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The Land Uncharted by Keely Brooke Keith

Shangri-la. Brigadoon. The Village. The setting of a land unspoiled by modern technology or by modern barbarity is not a new device. However, in The Land Uncharted, debut author Keely Brooke Keith uses such a setting to anchor a mystery/romance story that transcends time and place.

Lydia Colburn is the only doctor for her village of Good Springs in The Land. She stays busy caring for pregnant women, delivering their babies, and treating accidental injuries. Sickness is rare in The Land. However, when Naval Aviator Connor Bradshaw parachutes onto the beach near Good Springs, injured and unconscious, it is Lydia who is called upon to treat his injuries.

Now The Land itself and its people are in danger, since in the year 2025 the outside world is in the throes of a world war and a shortage of fresh water. The Land has been uncharted and undisturbed for seven generations, since Lydia’s forbears first settled there in the mid-nineteenth century, but now with Connor’s arrival, their bucolic lives may be threatened.

The Land Uncharted is not only a debut novel for the author, a Nashville musician and mom, but it is also the first novel published by the small Christian publisher, Edenbrooke Press, which “exist[s] to publish books written from a Christian worldview.” The Christian worldview in The Land Uncharted is subsumed under a nineteenth century worldview, which assumes Christian values and beliefs rather than preaching or espousing them. Connor Bradshaw, a child of the twenty-first century and a man of war, seems to have very little trouble stepping into this retro-culture and clothing himself in its old-fashioned mores and thought patterns. I would have expected Connor to grapple a bit more with accepting the ideas and religious beliefs of The Land, but then again those ideas and beliefs are never really spelled out for him or for the reader, just assumed.

Nevertheless, The Land Uncharted is a promising start to a series that I will want to continue reading. The second book in the series, which will focus more on Lydia’s brother Levi, is set to be published in March of 2015. This first book would make a lovely Christmas gift for readers of Christian fiction or general romance readers who like a little futuristic speculative fiction in the mix.

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The Last Wild by Piers Torday

Wild” is a noun, not an adjective in this novel, and it means a group of animals who live together in a sort of ecosystem. Kester Jaynes is a boy, the son of a former veterinarian, who lives in a home for troubled children in a society that has become somewhat troubled, perhaps insane, itself.

The animals have all been destroyed because of the the “disease worse than a nuclear bomb” called red-eye. The animals were carriers, and now most of them are gone, except for insects and a few species of birds. However, one night Kester discovers that even though he is unable to speak even a word to humans, he can communicate with animals. A flock of pigeons and a cockroach rescue Kester from lockdown in the children’s home and take him to where the Last Wild is meeting in a desperate attempt to save themselves from becoming the last victims of red-eye.

Kester, through a series of odd events, becomes the leader of this Last Wild, and they set out together to find Kester’s father, who may hold the clue to a cure for the disease. Or Mr. Jaynes may be working with the evil Selwyn Stone Enterprise, makers of “formul-A”, the only food source for human beings now that the animals (and most all of the farms) are all gone. Kester is not sure what’s going on with his dad, but he journeys in faith that somehow his father will help the animals of the Last Wild.

So, this book is a post-apocolyptic father-quest with an evil corporation as antagonist, and the plot involves a weak but honorable boy traveling across country in the company of his animal friends and protectors. It sounds like a lot of other stories of its kind, and the formul-A and the cockroach friendship didn’t help my enjoyment of the novel. However, the sequel to this book, The Dark Wild, just won the Guardian Prize for for Children’s Fiction in Great Britain, a place where they may like their children’s books a little darker than I do and where they may not be as familiar with actual, Houston-size cockroaches. I can imagine those Britishers thinking that a cockroach would make a nice little pet, but they are wrong. Mice, yes, maybe, cockroaches, no way.

Anyway, if your toleration for roaches and pink slime (which is how I imagined the formul-A) is better than mine, and if the premise sounds interesting, you might want to check out The Last Wild. The roach friend and the nasty food are about the worst of the details of the novel. Oh, there are the dying stag and the crazy white pigeon.

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.

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy

Mike gets a letter a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday: “If you’re reading this, I’m very sorry, but I was killed in the war in Afghanistan.” Thus begins a series of letters to Mike from the dad he didn’t really know who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old. Can Mike get to know his dad and maybe get some wisdom and advice, even though his dad is gone?

This YA contemporary fiction book has several things going for it:

It has a male protagonist, written by a male author. Mike really feels like a typical sixteen year old guy, kind of a straight arrow geek, but those really do exist. Mike reminds of some sixteen year olds I know.

The plot hinges on and features football, a very popular sport that hasn’t received its due in YA fiction. At least not in a good way. The stereotypical football player inmost YA fiction is a popular brain-dead jock who’s dating or dumping the also popular, brainless cheerleader. Mike finds friendship and community and the enjoyment of being part of a team in playing football, even if he does have to deceive his mother in order to make the team.

Mike’s dad is an everyman soldier who died in Afghanistan, and we get to know him as Mike does through his letters. Mike’s mom is over-protective and also distracted by trying to provide for Mike and his sister. These are real parents, not cardboard, and they both play an important part in Mike’s life and in the story. Not many YA novels really delve into the parent/teen relationship of imperfect parents who nevertheless love and try to relate to their also imperfect sons or daughters. Usually the parents are absent, stupid, or evil. Mike’s parents are none of the above.

I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book to any teen who’s trying to make sense of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the future wars we manage to get ourselves into. It’s not the final word on war or the meaning of life or heroism or honor, but it is a perspective. It’s an honorable and real perspective. I am quite impressed with Mr. Reedy as an author and as a commentator on the effects of war on families and especially young men. I like his other book that I read, Words in the Dust, and I liked this one, too.

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 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.

Shipwreck Island by S.A. Bodeen

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK UNLESS YOU ARE WILLING TO WAIT THREE YEARS TO SEE HOW IT ENDS!

A book like this one should come with a warning label. It’s not a whole book. It’s short, 184 pages, and it just ends . . . in the middle of the story. It ends like an episode of LOST. In fact, it reads a lot like an episode of LOST. Anyway, I felt cheated. The book should have something on the cover that says it’s the first installment in a series. And I find that there are to be four books in all, and the next book in the series won’t be out until July, 2015. Not. nice.

Publisher? Editor? Author? Whoever is in charge? If you have a story that is this unfinished, just wait and publish all four volumes at the same time. Or publish the whole thing in one book. Something. At least with LOST, we only had to wait a week to see what happened next. A year is too long for me, and it’s certainly too long for the ten and eleven year olds that this series is written for. Do you know how long a year is in a pre-teen’s life? It’s forever. (Yes, the kids waited for the next installment of Harry Potter—because each of those books told a complete story. And the HP kids grew as the series went along.) Shipwreck Island is not Harry Potter, although HP is a book that one of the characters takes along to the desert island, and no one is going to remember—or care—what happened in this book by next July.

In Shipwreck Island, we have three kids and a mom and a dad who are shipwrecked on a mysterious island. I don’t see how the kids can grow much older or have the books’ themes and plots become more mature as they progress unless the author plans to have them stay on this island for a very long time. The first book only covers about two days on the island. So in next year’s exciting episode, are we going to have a time marker that says, “One year later . . .”?

Shipwreck Island could have been a good solid read for middle grade students who like adventure and a bit of mystery and horror. Those ten and eleven year olds don’t even remember LOST, anyway. However, somebody blew it as far as pre-publication planning goes. If you really, really love desert island stories with weird and scary creatures, wait three more years and buy the complete book in four volumes.

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.

Horizon by Jenn Reese

The #weneediversebooks movement has been a popular phenomenon on Twitter and among kidlit and YA bloggers this year. The idea is to encourage publishers and authors to write and market more and better literature for children and young adults that shows and features diversity in human beings. In other words, children want to read, or adults want them to be able to read, about the many cultures, racial groups, religious groups, ability groups, and others that make up the human race. Books, especially book characters, as a whole, should reflect the marvelous diversity that exists in the human family.

One question has been where does this movement for diversity intersect with speculative fiction? In particular, since I’m reading a ton of it for the Cybils, where do diversity in characters and cultures and middle grade speculative fiction intersect? Is it just about more people of color or more people with disabilities as characters in our fantasy and science fiction books? Or can diversity be approached in another way, a way that is particularly suited to speculative fiction?

In Horizon author Jenn Reese shows a world of diverse “humans”, a world in which, by the end of the book, most of the very different creatures with very different cultures an cultural expectations have learned to live together peacefully. (I could argue with the implication that if you simply get rid of the evil dictator, evil in the rest of the world will die a quick death, but I won’t go there.) Instead I want to just list some of the peoples that Reese includes in her fantasy world:

The Coral Kampii live under the ocean but near the shore and are given beautiful tails instead of legs at puberty. Their society is closed off, conservative, and isolationist.
Equians are intelligent horse-like people who live in the desert and worship the sun. Their primary values are honor and loyalty to the community, or herd.
The Deepfell live in the deeps of the ocean and are related to but also enemies of the Kampii. They have bodies that have adapted to the pressures of the ocean depths.
The Serpentii are a snakish people who also live in the desert, usually in caves. They have been long at war with the Equians and are by this time nearly extinct.
The Aviars are bird-people with a rather militant and Spartan female-led culture.
Upgraders are technologically enhanced human-like cyborgs who seem to be the enemies of all of the other more human species in this world. Or are they?

So in Horizon these different groups work out their differences and some of them ally themselves together to fight the evil Karl Strand, a mad scientist dictator who wants to rule the world. Written like that, the plot may sound a little hokey, but it’s certainly not. The interactions between the different characters and between the different people groups are complicated, nuanced, and intriguing. Characters must overcome their prejudices, learn to accept their dissimilarities, and work together, capitalizing on the things that divide them and make them diverse, while also overcoming the things that handicap them. For instance, the main character, Aluna, is a Kampii with a tail (think mermaid) which is a disability when she is on land. However, her friend, Vachir, an Equian, carries Aluna, tail and all, into battle where she is able to use her other abilities to fight and win battles.

When we talk about “diverse books” or “diverse characters”, it’s not enough to ask only simple questions, although these are a start, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Are there any people of color in the Above World books? I’m not sure skin color is ever mentioned, except for the Kampii’s colorful tails. Are any of the characters disabled? Well, in a way, they all are “differently abled”. The Kampii can’t walk. None of the people can fly, except the Aviars. The land peoples can’t live in the water, and the water peoples can’t live on land without technological aids. The Equians don’t talk in words, only whinnies. Are there diverse cultures? Of course, but they aren’t the cultures we know in our world, even though some of them resemble real cultural groups in our world.

Is speculative fiction, particularly this Above World trilogy, a good way for middle grade readers to explore diversity? Absolutely. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book in a scene in which the different characters are trying to build a city that will serve all of the world’s people groups:

“She pored over the city’s planning schematics every night. The ramps and elevators had been her idea, so every person could go every place, whether they had wings or tails or hooves or legs. Given enough time, she’d probably find a way to let the Aviars live underwater if they wanted.”

Now that’s an example of accommodating and celebrating diversity. #weneeddiversebooks

The first two books in this series were Above World and Mirage. I suggest reading the books in order.

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.

Blue Sea Burning by Geoff Rodkey

This final book in the Chronicles of Egg trilogy begins as Egg has just been saved from death by hanging by his uncle, the pirate Burn Healy. The first chapter begins with three problems: the ship is sinking, other pirates are out to kill them, and the ship’s crew is giving Egg and his friends murderous looks and muttered threats as they look for a way to get rid of him.

The book just gets better and better from that fine start. There’s a sea battle, so well described that I read every word, instead of skimming the fighting part, as I usually do, to get to the end and find out who won and who lost. Mr. Rodkey writes his characters, especially Egg, and his action scenes with a deft hand, including humor, emotion, and vivid description incorporated into the fast-moving story.

You certainly can’t fault the book for a lack of action or for starting out slowly. The action is relentless and absorbing, and it doesn’t come at the expense of character development. Egg began the series in the book Deadweather and Sunrise as a naive and victimized boy, and in this third book his philosophy of life and his rationale for decision-making are both much more sophisticated. And yet he still has a lot to learn.

The setting is South Pacific islands-ish, perhaps Caribbean, but with mythical islands in an imaginary world. The volcano, the pirates roaming the seas, tropical fruits, religious details, and some of the names (Mata Kalun, Moku, Okalu, etc.) made me think more of the South Pacific. The religion that’s incorporated into the story is particularly interesting to me. Egg’s native friend, Kira, prays to and worships the sun god, Ka. The “settlers” with more British names use the word “Savior” as a sort of swear word or curse (“Oh, Savior’s sake!” and “the Savior as my witness . . .”), but it’s never clear in this book what “savior” they’re talking about. Burn Healy lives by the Pirate Code, a set of rules for an honor culture, that Burn made up himself and had all of his crew sign. He does, that is, until he doesn’t, more on that later.

Egg doesn’t pray to Ka, although he’s glad that Kira does. He hasn’t signed the Code. And he doesn’t seem to have any other religious background or belief. So, Egg is the proverbial seeker, open to truth wherever he can find it, somewhat disillusioned by his recent experiences, but wanting to do what is right and good. So, the search starts with Egg’s Uncle Burn, who has already violated his own Pirate Code by saving Egg’s life, telling him that the world can’t be divided into good and evil, that everyone and everything is “grey”, mostly evil. Egg later decides that the only men on the Blue Sea are “bad and worse.”

But Egg keeps trying to figure out and do what’s right. The Pirate’s Code is not sufficient to inform his actions, but he still wants to be “honorable”. He becomes involved in a project to free the slaves in the silver mines, because slavery is wrong. His uncle tells him, “So are a million other things in this world. You can’t right them all.” Egg persists because he wants to prove himself worthy of the sacrifices others have made in his behalf.

Then, about halfway through the book, Egg and his friends are translating a treasure map with an inscription that comes to the crux of the matter. In part it says: “This we swear as truth: the man who seeks rescue from the gods will die in bitterness. Neither Ka, nor Ma, will save him. The only savior of man is man.”

So, Egg knows he’s on his own, with only his friends to help him, maybe, and yet he carries on. Egg becomes his own savior. He and his friends save the slaves from the silver mine, and they save the people that the the pirates have captured and planned to kill, and he destroys the evil, nefarious villain of the story with a lot of fortitude and a handy trick. Seemingly, the only savior of Egg is Egg himself.

And yet . . . on page 332 Egg is “praying” for his brother Adonis. A figure of speech? Perhaps. But then, as the action winds down, and Egg is almost safe and victorious, but not quite, this interesting thought comes to him:

“I’d seen more than my share of trouble, and when the eruption blotted out the sun, my body finally decided enough was enough, and that it was time to check out for a while and not come back until somebody else had fixed things, or at least swept up some of that ash.”

Finally, at the end of the book, Egg says, “The future felt like a math problem I couldn’t solve.” Maybe, even though this series is over, Egg has even more to learn about Somebody Else who saves and who solves when human efforts are not sufficient.

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.

Cybils: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Nominations are open through October 15th for the Cybils, the book awards for children’s and young adult literature that are administered, judged, and awarded by kid lit bloggers. The category description for YA Speculative Fiction says:

Magic, aliens, ghosts, alternate universes, time travel, space travel, high fantasy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures, horror, and sentient animals are just some of the many topics that belong here. If a book could happen today or could have happened in the past, nominate it in YA Fiction. But any story that’s impossible, improbable, or merely possible – but not quite yet – belongs in Speculative Fiction. Magic Realism is tricky, but more often than not ends up here. The age range for this category is approximately 12-18.

Here are a few YA Speculative Fiction books that may deserve a look, but haven’t been nominated yet. If one of these is your favorite, please nominate it for a Cybils award.

Parched by Georgia Clark.
Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski.
Destined for Doon by Carey Corp and Lorey Langdon. Reviewed at The Book Nut: A Booklover’s Guide.
Nightmare City by Andrew Klavan.
Mindwar by Andrew Klavan.
One Realm Beyond by Donita K. Paul. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.
Merlin’s Nightmare by Robert Treskillard. NOMINATED
Rebels (The Safe Lands) by Jill Williamson.

Do carry on with nominations for all your favorites in all of the categories, but only those books published between Oct. 16, 2013 and Oct. 15, 2014 are eligible.

The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant

“You writers always have to be so cryptic.”

So says a character in this Australian YA fiction title, honored by The Children’s Book Council of Australia, but, she said it, full of cryptic. The Ink Bridge tells the story of two young men, one Afghani named Omed and one Australian boy named Hector, Hec for short. Omed’s story comes first in the book. Maimed by the Taliban when they cut out his tongue, Omed is unable to talk, lost inside himself, and a lot of his internal dialogue is obscure and puzzling (cryptic) to say the least. Omed’s story is the tale of a refugee with very little hope, as Omed makes his way from Afghanistan to Australia in the clutches of and dependent on an evil smuggler called The Snake.

Halfway through the book, the point of view switches to Hec, another boy without words. Hec is an elective mute; he chooses not to talk because the tragedy which has occurred to disrupt his life has sucked all the words out of him. As he gets to know Omed, however, whom he calls Silent Boy, Hec finds a reason for words and telling stories. In fact, he finds himself compelled to tell Omed’s story in the hope that somehow telling the story of Omed’s struggles will give voice to the suffering people of Afghanistan and will change in some small way the tragedy that is being played out daily in that country.

A lot of the book fits the cryptic label. Omed and Hec both are very internally focussed for much of the story. Since they can’t or won’t talk, they imagine a lot, and some of their introspection is a stew of secrets and mysteries and regrets and visions and just plain craziness. I can imagine not talking for a year, like Hec, and sometimes I think it would be a relief. But it might make me a little more crazy than I already am.

The Ink Bridge is a book about the power of words, but I think it would take a motivated and discerning young adult reader to stick with the story through the enigmatic passages and the difficult relationships that make up the bulk of the narrative. I would recommend it to those who have an interest in refugees in Australia or in the people of fghanistan.

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

Historical fiction set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. Or is it magical realism? The horses featured in the story are very, very intelligent, crafty, and communicative. Then, there’s the question of whether this book is middle grade fiction or young adult. The main character, a Jewish girl named Kalinka, is young, maybe twelve or thirteen? But a lot of what happens in this World War II-setting novel is very, very dark. I don’t exactly know how to classify this book, and that ambiguity in being able to pigeon-hole the book into “YA Holocaust novel” or “middle grade horse book” or “magical horse story” or something else makes it that much more intriguing to me.

Kalinka’s entire family has been annihilated by the Nazis. Max, the wildlife manager at Aksaniya-Nova wildlife preserve, is pretending to cooperate with the Germans so that he can protect the animals he loves, especially the rare and wild Przewalski’s horses. As Kalinka forms a bond with the horses out on the snowy plains where they live, Max forms a plan to save both Kalinka and the horses from the German soldiers who have been ordered to wipe out both the Jews and the ancient breed of Przewalski’s.

The style of writing in this novel comes across as very Russian (Ukrainian?) to me. The writing is rather simple and unadorned, and Max’s philosophy of “live and let live” and “persevere to fight another day” strikes me as typical of a Ukrainian peasant, at least the Ukrainian peasants I’ve read about in Russian novels. Something about the way the book is written, the characters, and the descriptions made me eel as if I were in Ukraine in the winter of 1941, watching the events unfold. Even when the events that unfold are borderline unbelievable (a horse that counts and strategizes?), I wanted to believe. And when the plot turned to harsh, violent, and tragic, I wanted to close my eyes and disbelieve that things like genocide, animal cruelty, bombings, and attempted cannibalism really could happen. But those latter things, the ones I wished weren’t at all possible, were the ones that did happen, and probably still are happening.

I would recommend this book for older teens who can handle the horrors and can yet still suspend disbelief long enough to believe in a semi-happy ending.

Kalinka’s (nick)name comes from an old Russian song by composer and folklorist Ivan Petrovich Larionov:

And here’s a short video about Przewalski’s horses:

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.