Monday, July 29, 2013

Five 5-Star Picture Books

Here are five recent picture books that I loved:

There are tons of dirty fun in Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg. Cowpoke Clyde likes a clean home and has just gotten his spotless when he spies Dawg, all caked with mud. Clyde figures on a quick wash, but Dawg has other ideas and leads Clyde on an outrageous chase. Written is tight, fast-moving rhyme and just enough dialect to be entertaining but not distracting, this book will appeal to kids of all ages. Gorgeous, full-color illustrations done in acrylic and colored pencil highlight and expand on the text as Dawg goes running and sends soup, chickens, fleas, hogs, and a host of other things flying. One facet that many children will love are the cliffhangers left on several pages where the rhyme is not completed, allowing them to guess how to finish the rhyme, or chime in if they already know. The story includes a humorous and satisfying ending (complete with rubber ducky). This is a winner that kids will want to hear again and again.

Goat thought he was special until Unicorn showed up and started showing off. In Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great, anything that Goat tries to do, Unicorn can do better without even trying. Or so it seems, until Goat starts learning about some of the things Unicorn can't do. There is suddenly a chance that they might be friends (or even a crime-fighting duo!). Bob Shea has done a delightful job of capturing the attitudes of so many children when they are feeling jealous of others. Goat perceives Unicorn as trying to show off when really he is just being himself, and once they start talking is more than ready to admit that he has many shortcomings ("I can't play soccer. One head butt and it's game over!"). Shea combines several media to craft colorful, animated illustrations very similar many modern cartoons. Differing fonts and colors make it easy to tell who is speaking without having to state it. The book carries important lessons about seeing beyond preconceptions without ever belaboring the point, and will appeal to a wide range of readers.

Snippet the Early Riser is about a snail who likes to get up early, while the rest of his family does not. When he wakes and wants to play, Snippet tries a number of ways to wake up his family (with the help of a few friends), but does not succeed until he gets an idea from watching Caterpillar munching on a leaf. Murguia's blend of ink and water colors creates a wonderful mixture of sharp lines with soft hues. Most pages contain both large and small illustrations interspersed with text, making the action fast paced and immediate throughout. It is also incredible how expressive the characters can be with just three dots for eyes and a mouth. A fun, creative book and highly recommended both for independent readers and as a read-aloud.

In A Long Way Away, Viva has done a remarkable job of crafting a story and accompanying artwork that can be read from either end of the book. A young, smiling alien travels from deep space to the depths of the ocean, or vice versa, depending on where you begin. The illustrations appear simple, but on most pages there are several things to discover. Lines of color against blue and black backgrounds allow even very young children to follow the progress of the traveller. And regardless of which direction you go, the traveller ends up in a happy place, either deep asleep or at home with a family hug. This book makes an excellent bedtime story that your children will want you to read forward and backward (literally) again and again.

Flora and the Flamingo comes without any words, but contains plenty of story just waiting for a child to discover it. Flora does her best to imitate a flamingo, both in her attire and her actions. The flamingo, noticing her and apparently disapproving, contorts into increasingly difficult poses until Flora topples. Then, noting her distress and feeling apologetic, the flamingo enters into a duet with Flora to finish out the book. The illustrations are simple but elegantly crafted. Ample white space, framed by trees and blossoms, focus attention on the characters and remove any background distractions. It is easy to follow the emotions on the faces and in the body language of both characters. Perhaps the nicest touch is the yellow of Flora's bathing cap, which keeps the book from being too pink. This book will appeal to a wide range of readers from preschool and adult. It is particularly suited to young children who do not want to be confined to a story with words, but would rather use their imaginations to tell their own story.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: Smokescreen by Nancy Hartry

Kerry has lived her entire life in a city, and is completely unprepared for her summer job deep in the bush in northwestern Ontario. Her coworker Yvette seems to be everything that she is not: worldly, outgoing, poised, and confident. They are set to spend a summer hunting for cottage sites when they are suddenly called up to provide support for nearby firefighting efforts. Neither of them is prepared for a sequence of events that points at Yvette as the arsonist responsible for the fire and which may cost both of them their lives.

Smokescreen is a short, fast-paced read that should have a strong appeal to young adults. There is plenty of action to drive the story forward, although there are spots that drag due to overly detailed descriptions. The story is told from Kerry's point of view, and throughout she is an easily likeable and relatable character. Yvette is less consistantly likeable, but this is generally colored by Kerry's current opinion of her.

The main issue I have with the book is the character development. Both girls see considerable change in their actions and attitudes through the story. While this is to be expected, it happens in sudden spurts rather than a more gradual change that might be expected. There is also some inconsistancy in their development. Kerry starts off very nervous about a job for which she knows she is entirely unprepared, but within a few chapters is much more at ease, even after being thrown into an even more stressful situation. As the story progresses, she wavers back and forth between the two extremes rather than a steady growth from one to the other. Yvette's behavior is even less consistent at times, often without enough information given to understand her sudden changes.

The book is written by a Canadian and published in Canada, so there are a few spots where the language seems just a little off to a U.S. native like myself. However, they are very minor and far between, and should not cause any problems for YA readers.

Overall, Smokescreen has a very strong storyline with a satisfying ending (despite a bit of info dump following the climax), but I can only give it four out of five stars.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sharknado and Ben Bova on Conflict

Like so many others, I was swept up with Sharknado fever a couple of days ago. We all knew going in that there was not the remotest chance of the movie having even a little bit of scientific accuracy. With that attitude, it was easy to sit back and laugh at the utterly unrealistic events that unfolded. At the same time, following the #SharkNado feed on Twitter enhanced the experience in a way not seen since Mystery Science Theater 3000 (they would have loved Sharknado).

This morning as I was reading the section on conflict in Ben Bova's The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells I found a passage that I think sums up Sharknado and the movies like it so well. In talking about "space operas" and other works with overly simplistic conflict, Bova notes:

"But the pattern is the same; physical action is the mainstay of the story. Instead of cattle rustlers in black hats we have an invasion of earth by horrid alien creatures. Instead of a battle with the Indians on the prairie we have an interstellar war. But the conflict is all physical, all good guys vs. bad guys.

"Although space operas had virtually disappeared from science fiction writing by the 1960s, they are still a mainstay of Hollywood's sci-fi flicks, which usually draw their inspiration more from comic strips than from real science fiction published in books or magazines. In fact, sci-fi movies are about as closely related to science fiction as Popeye cartoons are to naval history."

(I absolutely love the last sentence.)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review: Breathe by Sarah Crossan

The environment has collapsed, and is no longer able to provide enough oxygen for humans to survive. Until it can recover, humanity has moved into a set of domes that are under the control of the corporation Breathe, the sole supplier of oxygen. Bea is the daughter of two Auxiliaries, or “subs,” who struggle to earn enough to pay their oxygen bills. Quinn, from a Premium family, does not have this problem, but must face his parents’ disapproval at his friendship with Bea and their plans for his future. Alina is a member of the Resistance, labeled terrorists by Breathe, and is trying to find a way to end Breathe’s monopoly.

When circumstances drive them together on an excursion beyond the dome, they learn more than they ever expected about themselves, their society, and the true extent of Breathe’s power.

In Breathe, Sarah Crossan has created a compelling YA dystopian story. The world she has created is all too believable, and does not suffer from problems often found in other dystopian novels. The characters are multifaceted and relatable (even if they are not always likeable), although they do at times seem to accept radical shifts of their world views with limited resistance. Settings are well described, but done briefly enough that they do not interfere with the story’s fast pace. The use of present tense throughout and shifting viewpoints in each chapter also drive the story forward to the point where the reader will not want to stop.

Breathe is an excellent read, and highly recommended. The only problem is, now I need to wait a few months to read the sequel (and conclusion), Resist, which is due out on October 2.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: The Water Castle

When his father suffers a debilitating stroke, Ephraim Appledore-Smith and his family leave Cambridge to move to the Water Castle, an ancestral home he has never seen in the small town of Crystal Springs, Maine. The Water Castle, so named because of the once-thriving bottled water company run by Ephraim's ancestors, is large, old, and very odd. There are countless hidden spaces, secret passages, and entire rooms that don't seem to fit. Add to that a mysterious hum and flashes of blue light, and Ephraim and his siblings are kept busy trying to fathm its secrets.

For Ephraim, though, the most important thing to find is the original source of the water, once known for its nearly magical healing powers, and possibly even the fabled Fountain of Youth itself. If he can find the healing water, he can cure his father and make his family whole once more.

Megan Frazer Blakemore's The Water Castle is a well-crafted story that weaves together several storylines into a compelling whole. During his search, Ephraim is brought together with Mallory, the daughter of the hereditary caretakers of the castle, and Will, the son of a family that hates the Appledores. Much of the story centers around their family histories and attitudes, which often seem to be in conflict with the present generation. The plot is solid and fast paced, with a satisfying conclusion. I was particularly happy that the author did not feel the need to reveal the truth about Mallory's parents, allowing the reader to realize it on his or her own (or not).

Unfortunately, while the story is quite good, I did have a problem with the writing itself. There were many spots, particularly in the first few chapters, where I would suddenly be pulled out of the story. There were some awkward phrases, but the more common issue was a case of Blakemore explicitly telling how a character was feeling or what he or she was thinking, rather than demonstrating it more indirectly. Perhaps years of concentrating on "show, don't tell" have made me overly sensitive to this, but I think it could be an issue for more casual readers, even if they do not understand why the writing sounded a bit off.

Overall a very nice story, but I feel the execution could have been better. Four out of five.