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The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry


Good old-fashioned Robert Heinlein-style juvenile science fiction. The story takes place in our own solar system. The characters are all human (well, except for Grandpa who’s mostly cyborg by now). The unfamiliar words are mostly space travel jargon (fireship, grav-sled, transponder) and pirate talk (belay, burgoo, avast, barky). There’s politics and adventure and espionage, and girls and guys take part equally in the adventure and in the drudge work.

Twelve year old twins Tycho and Yana, and older brother Carlo Hashoone are the three probable heirs to the Hashoone family business: a privateering starship called the Shadow Comet. Their mom, Diocletia, is the captain, and dad, Mavry, is the first mate. However, since only one of the three siblings can become captain when mom retires, there’s a lot of rivalry mixed in with the teamwork as the entire family, including Grandpa, work together to find and take prizes, namely Earth cargo ships. Because the Jovian Union, where the Hashoons are from, and Earth are technically at war, the Shadow Comet operates under letters of marquee to capture and hold for ransom any starships from Earth that might cross their path.

Besides just being a lot of fun, the book might bring up some interesting class or family discussions:

What is the difference between a pirate and a privateer? (Reference and compare Sir Francis Drake and also U.S. privateers of the American revolution.) How are the crew of the Shadow Comet different from historical pirates like Jean Lafitte? How are they similar? Are privateers really just “pirates with papers”? Is it justifiable to be a pirate (or privateer) if you’re fighting for your country while you you take a little profit for yourself?

Can family members work as a team and also be rivals for the same position? How would that work in real life? Have you seen families pull together in a crisis? Do they always?

Did you think it was unusual to have the mom be the captain of the Shadow Comet, with the dad serving under her authority as first mate? What did you think of Captain Diocletia giving orders to her father, her husband, and her children? Why do you think the author wrote the characters’ roles this way?

Yana is impulsive and decisive, whereas Tycho is more thoughtful and indecisive. Which twin are you more like? Which one do you think would make a better captain someday? Or would you choose Carlo, since he’s older and a better pilot?

What do you think about Grandpa’s decision at the end of the book? Was he right? If not, do you understand why he did what he did?

You can probably think of other avenues for discussion as you read the book. Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra is the first book in a series about the Hashoone family and their piratical (privateering!) adventures. The second book is Curse of the Iris, due out December 16, 2014.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor by John Scieszcka

Frank Einstein loves science. So does his grandfather, Grampa Al. The science bug skipped a generation, however, since Frank’s parents love to travel and are clueless about science. When Frank teams up with a couple of self-assembled artificially intelligent SmartBots, Klink and Klank, he’s on his way to win the science fair with a motor powered by the combination of matter and anti-matter. But Frank’s competition, T. Edison, along with Edison’s Chief Financial officer, Mr. Chimp, are out to win the science fair, too—-any way they can!

“Frank loves science” becomes a convenient excuse for inserting all sorts of science factoids into the story, but it’s a painless interposition with lots of cool science charts and illustrations. Kids who “love science” along with Frank, about third or fourth graders, should also enjoy Frank Einstein’s adventures. And those who aren’t so fond of science might develop a taste for it, which I assume is at least part of the goal.

Brandy of Random Musings of a Bibliophile noted in her review of another 2014 middle grade sci-fi book (Tesla’s Attic), “This is one in a long line of books that have released lately in which Tesla and his inventions play a major role. As does the vilifying of Thomas Edison.” No Tesla in Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, but T. Edison is the villain. So why is everybody suddenly down on Edison?

Aside from a few slightly abrupt transitions, this first book in the Frank Einstein series is an action-packed solid read for younger middle grade readers. And Mr. Scieszcka has his characters allude to both Asimov’s I, Robot and to the Captain Underpants series. So something for everyone, including some very bad jokes, courtesy of Klank.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles

This debut novel, first in a projected series, is just the ticket for Star Wars fans. Are there still Star Wars fans around these days? Like Trekkies? Tell me that Trekkies still exist.

Anyway, The Lost Planet opens with our amnesiac hero recovering from a nasty head wound. He doesn’t know where he is or who he is. However, a somewhat damaged memory chip embedded under his scalp (ouch!) indicates that his name might be “Chase Garrety”. The only thing he remembers, sort of, is a message: “Guide the star.” What does it mean? Who is he really? And is someone trying to kill him?

What in this book reminded me of Star Wars?

*a robot helper/guardian.
*lots of alien species with odd non-humanoid bodies from several different planets.
*travel on a rickety old space ship with a less than trustworthy pilot.
*space smugglers and arms dealers.
*a “who am I” and “who are my parents” mystery.
*a vaporized planet.
*a motley crew of frenemies thrown together by misadventure and running for their lives.
*planet-hopping.
*a “federation” made up of many planets (but that’s more Star Trek, isn’t it?).

On the other hand, Lost Planet is not just a Star Wars knock-off. It’s different enough that fans of that sort of story might very well enjoy it, especially middle grade readers who are looking for science fiction/fantasy with “no kissing” parts. No romance, lots of action, and inter-planetary adventure make this novel just the right read for—well, whom does that description bring to your mind?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Hooray for Cybils Speculative Fiction (Middle Grade)

I am excited and honored to be joining the following fellow bloggers as a member of the Cybils judging panel for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction and Fantasy) this year.

Rana Bardisi
Reader Noir
@readernoirblog

Maureen Eichner
By Singing Light
@elvenjaneite

Cindy Hannikman
Fantasy Book Critic

Katy Kramp
A Library Mama
@alibrarymama

Brandy Painter
Random Musings of a Bibliophile
@brandymuses

Charlotte Taylor
Charlotte’s Library
@charlotteslib

This assignment means that my fellow panelists and I get to read LOTS of middle grade speculative fiction, probably over 200 books in the genre published between October 15, 2013 and October 15, 2014. And we get to discuss them all via the magic of the internet, and we get to share the best of the best (or the worst of the worst) with readers of our respective blogs. What a privilege.

Nominations for the Cybils in all categories open October 1st at the Cybils website. Get your nominees ready, and check back here for speculative fiction reviews and commentary galore.

Parched by Georgia Clark

“Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after . . . a disaster that ruins the world. Possible apocalyptic disasters include nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgment, climate change, resource depletion or some other general disaster.”

“A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.”

Obviously there is/can be some overlap here. Hunger Games is dystopian fiction, but it is hinted that some apocalyptic disaster caused the government of Panem to become what it was. Divergent also falls into this in between category, with most of the emphasis being on the uncovering of the dystopia underneath the seeming utopia of future Chicago. Parched is both post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.

Disaster: fifty years of climate change leading to world wide drought and a severe shortage of water.

Ostensible utopia that is actually a dystopia: Eden, a city enclosed by white walls and a clear protective dome under which water is kept for the exclusive benefit of the Edenites. Outside Eden is the Badlands where millions live in violent anarchy with a growing shortage of water.

Government: authoritarian, led by a dictator named Gyan and a group of functionaries called the Trust.

Hero/heroine: Sixteen year old Tessendra Rockwood, an Edenite who, because of the tragic accident that killed her mother, has left the protective environment she grew up in to live in the Badlands outside the city.

Rebel group: Kudzu, a group of teens who are determined to change their world by means of non-violent resistance.

Technology: Eden is highly technological with robots called “substitutes” that perform most of the menial labor in the city, and the development of artificial intelligence is on the horizon for the scientists of Eden. Inhabitants of the Badlands exist on the edges of civilization, using primitive low-tech weapons and the cast-off technology of Eden to survive.

I thought Parched was well-written and solid in its world-building and characterizations. I did figure out one of the two major “reveals’ in the book before they were revealed, but I’m not sure every reader would. And sometimes Tess acts sixteen year old dumb while at other times she is brave, strong, and skilled way beyond her years. If the “border crisis” in Parched is meant to mirror and comment on the current border crisis in the U.S., it’s eerily prescient since the book was published in March of this year just before the border crisis began to dominate the news in mid-summer.

There is teen romance in Parched (no triangle, thank goodness), but it’s an interesting and somewhat restrained romance. There is some mild bad language, which could have have been left out, but unfortunately wasn’t. The language, violence, theme of rebellion against a repressive government, and romance make this one firmly YA, although both younger and older readers who like Orleans by Sherri Smith or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities would also like Parched.

Bellwether by Connie Willis

Coffee shops. Statistics. Management. Sheep. Fads and trends. Anti-smoking activism. Mail delivery. Chaos theory. Rom-com. Romantic Bride Barbie. Duct tape. Post-modern pink.

All of these forces and subjects and more combine and influence and permutate and percolate to form one funny, sweet, and at the same time thoughtful, romantic comedy of a novel. I was charmed. Bellwether is certainly not as meaty or deep as Willis’s other novels, but it might be a good introduction to her work.

Sandy Foster studies fads, how they start and what they mean. She becomes acquainted with fellow HiTek corporation scientist Bennett O’Reilly by accident—a case of mis-delivered mail. As fate and the highly incompetent mail clerk, Flip, continue to throw Sandy and Bennett together, she becomes interested in his seeming immunity to fads. Bennett, oblivious to Sandy’s growing interest, continues to pursue his interest in chaos theory. Can a flock of sheep and a new office assistant help them to truly see each other and achieve equilibrium?

Connie Willis continues to be my favorite living science fiction author. I highly recommend her other novels:

Doomsday Book, reviewed at Semicolon: my first foray into the world of Connie Willis, and her first book in a series about time-traveling historians.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, reviewed at Semicolon: Comedy and time travel in Victorian England.

Blackout and All Clear, reviewed at Semicolon: one book, really, in two volumes. The time-traveling historians visit World War II England.

Passage: about NDE’s or Near Death Experiences.

Her short stories are probably worth checking out too, if you like short stories. I don’t read short stories, unless I have very good reason to believe that the story up for perusal is worth the aggravation of its being so very short. I haven’t read Ms. Willis’s short stories, but she’s such a good author that I may give them a try.

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Piper has never seen the mark of the dragonfly until she finds the girl amid the wreckage of a caravan in the meteor fields.
The girl doesn’t remember a thing about her life, but the intricate tattoo on her arm is proof that she’s from the Dragonfly Territories and that she’s protected by the king. Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home.
The one sure way to the Dragonfly Territories is the 401, a great old beauty of a train. But a ticket costs more coin than Piper could make in a year. And stowing away is a difficult prospect–everyone knows that getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible.
Life for Piper just turned dangerous. A little bit magical. And very exciting, if she can manage to survive the journey. ~from Jaleigh Johnson’s website

Techno-steampunk fantasy science fiction. With the exception of a couple of “blips” in the plot (Where did Anna get the money to run away on the express train? How did King Aren know about the traitors?), The Mark of the Dragonfly was an absorbing, worthy entry in the middle grade steampunk genre.

Most of the story takes place on a train, the 401, which makes the story automatically attractive to those of us who have an interest in trains. The fact that this novel doesn’t read as if it is the first in a trilogy makes it inviting for those of us who are tired of trilogies. And the characters and the world of the novel are appealing. Piper and the girl she finds, Anna, are a fine pair of friends, and the green-eyed guard, Gee, makes a good foil to Piper’s feisty, combative nature.

I would recommend this one to anyone who’s interested in trains, dystopia, futuristic sci-fi, or spunky female protagonists. Unfortunately, the characters in the novel pray to “the goddess”—who is never described or fleshed out, only mentioned, so if that mention offends, you want to skip or skim over those brief references.

Ms. Johnson does say on her FAQ page: “In 2014 I’ll be working on the companion novel to The Mark of the Dragonfly. It’s set in the world of Solace but follows different characters.” So no sequel or trilogy, but a companion. Not too much commitment required.

Tesla’s Attic by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman

A very promising first book in The Accelerati Trilogy, this science fiction adventure follows the escapades of Nick Slate, the new guy in town, and his friends in Colorado Springs where they find that the legacy of genius and inventor Nikola Tesla, a bunch of weird old electrical and mechanical devices and appliances found in Nick’s attic, is more than a little dangerous. What’s more The Accelerati, whoever they are, are competing with Nick and his friends to gain control of the power of Tesla’s mad inventions.

The tone and style of this adventure were pitch perfect, with a little more adolescent boy/girl stuff than I would have liked, but still the clues were dropped and then picked up and tied together neatly with room left for the sequel(s). I really enjoyed the way these two authors worked together to foreshadow the coming action and warn the reader about what would or could happen while at the same surprising me with a few twists and turns I wasn’t expecting.

Oh, the book begins with a great first line: “Nick was hit by a flying toaster.” Doesn’t that make you curious?

QOTD: Some people think Nikola Tesla was one of the most fascinating geniuses who ever lived. Who fascinates you? What person or persons in history would you like to invite to your dinner party, just to hear what they had to say?

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

“Shannon Hale as you’ve never read her before!” screams the back cover of my ARC. I would concur. If you’re a fan of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and its sequels or her other fairytale-ish stories for middle graders or her take-off on Jane Austen for adult readers, Dangerous might feel a little, well, like new and dangerous territory for Ms. Hale and her readers.

Dangerous is very sci-fi and it’s very much a super-hero story, like Superman(Girl) or Batman or (fill-in-the-blank). The author makes use of lots of common super-hero tropes: a team of superheroes with different powers that work together, hero who dies but is not really dead, the love triangle, big business is evil, superhero needs to save the world from evil aliens. However, and this is where it gets interesting, some of the cliches Ms. Hale turns inside out. Our protagonist, Maisie Danger Brown, who ends up being the only one who can save the world, is a girl. She has loving parents who play a large role in the story. She quotes poetry to express her emotions; however, she’s really into science and math, but not geometry. The team turns out to be not very team-like, with traitors and brokenness abounding.

I read the ARC back in November of 2013, and I’ve found that the outlines of the story stuck with me. Ms. Hale is a skilled writer, with some solidly good ideas. I highly recommend her latest.

Publication date: March 4, 2014.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?

SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT!

If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, unbelievable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

Note: I do not usually give “stars” or numerical ratings to books, and after reading The Circle, I doubt if I ever will again. I can’t believe all of the people on Goodreads who say they have read the book and are still giving it a numerical rating. The sheer farce of assigning everyone and everything a numerical value and “liking” or “not liking” it is well-parodied in The Circle. So, just don’t do it, folks. Books are not numbers. (Although I kind of like “like” buttons . . .)

And, yes, I know that the gadget I’m using to allow you to share this review on social media sites, says “sharing is caring” just below this post. Irony or the beginning of the approach to Armageddon?