Review: This Dark Endeavor

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by Luke Daniels. Review copies from publisher.

The Plot: Victor Frankenstein, the teenage years. What made the boy into a man who was driven to create the monster?

The Good: Confession: I’ve never read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I’ve read the comics, watched the movies. That’s all you need, really, before reading This Dark Endeavor, but something tells me I would have gotten more out of the book had I been more familiar with Frankenstein. The “more,” though, is not anything about plot or character or writing; all those are independent of reading the original. Rather, I image that there were slight asides, references that I didn’t fully appreciate, but, didn’t miss because I didn’t know to miss them.

This Dark Endeavor delves into just what motivated young Frankenstein. Victor has a twin brother, Konrad, older by a few minutes, but those moments are enough to make Konrad the golden child, the one everyone loves, the one who gets everything easily: the better student, the better fencer, the one all the servants love. The one their cousin Elizabeth loves. Victor’s feelings towards his brother are conflicted. He loves Konrad, is devoted to him, but is also jealous of all Konrad has and all Konrad is. When Konrad falls ill, Victor resolves to be the one to save him. It’s as much about saving Konrad as proving himself worthy; proving that he, Victor, is just as good — if not better — than his brother.

Since Victor is only a teen, how can he save his brother? His wealthy father has hired the best doctors available, how can Victor compete with this?

Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth made a discovery in the Chateau Frankenstein: a secret room, both library and laboratory, created by a long ago ancestor who practiced alchemy. Their common-sense father forbids them to enter the secret room, but Victor becomes convinced that somewhere in there is the secret to saving Konrad.

Victor’s search drives the novel, and it’s a fast paced, exciting, exhilarating adventure. Victor has to do many things, from research in the library to translating old books, from the highest points to the deepest caves. Sacrifices are made, all to save Konrad. Elizabeth and a friend, Henry, participate in the search. Elizabeth is gutsy and brave; and, unfortunately for Victor, in love with Konrad. Henry is the poet of the group, and maybe it was Victor’s retelling but sometimes Henry seemed too aware of his role as the one who is excitable and emotional. Listening to this on audio made for a very exciting commute, with breathless adventure after breathless adventure.

The alchemy that Victor practices is more scientific than magical. For some things, it was if the alchemists Victor studied had just enough medical and scientific information to suspect the proper way to treat something. Seen through the modern reader’s eyes, Victor’s alchemy seems little different, if not slightly better, than the medicine practiced by the specialist doctors his father consults.

Victor doesn’t flatter himself. He shows his flaws, especially his jealousy and quick temper.

While it’s hard for me to say that Oppel captures the style of Shelley’s writing because I haven’t read the original, This Dark Endeavor, like Monstrumologist and the Octavian Nothing books, sounds like it was written in the time it was set yet remains accessible.

Over at Someday My Printz Will Come, Sarah looks at This Dark Endeavor through the lens of the Printz, pointing out strengths and flaws. At The Book Smugglers, Thea said it’s one of her favorite books this year.

Because Victor’s voice is compelling. Because his choices took me on a breathless adventure. Because This Dark Endeavor was both an extended game and a literary wonder. Because its made me want to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: Carter’s Big Break

Carter’s Big Break by Brent Crawford. Hyperion. 2010. Brilliance Audiobook. 2011. Narrated by Nick Podehl. Reviewed from audiobook from Brilliance.

The Plot: Will Carter survived his freshman year — he’s got his friends, he’s got his girl, and he even passed all his classes. Sweet! What could be sweeter? How about starring in a movie? You heard me right! In this sequel to Carter Finally Gets It, Carter finds himself starring in in a movie with teen sweetheart, Hilary Idaho.

The Good: Carter, Carter, Carter. As with the first book, I listened to the audiobook narrated by the brilliant Nick Podehl. Podehl does such a terrific job of channeling Carter that I sometimes thought I was carpooling to work as the book played. He captures Carter’s attitude, his bravado, his sweetness, and his general, inevitable tendency to be a total dumbass. Just as important, Podehl had me laughing so hard I was crying. Carter is — well, he’s a teenage boy. He sometimes talks before he thinks. Acts before he thinks. He is often clueless. But, underneath the friendly insults with his friends and his fumbling romance with Abby, he is a good, sweet boy (who would hate me saying so).

I was a little hesitant about the sequel, because it seemed to be a literary equivalent of  The Brady Bunch Hawaiian Bound. Carter’s strength is that he is a typical teenage boy in a typical suburb. Really, I wondered, does it have to have that, well, surrealness added to what is otherwise a very grounded in reality book? Silly me; I  should have paid more attention to the author’s website. See, here’s the thing: Brent Crawford is an actor. Carter’s Big Break is full of details that show Crawford knows the business, and not just from sitting in a movie theatre watching a film. His portrayal of teenage actors and producers and others related to movie making further reflect his insider’s knowledge. At the same time, Crawford doesn’t take the business too seriously; part of the fun is Carter screwing up and the movie director misinterpreting and believing Carter is the next Daniel Day-Lewis or Marlon Brando.

Carter lives in the type of town where a bunch of teenage boys get on their skateboards and bikes and don’t come home until dinner. Despite the Hollywood in this book, the best moments are still ones about friendship, about Carter’s family, about his love for Abby. About Carter’s tendency to do and say the absolute wrong thing. While listening to Podehl, it was easy to picture Carter and his friends — so easy, that I began to wish that these books would be turned into a TV series.

Because sometimes, you just need to laugh so much it hurts. Because Carter is like so many teens, trying to be tough and mature and to know all the answers. Because at the end of the day, there is a bit of dumbass in each of us. This is a Favorite Book  Read in 2011.

Review: Blink and Caution

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones. Candlewick. 2011. BrillianceAudio. Narrated by MacLeod Andrews. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Blink accidentally witnesses a crime — actually, a non-crime. Jack Niven, an important businessman, has been kidnapped, but Blink saw Niven with the so-called kidnappers and knows he not only went willingly; Niven was in charge, the boss. Homeless and living on the streets, Blink helps himself to the man’s smartphone and wallet and now has linked himself to the crime.

Caution has run away from her drug-dealing boyfriend, taking his stash of money and pot. Somehow, he keeps tracking her down.

Blink and Caution are both on the run. Their paths cross, their stories merge, and two broken teens begin to put together the pieces of their lives. 

The Good: Blink & Caution is told in alternating chapters. Blink’s chapters are told by a person talking to him, a step or two ahead of him: “You lean against the wall, exhausted from the act of holding yourself together. You got off at the wrong floor, my son — that’s all. The wrongest floor of all. You don’t know that yet, but you’re never far from that feeling.” I loved this way of storytelling; MacLeod Andrews, the narrator for the audiobook, brilliantly conveyed the tone of the person talking to Blink. (Andrews does such a stunning job with this book that I now want to listen to everything he’s narrated). Blink’s half of the story is one of mystery — who is Niven? what is happening? why did he fake a kidnapping? — and the unknown narrator adds to the feeling of suspense. Blink quickly finds himself in over his head, but he cannot stop himself. He cannot leave the mystery of Niven alone.

Caution’s story is both more basic and more heartbreaking. Oh, Blink has had a tough few years; his father left, his mother’s new husband is abusive, so Brent (known as Blink because he blinks frequently) is living on the streets. Caution (aka Kitty) ran away from home like Blink, but she ran away for different reason. Caution killed her brother, and yes it was an accident, but he’s still dead and the life she is now living is one built upon punishing herself for her crime.

Blink and Caution are two teens who fate has not treated well. Both deserve better than what life has given them. Caution, especially, has almost been broken by what she did. Almost . . .  because while she ran away, while she hooked up with a drug dealer, while she is now on the run for her life, she is on the run. She does want to live. Blink & Caution is about two broken people coming together and being made whole, but it’s two broken people who are ready to be made whole. Had their paths crossed earlier, it would not have been the right time in either of their lives. Together, they are stronger; together, they may be able to figure a way out of the mess Blink is in. Together, they may become strong enough to survive on their own.

Because I found myself caring so deeply about what happened to Blink and Caution. Because it hurt, knowing how deeply Caution was hurt by what she’d done. Because I wanted these two teens to connect, and once they connected, I wanted to see what they would do. Because this was one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. This is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Review: Eona

Eona: The Last Dragoneye, The Sequel to Eon by Alison Goodman. Penguin Books. 2011. Performed by Nancy Wu. Brilliance Audio 2011.

The Plot: Eona takes up where Eon left off (so, if you haven’t read Eon yet, spoilers!):  High Lord Sethon has declared himself Emperor and his nephew, Kygo, the rightful Pearl Emperor, is missing. Eona no longer disguises herself as a boy, and is openly Eona, the Mirror Dragoneye. Lord Ido, the only living Dragoneye, has been jailed by Sethon because he murdered the other Dragoneyes in a failed bid to seize power for himself. Eona, along with her trusted friends Ryko and Lady Dela, is with the rebels fighting against Sethon and for Kygo, wherever he may be.

The problem is, some people cannot trust Eona after the whole “lying about being a boy” thing.  And since Eona cannot control her power, and causes damage because of that — well, again, people aren’t trusting her. Her idea to free Lord Ido from Sethon’s jail so he can teach her how to use her dragon power is met with skepticism by all. The thing is, are people right not to trust Eona? Where do her loyalties lie? Is she on the side of Kygo and the rebels? Is she only interested in her own power as Mirror Dragoneye? Or is there something else she’s fighting for?

The Good: I’m trying not to give away all the twists and turns and reveals of Eona, but wowza! Goodman does some masterful plotting and fancy footwork, with just the right mix of being able to surprise me but when I look back at earlier chapters, I nod, seeing clues to what will come. Eon had a few twists — Eon’s a girl, the long-lost Mirror Dragon, returns, and it turns out that dragon is a female which explains its bonding with Eona. Comparing the turns and surprises in Eon to those in Eona is like comparing the rides at the local boardwalk to those at DisneyWorld. The boardwalk is fun and has the ocean, but DisneyWorld, is, well, DisneyWorld. Eona has twists and plot developments that made me sit up and go “woah.” I don’t want to say too much about them, because since I enjoyed the roller coast ride of Eona largely unspoiled, I want to preserve that for other readers.

What can I say?

Ido is an interesting villian; when I listened to the audio, Ido sounded like Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Ido is power hungry, has killed (or arranged the killings of) many, tormented his apprentice to madness, yet, somehow, there is something bad-boy-appealling about him. What appealls is not that Ido has done bad, bad things; it’s that Ido is honest about his own intentions and priorities. He wants power, period. And, in a way, how can one condemn Ido when the background story is a power struggle between Sethon and Kygo? Why is it better for Kygo to want power? Is it really alright to say or believe, it’s OK for Kygo to want to be Emperor because of birth but it’s not OK for Ido to want it because he’s not of noble birth?

The issue of power is one that Goodman paints in shades of gray. Eona wants Ido to teach her how to control her power, and he tempts her with the possibilities of what she can do with her power. While Eona wonders whether she should be selfish and pursue her power for individual gain, or be unselfish and dedicate herself and her power to the Empire (as represented by Kygo), the reader wonders at who in Eona’s world has power, who does not, and what it means. As Emperor, Kygo cannot be physically touched by such people as the doctor who seeks to heal him. Such a touch could result in a death sentence for the healer! Decorum dictates who bows to whom, how low to bow — and all these things, all this showing of respect, all this manifestations of power are not directly questioned (this is not a “and then there was a revolution for Democracy” book, but then, fantasy kingdom stories rarely end that way) but they are questioned in how Eona interacts with her own power, the power of a Dragoneye. Eona’s power — like Kygo’s — is a mixture of heritage and chance.

Speaking of Kygo, I should point out that three is an interesting number: Ido, Eona, Kygo. Eona has complex, mature feelings for both; she is attracted to things about both men, and the tension between the three of them is delightful. Eona’s relationship with Ido is tied to issues of power, of control, of knowledge, and it’s not so much that she wants him as she wants to know more about the things he knows. Kygo observes this and sees it as Eona wanting Ido, and I was entertained at the young Emperor, who can have anything (well, except his Empire because of his evil uncle), being jealous of Ido and Eona’s relationship.

One last thing about how powerful Eona is; I’ve written this much, yet there is still so much more I could write about it.The gender politics, for instance, could be an entire post, with Lady Dela as a contraire (a
“twin soul,” with the body of a man and the spirit of a woman), Eona’s masquerade as a man,the eunochs at court, the “blossom women” (geishas).

Review: Eon

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman. Penguin Books. 2008. Reviewed from audiobook by Brilliance Audio provided by Brilliance Audio. 2008. Narrated by Nancy Wu.

The Plot: Eon is a twelve year old boy. He has been training intensively for years to get the opportunity, along with a handful of other boys, to be selected by a magical dragon, thus becoming a Dragoneye. Sword work is difficult, because of an accident years ago that left Eon lame. Eon is gifted with magical gifts, able to see energy and dragons. He and the master who discovered him as a slave on a salt farm believe that these gifts will be enough to have the Rat Dragon choose Eon.

Eon has a secret. Eon is actually Eona, a sixteen year old girl.

Eon’s world is one with strict laws and beliefs about class and gender. A female Dragoneye? Ridiculous! Discovery means death. How far will Eon’s charade go? And who else will be swept into the intrigue?

The Good: Goodman creates a complex world, the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, with references to Chinese astrology and mythology. Dragons are real; the twelve Dragons each has an Dragoneye and each Dragoneye has an apprentice. Every twelve years, a dragon chooses a new apprentice, the former apprentice becomes a Master, and the old Master retires. The relationship between the Dragons and their Dragoneyes are complex; it takes those twelve years for the chosen boy to master the skills and gain the stamina needed to interact with the dragon and control it’s powers. The Dragon council work to serve the land, preventing natural disasters. They are supposed to be removed from politics, but as Eon/Eona soon learns, some Dragoneyes pursue power at any cost.

What to tell without revealing whether Eon is chosen as a Dragoneye? Well, the book is called Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. She gets what she desires, but not quite in the way she planned. Her masquerade gets more intense and complicated as the game escalates, and lies build upon lies. Eon’s game is simple: one of survival. She didn’t seek this out — her master bought her, and if she fails him, he can sell her, send her back to the salt farms. While she didn’t seek this life out, Eon quickly realizes she has a role to play, and an important one. How she embraces that, while juggling her lies, is fascinating. What is the right answer? Should she reveal her true self?

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is also an interesting look at gender and gender roles. Eona hides herself as Eon to gain opportunities barred from women. She muses on how learning how to be a boy is much more than wearing trousers. Eunuchs also play a role; and a major character is a Contraire, a man who lives as a woman. The Emporor has concubines. Class and rank also matter; and some implications are deadly. Part of the reason that political intrigue and danger exists is that the present Emperor did not follow protocol. When becoming Emperor, he should have executed all his younger brothers. He did not, and one of those brothers, Sethon is now a threat — a threat with power, because the trusting Emperor made his brother Commander in Chief of the Armies.

If you don’t like spoilers…. don’t read the title of the sequel!

Review: Small As An Elephant

Small As An Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson. Candlewick. 2011. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by William Dufris. Reviewed from audio from Brilliance.

The Plot: Jack Martel, 11, wakes up on his first day of vacation, hot and worried that he’s overslept. He struggles out of his tent, looks around the camp site and sees — nothing. His mother’s tent is gone; his mother’s car is gone.

His mother is gone.

Jack believes his mother will be back soon. He goes about his day, finds something to eat, plays with some other kids staying at Acadia National Park. But then it’s the next day… and the next day… and Jack realizes his mother isn’t coming back, school is about to start, he has no way to get home to Jamaica Plain and if anyone realizes that his mother is gone, there will be big, big trouble. It’s up to Jack to figure out what to do next.

The  Good: Jack breaks my heart.

Jack loves his mother. She loves Jack; she is fun, inventive, energetic, kind. Sometimes, though, she gets caught up in what Jack calls “spinning.” It’s not the first time she’s left for a couple of days, but before at least he was home, in his apartment, by friendly neighbors. Now he has $14 and not much more than the clothes on his back. And, Jack loves his mother. Another kid would go to the police, tell a grown up, call a grandparent. Not Jack. He is afraid that once he does that, people who don’t understand his mother will get involved and split them up. Jack is afraid of losing her forever and tries to keep it together until she returns.

Jack breaks my heart; at eleven, he is just old enough to take care of himself, or rather, to try to take care of himself. Just old enough to know that if lets any adult know, they will decide he shouldn’t stay with his mother, take him away, maybe lock her up. Jack is also young, just young enough to believe that he can get away with hiding from the attention of adults, that he can somehow make it from Maine to Massachusetts on his own. Young enough that he makes mistakes, like leaving his cell phone in his shorts pocket before going into the water.

I rooted for Jack, and I didn’t want him to be caught even though I knew at some point his journey had to end. As time passed and his mother didn’t return, I knew that what Jack wanted as his happy ending could not happen. As an adult reading this book, I also knew what Jack took the entire book to realize: his mother needed help. Also, as an adult reading the book? I was less kind than Jack, in that I wanted to take his mother and yell at her for leaving her child.

But for the age group for this book? For tweens? They will be making both the emotional and physical journey that Jack makes. They may have an adult in their lives like Jack’s mother, they may not, but they will understand the love and bond between the two.

What readers will also like? That Small as an Elephant grants the deepest wish and fear — of being left alone, of not having a grown up telling you what to do, of being able to take care of oneself. They’ll be impressed with some of Jack’s survival tricks, and may think of things they would do differently.

Review: The Uninvited

The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones. Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. Narrated by Angela Dawe. 2010. Candlewick. 2009. Listened to on audiobook supplied by publisher.

The Plot: It seemed like a good idea. Mimi Shapiro escapes New York City after an eventful freshman year that included an affair with an older professor who won’t stop calling. Mimi goes to the Canadian cottage of her father, artist Marc Soto, expecting solitude. Instead she finds musician Jackson “Jay” Page, 22, who has been using the cottage as a music studio.

Jackson, rather than reacting like a squatter who has been caught, acts as if Mimi is the intruder. He suspects her of the odd things that have been going on: a dead bird and snake skin left at the cottage.

What Mimi and Jay don’t know, as they eye each other with suspicion, is that someone is watching from the shadows.

The Good: Count this as one of those hard to write reviews, because I don’t want to give too much away!

There are three main characters to this story: Mimi, Jay, and Cramer Lee, the watcher. The prologue begins with Cramer’s story, a young man whose life is all about taking care of his mother. Cramer’s mother is an artist, who has good moments and bad moments and tends to have bad boyfriends. Cramer is always there to pick up the pieces, to work the steady jobs to pay the bills. At twenty two, he’s in low wage jobs because instead of going away to college he stayed home to take care of his mother. The reader would think, then, that this is Cramer’s story so that he is the hero. The prologue ends with his mother demanding he steal a necklace.

Suddenly, the story shifts to Mimi in her car, on an adventure, a road trip, to the cottage her father hasn’t seen in over twenty years. It says a lot about her father that he never tells her that he had given permission to Jay to use it as a studio; and he never tells Mimi about Jay at all. Mimi and Jay’s friendship begins with the shared cottage and the odd happenings. Is there anything scarier than realizing that your home is not safe? That it’s been violated? That someone has gone through your things? All the worst by, well, nothing big really happening. A dead bird outside a door? A rock missing from a window ledge?

The story shifts again, to Cramer’s point of view, to his own explanations for what he has done.

Who is the uninvited? Mimi, Jay, Cramer?

The suspense builds and builds, almost unbearably. As the reader watches Cramer watch Jay and Mimi, it seems like Cramer is more villain than hero, that he is a stalker. And yet, and yet — there seems to be more to him. And Cramer has his reasons. As the summer goes by, the reader learns more about Jay, about Mimi, about Cramer. The suspense becomes not just “what will happen next in the cottage,” but, also, what will happen with these three? Will their paths all cross? What about the professor who won’t stop calling Mimi? Is Cramer’s mother finding her path as an artist, or slipping into darkness?

In addition to the friendships, relationships, and mystery of this book, The Uninvited also offers something not always found in books for teens: three college-age students. Mimi has just finished her freshman year, Jay has just graduated, Cramer is in his early twenties. They are old enough to be on their own, old enough to work. Yet, they are still all their parents’ children. Jay is taking a year off before graduate school because his mother supports his music. Mimi has left New York City for an independent summer, but it’s independence made possible by her father’s house and, one assumes, both her parents money as she never worries about a job to pay for groceries and bills. Cramer works two jobs to pay the bills, watches others follows dreams, yet remains tied to his mother. He cannot abandon her, as so many others have. Their age allows all three to have a certain level of freedom from parental oversight, but each still is caught in familiar child-parent patterns and dependencies that a teen reader may identify with.