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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.

Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn by Greg Leitich Smith

Aidan and his best friend, Louis, live in Florida near Cape Canaveral. Aidan’s parents own The Mercury Inn, a seaside hotel, and they are known for their launch parties, where residents of the inn can watch a NASA spacecraft launch from the swimming pool area or even the beach nearby. However, when a possible UFO disrupts the launch, Aidan and Louis discover that space aliens may be actually living at the Mercury Inn!

If you’re a UFO conspiracy theorist, and if the names “Roswell” and “Project Blue Book” and “SETI” mean something to you, then you might enjoy this light story of UFO-mania and space alien visitation. Then again, if you’re a real UFOlogist, you might think this book treats the subject with insufficient gravitas.

At any rate, it’s an easy read, with a couple of twists at the end. Everyone should have a little UFO in their life.

Warning: Rabbit Trail or Side Note

In the meantime, while looking for UFO and space alien pictures, I found various and sundry speculations on what is called the Fermi Paradox (after a discussion that physicist Enrico Fermi had with other scientists back in 1950 at Los Alamos):

-The Sun is a typical star, and relatively young. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older.
-Almost surely, some of these stars will have Earth-like planets. Assuming the Earth is typical, some of these planets may develop intelligent life.
-Some of these civilizations may develop interstellar travel, a technology Earth is investigating even now (such as the 100 Year Starship).
-Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years.
According to this line of thinking, the Earth should already have been colonized, or at least visited. But no convincing evidence of this exists. Furthermore, no confirmed signs of intelligence have yet been spotted in our galaxy or (to the extent it would be detectable) elsewhere in the observable universe. Hence Fermi’s question, “Where is everybody?” ~Wikipedia, Fermi paradox

It’s an interesting question—if one believes in the Darwinian evolution of human beings. I don’t really. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to find that God created other life forms on other planets, but there’s not an evolutionary necessity for that to be the case. There’s just God expressing His own creative nature.

Here’s an interesting article (with an unfortunate and misleading title) on the whole subject of Christian thought and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

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.

School of Charm by Lisa Ann Scott

Chip (aka Brenda Anderson) isn’t sure how she can possibly stand living with her mean old grandmother in Mount Airy, North Carolina, especially since her daddy, the one who really understood her tomboy ways, has just died. But mom says they can’t afford the house anymore, and she and the three girls have to move in with Grandma.

Just when Chip is hoping for some magic to help her understand her grandma and fit in with her family, she discovers a charm school hidden back in the woods. Miss Vernie, the teacher and proprietor, has two other students, Dana and Karen, and Miss Vernie tells them that they are there to learn whatever it is that they need to learn. She gives each of the girls a charm bracelet and says, “You have to wear the bracelet at all times. That’s how you know when you’ve completed a lesson–when you lose a charm. School ends when you’ve lost all your charms.”

Chip’s older and younger sisters are both excited about entering the Miss Dogwood pageant. But Chip just doesn’t fit in with her beauty pageant-loving family. This theme of “not fitting in” is hammered over and over again throughout the book until I wanted to shake some of the adults, especial Chip’s mom and grandma, into paying attention and affirming Chip for who she was. Chip’s mom is distracted by her grief over the loss of her husband, and Grandma is just spiteful. The combination makes for a long, cruel, dry summer, both weather-wise and emotionally for Chip, who’s trying so hard to fit into her family and get some attention. Chip is finally rewarded for her persistence, but it takes a while.

I did like the idea that the story takes place in Mount Airy, the prototype for Mayberry in the old Andy Griffith Show TV series. But we don’t get to see much of Mount Airy. And the “southernness” of the setting is more stereotypical than enlightening. The story takes place in 1977, and several events tie the plot to that time period. But the 1977 incidents are minor, also not very deeply evocative of the time.

Still, School of Charm is a nice little story with a “hint of magic”, even if the magic is mostly in the eye of the beholder.

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.

Grave Images by Jenny Goebel


Gold is for the mistress–silver for the maid–
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron–Cold Iron–is the master of them all.”
~”Cold Iron” by Rudyard Kipling

Grave Images is a nice, scary sort of story for reading in the crisp days (or evenings) of October as we approach Halloween. Twelve year old Bernie’s (short for Bernadette) family owns a grave monument company and they live, of course, next door to the cemetery. When a strange drifter, Mr. Abbott Stein, comes to town, and Bernie’s dad hires him to makes etchings for gravestones, Bernie is full of plans to use the new man’s artistic abilities to help her do something to pull her mother out of the depression that she’s been in ever since the death of Bernie’s baby brother, Thomas.

However, things don’t quite work out the way Bernie has imagined. There’s a touch of middle school romance, very chaste, and more than a bit of murder, mayhem, and horror, including a ghost. Grave Images is not a comedy, and it’s not for younger readers who might be frightened by death and general creepiness.

This was a short middle grade book, only 198 pages, and I would recommend it to readers who want something short but shivery to get them in the mood for Halloween. The book doesn’t glorify the occult, and it does have a good but understated message about the dangers of bitterness, jealousy, and covetousness. If you’re not opposed to ghost stories (think Edgar Allan Poe or Henry James, but for children), then Grave Images will be a spine-chilling treat.

Some of my favorite ghost stories, old and new:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
The Summer of Katya by Trevanian.
The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce.
The Saracen Lamp by Ruth M. Arthur.
Ghost in the Noonday Sun by Sid Fleischman.
The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co., #1) by Jonathan Stroud.
The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co., #2) by Jonathan Stroud.

And what are your favorite ghost stories?

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.

A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani

A sequel to Chainani’s first novel, The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes takes Agatha and Sophie back to the fairy tale world that they worked so hard to escape in the first book. Only this time the questions and dichotomies are multiplying in a dizzying way:

Is Sophie reformed, or is she evil?
Is Agatha good, or is she betraying her friend?
Are princes the real heroes of all the fairy tales?
Are girls the true heroines?
Can a witch become a princess?
Can a prince become an evil slob?
Can Agatha trust Sophie?
Can Sophie trust Agatha?
Can Agatha trust her prince?
Should Agatha kiss Prince Tedros or slay him?
Can girls trust boys? Can girls defeat boys?
Can boys live without girls? Can girls live without boys?
Can boys become girls? Can girls become boys?
How are boys and girls different?
Can male friendships be as close as female friendships?
Is the truest love friendship or romance?
Does a girl have to choose between female friendship and the love of her prince?
If so, which should she choose?
Can there really be a “happily ever after” for everyone?
Is there an ending where no one gets hurt?
What is the right ending?
What is the the true ending?

I’m about three-fourths of the way through Chainani’s version of the fairyland War between the Sexes, and it’s giving me moral and emotional whiplash. I like books that make me think and keep me guessing, but I guess I also like resolution. I can’t see how this book can come to a satisfying resolution, no matter what the author and the characters do with it because the central goal of the author seems to to keep everything in balance, no advantage to either side in any conflict. I’ll return later to let you know how it all came out.

*****************

It ended with a sharp division between Good and Evil, but I don’t think this book is one that anyone is going to be very happy about. Mr. Chainani plunked his plot and characters right down in the middle of the culture wars and the gender wars and the battle between good and evil. And somehow the two, good and evil, male and female, are supposed to coexist in infinite tension, with neither good nor evil winning out and with neither male nor female taking the lead, and with neither same-sex friendship nor male/female romance becoming the primary relationship in any person’s life. Gender roles are bent in this book, but never broken, which won’t make either “side” cheer. True love’s kiss wins the day, but not really. It’s a very unsatisfying, post-modern, irresolute kind of ending—or perhaps a non-ending. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another book in the series to make a trilogy, but I also wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you like

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.

Dreamer Wisher Liar by Charise Mericle Harper

Ashley is mad and sad and and jealous and worried and grumpy. Her best friend, Lucy, is moving away at the end of the summer, and now Lucy is going away to summer camp—without Ashley. What’s more, Ashley’s mom wants her to spend the next few weeks babysitting the seven year old daughter of an old friend. The seven year old, Claire, shows up with a list of “surprise” stuff to do (Ashley hates surprises) and with an over-powering extroverted Pollyanna personality (Ashley is more of a melancholy introvert). It’s going to be the worst summer ever.

Then, Ashley finds a wish jar, a jar full of papers with wishes written on them, in the basement. And when Ashley reads one of the wishes, she sees two other girls who are living out the actions that produced the wish. It’s kind of time travel, kind of clairvoyance, kind of magic. It’s scary, it’s change, and it’s surprising—all of which Ashley doesn’t like much. But she’s fascinated with the wish jar.

Most of the author’s books before this one were written for a younger audience, and it shows in the writing style and plot of this story. Third and fourth graders, maybe fifth graders, might like it a lot. Older children might find the book a little unsophisticated for their tastes. It was nice change for me from the themes and plot lines in which the kid has to save the world or fight the evil sorcerer or find the magic talisman. Nobody goes on a journey, and the book is not the beginning, middle, or end of a series. Dreamer Wisher Liar is a smaller story. Things happen and it’s interesting, but the events are modest events. It’s about friendship and learning to accept change and growing up in small but significant ways.

Ashley is a bit self-centered (like all of us), somewhat conservative and resistant to change (like many of us), and overly analytical (like me sometimes). She thinks about things, and she wants to do the right thing even when she does the wrong thing. The wrong thing she does forms the last last part of the title, the liar part, and Ashley is afraid that “the universe” is going to take its revenge on her for lying to her mother about the wish jar. But she just can’t share the magical time travel that is happening in response to the wishes for fear that it might go way. So she lies about what she’s doing in the basement. This “liar” aspect was the weakest part of the story; there are never really any consequences for the lying that goes on. And Ashley doesn’t exactly decide to quit lying; it just becomes no longer necessary to lie about the magic.

Anyway, aside from that, there are several small mysteries that come together in a satisfying way at the end of the book. Ashley learns several small but important lessons. Everything is resolved, and mostly everyone is happy, or at least content. At one point in the story Ashley tells a friend about a book she’s just finished: “I don’t usually like endings, but this was different—it was satisfying.”

Her friend answers: “You mean it’s all wrapped up, finished, no loose or uncomfortable ends sticking out.”

“Yes,” thinks Ashley. “It was all done–there was nothing left to worry about.”

If that’s the kind of book you like, that’s the kind of book Dreamer Wisher Liar is. Enjoy.

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.

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth

Not for the usual picture book crowd of preschoolers and early readers, Aviary Wonders is beautiful, funny, and carries a good message without beating it into the ground. The lavishly illustrated book is the work of a fine artist. But to whom would I recommend it?

Artists.
Bird-lovers.
Environmentalists.
Fan of steampunk sci-fi and robotics?
Teens.
Maybe middle schoolers.
Definitely adults who fall into the first three categories.

I just don’t know if that’s going to be a wide enough audience to make the book a success, which is a shame. It ought to be seriously considered for the Caldecott Award because the illustrations are gorgeous. The book also shows, in a quirky way, what the world might be like if all or most of the bird species become endangered or extinct. What if people had to build their own birds out of metal and rubber and silk and other materials in order to have the experience of seeing a bird in flight or hearing a bird song?

Aviary Wonders shows, doesn’t tell, the lesson that God’s creations are unique and valuable and can never be completely replicated by man. The book doesn’t mention God or creation, but that’s the message I got as a Christian who cares about our responsibility to steward and care for the world and its amazing diversity of plant and animal life. I didn’t know this fact about passenger pigeons, until reading this book led me to look it up:

“The passenger pigeon or wild pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is an extinct North American bird. Named after the French word passager for “passing by”, it was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world. It accounted for more than a quarter of all birds in North America. The species lived in enormous migratory flocks until the early 20th century, when hunting and habitat destruction led to its demise.” Wikipedia, Passenger pigeon.

Anyway, I recommend the book, but it may be a hard sell. At least, take a look at it in the bookstore. It’s lovely. It’s also odd and different in a world that values tried and true and formula.

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 Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Trains. Well, really, one l–o–n–g train that’s so long that it might as well be a traveling city on wheels. This train, The Boundless, has everything: 1st class accommodations, a library, dining cars, observation deck, a cinema, a billiard room, stores, second class passenger cars, freight cars, third class for the penny-pinching or poverty stricken traveler, and even a circus!

The Boundless is a world to itself, inside a literary world that includes sasquatch, a mesmerist, a steam-powered automaton bartender, treasure, and a weeping hag who induces people to commit suicide (no one dies except expendable redshirt bad guys). The last element, the hag, may be a little much for some younger readers, but it somehow wasn’t terribly scary to me. And I’m not a fan of scary.

Anyway, The Boundless takes place in an alternate steampunk North American continent, and most of the action happens on the train. the train. I loved the train. I want someone to draw me a picture of the train, car by car. Or, even better, I want to ride on the train all the way across the country and experience each part of this marvelous magical train myself. (I wonder if in heaven the good things we imagine can become real and be experienced through eternity? Jesus and I could have a lot of fun exploring The Boundless, without all of the bad guys and hags and thieves.)

Will Everett is our humble hero who grows into a self-assured young man by the end of the story. The only thing I didn’t like about the story was the tired old theme of “follow your dream.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Will wants to be an artist while his father insists that he do something more practical with his life. If you want to know why I think that “follow your dream” is a stupid theme to be drilling into kids in every other book they read, not to mention the idea that parents are a bunch of spoilsports with no wisdom to be imparted, then watch this TED talk by Mike Rowe, host of the TV show Dirty Jobs (which I’ve never seen, but I like his perspective on the value and dignity of work in this video).

So I just pretended that the simplistic Disney-esque follow-your-dream parts weren’t there, and I enjoyed the train and the adventure and the Picture of Dorian Gray subplot.

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 Eighth Day by Dianne K. Salerni

If you can handle spell-casting, human sacrifice,and lots of violence in your children’s middle grade fantasy, then this book might be just up your alley. I actually found it riveting, while I skimmed some of the witch-y, creepy parts.

You may not know it, but there are actually eight days in a week, with one secret magic day between Wednesday and Thursday called Grunsday. (Well, some people call it that.) The only people who experience Grunsday are the Transitioners and the Kin, descendants of the original creators of Grunsday who had a very good reason for sticking it in there in the middle of the week. Transitioners live in our timeline and the alternate magical one, Sunday through Wednesday, then Grunsday, then Thursday through Saturday, every week with eight days. The Kin only experience conscious life on Grunsday. On the other days they are there, but not? Sort of like ghosts?

The fun part of the story was trying to figure out how all this alternate timeline, eight days a week, not to mention magical abilities and lords and vassals, work out in the world of The Eighth Day. We get to figure it out along with the main character, a boy named Jax Aubrey, who hasn’t been told anything about the eighth day until he experiences it for the first time just after his thirteenth birthday. (He thinks it’s the zombie apocalypse at first.) Jax slowly deciphers the clues that his friends and his foes manage to drop as he also becomes comfortable with the idea that his identity as a Transitioner has given him some special abilities of his own.

I liked it, but again it may be way too sinister, violent, and occult for some readers. It certainly doesn’t glorify the occult, but Jax is, at best, spiritually confused. At one point in the story when Jax and the other “good guys” are trying to reverse an evil magical spell that’s been cast by the “bad guys”, Jax prays to whoever or whatever— “God or Nature or the Whole Universe”— is in charge and listening, to help them. It’s a perfect example of foxhole religion, certainly realistic, but also rather muddled.

Proceed at your own risk.

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.

Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

Did you know that ravens greet one another with a riddle? Or that ravens love riddles? Did you know that evil flesh-eating valravens don’t appreciate riddles, and that’s how you can tell them apart from the good ravens? Neither did I, and neither did young Gabriel Finley until he met and bonded with his own raven, a young bird, who hadn’t even learned to fly yet, named Paladin.

There are a lot of things to like about this story: The riddles. The flying (Gabriel can fly while bonding with Paladin). The essential goodness and humility of Gabriel, our protagonist. Aviopolis, the hidden bird city. However, there were also some problems, which may or may not bother younger (third and fourth grade) readers. The problems will most likely rule out older middle grade readers.

I felt the author, who has only published adult fiction previous to this book, condescended to middle grade readers. The riddles that are sprinkled throughout the story often have similar solutions, instead of showcasing different kinds of riddles. Gabriel takes an entourage of friends and possible enemies along with him when he goes on a quest to find his father, but I could see no reason for the company. Gabriel is the only one who really has the ability to bond with a raven, and he’s the only one who can “save the world” with his riddling abilities. The only companions he actually needs are a duplicitous old man who has been to Aviopolis before and might know how to find Gabriel’s dad and of course, the bird Paladin.

Also, Gabriel seems to be really slow to catch on to rather obvious plot and character developments. I think this slowness on Gabriel’s part may reflect a lack of respect by the author for the intelligence of young readers. A boy like Gabriel really should be able to figure out what is happening and whom he can trust more quickly than he does.

So, I do recommend Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle with some reservations. Some kids are going to love it, but others are going to be just as annoyed as I was with the rather dense protagonist and his erstwhile friends. Oh, and the flesh-eating valravens are going to be a deal breaker for some kids. I never watched Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds for that very reason.

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.