Category Archives: Adventure

The 39 Clues (slick and gimmicky but hard to resist)

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The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones is exactly the kind of book that I would not have been allowed to buy as a kid (which may explain why I wanted to check it out as an adult). It would have been deemed empty of literary merit and if that alone wasn’t enough to keep the book from going home with me, the card-collecting element would have sealed the deal. Intrigued by the multi-author arrangement of the series, as well as the online aspect of the narrative, I picked up book #1 and read it lightning fast.

Scholastic has created quite the concept here, a 10-book series loaded with multi-media connections, authored by some of the brightest and best writers for kids out there. The line-up:

Book 1: Rick Riordan
Book 2: Gordon Korman
Book 3: Peter Lerangis
Book 4: Jude Watson (aka Judy Blundell)
Book 5: Patrick Carman
Book 6: Jude Watson
Book 7: Peter Lerangis
Book 8: Gordon Korman
Book 9: Linda Sue Park
Book 10: Margaret Peterson Haddix

Undoubtedly, a super-impressive bunch of storytellers. In the end, I think that’s what I’m most interested in. I want to see if these authors manage to apply their own winning twist or tone to the stories that they are responsible for telling while maintaining some kind of cohesiveness within the series of related books. I’m not sure if that will happen. Book #3: The Sword Thief, has just been released, so I’ve got some catching up to do.

Amy and Dan Cahill are orphans (of course), who discover after the death of their beloved Aunt Grace, that their family is one of the most powerful in human history. Many of the world’s most celebrated figures (Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Picasso) were Cahills, belonging to different branches of the family: Lucian, Janus, Ekaterina, and Tomas. At the reading of their Aunt’s will, Amy and Dan learn that Grace has created a complex challenge for her relatives that may reveal the source of the Cahill family’s true power, and make those able to crack the challenge the most powerful Cahills ever known. 39 clues are hidden around the world to lead the searchers to the final secret of the Cahill family. Amy and Dan must choose to accept the challenge or walk away with a million dollars each. Their relatives are offered the same deal. Some accept, including the siblings, and this begins a whirlwind adventure as Amy and Dan race to get ahead in this mysterious quest.

Within each book is a set of 6 clue cards that kids can collect and trade. The cards are meant to help readers get a deeper sense of the mystery and potentially to understand the secret purpose of this challenge alongside Amy and Dan. Kids can go onto The 39 Clues site, create an account, and enter their cards on the site. This gives readers access to “missions” that will help them to enter the world of the story in a deeper way, and work on the central mystery with more insider information. It also reveals which of the 4 branches of the family you belong to. You can read classified information on your branch’s page, but only after you’ve registered as a user. And guess what? You can buy more cards! (Gasp!) And no two packages are alike! (Imagine) There’s going to be a movie directed by Stephen Spielberg (who just happens to be a Janus, BTW). And you can win prizes if you solve puzzles! Slick indeed. Continue reading

The Hunger Games

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3 Reasons to like (OK… sort of worship) Suzanne Collins:

1) She wrote The Hunger Games, which in case you’ve been hiding in a cave somewhere since October, is her much-acclaimed first novel in what will be a trilogy. (Thank goodness).

2) She adopts feral kitties and one of them is named Zorro. (Pause here to create mental image of claw-slashing, rapier-wielding, masked kitty cat of mystery).

3) She has a big wooden bat hanging in her kitchen window. (Enough said).

So kitties and kitchen bats aside, my purpose here is to spend a little more time considering #1from the list above, because it is very important that everyone (and I mean everyone) out there understands why The Hunger Games is one seriously fantastic read.

Imagine the world after North America is long gone. Panem, a dictatorship divided into 12 Districts, is ruled centrally from a powerful city, known as the Capitol. Life in most of the districts is harsh, and that’s putting it mildly. Citizens work themselves to the bone for next to nothing, with the fruits of their labors heading straight to the wealthiest members of society. Just when you think things couldn’t get much bleaker, once a year, 2 young people, a boy and a girl, are chosen by lottery from each of the 12 districts to compete in the Hunger Games, the most twisted reality TV show you could ever imagine in which the contestants battle each other to the death in an enclosed territory known as the “arena.” The last contestant, or “tribute”, left alive is set for life, with a luxurious home and a lifetime of security and wealth guaranteed for their entire family.

The protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, who hails from the Seam, District 12, a tough mining community that has not had a winning tribute for about 30 years. Katniss is a skilled hunter, and she comes to depend on this ability as she battles for survival in the arena. The second District 12 tribute is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, a stoic partner for the often impulsive, sometimes fiery Katniss. What happens to these two and the rest of the fighters when the game begins is sure to keep you up late, late into the night, turning the pages straight through to the dramatic finish.

I had huge expectations for The Hunger Games, what with the glowing reviews cropping up right, left and centre. Let’s just say, I can’t imagine how I could have been more satisfied. Collins has plotted her narrative expertly; there is no excess here. She tells a tale that is tight and swift and yet still manages to remain complex in its themes. About halfway through, I crawled out of my couch-nest and wandered into the kitchen and said to my fella, “I can’t think of any way this book could possibly end that wouldn’t be completely devastating. This book rocks.” (Back to couch). Here’s a book with substance and suspense, philosophy and big time page-turnability, well-crafted characters and most of all, the promise of even more story ahead. You’ve got injustice, extreme courage, sacrifice, romance, cruelty and the dream of a better world. That’s some story.

Certainly not a light read, The Hunger Games will get readers talking. It begs the questions, “What would I do?” and “Who would I be?” I’d line up to have the chance to eavesdrop on a few conversations at teen book clubs, on the bus, in libraries, or around the dinner table as people consider what the novel means to them.

Ultimately, Suzanne Collins’s story explores the best and worst of humanity, the things about our society that make us shudder and the things that give us hope and feed our spirits in the darkest hours. So read it for yourself, give it to everyone you know, and then start crossing off the days on your calendar till the release of Book Two, in the Fall of 2009.

The Hunger Games is published by Scholastic.

Here’s what everyone else thinks:

Fuse 8
Cheryl Rainfield
Wands and Worlds
Menasha Kids
Confessions of a Bibliovore
YA New York

The Night Tourist

It was quite brave of me to give The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh a chance. Brave because it reminds me very much of two of my favourite books: Kiki Strike and The Lightning Thief. In fact, it’s almost like a cross between those two stories, with a little bit of its own thing going on too. It’s always dangerous to read a book that is closely linked in theme or concept to beloved books. How could it possibly measure up?

Well… if I had to say it in short, I didn’t find this one as satisfying as Kirsten Miller’s or Rick Riordan’s books, but I’d say it’s worth reading, and I imagine the kids will enjoy its mysterious, mythological elements. Also, the film rights have been snapped up by Universal and there’s a sequel in the works, so I think you’ll hear more about this one as time goes by.

The premise is great. Ninth-grade Classics prodigy Jack Perdu lives with his professor father on the Yale campus. One winter night, he experiences a serious accident after which his life changes forever (dum dum dum…). Soon after, his dad sends him to visit an unusual doctor in New York City. Jack hasn’t been back to the city since his mother died there a few years before. In Grand Central Station, Jack meets Euri, a girl who promises to show him the secret places hidden beneath the Terminal. Deep below the station Jack discovers a ghostly underworld and he and Euri begin to search for his mother in this strange parallel city.

There are several aspects of this book that pleased me. First off, the opening works very well. Marsh doesn’t mess about in the beginning. She really launches into the story in an exciting, to-the-point manner that I imagine will hook a lot of readers. By page 10, Jack’s had his accident and has already experienced his first strange, post-accident incident. I got caught up in this story very quickly. There are some great moments of humour too. For instance, when Jack asks Euri where Elysium is, she replies, “Somewhere in the Hamptons… that’s my guess, anyway.” Har har. There’s some nice wordplay peppered throughout as well.

On the other hand, I felt that Marsh didn’t sustain the momentum established in the early chapters, which is too bad, because the story got off to such a cracking start. In my opinion, Jack came off a bit flat in places, and when your story rests almost entirely on the shoulders of two characters, they had better be consistently interesting and well-drawn. Towards the latter part of the book, I wanted a bit more depth in the character development department. * Spoiler Alert * Euri is in the underworld because she committed suicide. I don’t object to the presence of suicide in a teen book in principle, but in The Night Tourist, Euri’s suicide is not given much attention. It’s mentioned and then more-or-less dropped for most of the story, which almost makes me wonder if it wasn’t inserted for shock value. Her history is never really explored or explained in satisfactory detail, which might have helped readers to consider why she made that choice. I don’t think you can just drop suicide (especially the suicide of a young person) into a story and never really “get into it.” It makes the character unbelievable, and it makes suicide seem less complex and serious, almost run-of-the-mill. This concerned me.

All in all, The Night Tourist is a good, quick read, with a strong sense of place. If you love New York City, you’ll likely enjoy all of the references to famous sites and monuments. I’m sure it will translate well to the screen. Check out this article on Katherine Marsh in USA Today.

Tunnels

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Tunnels, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, has certainly garnered a lot of attention across the pond. Touted as “the next Harry Potter” (a phrase that sets off alarm bells for me), the writers purportedly pocketed a wack of cash for this book, and there is a movie in the works. Two strikes. Also, I must admit to looking askance at just about any book that is co-authored. Probably unfair, I know, but just tell me exactly how do you write a book with someone else? OK, maybe you can manage to write a book with a partner, but in my experience, they are never as remarkable as solo efforts.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I started into this one, and sure enough, there’s good, and there’s bland to be found in these pages. I’ll start with the good:

1) The cover: It is awesome, in a dazzling, blockbuster-ish, sort of way. The shiny green orb at the mouth of the tunnel really does appear to glow (heck, it even seems to glow on the screen, doesn’t it?). This is most eye-catching. I also love the terrible spookiness of the man with his curvy knives and his puppy with the glowing eyes. Creeeeeepy! The cover will sell this book to many, many eager kiddies.

2) The Underground World: First, the basic premise… Will Burrows likes to dig. His dad is an eccentric archaeologist who has spent many hours with his son digging under London, looking for tunnels and caverns and odd artifacts. One day, daddy disappears and Will suspects he’s gone underground. So Will and his trusty sidekick Chester head down after Will’s father and what they find is a strange and oppressive society that is no friend to “Topsoilers” (people from the world above). What drew me along in this story was the vividness, and awful creepiness of the underground universe. Gordon and Williams describe the place – its smells, its dankness, its rough-hewn construction – in careful detail. I could really see it.

3) The Plot-Twists: It was a bit of a slow start, I must say. For the first 100 pages or so, I appreciated how suspense was building and tone was being established, but I think that it took too long for the story to snap into proper action. Once it did, things chugged along in a satisfying way, with some surprises along the way. There is one fantastic (and for me, completely unforeseen) twist, close to the end of the book. It’s a zinger.

And now, the bland:

1) Character: Will, the main character, lacked roundness. Big time. When I really think about it, I didn’t care much about his fate (meaning, I didn’t care much about him). I just wanted to find out what happened next. This is unfortunate, since there is a lot about the imagined world, and the suspense of this story that makes it memorable. Will just seemed like a not-very-interesting excuse for the action. Some of the secondary characters were better drawn, but in general, much could be improved in the area of characterization.

2) The Ending: I won’t give any spoilers here, but let’s just say that the end of the book (minus the Epilogue – which was a sharp little treat) left me indifferent. There is an obvious “To be continued…” feeling about it that is annoying and just seemed like a cop out.

So, overall a satisfying read, with some significant flaws. It is fun while you’re reading, but not wholly memorable. Tunnels is a solid adventure story, with a strong fear factor, so I can imagine many kids jumping into it happily. By the way, it reminded me hugely of City of Ember (though not with the same spark – he he – or payoff). Fans of that series will likely want to take a look at Tunnels.

Philip Ardagh quite liked it. Read his review in the Guardian.

Leepike Ridge

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I’m beginning to wonder how the Middle Grade Judges for this year’s Cybils award are ever going to choose the winner. The more Cybils nominations I read, the more I realize that this is going to be one hot competition. It will be tough enough for us panelists to narrow the list to the finalists – exciting stuff!

N.D. Wilson’s Leepike Ridge is a remarkably statisfying, superbly written story that should get young readers – and their parents / teachers / librarians / booksellers – really excited. Normally, when someone tells you that a book is something close to an Adventure / Coming of Age / Survival tale that reads like a blend of Robinson Crusoe and The Odyssey you can safely conclude that the author took on too much and the story will come up the worse for it. Not in the hands of Mr. N.D. Wilson.

Quick intro: Thomas Hammond lives with his mom in a house right on the edge of Leepike Ridge. His dad died a few years ago, and now his mom is on the verge of remarrying. Too bad her suitor is a weirdo teacher from Tom’s school. Tom is not too happy about this, and so he grabs a giant piece of packing foam from their newly delivered fridge and floats down the river at the base of the ridge (cause what else would you do in this situation, right?) Things get interesting / terrifying when Tom gets himself sucked underground by the river as it heads under the ridge itself. What he finds under the rock is unlike anything he could have expected. Here are a few things you need to know about this book:

1) Man can this guy write. If I were to set about quoting you the most beautiful passages and turns of phrase in Leepike Ridge, I’d be here for a while. Let’s just say that there are several lines in this book that warranted a “Wow- I need to put this book down and let that image float around in my head for a moment.”

2) It’s a very visual story. The journey that Thomas experiences is a wild and strangely mysterious one, and you can see the whole thing. The book wouldn’t work half as well if Wilson wasn’t so deft with description.

3) This isn’t just a gripping adventure. The book is hiding plenty of “deeper” lessons. Lots of different kinds of kids could enjoy this book (and that’s just one reason why I think it deserves to be a finalist for the Cybils). A kid who loves nearly non-stop action will race through this book and have a blast along the way, but the kid who likes to think about complex mysteries – of the natural and human world – will walk away from Leepike Ridge with lots to mull over.

4) Did I mention that N.D. Wilson can write? Try this for some proof:

“After a few mouthfuls of moon-flavored air, even the stubbornly drowsy can find themselves wide-eyed. Tom was hardly drowsy, and he took more than a few mouthfuls. By the time he had reached the base of the rock, his senses were heightened nearly to the point of bursting. All of the normal noises of life were gone, leaving behind the secretive sounds, the shy sounds, the whispers and conversations of moss disputing with grass over some soft piece of earth, or the hummingbirds snoring…”

Gorgeous.

It is so clear that every aspect of this story was given careful thought. Leepike Ridge is a book that you can appreciate as having been crafted by its author, but not in a way that ever feels self-conscious. It just feels beautiful and complex.

There is an outstanding interview of N.D. Wilson at Novel Journey. Also, lots of bloggers have already had their say about this title:
Becky’s Book Reviews
Semicolon
Miss Erin
Fuse 8

Fuse calls it “an adventure novel with a soul.” I think that’s the perfect way to sum this one up. I don’t want to jinx this, but I have to wonder, have we got our winner here?

Leepike Ridge is published by Random House.

Still in the Middle: Leepike Ridge

I am whipping my way through Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson. Loving it.

As I was wandering around the kidslitosphere yesterday, I happened upon a recent podcast by Fuse 8 where she chats about Leepike Ridge among other things. Of course I wanted to hear what Fuse had to say about this one, but at the same time, I didn’t want ANY spoilers, so I resisted. Fun for when I’m finished, I guess.

I think if there was ever a book to get me waxing podcast-y, it might be this one.  There are many simply beautiful turns of phrase that beg to be read out loud.

Read it – all of you!

Wolf Brother

wolf_brother.jpg If you haven’t read Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother, I am jealous. Very jealous. It’s part ancient historical fiction, part adventure, with some fantastical elements woven in for good measure. The story is set in the Stone Age, in a world that is divided into clans, represented mostly by animals. Each clan has a particular gift that its members inherit, making them experts in a certain skill necessary for survival in their environment. The story opens with a young boy, Torak, witnessing the death of his father by a giant, otherworldly bear. As his father lies dying, he communicates to Torak that Torak is destined for an important task, a task that will save the forest and the clans from destruction. At the beginning of his journey, Torak stumbles across an orphaned wolf cub, and he wonders if this cub has some role to play in his mysterious destiny. There’s only one word for what comes next: wow.

Some of you are probably already saying, “No thanks. Giant bears possessed by spirits? Animal clans? A mysterious epic journey? Sounds a little too classic weirdo-fantasy for me.” Well just give it a try. Fantasy is not my #1 genre, but this book is too good to miss. Wolf Brother is the first in a series of what will be 6 titles (the 4th, Outcast, comes out in the fall). And if fantasy is really not your bag, you should read this book simply for its impressive power to immerse you in an ancient world. This believability did not just happen by accident. Michelle Paver devoted a great deal of time to researching the Stone Age – its housing, hunting methods and weaponry. Also, she researched more recent hunter-gatherer and indigenous cultures, traveling around the world to learn about their societies first hand. I mean, come on – how many authors go to Lapland to sleep on reindeer hides and learn about how to transport fire? I guess dining on elk-heart is what it takes to write a best-seller.

Michelle Paver has a website that’s worth a visit: Michelle Paver; and an official website for the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series: The Clan.

Now… I’ve saved the best for last. Sir Ian McKellan (of Gandalf fame) narrates the audiobooks for the series (and does a mighty fine job of it). As a special summertime treat, the Guardian is offering a FREE podcast of Wolf Brother. They’re presenting it in episodes, and all of them are available at Wolf Brother Podcast.

You’re welcome!