Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex

Confession: I've written this post four times over the last four weeks. It keeps getting eaten by blogger.

I've been reading the Artemis Fowl series since they first came out (and I was in an adolescent literature class and plucked it off the "free" cart my professor had). It's a fantastic series, one I adore, and one of my go-to recommendations for kids, especially kids in the 4th grade to 7th grade zone. Like Harry Potter? Percy Jackson and the Olympians? Chances are you're going to like this one too. I'd rather forgotten the series in the last year or so, but when the latest volume came in to the library, I happily grabbed it off the new cart and devoured it. Can't remember why I forgot this series, even 7 volumes in it still is a very enjoyable read.

Book: Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer*
Vital Stats: Published in 2010 by Disney/Hyperion Books, 357 pages
Marketed Toward: Ages 9 to 12
The Quick and the Short of It: Recommended for fourth or fifth grade (ages 9 or 10) and up

Book Synopsis
Artemis Fowl is an evil genius and the latest in a long string of criminal masterminds who have built up the Fowl Empire and live on an estate in Ireland. You do not want to jump into this the seventh book without having started with the first book (the eponymous Artemis Fowl). If you read the first volume, you would know that Artemis proves that fairies are real, have some magic and extremely advanced technology and live far underground. In the seventh volume, Artemis is beginning to repent of his criminal past and obsesses about the good he can do with "the project". His project will save the environment, benefiting both humanity and fairy-kind. Unfortunately when he's demonstrating this project to his fairy allies, there is an attack. The attack could have devastating consequences for human and fairies alike and normally (and in all previous volumes) is exactly the sort of thing that would bring out the genius of Artemis Fowl and allow him to save the day (and probably make a profit) in a fiendishly clever way, but the attack pushed him over the edge into madness. How can the assorted (and after 6 previous volumes beloved) cast of fairies and humans save the day and Artemis?

My Take
I love these books. (Did I say that already?) The premise is fun, the cast of characters is memorable (and after all these volumes beginning to feel like friends), the mixture of real world and folklore elements are handled with charm and wit. Overall a lot of fun. This sort of thing can get boring after a while. (There is a great danger either because Artemis ran into trouble during a money making scheme or because someone else was a criminal and wanted to make money and now everyone must work together to save the world. Really you can only read that plot so many times.) Throwing the element of Artemis Fowl's spiral into madness keeps the whole thing fresh and readable. Plus it was a nice new glimpse into an otherwise well known character. So while the plots are beginning to feel predictable, Colfer keeps them fun and readable. Still a very solid and enjoyable choice for fantasy/adventure fans. It will particularly appeal to boys (though girls love it too).

Possible Issues/Christian Connection
The fairies probably tipped you off, but there is magic in this book. And in the first book, Artemis starts as a criminal. However the magic seems to be outshined by the out-there science (in fact magic is used rarely in the first few books though plays a larger role in lter books) and is primarily of the pretend-style. As Artemis grows a conscience over the course of the series, it is interesting how morality changes for him (or at least he begins to recognize it). That would be interesting to read/discuss from a Christian point of view. There is some violence in this book, but it is not over emphasized or glorified in any way. And there are the deaths of a couple of prominent characters throughout the series. In balance, I would recommend this book for a Christian household.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Library Wars (manga) vol. 1-2

I've been reading a lot of manga lately because that is what the kids at my library are reading. How can I resist a manga about library employees fighting censorship?

Book: Library Wars: Love and War (volumes 1 and 2) by Kiiro Yumi and Hiro Arikawa
Vital Stats: Volumes 1 and 2 were published in June and September 2010 respectively with volume 3 due out in December 2010. All are around 200 pages in length, published by Viz.
Age Appropriateness: Rated by Viz as T+: For Older Teens
The Quick and the Short of It: Recommended with reservations

Book Synopsis:
In an alternate Japan, censorship is legal under the Media Betterment Act. In response libraries have militarized and formed the Library Defense Fore. (Side note, my library would be one thousand times more awesome if we had our own army.) After a childhood encounter where a member of the LDF saves her book, Iku is determined to join their ranks. She enrolls in librarian training and is the first female recruited into the defense force. There she has numerous run-ins with one of her instructors (Dojo) and a fellow recruit named Tezuka. She learns to work with them as they form a unit for both training and some real world missions. Of course there are the beginnings of some possible romantic intrigues (as you would expect in a book subtitled Love and Wars).

My Take:
I like Iku as a main character, she's a strong girl who cares about more than boys. (That's not as common as it should be in manga.) In fact when a guy expresses interest in her, she is very surprised and confused. She's more athletic than smart, but works hard to overcome it (once she realizes it is a problem). The series is simplistic in plot, a bit predictable, and I would have loved it when I was 12 that is f I had known what manga was when I was 12. It's going to appeal more to teens than adults, but it's going to appeal to people. It's fun, mostly lighthearted, and enjoyable.

Possible Issues/Christian Connection:
The T+ (or OT) rating for older teens can cover a variety of issues. So far, only through volume 2, I've not seen anything too egregious. There was one locker room/shower scene with some minor nudity (backs mostly). I'm worried that we might see more "fan service" wherein a manga creator (or manga-ka) includes nudity solely to make her fans happy. This could include two characters having a conversation in a shower/locker room that could easily happen in a cafeteria. No romantic relationships have formed yet (just hints and one date asked for) so I don't know how graphic or intimate those will get. And of course there is violence (the wars half of Love and Wars). They literally battle (guns, camo, the whole nine yards) over books. But the violence is sparse and not too graphic. I can recommend this to Christian teens with the caveat that I do not know what will develop in later volumes.

He holds victory in store for the upright,
he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
for he guards the course of the just
and protects the way of his faithful ones.
-Proverbs 2:7-8

Friday, October 1, 2010

Hunger Games trilogy

The latest blockbuster books (and perhaps soon to be a movie) in the teen lit world are the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It's gotten so big that the purveyor of teen pop culture, Hot Topic, is now carrying a line of merchandising related to the books. (And yes I dragged my bemused friends in with me so I could purchase my "District 12 Tribute" t-shirt.) I loved Collins' previous juvenile (5th to 7th grade) work, The Underland Chronicles (first book: Gregor the Overlander) and she has far surpassed herself with this trilogy. However, it is not for the faint of heart, or the younger teens, and I'll explain that as well.

Book: Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Book one: Hunger Games published by Scholastic in 2008, 324 pages
Book two: Catching Fire pub 2009, 391 pages
Book three: Mockingjay pub 2010, 391 pages
Marketed Towards: Teens
The Quick and the Short of it: Recommended for older, mature teens with reservations for violence

Book Synopsis
In a future world, after the collapse of our own society, there are 12 districts ruled brutally by the Capitol. Katniss Everdeen lives in a coal mining district where she and her family barely stave off starvation through illegal hunting. All of the districts' citizens find themselves near starvation and dependant upon the Capitol. To reinforce their superiority, control, and to punish the districts for an uprising generations before, every district must send two teenage "tributes" to the annual hunger games. The 24 tributes compete to the death in a brutal arena while the districts are forced to watch their children kill each other. When Katniss' younger sister is chosen as a tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place. What happens in the arena that year will change their society and start a revolution, but all Katniss wants to do is survive to protect her family. The second and third books follow the continuing revolution and struggle.

My Take
LOVE these books! I read the first one immediately and was twitching with anticipation before each of the sequels came out. As I said before, I even braved Hot Topic for the first time since my own teenage years to procure a t-shirt. Collins' writing is brilliant and the books draw you in. I know almost as many adults reading these books as teens. They've started many an in-depth conversation and debate. I even picked up the paperback for the first one and I'm very selective as to which books I buy due to both space and monetary limitations. That is not to say however that they are right for every teen, every family, or every Christian.

Possible Issues/Christian Connection
If you couldn't divine this on your own, there is a lot of violence in these books, a lot. Obviously the premise is a group of teenagers forced to fight to the death and then a revolution, a bloody violent civil war. However, the violence is presented in a reflective way and this book can spurn good discussion. Violence is clearly condemned, but shown to have it's place; yet it is still a very violent book.

On the other side, Katniss does develop relationships with two different young men who vie for her attention. Given the extreme situations and responsibilities they face, it hardly seems fair to refer to these teens as children. She is never shown or described as having sex with either of them, but a pregnancy is faked. After a number of extreme experiences, she deals with her PTSD by sleeping (merely sleeping) in the same bed and in the arms of one of the young men. The ramifications of her doing this and the emotional intimacy she is creating between the two of them is something she eventually has to consider. It might be an interesting discussion starter as to how pre-marital emotional intimacy can be as dangerous as pre-marital physical intimacy. Is that a fair thing for either person to rely that much upon another? What type of burden or relationship does that create?

So to recap - extreme violence and some intimacy, but still a great book, very thought provoking. I would recommend it for a mature older teen reader, but only you know your child and your family. It might be a great parent-teen read together and discuss.

When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you. - Deuteronomy 20:1

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Amulet, Books 1-3

I apologize for abandoning this blog for the last month. I was promted at work and life rather exploded on me. I've got a bunch of half-written posts, and once again every intention of doing better from now on.

I've said before how much I love graphic novels. I especially love graphic novels with great plot, great writing, great art, the type of graphic novel that has some meat to it. It's no surprise then that I love the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi and of course I've previously raved about Kibuishi's work. These books are a huge hit at my library and since I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of the third book (which came out this week), I should pass it on to one of my young friends who has been eagerly awaiting the next installment.

Book: Amulet. Book 1: The Stonekeeper; Amulet. Book 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse; and Amulet. Book 3: The Cloud Searchers by Kazu Kibuishi
Vital Stats: Published in 2008, 2009, and 2010 by Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic); 185, 217, and 197 pages with full color illustrations through all three.
Awards: Eisner Award nominee
Marketed Toward: Ages 9 to 12
The Quick and the Short of it: Recommended with some reservations for the use of magic and violence

Book Synopsis
In the first few pages of the first in this series of graphic novels, Emily watches her father die tragically in a car accident. She and her family (mother and brother) are forced by economic realities after his death to move to the house of her great-grandfather. Of course, in the grand tradition of comic books, her great-grandfather never died, he simply disappeared. When Emily and her brother, Navin, discover a hidden portal in his house, his disappearance makes more sense. Emily puts on a magic stone amulet she finds and together they enter a strange alternate world. Unfortunately when their mother follows, she is carried away by an enemy and then poisoned. With the aid of some of Great-Grandfather Silas' robots and the magic powers of the amulet, they rescue her. In the process Emily learns a lot about her new role as a "stonekeeper" (wearer and wielder of the magic amulet). It is a job she has inherited from her ancestor and one she will keep for life. The ultimate question is if she will control the amulet or if it will take control of her, and what she will give up to do this. By the end of the third book, the family has decided to make their new home in this magical kingdom of Alledia, but they know it will be an uphill battle, a war even, to control the stone and take back from the evil elf king who rules the land. (Did I mention there's an evil elf king? And various other villians? Oh yeah, they're there too. I'm summing up 3 books in one paragraph, stuff will be missed.)

My Take
Great story, beautifully drawn book, complex and engaging characters. I love these books and I'll keep reading the next issues. They're also a very popular choice in my library and pop up on all sort of "best of" lists. My only gripe is sometimes the plotline seems a teensy bit trite. (Less than once a book, not enough to deter anyone from reading it.) When Emily's father was lost, and her mother had to let go, couldn't hold on, couldn't save him, it was tragic. When Emily had the same experience with her mother, it was too easy of a parallel. But I'm an adult and this book is aimed (primarily) at middle grade readers who won't have this complaint. So ignore that and walk away knowing this is a great book to hand to a reluctant reader. The main character is a female, but her brother plays a huge role (and has his own part to play in the war), and I've not had any problem at all with boys refusing to read a "girl" book. Overall, highly recommended. (Well, except for what is in the next section.)

Possible Issues/Christian Connection
There's magic in this book. (You've probably figured that out on your own.) The amulet that Emily wears (and is unable to remove) talks to her and allows her to wield amazing powers (pick stuff up, blast stuff, etc.). There are other amulets and the stonekeepers (as those who wear the amulets are called) can be corrupted by the power or learn to control it. There are some battles, some violence, but nothing too graphic or off putting.

Discretion will protect you,
and understanding will guard you.
Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men,
from men whose words are perverse.
-Proverbs 2:11-12

Monday, July 19, 2010

Chinese Cinderella

I meant to post a new chapter book review every Thursday, but I was away being a camp counselor for our church camp, and I forgot to pre-schedule it. I love biographies and memoirs and this is one I've been meaning to read for a while. When I received a copy of the author's first fiction book, it was the perfect motivation to read her original and most famous book. This memoir for children is an abridged/reworked version of her adult memoir, Falling Leaves, but even as an adult, I enjoyed the children's version more.

Book: Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah
Vital Stats: Published in 1999 by Delacorte Press, 205 pages
Awards: 2000 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
Marketed Toward: The "Young Adult" market, more or less teens 12+
The Quick and the Short of It: Recommended for the emotionally mature

Book Synopsis
Adeline Yen Mah tells the difficult story of her childhood. She is the fifth child, and a daughter, unwelcome in her family. When her mother dies from complications from childbirth, Adeline is blamed. After her father's remarriage, her place in her family is even more insecure. She is alternatively ignored and abused, only receiving minimal praise from a father who can't remember her name when she wins school prizes. Set during a backdrop of WWII and then communist revolution in China, Adeline Yen Mah (or Yen Jun-Ling in Chinese) had a rough childhood to say the least. The only ones who take an interest in her are her aunt and grandfather, but they are powerless to make a substantial change in her life. Yet she manages to overcome a cruel stepmother (worthy of any fairytale), an apathetic father, and siblings who are alternatively friends and foe to find herself and her own path in life.

My Take
Fantastic book! It's well written and captivating (I got through it in two days). Most fascinating for me were the insights into Chinese culture, the explanations of language and family structure. This book would be the perfect accompaniment to a unit on China. However it is not an easy book to read. The maturity level required for this book is higher than the reading level. While not as intense as A Child Called It, I would still recommend taking your child's emotional level into account. That being said, this is still a fantastic book. The children's biography covers her life until she is finally granted an escape, college in England. The adult biography glosses over the childhood years and focuses more on her life as an adult and her continuing struggles with her family even after she achieves her independence.

Possible Issues/Christian Connection
The abuse doesn't usually take the form of physical abuse, but abandonment and emotional abuse can be as traumatic for the child and the reader. There is one particularly disturbing scene in which the author's beloved pet duck is killed by her father's dog. Both her grandfather and aunt are devout Buddhists, but their traditions are not lingered on much, actually I wanted more. Overall this program shouldn't be a problem for a Christian family provided you choose an appropriately emotionally mature child. I would think a minimum age is 12 or 13.

Your brothers, your own family—
even they have betrayed you;
they have raised a loud cry against you.
Do not trust them,
though they speak well of you.
-Jeremiah 12:6

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord

One of my favorite middle grade children's chapter books (4th to 6th grade) in the last five years was Cynthia Lord's debut novel Rules, so I was thrilled to get an advance copy of her new book. I highly recommend Rules, especially to those whose lives are touched by someone with autism, and I found her newest book to be as poignant as her first.

Book: Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord
Vital Stats: Published August 1, 2010 by Scholastic, 192 pages
Awards:Lord won the Newbery Honor for Rules and a host of other awards
Marketed Toward: Ages 9 to 12
The Quick and the Short of It: Highly recommended

Book Synopsis
A small town on an island in Maine decides to bring foster children into their houses to raise the number of students and keep their school from being closed. Tess, still reeling from her best friend moving away, places high hopes on Aaron who is coming to live with her family. Of course he isn't exactly what she had hoped (an orphan like Anne in Anne of Green Gables), but real life is always more complicated than a book. Aaron is a gifted musician, but he's never played Monoply. He's angry, uninterested in island life or catching lobsters, and he's curious about his real mom. Grace tries desperately to help him consider the island his home, but when she tries to reconnect him with his mom she might have gone too far.

My Take
Simply put, I loved this book. It's beautifully written. The island life in Maine is so perfectly drawn that the setting could be an additional character. (I love books where the setting is rich and evocative as this one is.) Tess has a number of superstitions (such as the titular touching of blue which will make a wish come true) and each chapter is headed with a new superstition that naturally weaves its way into the action of that chapter. As I read this book, I flashed back to all the superstitions of my own childhood. Tess is a believable and a relateable character trying to make the most of what life has given her. If you're anything like me, you'll be rooting for Tess, for Aaron, and for the rest of the characters in this exceptionally well done book. Cynthia Lord deserves at least another mention on the Notable list for this marvelous book.

Possible Issues/Christian Connection:
There are the obvious issues inherent with a foster child, including that Aaron's mother has lost custody of him due to drinking issues. Other than that (which is minor and shouldn't be an impediment), I don't see any issues that would cause concern for a Christian family. Acutally I was thrilled to read a book where they attended church regularly. Tess performs Peace Like a River for the talent show and Aaron becomes the church organist. It's a refreshing book and one that I whole-heartedly endorse. There are a number of families in my church who have welcomed foster children into their homes and I'm thinking about sharing my copy of this with them.

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." - James 1:27

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Prince of Mist

At the risk of sounding like a literary snob, I love reading Spanish Magical Realism. If you're unfamiliar with that genre, it is a mix of reality and fantastical elements by Spanish (or Mexican) authors. Great examples includes authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Laura Esquivel and books such 100 Years of Solitude and Like Water For Chocolate (my personal favorite). Last year when a coworker introduced me to a new author from Barcelona, I immediately devoured the two adult works of Carlos Ruiz Zafón that had been translated (The Shadow of the Wind and it's companion The Angel's Game). Those are amazing books, some of the best I've read in years, but definitely adult books. I do not recommend them to kids or teens. That why I was so excited (thrilled, over the moon, doing a happy dance) to get a copy of his first (translated) book for teens.

Book: The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated by Lucia Graves
Vital Stats: Published in May 2010 by Little, Brown and Company, 200 pages
Marketed Toward: Teens
The Quick and the Short of It: Recommended, with a few reservations, for teens 14+

Book Synopsis
It's 1943 and the war is pressing in on daily life in Spain. On his 13th birthday, Max's father announces he is moving the family away from the city to a coastal town to escape the war. There his father opens up a watchmaker's shop and they move into a beach home abandoned after tragedy struck and the son of the previous owners drowned. That was not the only tragedy to strike this small community: years before a ship had sunk leaving only one survivor. Said survivor built the town's lighthouse and took in his orphaned grandson to raise. Max and his older sister become friends with the grandson, Roland, and together discover a mystery surrounding the drowned ship, the lighthouse keeper, a garden of creepy statues, and the previous occupants of the house. It's primarily a ghost story, with a bit about a deal with a devil thrown in, and of course a sense of magic.

My Take
I am not a person who enjoys being scared for the sake of being scared, but I loved this. The intertwining of the real and the not-quite-real is brilliant. It's not as fluid and poetic as Zaf´o;n's adult works, but it is much shorter and a quicker read. The story is less complex and fleshed out, but has the same interweaving of characters and places that make Zaf%acuteo;n's works so spine-tingling. Anyone who likes a creepy read, or beautiful writing, will find something to like here. However, I do have a couple of reservations, as always, read on.

Possible Issues
The first line of the book sets the stage: Max would never forget that faraway summer when, almost by chance, he discovered magic. So yes, this book includes magic. Choose for yourself how you feel about that. No main (or likeable) character practices magic, magic is shown as an evil force, and a consequence is always paid for practicing magic. The titular "Prince of Mist" is an evil-magician who grants wishes for people for a terrible price. (There's a nice object lesson about making a deal with the devil.) I do not feel that the presence of the supernatural element in this book should automatically preclude it from being enjoyed by an older Christian teen. Parents should also be aware that in the developing intimacy between Max's older sister, Alicia, and Roland, there is some physical intimacy. Max observes the two kissing and rolling around in the sand on the beach. Alicia also removes her dress before going swimming with Roland. Nothing is ever graphically described and at no point do they explain to exactly what level the intimacy between Roland and Alicia progresses.

"Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare like birds. I will tear off your veils and save my people from your hands, and they will no longer fall prey to your power. Then you will know that I am the LORD." -Ezekiel 13:20-21