Friday, April 18, 2014

Aliens on Vacation

Aliens on Vacation
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

"Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast" is the name of the series, as well as the place young David "Scrub" Elliot finds himself visiting over the summer between sixth and seventh grade. It isn't that Scrub is into science fiction, so much. His main interest is basketball. He would rather be back in Florida, trading insane dares with his best friend and training for the all-star team. Instead, when his parents take off on separate business trips, he gets packed off to his grandma's crazy, retro-futuristic themed hotel in the woods of Washington. Equal parts throw-back to the hippie era and throw-up of sci-fi film cliches, the B&B seems to promise the lamest summer vacation ever. But that's before Scrub finds out that his grandma's clients are really visitors from other planets.

Grandma prefers not to call them aliens. Her term for them is tourists. For forty years, she has catered to honeymooners, hikers, and holiday-makers from across the Interplanetary Collective. The space-ships on her lawn are just for show. These tourists arrive via a system of intergalactic transporters, cleverly disguised as closets. Why do they choose Earth, of all places, as their vacation destination? Because it's a quiet, out-of-the-way spot where they aren't likely to meet other people they know. The only trouble with visiting such a primitive planet is that they have to keep their identity as space visitors secret from the natives, i.e. us. That's where Scrub comes in. His grandma puts him right to work, touching up the human disguises of the arriving tourists, and helping them orient themselves in this strange world.

At first, Scrub thinks being put to work in the B&B will be a drag on his plans for a fun summer of shooting hoops and goofing off with the local kids. But then he realizes that he's quite good at the job, and he enjoys it too. In fact, the local kids are more of a problem—they and Sheriff Tate, who is just looking for a reason to shut down Grandma's business.

It is fun to go along with Scrub as he tries to keep the aliens secret in full view of a small town, in spite of snarky teenagers, nosy neighbors, and one particularly cute girl with a freckled nose and a passion for UFO stories. Covering up extraterrestrial slips seems to get harder and harder as Scrub dances around the truth with Amy, has an intergalactic basketball shootout with the neighbor boys, and tries to keep a group of rambunctious alien boys separate from a boy scout troop during a camping trip in the woods. Through his own mistakes, he triggers an interplanetary incident that may ruin his grandma's business. Then it is up to Scrub, a boy of remarkable resourcefulness at times, to save the day.

Here is a deliciously loopy, funny story that will appeal especially to readers in the middle-school and junior-high range of ages. Scrub's voice is bright, down-to-earth, and engagingly honest even when he doesn't always say what is on his mind. His charm as a lead character, the colorful adventures he goes through, the whimsical people he runs into, and the underlying message of respect for people who are different from yourself, promise to make this a delightful series. There are two sequels so far: Alien on a Rampage and Aliens in Disguise. Clete Smith is also the author of Magic Delivery.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Untold

Untold
by Sarah Rees Brennan
Recommended Ages: 13+

In Book 2 of "The Lynburn Legacy," a dark ultimatum looms over the outwardly charming town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. The evil sorcerer Rob Lynburn means to return the town to its old ways, in which the sorcerous few held power over the non-magical many—an arrangement whereby good weather and prosperous fortunes were given in exchange for blood sacrifice. Rob and his sorcerers demand a victim—a human victim, mind you—on the winter solstice, not only to show that the town submits to them, but to ramp up their magical mojo. Standing in the way are Rob's estranged wife Lillian, the lady of Aurimere manor; his half-sibling sons Jared and Ash, who epitomize every teen girl's dilemma between the sexy bad boy and the really nice guy; and, epitomizing every teen girl, high school newspaper editor Kami Glass and her brave but very mortal friends.

When we met Kami in Unspoken, she was linked with Jared in a most intimate way. The pair had been hearing each other's thoughts since childhood, each discovering only lately that the other wasn't an imaginary friend. The link that bound them was a powerful spell that made Kami a source of power to Jared, like a magical battery. But now that link is severed—sorry if that spoils Unspoken for you! For the first time ever, they can't read each other's mind. To say this puts a strain on their relationship would be like saying Sorry-in-the-Vale is about to become a very interesting place to live. Their feelings are as mixed as the signals they send each other, a confused jumble of love and hate, desire and mistrust. Kami doesn't know who kissed her one night in a dark corridor—was it Jared or Ash? Neither boy knows whether she wants it to be him. And the decision she will be forced to make towards the end of this book, so that the town can live to fight another day, will only increase the jealousy issues between the two boys.

In case there can be too much teen romance, there is plenty of other stuff jazzing up this book's catalog of attractions. It has the characters who make charming and funny patter together. It has the family drama of a marriage coming unstuck, and the horror of a child being stolen. It has the suspense of an impending catastrophe, the thrill of a blood-drenched magical battle, the chill of an eerie magic ritual, and a hair-raising attempt to rescue prisoners from the bad guys' lair. It has the loneliness of a kid who has lost the respect of everyone he cares about, and the nobility of self-sacrifice, and the tantalizing promise of a third book in the trilogy—Unmade, coming in September 2014.

But supposing, for the sake of argument, that there cannot be too much teen romance, what then? Well, there's plenty more of that too. There is a subplot about girls accepting that one of their girlfriends likes girls... and maybe another girl struggling to accept the truth about herself. There is a goodly amount of teen snogging and petting, which very nearly leads to a great deal more; so, mature judgment will be the habit of a successful reader. The question "Who will end up with whom" seems to take up enough brainspace to ensure that all the other dilemmas will rush upon everyone with even greater urgency. In short, when the book isn't making your heart stammer with excitement and dread, it is making you giggle and go awww. And again it proves that its author, who also wrote the Demon's Lexicon trilogy and co-wrote Team Human with Justine Larbalestier, knows how to create a climax of frenzied intensity.

The Well-Beloved

The Well-Beloved
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 13+

This comparatively short novel was first published as a serial in 1892. It is known now in the revised version of five years later, which in a way makes it later than Jude the Obscure and thus Hardy's "last" novel. Typically as to Hardy's body of work, it portrays a tragic romance that challenges traditional sexual morals such as, in this case, monogamy. Added to this is a poetic sense of fate, giving the storyline a touch of magical symmetry, like that of a fairy-tale or a folk legend. At the center of the tragedy is a sculptor named Jocelyn Pierston, whose eye for beauty is both a gift and a curse. For, whether you read it as a literal truth or merely as the self-justifying whimsy of a faithless man, he considers himself the faithful lover of an ideal of womanhood—he calls her the Well-Beloved—who possesses one woman after another, never staying long in the same fleshly tabernacle.

And so we look in on Jocelyn's career at three stages in his life: as a young man of twenty, a young man of forty, and a young man of sixty. You know he doesn't deserve it, but the years are kind to him. He really keeps most of his youthful good looks, so that even at sixty women find him reasonably attractive, and would be surprised to learn his true age. But he pays dearly for this, and for his artistic eye. It begin when he jilts a girl from his native Isle of Slingers (based on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, U.K.), a lovely being named Avice, with whom he has been a sweetheart off and on since childhood. Breaking their engagement to be married proves to be the great mistake of his life, but he is carried away by an appearance of the Well-Beloved in the statuesque figure of Marcia. Their marriage plans don't come off either, so Jocelyn throws himself into his art.

Twenty years later, and another twenty years again, we drop in to find Jocelyn being captivated by successive generations of Avices. Both the daughter and the granddaughter of the original captivate him as much as the original. A sad sense that the first Avice was really the love of his life, and regret for things that should have been but can never be, smolders beneath the tragedy of a man whose true love passes between three generations of the same family. The wrong that he did to the first Avice is repaid with interest—and with a beautiful symmetry that an artist must appreciate—as Pierston's desire to possess their great beauty is denied again and again. And when the vision finally deserts him, it is such a strange mixture of blessing and injury that it will stir both thought and feeling.

I read this book by way of Robert Powell's audiobook narration. In a medium I have known to reach fifty CDs, this book fit comfortably on six disks. Within these very modest dimensions, however, Hardy brings to life a memorable and distinct corner of his fictional county of Wessex: a wind-tousled, surf-spattered spit of stone, haunted by history, inhabited by gritty folks who have intermarried every-which-way and who all know each other's business. It is a striking setting for a tale that touches on the brevity of youth's bloom of freshness and beauty, the sportive pranks of a genius that endures through one fleeting represtative after another, and the length (for some) of a life full of regret.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Daniel Hymn

The faithful in a faithless age
Rejoice in Daniel's holy page,
Wherein our troubled eyes may see
How we God's witnesses may be.

Of Daniel and three lads we sing
Who would not eat an unclean thing,
Yet far from waxing poor and weak,
By faith were found robust and sleek.

By faith that prophet told the dream
That ruin to the wise did seem:
As earthly realms returned to earth,
The heav'nly kingdom would come forth.

By faith were three young men too bold
To bow before a god of gold.
Cast into flame with hymns of joy,
These three the fire could not destroy.

The high king's reason God withdrew
Till shaggy like a beast he grew:
The dew his bed, his food the grass,
He glorified God's name at last.

When Belshazzar's vain pride was great,
God's finger wrote his sordid fate:
Then Daniel rose by faith to say
His empire soon would pass away.

Then some who loved not Daniel's wit
Conspired to cast him to the pit.
So faith seemed trapped by faithless laws;
But You, Lord, shut the lions' jaws.

Proud kings who knew not Daniel's God
Beheld His pow'r, were shamed and awed:
Meanwhile his visions showed as well
The hope of captive Israel:

"Believe, endure, and God will come
To bear His suff'ring people home:
Blest he who, faithful in his ways,
Awaits the promised end of days."

Dear Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
With Michael captain of Your host,
Make us, like Daniel and his friends,
Your faithful witness to the end.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Book Trolley Rolls Again!

Alas, the Book Trolley is no longer a feature on the Harry Potter fan website MuggleNet. As of the latest version of the site, my review column is out, though most of my reviews—going back to the year 2003—have been archived on MuggleNet's WordPress blog. I also had the foresight, starting way back in 2008, of republishing all my reviews on this blog. Since then all new reviews were posted both here and on MuggleNet (in a whole succession of formats), as well as Shelfari, GoodReads, FaceBook, etc., etc., etc. I'm not worried about my reviews not getting "out there," though I would be gratified to see them getting more page-views. And I'm still involved with MuggleNet, to the extent of posting my reviews on their blog. But in a sense, a decade-long labor of love has come to an end. And so I sigh.

I've been living with this changeover to the WordPress format for some time now. Lately it's been getting frustrating. Searching for related book reviews on a blog (whether mine or theirs) is a pain in the diodes. Also, there was no longer an index anyone (say, teachers or parents) could consult for a quick-read list of book recommendations. The loss of the Book Trolley's web-page format, with its handy "Index of Authors by Last Name" right up front (as opposed to a bottomless pit of blog posts), has brought on feelings of uselessness and failure about the whole project.

The remedy for this has long been obvious. But I've been daunted by the hugeness of the task of rebuilding the Book Trolley's long-gone (and even longer out of date) index. But now I've finally done it. I've built a whole new Book Trolley page RIGHT HERE on my blog. I blew a whole Friday night and Saturday morning on it. Please show me your appreciation by bookmarking the new page. Consider it your gateway to TONS of books you never considered reading before. Check out what I had to say about them, and consider giving them a try!

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Recommended Ages: 14+

Mountaineers have their seven summits. Mariners have their seven seas. Of course there is disagreement about what geographic spots these challenges comprise. In the same way, bookworms like you and I may disagree as to which books pose the most difficult peak to climb, the most daunting deep to explore. There may actually be more than seven of them. Few will conquer them all. Even some brave adventurers, in the best of training, may balk at some of these monsters, which promise more hardship and danger than pleasure. For example, I am enjoying not reading Gravity's Rainbow so much that I would hate to spoil the fun by ever attempting to read it. But there are still some books without reading which my life in A Fort Made of Books would seem incomplete. Enemies that I must face if I want to believe myself to be a man. Deserts I must cross in order to bring back the wisdom concealed therein. Thrill rides, perhaps, that I will only recognize as fun after I have made the toilsome, nerve-wracking ascent of that first awful hill.

But I'm not crazy. I'm not ascending K2 without bottled oxygen. How did I get over Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and more of their kind? I did it by dint of a supplemental air supply! Or rather, of a talented reader's voice, performing each book out loud while I racked up hundreds of business miles. It turns out that, with a little help from audio-book technology, these summits aren't so terribly cold and treacherous after all. In the case of The Brothers Karamazov, my sherpa was the late David Case, a.k.a. Frederick Davidson, a gifted voice actor who lent his breath to some 700 books before tragically losing his larynx, then his life, to cancer. Luckily for me, he lived to record Dostoevsky's last and longest novel. This 800-page masterpiece was intended to be only the first installment in a much larger epic. Instead, the author died only months after it was published in 1880. It didn't kill him, though; and it won't kill you. Just look at me. I'm alive and writing after listening to the whole thing. And I actually found it enjoyable. Imagine what sights you too might see, with the aid of a bit of canned air!

The brothers of the title are the sons of a rascally moneylender named Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who drove both of his wives into an early grave and neglected their children. Now, each for his own reason, the three young men have returned to the town of their birth. Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan, and Alexei (Alyosha) have had vastly different experiences in life until now, and developed contrasting characters and beliefs. Mitya is a reckless ex-soldier, cashiered out of the service due to discipline problems, whose troubles with money, women, and his own temper will be his downfall. Ivan is the intellectual one, educated, self-made, with a promising future as a writer, suited to the rapidly modernizing Russia in its era of religious doubt and political upheaval. And young Alyosha is the religious mystic, devoted to the saintly elder at a local monastery, and troubled about what will become of his family. There is also an epileptic, illegitimate brother named Smerdyakov, kept by their father as his valet and cook. This sly creature, though not strictly one of the Brothers Karamazov, has somehow obtained more of their father's trust and attention than the three legitimate sons.

We know from the very beginning that Fyodor Pavlovich is going to die, most likely at the hands of one of these young men. Dostoevsky skillfully toys with our expectation, stringing us along and keeping us in dread of the murder long before it happens. Then, just as skillfully, he keeps us uncertain of exactly who done it and what consequences will befall the victim's sons. Even at the end, the answers to these questions are more suggestive than certain. The story, as such, involves one man torn between two women, and more than one woman torn between two men; a dispute over money, and a man struggling with a debt of honor; the uplifting death of a pious old man, and the shattering death of a tough little boy; a police investigation, a murder trial, a surprise confession that nobody believes when it matters, and a miscarriage of justice. Mixed in with all these juicy plot-lines are portraits of the folly, selfishness, and nervous disorders of people of all classes; an in-depth comparison between religious belief and unbelief in late 19th-century Russia, and their effects on the people's morals; and, comfortably embedded within the novel's vast framework, several lengthy speeches or essays representing the points of view that struggle there.

After reading a few of Dostoevsky's masterpieces, I have started to notice some recurring themes. There always seems to be a fallen woman, and a man who tries to raise her up (though with varying degrees of success). There is often an epileptic in the story. Brain fever, a distinctively 1880s-ish thing somewhere between meningitis and a nervous breakdown, often figures in the plot—a device Arthur Conan Doyle also relied on more than perhaps necessary. And in the end, someone always seems to be sent away, or put away, either for his own good or for society's. Characters with chronic money problems always seem to be debating ethics, religion, and social philosophy, sometimes to the point of shedding blood. And the struggle between faith and reason always seems to lead someone to commit a murder. These tendencies aren't very surprising, once you acquaint yourself with Dostoevsky's biography. He was, after all, a sickly epileptic, whose health problems rode astride the line between mind and body. He got in trouble as a member of a radical group, was sentenced to face a firing squad, and after being mercifully sent instead to a Siberian labor-camp, experienced a religious conversion. He had gambling and debt problems, sometimes lived as a beggar, had dalliances with loose women, and finally died at age 59 from a series of strokes.

On the other hand, there are always plenty of surprises and original touches to enliven these familiar themes. Dostoevsky was brilliant at sketching original and distinct characters, ranging from the gentle and simple-hearted Alyosha to his two complex, ambivalent, but totally different brothers. Sometimes with a touch of irony and satire, but more often with genuine sympathy, he portrays a large cast of characters, including peasants, servants, lawyers, priests, a crazy ascetic, a flighty girl and her flibbertigibbet mother, a cheating innkeeper, a mentally unfit mother, a trouble-making kid, a cynical nihilist, and a dashing young official. He shows insight into legal procedures, monastic life, and the complexities of Polish forms of address. He also shows an amazing knack for developing believable female characters, each with her own individual blend of attractions and flaws. I'm not saying Fyodor Mikhailovich was a feminist or what not, but the girls in the "opening credits" roles exercise enormous power over the fates of the men in their lives, especially one particular member of the Karamazov family whose tragedy forms the backbone of this book. And above all, Dostoevsky keeps proving his flair for dramatics, pulling you along with cues and clues that keep the tension thrumming, straight through the agonizing and cleansing crisis of the tale.

And then he leaves you guessing, not only what happened, but what happens next. Must he spell everything out? I mean, the book was already 800 pages long! And yet, when it closes with Alyosha's speech to a group of schoolboys mourning the death of one of their mates, the end seems surprising and premature. You're still interested in what comes of the brothers' plans, hopes, and anxieties. You're uncertain whether to be hopeful or suspicious. And you're conscious that, although the narrator (who seems to be an invisible, all-knowing person living in the brothers' small town) spares very few details, down to the minutest account of some very long discourses, he is most clever in the information he withholds. It's a fascinating work of art. And besides that, it is truly entertaining. The most interesting moments are the ones where you catch yourself laughing aloud, and then feel guilty about not showing proper concern—like Ivan's hallucinatory conversation with a very impish devil. Or maybe the times when a character makes you want to reach out and strangle him or her. Or the bits that make you throb with emotion. Or the shock that you feel even though you saw it coming, because the narrator warned you ahead of time. Dostoevsky was a writer at the top of his powers when he wrote this—his powers, and practically anyone else's.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Railsea

Railsea
by China MiƩville
Recommended Ages: 12+

I'm just going to come out and say this. It's Moby-Dick, only without the boring bits. Well, no. What I just described would be an 80-page novelette. This is a full-size book, filled wall-to-wall with thrilling action, squirm-worthy tension, weird discoveries, and warm, appealing characters. Also, instead of water, the ocean in this version of Moby-Dick is a seemingly endless landmass filled with merging, splitting, tangling, and criss-crossing lines of rail. Where the soil is loose enough for creatures to burrow in it, the railsea takes care of itself (or is maintained by some supernatural agency; but let's leave the theological questions to one side). It isn't safe for people to set foot on this ground, because it is infested with mutant meat-eating oversized worms, insects, and furry things. The rockier bits, islands if you will, are populated by human settlements. The higher elevations, where the atmosphere is poisonous to earthly life, belong to creatures brought here and left behind by visitors from alien worlds.

Thousands of years of toxic waste have created a world that doesn't remember being anything like the world we know. A world where, instead of ships, people travel the sea in trains. A world where, instead of whales, they chase giant burrowing stoats, badgers, and moles. A world where wind power, solar power, steam, diesel, and electrical engines operate side by side, at least in harbor. It is considered a grand thing to belong to a moletrain, and a disgrace to live life as a salvor, trading in objects salvaged from wrecked trains or buried deep in the ground. But in this world, there are even lower ways to live off the railsea. Pirates. Wreckers. And there are higher callings as well, such as chasing a philosophy—a particular, giant animal whose elusive danger represents some idea, such as speed, or meaninglessness, or what have you.

Young Sham ap Soorap doesn't know what way of life he wants for himself. The cousins who brought him up are worried about his lack of aim. They would like to see him become a moletrain captain, and perhaps chase his own philosophy. So they wrangle a berth on the moletrain Medes for him, as a doctor's apprentice. He's not very good at it, and his heart isn't in it, and he doesn't fit in with his trainmates very well, and through it all he is dogged by a disgraceful desire to do salvage instead. But he tries to make it work, even if his captain is obsessed with a giant, custard-colored moldywarpe called Mocker-Jack.

But then Sham sees something that becomes an obsession of his own. On a memory card retrieved from a wrecked train, he sees a photo of a single track stretching straight across a vast emptiness, all the way to the horizon. This image represents something so inconceivable that it's practically heresy: the End of the Line. A way out of the railsea. As if!

Sham maneuvers his train's captain into helping him get to the bottom of this mystery. In so doing, he begins to show leadership skills that will eventually turn the entire crew of the Medes into his devoted followers. He meets a fascinating girl and her spunky kid brother, who will risk their lives in quest of something of which their parents perished in the seeking. Separately and together, Sham, the Shroakes, and the crew of the Medes will encounter privateers, wartrains, legendary monsters, deadly traps, and even heavenly beings (albeit in a cosmos where the way to heaven is horizontal). Echoes of Homer's Odyssey, riffs on Robinson Crusoe, and amazing feats of intelligence by a tame bat, will accompany a steadily accelerating clackety-clack of battles, terrifying perils, and soul-shaking wonders.

This page is probably more helpful than the author's website for identifying further titles by this brilliant writer. He has read vastly, as is apparent from his ability to draw effortlessly from the world of literature. He has thought boldly, arranging his materials in an alternate world of striking originality. And he expresses himself vividly, taking a creative approach to every level of storytelling from overall structure down to the details of language, yet always with a compelling sense of purpose. Even his hesitations, backtrackings, and veerings from one narrative track to another seem fitting for a world in which life without railroads is inconceivable. He is basically a colossal genius with a cold-fusion brain who, as his crowning achievement, has mastered the knack of communicating with audiences at a teen level. You'll enjoy reading this book so much that you won't realize it's making you smarter.