Monthly Archives: March 2009

“Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow” by James Rollins


In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I absolutely LOVE James Rollins' Sigma Force novels for adults. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Mr. Rollins at Book Expo a few years back, when he signed "Black Order" for me, so I can also happily report that he's just as delightful in person. Needless to say, when I found out James Rollins was writing a middle grade adventure novel, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. So, thank you HarperCollins for the ARC of this fantastic novel, which the rest of the world won't get to read until late April.

"Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow" is a good, old-fashioned swashbuckler. I mean that as the highest compliment, as this novel, with its seamless blend of history, action, and adventure, reads like an Indiana Jones for middle schoolers. The book is so chock full of cool puzzles, visual clues and glyphs, and mysterious snippets of secret language, that it almost feels like overkill to mention that it also includes alchemy, ancient cultures, and, hello, dinosaurs (!).

As the story begins, thirteen year-old budding archaeologist Jake Ransom and his cheerleader sister Kady are somehow transported back (or across?) time. One moment, they're in the British Museum, looking at artifacts from their now deceased parents' Mayan expedition, and the next, they're running for their lives from a dinosaur, accompanied by an ancient Mayan girl (Marika) and some sort of Roman teen soldier (Pindor). I know, cool. It gets better. Jake and Kady actually used two halves of a coin and, perhaps, the power of a small golden pyramid and a solar eclipse, to open a portal to Calypsos, the lost world that's an amalgam of cultures, peoples, and time periods. In a valley protected by powerful crystals, Mayans, Romans, Native Americans, Vikings, and even Neanderthals live harmoniously, mixing and mashing their cultures together. Calypsos is ruled by a council of elders and three Magisters, including Marika's father, who conduct experiments using crystals and sunbeams. Meanwhile, Kalverum Rex (the Skull King), a Magister who lost himself to dark alchemy, hovers on the outskirts of the settlement, creating horrible monsters and using all his evil tricks to break through the crystals' protections, attack Calypsos, and kidnap Jake and Kady.

There is such a bevy of cool stuff here that I hesitate to give away any more details; half the fun is deciphering the clues and unraveling the layered mysteries and hidden conspiracies right along with Jake. I loved how Jake was a clever, brave, ingenious young man one moment and then an impulsive, awkward but well-meaning kid the next. I'm sure middle school boys will readily identify with Jake, as he remains a real, believable character despite being thrown into all manner of outlandishly dangerous situations (you know, scorpion attacks, showdowns with evil beings … the usual). Even the secondary characters are fully realized, as the once scared Pindor gets a moment to shine while Kady uses her bratty charms to organize a Viking cheerleader squad and create a timely diversion.

"Jake Ransom" is a smart action tale that assumes — and rewards — a smart, curious audience. Fans of the "Alex Rider" and "Percy Jackson" series, or anyone who likes adventure, history, and mystery mixed together with a good bit of humor, will love this book. I can't wait for you to read it!


Posted by on March 26, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Once Dead, Twice Shy” by Kim Harrison


Author Kim Harrison is well known for her paranormal fantasies for adults. "Once Dead, Twice Shy" is Harrison's first novel written specifically for a teen audience, and it's a total winner. Fast-paced and plot-driven — but with interesting mythology and plenty of snark — this quirky, amiable tale of reapers, timekeepers, and fate will grab teen girls everywhere.

Madison Avery is already dead when we meet her, having been killed on prom night by Kairos, the dark timekeeper. While lying in the morgue, some spirit-like part of Madison steals Kairos' enchanted amulet, whose charms allow her to survive. Well, not "survive" in the sense of breathing and blood flow, but as long as she wears the amulet, Madison's soul remains in what appears to others to be a corporeal form. She doesn't eat or sleep (because she's dead!), but she still has to go to school and work. A little memory wiping by light timekeeper Ron allows her dad and prom date Josh to mostly forget her gruesome death, and so Madison now spends her summer days with light reaper Barnabas learning to communicate by thoughts and preventing dark reapers from scything any more innocents.

This reaper business probably requires some explanation. Here goes. Dark reapers are angels who believe that fate governs all human behavior. If an otherwise good 17 year-old is fated to do horrible things 40 years from now, dark reapers would rather scythe the kid now and prevent the future harm. Light reapers, well, they believe in the power of choice, so their job is to follow the trail of creepy black wings (think shadowy, flying harbingers of death and horror) and thwart a dark reaper's attack. The timekeepers? They're like a kind of reaper overlord with the nifty ability to jiggle time and change memories.

Ok, so dark timekeeper Kairos is not happy to have lost his powerful amulet, and he's got dark reapers out to snatch it back from Madison and Barnabas. If Madison loses the amulet, her soul will vanish and her scything (well, death) will be complete. You can see how she'd like to hang onto it, right? So we get an engaging, fast story with plenty of self-deprecating humor and a touch of romance, as Madison, good guy Josh, and a tiny, annoying guardian angel named Grace try to beat Kairos at his own game, save Josh's life, and get Madison her body back.

If this plot synopsis doesn't make sense here, trust me, the story works. Harrison does a great job in explaining her mythology and sticking to it. There's even a larger question here about fate versus choice, and Madison's stand on that issue — as well as her allegiances — shift throughout the story. I loved how Madison, dead and fighting off all manner of baddies, still has to deal with snobby classmates and a nosey but well-meaning dad. Madison is as worried about appearing flat-out weird — she is, after all, talking to angels and testing powers of invisibility — as she is about facing Kairos. All this real-world angst grounds the story and makes Madison an authentic, relatable character. Her sharp sense of humor also lightens the mood and makes the novel lots of fun.

Harrison nicely resolves the central story here while setting her characters up for more adventures in future sequels. Yay! I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens to Madison, Josh, and Barnabas. Middle and high school readers looking for an entertaining, otherworldy book that doesn't take itself too seriously will love "Once Dead, Twice Shy." Look for it in late May.

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Posted by on March 26, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“If I Stay” by Gayle Forman


A big thank you (again!) to the Penguin Young Readers Group for sending along the ARC of Gayle Forman's "If I Stay." There's been a lot of buzz on the Internet about this book, most of which I think is well deserved.

Here's the premise: Seventeen year-old Mia, her ex-punk mom and dad, and little brother Teddy are involved in a horrific car crash on a slick Oregon road. What started as a carefree day together ends in tragedy, as Mia's family is killed and she is gravely injured. While Mia's body lingers in the ICU in a coma, Mia's … well, I guess her spirit? her essence? … wanders about the hospital, watching her griefstricken grandparents, snarky best friend Kim, and adoring boyfriend Adam. We learn about Mia's life — her exquisite cello playing, her quirky extended family's strong bond, her deep relationship with punk singer Adam — through a series of flashbacks. It is the revelation of these small moments that allows us to slowly understand the happy, full life Mia had before the accident. In this way, we also grasp the pain of Mia's choice now, as she struggles to decide whether to stay and fight through unimaginable grief and physical torture or allow her battered body and broken heart to die.

Some elements of this setup, particularly the dead / dying girl narrating her life, seemed borrowed from other novels, like "The Lovely Bones," "Elsewhere," and even "All We Know of Heaven." What distinguishes "If I Stay" are the believable, fully developed characters and rich relationships, the beautiful sense of "family" as a broader concept than we might have imagined, and the way music plays such an important role in the story. Mia's love of the cello and classical music, her dad's past life as a drummer, Adam's rising punk band — all are absolutely integral to the story, making music almost an extra character in the novel. In fact, music so permeates the text that I couldn't help but think of the wonderful "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist."

There is a lot of emotion and drama here, but I don't think "If I Stay" ever crosses the line into melodrama. Kudos to Gayle Forman for showing admirable restraint. Her writing is taut, she uses lovely phrases and descriptions, and the story moves along at a good clip. "If I Stay" raises intriguing questions about life, faith, hope, and the kind of love that allows for change and letting go. There is some strong language and one subtle sex scene, so I'd say this book is geared more toward a high school age audience, most likely teen girls. "If I Stay," which comes out next week, is an honest, touching story that's especially perfect for music lovers. I hope you enjoy it, too!

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Posted by on March 26, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“The Leanin’ Dog” by K.A. Nuzum


"The Leanin' Dog" is a subtle, quiet novel about 11 year old Dessa Dean's friendship with a wayward brown dog. Although not clearly specified — which was a nagging issue for me, as I kept thinking, "What the heck time period is this?" — the story seems to take place in the 1930s (?) in the mountain West, shortly before Christmas. Dessa and her dad live in a bare, remote wildnerness cabin. By day, dad goes out trapping and hunting, often with limited success, while Dessa stays in the cabin doing school work, cooking, and cleaning. The two live a spare, hardscrabble existence. Both characters are similarly restrained in expressing their emotions — it's as if the harsh setting requires a certain stoicism — although we immediately sense just how much they love each other.

Dessa is largely confined to the cabin, and not by her own choosing. She's still suffering greatly from her mom's death a few months back. Dessa and her diabetic mom got caught in a snowstorm, and poor Dessa watched firsthand as mom froze to death in the brutal conditions. The trauma has effected Dessa physically (her ears still burn from the frostbite) and, more damagingly, emotionally. Dessa suffers from what she calls "daymares," which we'd understand as debilitating panic attacks. No amount of coaxing, bullying, or pushing can get Dessa to allow herself to leave the cabin. Dessa counts every step from the cabin to the porch's edge, and she simply cannot make herself reenter the world of hunting, fishing, and exploring that she once so adored. Her beloved cabin now stands as a prison.

One day, a brown dog, herself injured with a lame leg, wanders over to Dessa's cabin. Lonely Dessa becomes intrigued by the animal, and her kindness eventually gets the skittish dog to come in for some food. Pretty soon, the dog is spending every day with the increasingly happy Dessa, playing with her or warming herself by the stove. The only problem? The dog suffers from just about the exact problem as Dessa — she cannot bear to be closed into the cabin. The dog whines all night outside the front door, and, during the day, when the dog is in the cabin, Dessa must always keep the door ajar to calm the dog's frayed nerves.

There's a big climax here that coincides with Christmas Eve, when Dessa is planning a special dinner for her dad and the dog. Without giving anything away, the dog protects Dessa from certain death and helps her face her own demons and live again. Christmas Day thus becomes a sweet, wonderful turning point in Dessa's life. In other words, you might get a bit choked up. You've been warned!

"The Leanin' Dog" is written in spare language, which beautifully evokes the barebones world in which Dessa lives. Dessa thinks and speaks as a country person, which may at first be jarring for today's readers, but her manner perfectly conveys her practical, good-hearted, hopeful nature. Dessa's faith in herself may have wavered, but she never stops believing in the dog, her father, and her lost mom. That's really quite beautiful. So while there's not a whole lot of whiz-bang action in this story, thoughtful readers should find much to like, from the rural setting to Dessa's understated bravery to the authentic, touching bond between Dessa and her dad to, finally, the lovely friendship she creates with the dog. This is a perfect book for young readers (grades five and up) looking for a gentle, poetic book about the transformative power of friendship. I also think it's great for dog lovers of all ages. As the Leanin' Dog herself would say, "Boof!" 🙂

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Posted by on March 17, 2009 in Uncategorized


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