Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wooding, Chris. Malice. Scholastic, 2009 (3 stars out of 4)

Horror has a safe haven in the imaginations of many of our middle-level students, and growing up on Fear Street and Cirque du Freak has poured the tinny but delicious taste of blood into many a young person’s mouth. Chris Wooding (Storm Thief, Poison) has earned a place as one of the new standard-bearers of horror/fantasy/sci-fi, and Malice is his latest effort to craft a dark, perilous, and exciting fantasy world. Using a hybrid novel/graphic novel format, Mr. Wooding creates an underworld complete with scary characters, life-threatening danger, larger-than-life enemies, and many mysteries to solve.

Malice is no ordinary comic book. The characters in the comic are disturbingly similar to real people who have disappeared, and English middlers Luke, Heather, Seth, and Kady get involved over their heads. There is a rumor that if a certain ritual is performed, the villain Tall Jake will appear and take the subject to Malice, a dreadful alternate world filled with killer machines and topsy-turvy reality. When Luke disappears after performing the ritual, leaving his cell phone in his room, Seth has trouble believing that the stories are actually true, but he knows something is amiss: “He snorted to himself in disgust. He was letting himself get spooked by the stories. He wouldn’t be surprised if Luke was winding him up on purpose, just for a laugh . . . But he would never have left his phone behind” (27). Something is indeed very wrong about Malice, Black Dice Comics where it is secretly sold, and the shady characters involved with the store. Answers must be provided to save lives, and there is only one way to find them: in Malice itself.

Mr. Wooding succeeds on many levels, but not all of them. Malice is a well-developed plot idea that is sometimes portrayed as scary, but it feels unintentionally campy as well. The characters seem a bit too successful and smug, joking through attacking machines and one violent encounter after another. The world itself is intriguing, with cleverly-designed sections and elements that all tie into each other using the skewed rules of dark fantasy; i.e. killer machines called Chitters eat time to live, and they steal it from the kids in Malice and store it in crystals. I also feel that the graphic portions of the novel are diminished by their small size and disjointed nature, but I believe that middlers growing up on manga and anime will not have a problem with the illustrations at all; in fact, they will think they are very cool. Mr. Wooding has created a series (the next book, Havoc, should appear next year) that will resonate well with its target demographic, but readers may be limited to specific fans of dark fantasy novels or comics like Sandman.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Collins, Suzanne. Catching Fire: The Second Book of The Hunger Games. Scholastic, 2009. 391 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-439-02349-8. This book is intended for grades 6 and up, or ages 12 and up, depending on reading level.

So many of my students have asked when Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins would be released that I feel compelled to make this new novel, the second installment in The Hunger Games series, the first review of the new school year. As a sci-fi fan, I have been waiting as impatiently for Catching Fire to be released as my students have, and I am not disappointed. Ms. Collins delivers, as I had hoped she would, another rip-roaring dystopian novel about a future world that uncomfortably feels too much like ours. It may start just a bit slowly, but once it gets going, the ride is dizzying.

Katniss Everdeen, now 17 and finally able to relax after winning the 74th Hunger Games, goes on a victory tour through Panem’s 12 districts with her faux fiancé, Peeta. However, Katniss soon realizes that all is not as it appears, and relaxation becomes the last thing on her mind. She stayed alive in the last Hunger Games by threatening suicide with poison berries, and that was viewed as an act of defiance by both the government (that hated it) and its citizens (who loved it). In a private meeting, President Snow reveals that there have been problems and potential uprisings in the districts, and he threatens Katniss with her best friend (and potential boyfriend) Gale’s death if she does not sell the government’s lies about her loving marriage to Peeta and her love of country to the people of Panem: “‘Only you’ll have to do even better if the uprisings are to be averted,’ he says. ‘This tour will be your only chance to turn things around’” (29). Katniss promises to do what she can, but she knows her future is in jeopardy. As things grow gradually worse in District 12 and news spreads of growing unrest throughout Panem, dread builds over this year’s 75th Hunger Games, called a Quarter Quell because it falls on a 25-year multiple from the first Games. Quarter Quells are known for their difficulty and ruthlessness, and anything is possible.

It is clear that Ms. Collins has borrowed from many sources to create The Hunger Games series, and at times, I felt like if I tweaked a few things, I would be reading Haddix’s Shadow Children series instead. However, Ms. Collins successfully recreates the tension, suspense, intrigue, and adrenaline-pumping action of the first novel in Catching Fire, so the point becomes moot. Her series is original enough, and I cannot wait for the last installment. Her characters may not be brilliantly painted, but they are both memorable and likable; I especially enjoy the banter of Kat’s stylists, Cinna, Flavius, Venia, and Octavia; listening to their conversation makes me feel giddy like an eavesdropper under a salon hair dryer or in a gym locker room. Catching Fire arrives where most other YA novels have merely attempted to go, to that nebulous land where morality, humanity, and authority get melted in a crucible and truth emerges. It’s a scary and crowded place, but don’t worry: there’s always room for one more.

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Gratz, Alan. The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings. Dial Books, 2009 (4 stars out of 4!).

I have been a baseball fan for my entire life, and as a Phillies fan, I have suffered the pit of despair and the pinnacle of ecstasy, so I have developed an appreciation for the mythology of the game. After this year’s sudden passing of Harry Kalas, long-time Phillies broadcaster and the only voice of the Phillies I have ever known, I found myself remembering seeing games at old Connie Mack Stadium and Veterans Stadium with my father, working at Veterans Stadium in 1990 and seeing Terry Mulholland’s no-hitter, and the other baseball facts and memories that comprise each fan’s individual mythos. Alan Gratz has tapped into this rich vein of nostalgia with The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings. Mr. Gratz has crafted a well-coordinated group of short stories revolving around two related families, and although each of the nine “innings” stands on its own (some stand better than others), together they present the history of baseball in all of its childlike, and occasionally soiled, splendor.

The nine stories begin and end with fire, and the starting year is 1845, when Felix Schneider, child of German immigrants, unwittingly becomes part of the New York Knickerbockers’ “three-out, all-out” game. Alexander Cartwright, acknowledged by many to be baseball’s founder, asks him to call a close play, but before he can marvel at his situation, he suddenly realizes that the Knickerbockers, also known as the New York Knickerbocker Volunteer Fire Fighting Brigade, have a bigger problem: “Felix didn’t answer. He was transfixed by something over Cartwright’s shoulder, a towering plume of smoke billowing up from the rooftops . . . Manhattan was on fire” (14).

About 50 years later, in 1894, Arnold Schneider learns a valuable lesson about stardom, fame, and the ugly side of sports. After being incessantly picked on by his peers because of his size and lack of athletic prowess, he accidentally wanders over to the vaudeville district, where he sneaks in to see his hero, baseball slugger King Kelly. Unfortunately, Kelly is at the end of his career and has deteriorated into a hopeless alcoholic. When Arnold arranges for Kelly to come to the playground and trade stories with the boys, Arnold’s star rises dramatically. However, Arnold knows it will not last, and that his success will have to be paid for: “Arnold knew he should have felt triumphant. He was a legend. He had brought King Kelly, the Ten-Thousand Dollar Beauty, to Pigtown. But how long would it last? How long before he was little “Arnie” again, picked last every game . . . When the excitement of King Kelly went away, what would be left?” (93). Kelly proves to be a disappointment, but Arnold has his moment, though it costs him more than he expects.

About 50 years after King Kelly, Kat Flint wants nothing more than to play baseball, and being a member of the Grand Rapids Chicks is a dream come true. Ironically, the only thing that can destroy her dream is the fulfillment of everybody else’s dream, that the war will end. She ashamedly confesses that once the men come home, she will not be satisfied when things return to “normal” for women: “‘I don’t—I don’t want the war to end. I want my dad back safe of course, but I wouldn’t be here, now, without the war. There wouldn’t even be a girls’ league. And my mom, she’s so smart, so good with numbers, but she only got a job as an engineer because all the men are off fighting’” (181).

Other distinctive “innings” feature a family who experiences anti-Semitism without even being Jewish, a girl who runs numbers under the watchful eye of her police officer father, and a boy who is trying to pitch a perfect game for his little league team. All of the stories feature Brooklyn prominently as setting or background, and the stories are presented in chronological order one generation at a time.

I will not beat around the Flatbush: I loved this book. I felt the history of America’s game coursing through my veins as I read each successive story and I laughed and cried with the colorful characters and situations as they illuminated our collective history from 1845 to the present. Cleverly, the book is written in nine sections (innings) with three chapter (outs) per section. Additionally, Mr. Gratz’s endnotes, in which he briefly discusses his research for the book, demonstrates an appropriate reverence for and devotion to baseball’s history that will appeal to fans of any age. This would be a great father and son or mother and daughter book. The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings by Alan Gratz is a superior young adult sports novel that, like Gary Soto’s short baseball stories, not only presents real characters but also poignantly shows readers the best and worst that our country and its people can offer.

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Boie, Kirsten. The Princess Plot. Chicken House/Scholastic, 2009 (3 1/2 out of 4 stars).

Stephenie Meyer reminded all of us about the value of archetypes in YA literature. Her portrayal of a vulnerable teenager rescued and empowered by a dark, mysterious stranger has rekindled a voracious and seemingly limitless (until the next fad comes along) fire of vampire and monster books so that even Darren Shan’s series (Cirque du Freak, Demonata) have gained renewed popularity after petering out in my libraries. German author Kirsten Boie, in her first English novel, The Princess Plot, combines three other common but related archetypes, the princess yarn, the damsel in distress fairy tale, and the surprise identity ironic tale, creating a very readable novel. Using familiar themes and structures, Ms. Boie weaves a fast-paced, easy-to-follow-but-not-insulting novel.

Jenna Greenwood is 14 and she feels like she is missing out on life because of her overbearing single parent mother, an etiquette teacher. Mom is mysterious about the family’s past, and when Jenna asks about her family tree, Mom gives her nothing and Jenna must make up her tree for a class assignment: “Jenna looked at the almost-empty sheet . . . Maybe it would be fun to invent a few names” (19). When Jenna and her BFF Bea go to a movie audition at a local bowling alley, it is the plain Jane Jenna, not her more attractive friends, who is courted, almost desperately, by the movie people. It is hard for her not to feel special: “She suddenly felt quite light-headed. She had been chosen—of all the girls, she was the one they wanted, and that was the only thing that mattered. When she accepts the offer for a screen test, she is told that she must travel far away to take it, and she knows her mother will object. When Mom shockingly agrees by text message (she had never even sent a text message before!), Jenna is overjoyed and agrees, despite a feeling in the back of her mind that everything is not exactly as it appears.

Meanwhile, in the northern country of Scandia, Princess Malena has run away and disguised herself as a boy, interfering with the plans of the shady regent, Malena’s Uncle Norlin, and his advisor Bolström. Now, to complete their repressive and unfair plot, Bolström, masquerading as the “director” of the “film,” reveals the actual role the unwitting Jenna will play: “His megawatt smile made Jenna feel uncomfortable all over again. ‘You have the chance, Jenna, the unique chance, to stand in for the princess tomorrow at a party. You will act as if you were the Princess of Scandia’” (87). There is a reason that Jenna looks almost identical to the princess, and the nefarious plot, to attack North Scandia, hinges upon Jenna’s performance. However, Malena has friends as well, and she is doing everything she can to prevent the culmination of the plan. Risking great personal danger, they must ultimately seek each other’s help to do the right thing and save Scandia and the lives of all of the people embroiled in this conflict.

I confess that when I first started reading this novel, I thought it was just another mistaken identity story, but before I knew it, I got sucked into the plot like a sponge in water. The story moves very fast, with the short sections and quick cuts that many young people like. The vocabulary level is very reasonable, but I did not feel demeaned, making this an excellent high-low selection. Although the plot was fairly predictable, its audience will not bring a metacognitive understanding and familiarity with these types of stories to the table, so readers will probably enjoy the satisfying, happy ending, even if they know it’s coming. The Princess Plot by Kirsten Boie is an exciting novel that has the potential to rivet readers in their seats, asking if they can read just one more section before bed. The heroes are brave and loyal, the villains are believable and nasty but not over-the-top, and Jenna discovers and learns to utilize her previously-hidden inner strength and positive self-image throughout the course of the tale, an aspiration we hold for all of our students.

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