Author: Diane Duane
Young Wizards, vol. 2
My rating: 5 of 5
Young wizards and best friends Kit and Nita are looking forward to a pleasant vacation at the ocean after their huge ordeal fighting back the forces of darkness and entropy to save their world. But it looks like they’re finding that responsibility begets greater responsibility as they find themselves once again dragged into some great wizardry with the safety of any number of people–and other beings–in the balance. Only this time, the action is all happening in the ocean itself, as the two friends encounter the great wizards of the sea–whales, dolphins, and the like–and discover entirely new ways to do wizardry. But neither of them could have truly calculated just how much this task would demand of them.
Deep Wizardry was an incredible follow-up to Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard. It occupies a sweet spot just on the verge between children’s fiction and YA, without really being either exactly. In that regard, I think it reminds me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ and Madeleine L’Engle’s writing–stylistically and thematically as well. The writing is excellent, and the pacing–while slower than many books I’ve read–has a steady deliberateness that works really well for this particular story. The characters are great, and the way in which the author handles the very real struggles they deal with is really quite excellently done. This book is different from a lot of books in that it addresses themes such as responsibility, sacrifice, and redemption; it’s very moving and also unique enough to be both a difficult read and an incredible one. Highly recommended.
Author: Louis Sachar
My rating: 4 of 5
It all started when Marshall and Tamaya took a “short cut” through the woods to avoid a bully. Or maybe it was before that, when a scientist caught up in inventing a new, renewable fuel source came up with the idea of Biolene, a genetically engineered microorganism that reproduces every thirty-six minutes. Whatever the case, the moment Tamaya stuck her hand in a muddy puddle covered in strange fuzzy stuff and threw that mud in the face of Chad–the bully who had tracked them down in the woods in spite of their precautions–she became part of a historic disaster on a grand scale. And just maybe, she became the girl who saved the world.
Louis Sachar’s writing is always a treat to read, with his easy humor and readable text. Fuzzy Mud was all of that, but it took a more intense perspective than most of his books. It was excellent. The characters were enjoyable, and they prompted the reader to take another look at bullying–from both sides of the situation. Furthermore, the entire plot was crafted in such a way as to raise ecological awareness about a number of hot topics: fuel shortages, overpopulation, and genetic engineering to name a few. As I said, the actual plot writing was intense, but also middle-grade appropriate. I really enjoyed the way notes from the legal proceedings over Biolene were interspersed within the text in a way almost reminiscent of that used in Carrie. Furthermore, the addition of mathematical equations scattered throughout to demonstrate how quickly one microorganism can become thousands really served to add a great sense of tension, as did the petri-dish illustrations at each chapter header–complete with samples doubling each chapter and spilling over the page! I think for middle-grade and older readers who enjoy an intense but thoughtful biological/ecological thriller, Fuzzy Mud is an excellent choice.
Author/Illustrator: Marcus Sedgwick
My rating: 4 of 5
Ten-year-old Zoe lives in a world that has been overwhelmed by water. She’s never known anything else, but she knows the world wasn’t always this way. . . . And she knows it’s getting worse. A while back, as food supplies became more scarce and the small island that used to be Norwich continued to shrink, her family escaped on a ship to the larger landmass to the west. But in the confusion of the departure, Zoe got left in Norwich on her own. Now she is setting forth alone in a rowboat across the floods to find her family and a safe place to live, equipped with nothing but her father’s old compass.
Floodland is the first Sedgwick that I’ve read, and it definitely made me want to read more. It’s quite short and easy to read, making it a nice, quick read–and it’s appropriate for middle-grade readers as well as young adults (and adults). The writing style is enjoyable, and the characters and observations are interesting. There’s a good balance between the action and the more psychological aspects, which makes it much more enjoyable that it would otherwise be. Probably one of the most interesting facets of the book is when it takes place. You hear plenty about “global warming” and “protecting the planet”–but it hits you in a very different way when you hear the story from the perspective of a kid who knows nothing except a planet that’s already devastated. Plus, the flooded-earth plot choice was a really nice change from the post-apocalyptic dystopian stuff you usually see when you’re talking about ruining the earth. My one complaint was that the end seemed too perfect; I don’t think most people would react in the way Zoe did. But then, her being ten makes it more likely, and it’s nice in that it gives the story a hopeful conclusion. I guess it’s appropriate, especially considering that this is for pre-teen readers as well as YA. All in all, Floodland was a though-provoking, intriguing story that I would generally recommend to most readers.
Authors: James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge
Jackson Oz has known for years that something’s wrong with the animal population–freak attacks and unusual behaviors are growing exponentially. But it seems like no one in the scientific world wants to listen to him. He believes he has evidence, but people don’t even want to look at his theories. It doesn’t help that Oz doesn’t have the degrees to back up his opinions, and neither does the fact that he has no idea what’s causing this outbreak of animal violence or how to solve it. He gets his break–sadly and terrifyingly–when a research trip to Africa leads to his group’s being attacked by a pride of all male lions–an attack that Oz captures on video for the world to see.
Ever since I discovered James Patterson’s books, I’ve loved them, and what I’ve read that was done with Michael Ledwidge (Daniel X) has also been excellent. Having said that, Zoo was quite good–original, exciting, and suspenseful–but I honestly didn’t enjoy it as much as I have his other books. Part of that is just that it was written for an adult audience, and for Patterson’s writing style, I prefer his young adult books–I think he brings the characters out better in them, maybe. Although Oz and Chloe were great characters, they were so totally caught up in the events taking place around them that I felt like they got lost a bit. Also, as an animal lover, I found it distasteful that so much of the story was about animal violence; however, the authors did make a point that it was humans’ messing up the environment that caused the animals to behave that way. Which leads me to the biggest problem I think I had: I’m no scientist, but the whole plot setup just seemed a bit far-fetched, especially the solution that fixed in days what had been building for years. Having said all that, the plot was intriguing to the extent that I was able to allow myself to go along with it . . . horrifyingly intriguing, gory, and thought provoking (again, to the extent that I was able to let myself go with it). I thought all the short segments from other people’s perspectives around the world helped to flesh out the magnitude and horror of the story well. So . . . I think Zoo is a fine option for mature adult readers who are looking for a horrifying, gripping thriller, but not so much for the serious reader. I honestly probably won’t read it again (whereas every other Patterson I’ve ever read is on the definite re-read list).
Author: Sue Alexander
Illustrator: Leonid Gore
In this creatively illustrated picture book, Sue Alexander speaks of the trees and their place in what is current-day Israel from the times of ancient history to the present day. She speaks movingly of the lush growth that once covered that land; of the ignorance, war, and lack of care that eventually caused the land to be nearly barren; and of the world-wide efforts which have led to the planting of thousands of trees and to a renewed life in the land. Behold the Trees is a unique blend of ecology and history. In a lesser author, it would be a truly boring and didactic work; however, Alexander’s deft writing and Gore’s craggy, earth-toned illustrations craft this into a moving story instead. I probably wouldn’t read this as a picture book for small children, but I think Behold the Trees is a beautiful book that everyone should read at least once, if only for the perspective it provides.
Author/Illustrator: Dr. Seuss
The Once-ler tells of a time that was very different from the dark, dreary present. Back then, truffula trees were abundant, bright, and beautiful, and wildlife abounded in the area. But that was before the Once-ler got the bright idea to use truffula trees to make Thneeds and build his business bigger and bigger. . . .
Classic Seuss and a ringing cry for ecological awareness–what more could you want? The Lorax is definitely a classic children’s story, a story that is both fun and a great educational tool. The whimsical, bright illustrations, quirky made-up words, and rhythmic rhymed flow make this an extremely catchy story. I know the kids I know love it, although it’s a bit long for really little ones. Still, for preschool and early elementary this is great both to read aloud to them and for them to practice reading skills. And of course, the story is a great jumping off point for a discussion about preserving natural resources, avoiding pollution, etc. All around, The Lorax is a great children’s book–one adults should probably read more often.
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Anderson Lake, foreign company man seeking the secrets of Thailand’s genetic wealth. Emiko, genetically modified not-quite-human, abandoned by her Japanese patron to struggle to survive illegally in a country that scorns and fears her people. Tan Hock Seng, Malaysian evacuee striving against the odds to not only survive in an unwelcoming land but to rebuild the wealth and influence he once held in his homeland. Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, captain in the Environment Ministry and folk hero, protecting the nation from the ravages of genetic mutations, plagues, and foreign influence. As these individuals and the powers they represent are thrown together in the city of Krung Thep, Thailand, loyalties are tested, boundaries are tried, and revolution stirs on the horizon.
The Windup Girl was not at all what I expected, but it was a fascinating read. The futuristic setting is unique, dealing more with genetic manipulation and diversity than with weapons and such, but handling the genetic factor in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s thought provoking in itself. The way in which Bacigalupi intertwines various characters and perspectives is integral to the story and adds great depth–and though I can’t say I actually like any of the characters, they are all well written and full of interesting complexities. I think the author’s choice to set this is Thailand is intriguing; it brings quite a clash of various cultures and ideals into the mix and is well executed. Speaking from a literary standpoint, one of the most interesting features of The Windup Girl was Bacigalupi’s use of present tense. Usually, this is extremely awkward to read; I have set aside several otherwise-excellent books in the past simply because I could not bear the awkwardness of the tense. However, in this book, the use of present tense seems completely natural and flows almost unnoticeably. I will note that in terms of sexual content, language, and wanton violence, this book is definitely adult audience only–I would say 21+. Still, in terms of creative, original, and thought-provoking science fiction, The Windup Girl is quite excellent.