom, magic requires the sacrifice of soulfire, the very essence of life.  Magisters drain another’s soulfire to work their magic, and witches give up their own life essence.  In spite of centuries of enmity, the Magisters must put aside their selfishness, unite, and work with ex-monk King Salvator and the Guardians if mankind is to be saved.  Colivar, one of the oldest Magisters, and Kamala, the sole female Magister, play a pivotal role in the final battle.

As in the previous books, the plot is somewhat difficult to follow as each chapter focuses on a different character and place, moving from one to another as the story unfolds.  Because of the structure, reading is rather slow-going.  The main conflict here is the battle between humanity and animal instinct, especially the internal struggle with which Colivar must deal.  Many of the mysteries are revealed in this volume, such as the origin of the Magisters and where from where their power originates.  The story comes to a satisfying conclusion. Purchase this title where the others in the series are popular.—Deborah L. Dubois.

1Q 1P S A/YA

Malan, Violette. Path of the Sun: A Novel of Dhulyn and Parno. DAW, 2011. 432p. $7.99. Mass Market pb. 978-0756406806.

In the fourth novel of Malan’s series, Dhulyn Wolfshead and Parno Lionsmane, partners in the Mercenary Brotherhood, are sent to Menoin to deliver Princess Cleona to her wedding.  While in Menoin, they are also to investigate the disappearance of two of their Mercenary brethren who have not been heard from in more than a year.  Shortly after they arrive in Menoin, the princess is murdered, her body left in a grisly tableau, and Dhulyn and Parno must walk the ancient Path of the Sun in search of both the killer and their missing brethren.

This novel is extremely difficult to read without prior knowledge of the series.  No background on the previous books is given, nor is the function of the Mercenary Brotherhood explained, although the reader comes to understand that as Mercenary Brothers, Dhulyn and Parno have severed all ties to their previous lives and become bonded with one another.  The identity of the killer is revealed in the first chapter, which makes the end rather anticlimactic.  The story ends as abruptly as it begins, leaving plenty of room for the next book.  There is danger to be found on the Path of the Sun, but there is very little suspense.  Readers looking for the next great epic fantasy series should look elsewhere.—Elizabeth Norton.

4Q 3P J S Graphic Format

Nijyo, Rin and Hana Saitou. Tales of the Abyss: Asch the Bloody,Volume 1. Bandai Entertainment, 2011. 180p. $10.99 Trade pb. 978-1-60496-298-7.

Asch the Bloody uses stellar art to create an enjoyable companion manga suitable for all fans of the original video game and anime, Tales of the Abyss.  The manga follows Asch, who played a secondary, though crucial, part in the original series.  Van kidnaps the young prince, Asch, and replaces him with a clone.  Asch thinks Van saved his life and dedicates himself to fighting for Van.  As time goes by, the lost prince begins to question his loyalty as he uncovers lies and reconnects with his clone, Luke. Betrayals occur and a world-wide war risks all life on the planet. Saitou’s art tells a tale of epic proportions of lies, war, magic, and science as a clone and his original discover their true purpose.

Any audience familiar with the Tales of the Abyss series will be familiar with their complex and grandiose plots, but outsiders might become confused. The manga reveals Asch’s mounting frustration, though other characters remain fairly undeveloped. Asch follows Japanese role-playing standards, with stereotypes like the quiet female healer, the fighting tank, and the spy.  There is even a mascot.  Despite these restrictions, Saitou floods each page with spectacular drawings that could be helpful to any teens interested in honing their fanart skills.  Yoshitaka Amano’s Final Fantasy enthusiasts will enjoy the series and might get a kick out of the Sepiroth tree reference.  Those who enjoy more straightforward role-playing games, like Zelda, might find Asch too convoluted.  Since Asch will be released at the same time as the anime, this manga could see the same result as Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto series, and would be a good addition to gaming fans’ libraries.—Jessica Atherton.

4Q 4P M J

Slade, Arthur. Empire of Ruins: The Hunchback Assignments 3. Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2011. 304p. $15.99. 978-0385737869.

Modo, secret agent for Britain’s Permanent Association, is off on a new deadly quest in the third installment of the action-packed Hunchback Assignments series.  After a separation of four months, Modo is thrilled to be reunited with Octavia, another secret agent of whom Modo has grown very fond.  In addition, their boss, Mr. Socrates, and his servant, will accompany the two on their mission to Australia to locate the God Face artifact, rumored to drive men mad at first sight.  Tthe mission is complicated by the evil, and always determined, Miss Hakkandottir and her crew of Clockwork Guild associates.  Among the dangers the agents face are mechanical birds with poisonous talons, an airship battle, and the concealed traps of an ancient temple; however, Modo proves his strength and wit continuously, right to the end.

Slade does not disappoint readers with this new fast-paced installment.  The characters return and readers will see their growth in this novel.  Modo and Octavia are maturing into adults and their confidence in their abilities and beliefs is growing.  The inclusion of steampunk elements, such as the airships and mechanical falcons, create a fantastical setting for a well-crafted adventure.  Middle schoolers will crave the publication of the next installment after reading the last pages of Empire of Ruins.—Amy Wyckoff.

SERIES NONFICTION

Shakespeare’s Graphics. Stone Arch Books/Capstone, 2011. 88p. PLB $26.65.        

3Q 3P J S

Powell, Martin and F. Daniel Perez, eds. Macbeth. Illus. by Daniel Ferran. 978-1434225061.

Yomtov, Nel, Berenice Muniz and Fares Maese, eds. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Illus. by Aburtov. 978-1434226051.

Shakespeare Graphics is a new series that is dedicated to retelling Shakespeare’s classics in a much abbreviated graphic novel format.  The four titles currently available are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet.  Each book has a different author and illustrator, but each one is equally powerful in terms of how the artistry captures the tone of the source text. Martin Powell and F. Daniel Perez’s Macbeth is as dark and brooding as the original while Yomtov, Muniz, and Maese do well portraying the whimsy of the actors and the mischievousness of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Each book in the collection contains information about Shakespeare, the history of the play, an overview of famous lines from the play, and discussion questions and writing prompts.

What is interesting about these graphic novels is that while they may serve the explicit purpose of prefacing the reading of the original, they also work as stand-alone texts, telling a brief but interesting and complicated story in graphic format.  Indeed, the skillful design and quality will be enticing to those seeking good stories rather than just young readers needing insight into Shakespeare for homework assignments.  As they are designed to be brief, they are too short to include every scene and detail of the original text;  however, quick as they are, the Shakespeare Graphics’ version of the plays is still compelling in its own right.—Dr. Jennifer M. Miskec.

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