Of Domes and Other Things

In the Arizona dessert there are series of interconnected glass domes and pyramids called the Biosphere 2. Originally conceived as a self sustaining ecological system the experiment was a miserable failure in the early 90's when it was revealed that the plants weren't producing enough oxygen and the people inside had to breach the airlock when one of the scientists' leg was broken. The biosphere was a realization of an idea that has intrigued science fiction writers and scientists for decades. Sci-fi writers see these domes of furtile places for the imagination, often representing oppression. However, scientists see these self-sustaining cities as possible habitats for human life in the moon or Mars.

Early science fiction (pre-Global Warming days) usually showed domes as space colonies. Various writers put domed cities on Venus, Mars, and the moon. Other writers used domes cities to show the ills of ouor society and government. In the short story by E.M. Foster "The Machine Stops", humans live in a vast series of rooms in an underground machine that provides everything they could ever need. However, the machine eventually breaks down causing the inevitable death of all its citizens. Arthur C. Clarke saw domes as a retreat in The City and the Stars, a modern day (1950's style) Eden.

The first mention of a domed city was in 1881 in the white supremacist fantasy Three Hundred Years Hence by William Hay, besides being full of only white people Hay's domed city is mostly used for agriculture. In 1905 H.G. Wells suggested A Modern Utopia where at least part of cities were covered over in glass. in 1931 Ray Cummings wrote Brigands of the Moon where people lived in small glass dome shelters. James Blish created the idea of a spindizzy in his series Cities in Flight in which cities could take off into space at will. Logan's Run originally published in 1976 built domed cities to escape polution and war. In 1982 Ben Bova published A City of Darkness where domes were playgrounds during the day, and terrifying by night.

But these are all adult books you say. Never fear, domed cities infiltrated children's literature as well. The Tripods series by John Christopher has humans living as slaves beneath alien domes (very similar to Battlefield Earth, which is never read due to its scientology affiliation, but is really quite good) In 2010 A Crack in the Sky by Mark Peter Hughes was published with the domes being run by a corporation that isn't admitting that the domes may be falling apart piece by piece. Some may even argue that Incarceron by Catherine Fisher could be considered a "domed" city. Songs of Power by Hilari Bell is about an underground domed city and Away is a Strange Place to Be by H.M. Hoover features space habitats, very similar to domed cities.

But just in case you thought this was all some kind of fictional enterprise, feast your eyes on the newest form of domed city from the minds of the Chinese.

Empty Book Review

Empty by Suzanne Weyn

The oil is running out faster than anyone expected and Tom, Nikki, and Gwen are stuck right in the middle of a change that may be the end of the world as they know it. Food shortages are on the rise, gas syphoning, and violence are becoming more and more prevalent, but all these teens want is a little normalcy. Tom wants Nikki, rich cheerleader, but Gwen is mysterious in a way that Tom finds attractive. Nikki's whole world is changing, and not for the better and she struggles with keeping a normal life and still looking good despite having to wear glasses. Gwen's mother left her and her brother years ago and they have managed just fine on their own until a freak fire and a super hurricane crash her world.

The premise of the story is great and fun to think about although not terribly original. (see Crunch review) Unlike Crunch, this book often felt preachy, with large amounts of info dumps in the first half of the book. Long conversations about manufacturing and the oil being depleted and a long list of products that are no longer available because of the oil shortage. Of course, as if this wasn't enough of a sermon, the author added a super hurricane created by global warming. Just in case you didn't get that the earth is going to be destroyed. One of the things I loved about Crunch was that it didn't matter why they had run out of gas, the point was that it was gone and people had to move on with their lives.

This is mostly a story about running out of gas with naive characters complaining about the gas costing $40 a gallon, having to wear glasses, and dumb crushes as a giant hurricane is hurtling towards them and they are running out of food. What I couldn't understand was that not a single person ever hopped on a bicycle until the very end. Everyone is still driving around with the gas prices at $40 a gallon or more. Are you kidding me? Not a single person saw this coming and built a windmill or have solar power or grow things in a garden? I can tell you, as an avid bicyclist, I already think gas prices are too high and know for a fact that people are already beginning to plant gardens and live more green. I do not think that people would allow gas prices to reach $40 a gallon and not do a single thing about it. At the very least, wouldn't people begin to hoard food?

On a writing level, I am afraid that all of the characters except for rich spoiled Nikki, sounded exactly alike. Without dialogue tags I would never know how was speaking. The constant grumbling about phones now working and lack of warm showers got old. There was never a character who tried to bring things into perspective. No character who though...hmm...maybe I should build a fire to make food. The news articles littered throughout the novel were written with the same voice as the rest of the book, making them feel less than credible and entirely like more info dumps.

The author is right about one thing. This is an issue that should be brought to people's attention, but I would hope that we and our government would not be as idiotic as the people in this book. I can promise you this...if the gas prices ever reached that point, I am sure more people would be riding public transit, bikes, and subways, because it is already happening. There would be incentives for building windmills and solar powered homes. Personal gardens would become the norm and the teens would have to go on with their lives and would not be bellyaching over cell phones not charging because we would have products like this. Humans are amazing creatures who can surely find other ways to survive and create electricity without oil...oh wait, we already are doing that.

Dormia Book Review

Dormia by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski

Alfonso has a very unique gift, or perhaps it is a curse. Alfonso can do things in his sleep. But this isn't sleepwalking, because unlike the average sleepwalker who wanders around the house or perhaps make a sandwich, Alfonso climbs trees, repairs clocks, sword fights, and grows plants. In his small town of World's End, Minnesota, this may be strange, but Alfonso soon learns that he is a descendant from a lost and mythical land called Dormia, a place where the citizens are their best when asleep and the last city of Dormia will die unless Alfonso and his strange group of travelers can deliver a Dormian Bloom.

The premise of the book is great. A race of people who have the ability to do anything in their sleep. With the opening of the book the reader is dragged in as we find Alfonso literally up a tree and he has no idea how he got up there and being rather clumsy while awake, isn't entirely sure how to get down. Despite the beginning being set in Minnesota, this is definitely a high fantasy novel, and frankly if Minnesota had been named something like Andalasia (Enchanted reference) then the reader would never have known that this is supposed to be Earth.

Written by two authors, this is a high-energy fast paced novel that is just begging for a sequel. The cast of characters are varied although not well fleshed out. After reading this 500 page tome, I am still unsure of the motivations for a few of these characters. Why would a man who is not Dormian, follow a kid and his Uncle halfway around the world for a fight that isn't his? Alnfonso fights for this kingdom that he has never visited, isn't sure is real, and doesn't intend to stay with. This made him feel more like a puppet than a warrior. The whole country itself has secreted itself away from the world, reminding me of a North Korean Prison. Not exactly inspiring.

I was also unimpressed with the so=called smarts of our main character. Most of the "puzzles" he needed to solve were extremely simple and then he completely ignores clues given to him for another puzzle, which after solving so many of these mind-benders, it seems strange that he couldn't or wouldn't solve this last one. Also, as is often the case in fantasy novels involving any kind of magic, the character always seems to learn some new skill just before he needs to use it, which I have always found suspect.

What this book really suffers from though is a bad case of repetition. The authors often felt it necessary to remind the reader of poems, conversations, history, and descriptions that the reader has already been made aware of, which makes this book about a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. I admit, I am a skipper when I run across information I already know and as a reader I feel like I am being talked down to. Like the authors are saying, "Remember that poem ten pages ago? Well we don't think you do so we are going to spell it out for you again just to be sure you get it."

Although the book wasn't written badly, I often found myself reading just because I wanted to finish it. I have a bas case of have-to-finish-a-book-itis. There is enough adventure and fun elements to hold the attention of middle grade readers, but I think some editing of repeated details and a little more attention to character development would have really made this book great.

Unwind Book Review

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Under the new Laws of Life, parents have the option of "unwinding" their children any time before their eighteenth birthday. If your kid is a troublemaker, a hothead, or no discernable talents, they will take him or her and use their parts, all of them, to go to other citizens. Need a new heart, kidney, lung? There is always one available with the unwind program. Some religion even encourage parents to tithe one of their children for the good of others. But not everyone is going along with the program. Connor discovers his parents are going to have him unwound in a week, so he runs away. Risa is a ward of the state and is part of a population reduction in the state houses. When Connor runs out into traffic and her bus stops, Risa decides to make a run for it alone with a Tithe that Connor grabs called Lev. Together this unlikely trio must survive until their eighteenth birthdays.

In the vein of Rash by Pete Hautman and Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, Unwind is a sci-fi mind game that both repulses and inspires. All three children are well flushed-out with stories and histories that make this whole ordeal beyond terrifying. Lev's parents have told him all his life that he will be tithed and he wasn't afraid until that day Connor took him from the car and his Pastor told him to, "Run." Confused, Lev questions everything his parents have taught him and soon anger takes hold. Connor always knew he had anger issues, but he never imagined his loving parents would have him unwound. Risa never had parents and although a good pianist, she couldn't win the competition to save her own life.

On the logistical side of thing (and controversial side), I think the idea of Unwinding is repulsive, which is what Shusterman was aiming for. And it is also completely unrealistic. In the "history" of the book we come to understand that those who are Pro-Life and Pro-Choice agreed to this plan, which just smacks both groups in the face. No way would either think it is okay to dismember a person--a child--in order to have organ donors. That idea that any person would agree to the death of someone because they "believe" the person's soul lives on in others and doesn't die, is stupid. however, this is a fantasy, so we will, for the sake of the story, have to let it go.

The other interesting development in the story is the idea of storking. No longer do women have abortions (because the child can live in a group home and eventually be unwound), but you can also leave your child on the doorstep of whomever you wish and as long as they don't catch you, the baby is theirs for keeps (or until they have the child unwound). Now, just thinking about the state of overpopulation now, I would imagine this would be a very very bad idea. Plus, what if the family who is storked cannot support the child. Or the child is unloved, which is supposedly why this law was created, so that there were no more unloved and unwanted children. In fact, this entire world that Shusterman has created is very Spartan in nature.

As far as sci-fi goes, this is a good book that gets you thinking. The writing is well-done and the characters are believable, but I don't think we have to worry about this ever happening. Despite thousands of years worth of plagues, overpopulation, childhood diseases, and even Spartans...children are still valued and are likely to remain so.

Countdown Book Review

Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Franny would do anything for her life to be peaceful, but with the threat of nuclear war on America's doorstep, a feuding friendship, a shell-shocked Uncle, and a missing sister, Franny's life is anything but peaceful.

Part autobiography, part documentary, Countdown reads like narrative history and catches the essence of what it would be like to be a child in such a tumultuous time. Franny lives every day of her life afraid that this one will be her last. Will the Soviet Union bomb them today? Will she live to grow up or will her life be cut tragically short just like her Uncle's little brother?

My first memory outside of my own little world was when I was eight. I watched mesmerized as the Berlin wall was pulled down piece by piece. I had a million questions and my parents sat beside me, tears in their eyes, as they explained this weird terrifying world we live in. Deborah Wiles grew up during the beginning of that Cold War. Her first memories were of the fear of those times and in some strange way, I can relate. Except my parents were forthcoming with information and poor Franny is often left completely out of the information loop. As it stands this is really Deborah's story. Although Franny and her family are fictional it is clear that this is the author's time period. This is what she remembers. And by making a character to close to herself and her memories, the reader has a character they can relate to.

My only real criticism or perhaps question is the necessity of the essays of the different people throughout the book. They read like book reports written by Franny, but it felt too much like teaching and threw off the timeline sometimes since the essay would follow the historical figures far past the time portrayed in the book. I liked being rooted in 1962 and felt that the essays pulled me out of it.

Among my favorite parts of the book were the visual references with quotes, pictures, and speeches surrounding the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The story itself was engaging although really nothing terribly important happened. It's not really an adventure story, it's history and I can probably assume that it was some great therapy for the author. The book doesn't preach (except for the last page) and Ms. Wiles allows her young readers to figure some things out for themselves.

Although I think young readers will enjoy this book, I can't help but wonder if the children who grew up in this era, now grown with children and grandchildren, would enjoy it more. An opportunity to relive those moments through someone else's eyes and a reminder of how precious life and living it, is.

A Conspiracy of Kings Book Review

A Conspiracy of Kings by Meaghan Whalen Turner

I make no secret in that I absolutely love The Queen's Thief series. With the whit and cynicism displayed by Eugenides (aka the Thief), I instantly fell in love with him and the twist ending makes me grin every single time I read it.

In the fourth installment of The Queen's Thief series we now follow Sophos, (originally introduced in the first book and missing for the past two books) heir apparent to the Sounis throne. From the beginning, Sophos has been an embarrassment, terrible with the word, easily cowed, and not very brave, Sophos suffers silently as he is groomed to be King, a role that he desperately hopes he will never have to fulfill. His wish comes true when he is kidnapped, only to be sold into slavery to the very Baron who was trying to kill him. Under the Baron's nose Sophos works as a slave and he doesn't mind so much as the pressures of prince hood are gone. But his captivity is short-lived because despite all his apprehensions, Sophos is to be King. After his uncle dies, Sohpos inherits the throne, but a bloody war with Attolia and a civil war between his own barons as well as an "ally" that is secretly trying to control the country, Sophos knows he needs help. With the Magus, he escapes to Attolia to surrender to his old friend Eugenides, now King of Attolia.

Some may be frustrated by the fact that Eugenides plays a minor role in this book, but I absolutely love how this series has progressed. In The Thief and Queen of Attolia we followed Eugenides (Gen) exclusively. In King of Attolia we were in the head of one of Gen's guards who despises him. Even so, you find yourself rooting for Gen because the reader knows him so well. Now, with A Conspiracy of Kings the story has come full circle, bringing us back to a character from the first book. When Gen is aloof and cold towards Sophos, the reader knows that there is more to the King than meets the eye.

This installment is decidedly more political than the other three, but it fits the temperament of Sophos and this is definitely his book. Interesting point: None of the characters in these books are children, but they are middle grade books. Gen was perhaps a teenager in The Thief but that isn't made expressly clear. What does that say about children having to have characters that are close in age to them in order to enjoy the story? Perhaps it is this unusualness that has allowed me to enjoy this series from childhood to adulthood.

If you haven't read The Thief then I highly recommend you do so. And then real all the others. By the way, you will probably find the book with the Award Winners as it did win a Newbery Honor Award.

The Curse of the Blue Tattoo Book Review

The Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady by L.A. Meyer

Now that the crew of the Dolphin knows of Jacky's feminity, she can longer remain on board. With her share of the pirate's treasure the Captain "graciously" enolls Jacky in the elite Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls in Boston. Despite being separated from her dear Jaimy, Jacky decides to make the best of her situation andis rather excited that she, a lowly girl from the slums of London, will be learning how to be a lady But as you can imagine, Jacky, owner of a tattoo and quite a few stories, doesn't exactly fit in. Before long Jacky is up to her neck in trouble being arrested for led and lascivious behavior, falling under the suspicion of the crazy reverend next foor as a waitch, investigating a murder, and eventually being demoted to a servant girl. Maybe Jacky just wasn't meant to be a lady.

The second installment of Miss Jacky Faber is quite different from the first and yet just as fun. By now,t he reader is wel familiar with Jacky's shenanigans and it is no surprise the trouble he gets herself into. And that is wy you read. What is Jacky going to do now? So is it any surprise that when someone tries to press a friend of hers into service on a ship, Jacky drops her skirt, climbing into the rigging of the ship, and threatens to cut the sails? Never.

L.A. Meyer also does a wonderful job of describing an 1800 version of Boston. Having studies and lived there, I loves these descriptions. I could follow Jacky's every footstep having walked on beacon Street, Milk Street, and State Street. I could imagine the old State House well for I have been in it. The history and geography were wonderful and made the story feel so authentic and lovingly researched. Every detail was perfect and spot on.

The third book is on its way and I am very excited.

Bloody Jack Book Review

Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy by L.A. Meyer

Mary Faber has been forced to take care of herself since the day her Mum, Dad, and little sister die of plague. Joining the Rooster Charlie gang, Mary begs, borrows, and steals her way to another day of life. They sleep beneath a bridge and occasionally Mary uses her talent of reading to earn them a farthing or two. But when Rooster Charlie is murdered, Mary takes the opportunity to relieve him of his clothes, which he won't be needing anymore, and signs up to be a Ship's boy aboard the Dolphin. And so Mary becomes Jack or Jacky Faber, Ship's boy. Her adventures tale her all over the Atlantic, fighting the French, chasing pirates, and falling in love with Jaimy who has no idea that Jacky is a girl.

This story is absolutely delightful. It's Treasure Island and Alanna: The First Adventure rolled into one. Written in first person dialect, Jacky's quick tongue and bravery will make anyone fall in love with her, despite her propensity for trouble. And get into trouble she does. Nearly beaten senseless by one of the Midshipmen, almost raped (and that was when the sailor thought she was a he), the instigator of a bond between the Ship's boys that results in permanent anchor tattoos, as well as being carried off by a kite, and hung by pirates. And those are just her finer moments. Yet Jacky is a girl despite all her lies and admits that despite everything, she isn't really that brave. This is a breath of fresh air where many historical novels often have the tomboy girl absolutely hating her womanhood. Jacky is simply a survivor, but beneath everything, she is still a girl.

Need a good adventure story? This is it. I don't know if the boys would be as interested in the story as there is a lo of pining done by Jacky as well as some womanly problems that may make the boys blush, but if you are looking for a strong, smart, witty, and lovable protagonist then look no further than Jacky Faber. She will make you laugh and cry and want more and lucky for us L.A. Meyer has written eight books featuring our Miss Faber.

The Last Invisible Boy Book Review

Illustrated by J.P. Coovert

Finne Garrett was an average kid with pinky peach skin and black hair until That Dreadful Day. That was when Finn began to turn invisible. At first it was a few white hairs. Shock s what everyone thought, but over the next few weeks, Finn's hair turns completely skin and his skin just as pale. Why? Is it really shock, or is he becoming a vampire, or worse, is he truly turning invisible?

The premise of the story is great; a boy slowly disappearing due to the death of his father. But that's all there is in the way of a plot. It reminds me of a lecture I once heard with Allison McGhee in which she admitted that plot often eludes her. Once, when a friend asked for some good plot ideas, she send back an email with these two words, "Albino squirrels." Not much of a plot, but it is a place to start. That is how I felt about The Last Invisible Boy. The idea itself was great, but it didn't really go anywhere. Finn has no actual character development in the story. If this was really a story about a kid getting over the death of a parent, then I was a little confused. How exactly did Finn move on? By planting a tree? By not hanging out in the cemetery as often? And most importantly, why was Finn turning invisible?

This story reminded me of many of the things I was taught not to do in writing. Info dumps all over the place. In fact, most of the chapters were written to give us another load of information about Finn, information that never really moved the story forward. Written in first person journal style, I was often confused by Finn's references to everyday being Earth Day and his insistence on mixing up his tenses. Strangest of all were the instructions to the reader where he tells them to write down something or stop reading. Do you really want your readers to put down the book they are reading? The other really important information was left out of the book. What did his father die of? I assume a heart attack, however young readers cannot be expected to assume this and for some reason Finn never actually says, which made me wonder if he even knew. When he finally explains "That Dreadful Day", I got the firm impression that none of the adults were forthcoming about what was going on, something that I don't think would happen if the child was twelve. Perhaps if he was younger, but twelve is more than old enough to know what is going on. Secondly, why was Finn turning invisible? Not even Finn seems to know and in the end I was a little annoyed because this was the promise of the story and nothing really came of it. Was it supernatural or not?

All that said, if I had a young child who was dealing with the death of a parent, particularly a father, I would recommend this book in a heartbeat because despite its plotlessness, the story itself may well help a child dealing with a situation like this,