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The concept of a boy whose life somehow turns into a video game that he must then figure out and master was a good one. The execution was . . . meh.

I just never did understand the rules of the game or where it came from. The story/day kept morphing from one game into another: Tetris, Donkey Kong, other games that I didn’t get the references to. Maybe that lack of understanding is due to the fact that I’m not a gamer. Bryan Biggins just wakes up to find himself inside a video game nightmare. He’s in the game without having chosen to play. And he doesn’t understand the rules. And nobody else at home or at his school or in his real life seems to notice the weirdness that is the game going on around them. Except when they do notice.

That’s the first problem. Some of Bryan’s teachers and friends are part of the game. There’s a hall monitor who is normally a nice person, but who begins to act like a video game villain on this particular day. Others see the game going on, but act as if it’s normal. Others don’t think it’s normal at all, or at least the way Bryan is acting is not normal. A few of the teachers are particularly mean, even sadistic, as they send Bryan on “missions” and manipulate his score in the game. Or maybe they don’t really control the scoring at all.

And Bryan himself does weird stuff. He decides that running on foot across a street with heavy traffic with his girl-he-wishes-were-his-girlfriend would be a good way to score points in the game. So he pulls her across, endangering her life. Really? These are real cars, real traffic, but Bryan treats it as a game. (I’m told this is an element in the 80’s(?) video game, Frogger?)

Anyway, Insert Coin to Continue is a classic video gamer’s dream. Since I’m not a classic video gamer, I didn’t quite get it.

The Memory Thief by Bryce Moore.

Benji and Kelly are fraternal twins whose parents are always arguing and on the edge of divorce. When Benji meets an old man who tells him that it is possible, although perhaps not wise, to steal people’s memories, and even give them to other people, Benji is determined to make his parents reconcile by removing their memories of why they hate each other. Memory theft, and memory sharing, and memory replacement all turn out to be more complicated and dangerous than Benji could have imagined, and when an evil Memory Thief turns up in Benji’s hometown and starts stealing people’s memories and making them into soulless, empty near-zombies, Benji has to bring his parents back together, learn to use his new memory manipulation skills for good, and stop the evil Genevieve.

Both the narration, by Benji, and the dialog, were awkward at times, with the narrator and the speakers using words and phrases that were too formal or too “writerly” for normal, everyday speech. Either this awkwardness got better as the story progressed, or I began to be able to ignore it. This story is also quite dark. Benji’s parents are very angry and bitter, and for a brief spell, Benji takes all of their angry memories into his own mind, causing him to be enraged and somewhat violent with those around him. At another point in the story Benji experiences a memory theft-induced despair that makes him sit in a stupor and tell himself that life is not worth living. In the end, Benji is not able to fix his family, but he does come to a resolution that might turn things around for them. And Benji himself is quite a hero throughout the story. This novel would give readers a lot to think about or talk about while providing a satisfying and absorbing time travel-ish adventure.

The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone.
Instead of being stuck in Groundhog Day, Haleigh Adams gets to repeat the last day of summer over and over with the ehelp of some magical paints and after she wishes for a “mulligan” on that last evening. At first, she thinks that reliving that last day of summer is great, especially since her friend Kevin’s G-mags had a stroke at the end of that very day. But when Haleigh wakes up every morning, it’s August 26th all over agin, and G-mags is fine, at least until nighttime.

But Haleigh finds that living the same day over and over, even if it does short circuit the bad things that are starting to go wrong, even if it does “save G-mags’ life, also stops the good things from coming to fruition. Haleigh’s mom may never be able to have a baby sister or brother to add to Haleigh’s family. Haleigh herself may never find out whether friendships can last after summer vacation. And even G-mags doesn’t really want time to stop. So how can Haleigh make time start moving again?

This one is written on a little bit simpler level than The Memory Thief or Time Traveling With a Hamster, and it’s not quite as dark as either of those books. However, the death of a loved friend or family member is a theme as well as Haleigh’s struggles over whether or not to deceive people in pursuit of a time re-start and her questions about how to sustain a friendship through time. It’s a good third to fifth grade read.

Time Traveling With a Hamster by Ross Welford.

“The word Geordie refers both to a native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and to the speech of the inhabitants of that city. There are several theories about the exact origins of the term Geordie, but all agree it derives from the local pet name for George. It is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to the speech of the whole of the North East of England. Strictly speaking, however, Geordie should only refer to the speech of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surrounding urban area of Tyneside.” ~British Library

Al Chaudhury, the protagonist and time traveller in this British import, keeps talking about his grandfather Byron’s “Geordie” accent and “Geordie” dialect. I had never heard this term before, and I thought since Al himself was British , but of Indian descent, that it had to do with Anglo-Indian speech or accents. But it turns out that Geordie-speak just refers to the speech of people form a very specific locality, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. So I learned something.

Al’s story, my favorite of the three books featured in this post, is again about memory and time travel. On his twelfth birthday, Al receives two gifts: a hamster and a letter from his deceased dad. The letter informs Al that it might be possible for him to use his dad’s time machine to go back in time and prevent his father’s death. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for Al to even get to the place where his dad’s time machine is waiting, not to mention the difficulty of manipulating past events to change the future.

Al must do a lot of things that are wrong—breaking and entering, stealing, lying, arson–to make things “right” in the past and save his dad’s life. He, of course, tells himself that he is doing wrong in order to accomplish a greater good. This end-justifies-the-means is a theme in all of these books. Is it OK to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate other people’s minds and memories in order to achieve a greater good or save someone’s life or make things right after you have messed them up with your original magical manipulations? I would say that all three stories come to much the same conclusion: no, it’s not okay. But Time Traveling With a Hamster is the most ambiguous of the three since Al is actually able to change the past and make things better for himself and his family. And that ability to change the past and the future makes this quote from Grandpa Byron, found near the beginning of the story, rather poignant:

“Life, Al, is such a wonderful gift that we should open our minds to every possible moment and cherish the memory of those moments. Because people change. Places change. Everything changes, but our memories do not. Accept life the way it is, Al. That’s the way to be happy.”

But Al doesn’t accept his father’s death, and in the end, he manages to make everyone happy. Sort of. Time Traveling With a Hamster is strong, well-plotted time travel novel, with an ethnic Indian/British (Punjabi) setting that gives the novel a distinctive flavor. This novel for middle grade readers unfortunately includes some profanity and one unnecessary reference to a teenage character’s virginity or lack thereof.

Juliana, the protagonist of the novel The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw, is exiled from her comfortable home in Winchester by the coming of the Norman invaders to Saxon England. On the morning after St. Nicholas’ Day, she is sleeping in the priory almshouse when she is awakened by bells:

“She was awakened by St. Savior’s bell, loud and close across the road, ringing, she thought at first, for nocturns. But it was, too wild, too loud, too erratic—as if the ringer had tugged hard and frantically, then fled—and there was a growing hubbub of voices outside, in the lane. Around her, others were rousing, scrambling up to cluster around the unshuttered window—and beyond their heads, beyond the black silhouette of the priory walls, she saw the red glow lighting the skies.

There was a fire—a big fire—in the monastery, it might be in St. Savior’s itself. She stumbled to her feet, pushed her way out of the house. She reached the lane just as the bell ceased, and the north tower, which she could see now bathed in flames, above the dark wall, collapsed, with a terrifying, fluttering roar and a final jangle of noise. Wild with panic for Wulfric, she ran, heedless, for the main gate, found the gatehouse aflame, and turned back to run the other way, to the small gate by the cellarer’s storehouse, which stood open, with figures crowding out through it, hampering her as she struggled past. Inside the walls, monks, guests, novices, schoolboys, ran in every direction, black shapes against the garish sky.”

This episode in Canterbury’s history did happen:

The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. Rebuilding began in 1070 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1070–77). He cleared the ruins and reconstructed the cathedral to a design based closely on that of the Abbey of St. Etienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, using stone brought from France. The new church, its central axis about 5m south of that of its predecessor, was a cruciform building, with an aisled nave of nine bays, a pair of towers at the west end, aiseless transepts with apsidal chapels, a low crossing tower, and a short choir ending in three apses. It was dedicated in 1077. Wikipedia, Canterbury Cathedral

Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a prolific author of children’s fiction, often historical fiction, including The Golden Goblet, Mara Daughter of the Nile, Moccasin Trail, The Seventeenth Swap, and many others. Her books are full of vivid, rounded characters and rich historical details that make the stories she tells come alive. My children especially enjoyed Moccasin Trail when I read it aloud to them many years ago, and I plan to read this medieval tale featuring William the Conqueror and the Bayeux Tapestry, Striped Ships, as soon as I can.

There was a brief time when I was young that I went through a reading binge of Indian captive narratives. These stories, both fictional and nonfiction, were quite popular back in the day. Nonfiction narrative memoirs of people, usually girls, who were captured by Indians and later escaped or were rescued, were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular. And fiction novels for children, sometimes based on the earlier nonfiction memoirs, were popular in the mid-twentieth century. These kinds of stories came to be regarded with suspicion and even disdain, since the descriptions of Native Americans and Native American culture are all from a European American point of view. The Native Americans in these stories are alien, strange, and often cruel and ignorant.

All that to say, K.A. Holt’s Red Moon Rising reads like an Indian captivity novel, but the “Indians” are the Cheese, natives of a moon that Rae Darling and her frontier farming family have colonized. The Cheese are foreign, cruel, and ugly in the eyes of the colonists. Rae and her family are tradition-bound, conservative, and blind to the possibility of peace and understanding between themselves and the Cheese. The Cheese capture Rae and adopt her into their “tribe”, and Rae must decide whether to remain loyal to the colonists or to became a part of the Cheese, whose culture is in many ways freer and more indigenous and friendly to the Red Moon than Rae’s colonist culture.

It’s interesting to think that perhaps Ms. Holt wanted to write an Indian captivity novel and deal with all the issues of cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding inherent in that plot, but instead of doing the onerous research that writing about a particular Native American culture and place would involve, she was able to simply make up a people and a culture, the Cheese, and impose on them whatever characteristics and morals were most convenient for her narrative. Did she do a good job of world-building and of showing the difficulties and advantages of crossing from one culture to another? For the most part, yes, although Rae certainly has an easier time accepting some things, like forced training in fighting and war, and a harder time accepting others, like native Cheese boots, than I would think she might.

Despite the criticisms of these Indian, or Native American, captivity narratives and novels, I think that stories like these can serve as a bridge to help children (and adults) understand and see the virtues as well as the drawbacks in other cultures. And a science fiction/fantasy story like Red Moon Rising can be even more helpful in giving readers a way to “see both sides” and reserve judgment, since elements of the story can easily be generalized and applied to many different cultural encounters and confrontations.

Despite the sometimes heavy-handed emphasis on female empowerment and religious stereotypes, Red Moon Rising is a good adventure story with some thought-provoking themes. By the way, warning, the book is quite heavy on the violence, blood, and gore, too, so more sensitive readers beware. And, for the sake of comparison, here are some of those captivity narratives and novels that I enjoyed as a young teen and a few that have been published since then:

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline B. Cooney.
Valiant Captive by Erick Berry.
Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare.
The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter.
Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker by Carolyn Meyer.
White Captives by Evelyn Sibley Lampman.
Wait For Me, Watch For Me, Eula Bee by Patricia Beatty.
Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Beaded Moccasins: the Story of Mary Campbell by Linda Durrant.
I Am Regina by Sally Keenh.
Trouble’s Daughter: the Story of Susanna Hutchinson, Indian Captive by Katherine Kirkpatrick.
Standing in the Light: the Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan by Mary Pope Osborne.

If you’re interested in reading more about this sort of story, its origins and uses, here are a couple of articles I found interesting:

Gimme Shelter by Janet at Dear Author, about romance captivity novels and memoirs.
Dark Places: the Tradition of Captivity Narratives by Gina Showalter in the NYT.

A Dutch Christmas on St. Nicholas Day from Mary Mapes Dodge: Jolly Girl by Miriam E. Mason, one of the many volumes in the Childhood of Famous Americans series:

“First they all sang several songs. Then somebody told the story of the first trip good Saint Nicholas made across the ocean from Holland.
Finally, there was the sound of bells outside, then a tramping of feet. In a minute in came good Saint Nicholas, dressed in a bright red suit. He was carrying and enormous bag over his shoulder. A small boy followed him.
‘See, there is the little kabouter manikin behind him to help him with the presents,’ Sophie whispered excitedly. She exclaimed to her sisters: ‘The kabouter is the dwarf who goes about helping needy people.’
Saint Nicholas came to the front of the room. In a loud voice he asked if the children had all been good.
‘Yes, Saint Nicholas,’ they all answered.
‘Have you obeyed your parents and done your share of the work without complaining?’
‘Yes, Saint Nicholas.’
‘Have you been polite in church and not smiled or gone to sleep while the preacher was talking? Have you listened to him?’
‘Yes, Saint Nicholas.’
‘Have you been mannerly at table and not wasted your food?’
‘Yes, Saint Nicholas.’
‘Have you been rude to your elders, cruel to your pets, or lazy about rising in the morning?’
‘No, Saint Nicholas.’
‘Very well, then, I shall see what is in my treasure each of you. Come forward as I call your name.'”

Mary Mapes Dodge was the well-known author of many stories for children, including the famous classic Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, which was featured in a previous “Literary Christmas Through the Ages” post, Christmas in Amsterdam, Holland, 1853. The biography, Mary Mapes Dodge: Jolly Girl tells the story of Mary’s childhood as she grew up among many friends of Dutch heritage in old New York City.

From Kit Carson, Trailblazer and Scout by Shannon Garst:

“The homemade crib in the snug log cabin of the Linsey Carsons was seldom empty. When on Christmas Eve of 1809 the thin wail of a newborn babe rose from the battered cradle, the little cabin was already fairly bulging with Carson offspring, and the birth of another baby occasioned little excitement.

Linsey Carson, who had to stoop when he went through a door, bent over the crib and made clucking noises at his youngest. ‘He ‘pears to be a mite runty,’ he commented. ‘Reckon we’d best give him a good-sized name to grow up to.’

So the child was christened ‘Christopher,’ an already illustrious name to which the child was to add further glory. However, his physical stature never grew to fit the name, so the name was shortened to ‘Kit’ to fit the boy. Always his father referred to him as ‘the runt of the litter,’ which designation never failed to make the boy cringe inside as though a burning iron had been thrust through his heart. All of his nine brothers were strapping fellows well over six feet when grown to manhood, but Kit never attained even medium height. Yet of the fourteen Carson offspring he was the only one to make the family name famous. Runty, sandy-haired and with pale eyelashes fringing blue eyes, he remained to the end of his days undistinguished in appearance, yet the germ of greatness slumbered in that undersized but sturdy body.”

The runt of the litter who grows up to be the greatest. It’s an old story that never grows stale in the telling. From David, the youngest of his family, who nevertheless kills the giant Goliath and later becomes King of Israel, to Peter the Great, youngest son of Alexey I and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina, to fictional youngest sons who rise to greatness, there is a something about seeing the “underdog” become the hero that appeals to our sense of rightness and hope.

Perhaps it’s a little like the true story of the baby, born in poverty and obscurity, who became the mighty and resurrected King.

“Stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives…. They crack open hearts; they open minds…. We could change the world if we told the right story.” ~Brian Doyle

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

From Tales of the Crusades by Olivia Coolidge:

“Two days before Christ’s Mass, a minstrel wandered into a small town on the outskirts of Vienna. He did not sing in the marketplace, being French-speaking and in any case superior to the ragged crew thumping tabors who were already performing here and there and begging for pennies. This man was warmly dressed, though stained with travel; and he carried a viol on his back, which proclaimed he had some skill. Though he did not my any means look like a court musician, he probably at least could sing for his supper in small baronial castles whose rough owners cared less for music than for novelty.

It was market day when he appeared, strolling casually up to a crowd which was gathering to listen to a man preaching a new crusade. The speaker was a hoarse-voiced fellow, one-eyed and villainous looking, who had taken the Cross, he said, on account of his sins.”

The minstrel in this story turns out to be a spy, looking for King Richard of England who is late coming home from the Crusades. He goes to the court of Duke Leopold, to ask questions and perform for the nobility.

“Duke Leopold was holding Christmas court at Vienna with mumming plays and games of blindman’s bluff or forfeits. Presents were being given and received with gay flirtation. Dishes were brought into the hall preceded by trumpeters and outlined in flickering brandy. Jugglers, minstrels, and fools entertained the company, the court performers striving to add to their repertoire, lest it become stale. These last were not best pleased at the arrival of the minstrel, who had bought himself gay clothing with gold ducats he had concealed in the lining of his viol case. To the lords and ladies a French-speaking man was especially welcome, for the lays of chivalry had their birth in France.”

Read Ms. Coolidge’s Tales of the Crusades to find out what happens next at this medieval Christmas celebration.

Olivia Coolidge was born and grew up in England, but she came to the United States as a young woman and stayed to teach school and eventually to marry an American. As the daughter of an Oxford professor and an Oxford graduate herself, Ms. Coolidge saw the value of a classical education. Her books, about Greek and Roman heroes and other historical figures, are a classical education in and of themselves.
(Information about Olivia Coolidge taken mostly from Jan Bloom’s bibliographic resource, Who Should We Then Read?.)

Pedro, The Angel of Olvera Street by Leo Politi was published in 1946. It’s little picture book that tells the story of Pedro who lives on Olvera Street in Los Angeles with his grandfather. Pedro’s grandfather plays the violin, and Pedro “sings like an angel.”

This talent gets Pedro a special part in the Christmas posadas procession:

This year Manuel thought of something that would make the procession even more beautiful. He had heard Pedro sing and he had heard people say, “Pedro sings like an angel.” So he said:
“We must have an angel to lead La Posada.”
He was so pleased with his idea that he hurried to Tomaso’s presto and asked him to make two little red wings for Pedro.

Leo Politi was an Italian American author and illustrator. He was born in Fresno, California in 1908, but he grew up from the age of seven in Italy, near Milan. At the age of 22, he left Italy and returned to California. Mr. Politi began his career as an artist in Los Angeles on Olvera Street, painting and sketching alongside Mexican American artisans for the tourists and other buyers who came through the Latino part of the city. Mr. Politi began to write books as well as illustrate them with his first book, Panchito or Little Pancho, published in 1938. Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street was Mr. Politi’s second book, and it gave and still gives children who discover it a wonderful appreciation for the traditional Catholic and Mexican Christmas customs of Las Posadas, the piñata, and the music and food of a Mexican American Christmas.

One hundred and fifty years ago the first dinosaurs were cloned. Who knew that a pandemic disease came into our world with the dinosaurs, bringing the human race to edge of extinction. Now dinosaurs rule the world once again, and humans can only live underground in bunkers with strict laws to force them to work together to ensure their survival. Their leader, who calls himself The Noah, is a benevolent but strict dictator, and no one goes above ground where the dinosaurs hunt unless he has a death wish.

Nevertheless, when she was only seven years old, Sky Mundy’s father did go above ground. In fact, he fled the underground compound and left Sky with no note, no inheritance, and no communication for the past five years. Well, he did leave behind a broken compass for Sky to treasure and an illegal diary for her to write and draw in, but nothing else. Then, Sky finds a cryptic message from her father, and she decides to go up into the “topside” to find him and to carry his message to the middle of Lake Michigan. Will she even survive her first night with man-eating dinosaurs and other unknown dangers awaiting her?

The kids in this novel study Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in their English class, comparing Crichton’s fictional dinosaur story to their “real” world of dinosaur takeover. I though that was a nice touch. And then when they (Sky and a friend) out and go topside, the action is non-stop, without much time for philosophy or deep thinking. The most pressing question or theme in the book is about “whom can Sky trust” and “will she survive”. Sky is another middle grade character with father issues, and she thinks and talks a lot about why her father left her and where he could possibly be and whether or not he’s dead.

Sky is a feisty, self-reliant female, and her two male friends, Shawn and Todd, are good, well-developed characters in their own right. Although Sky is the narrator, Shawn and Todd play a big role in the story’s development, and the book should appeal to both boys and girls who like adventure stories set in a post-apocalyptic future. Science fiction with overgrown dinosaurs. A daddy hunt through prehistoric dangers. Noah’s Ark meets Jurassic Park.

The only thing I didn’t like about this story was the ending, which wasn’t. The ending is abrupt and unfinished; in other words, it’s a set-up for the sequel. Bummer. At least, I checked the author’s website, and there’s only one more book planned to follow-up this one. So I’m assuming that the loose ends of the story will be tied up in a dinosaur bow in book two, Edge of Extinction: Code Name Flood, due out at the end of May, 2017.