The Forever Man (W.A.R.P., #3) by Eoin Colfer

A Slightly Confusing Ending to Another Fun Colfer Series

the forever manWhere time travel is concerned, things are always going to get a little wibbily wobbly timey wimey, as Doctor Who might say. Colfer does not spend a significant amount of time exploring the details and complexities, which is perhaps why I found myself a little confused by what exactly happened. While it was made clear that changes made to the past can impact the future and alter reality, but in what way or how extensively is never really made clear. On the upside, Colfer knows how to have fun with his writing and with talking dogs, ghostly scientists, and a magician’s assistant, this book does not fail to deliver on that count.

Riley is an orphan raised as the assistant to a magician-turned-assassin Albert Garrick in Victorian London. With the help of of time-traveling FBI agent Chevie Savano, from the 21st century, he was able to free himself from his master and become a famous magician. But now Garrick is back, and thanks to the wormhole he was trapped in, he is stronger and more dangerous than ever. And he wants revenge.

Things seem hopeless when Chevie and Riley find themselves in trapped in the 1600s and Garrick has the run of the town. Thanks to a quirk in the time tunnel that sent them there, Chevie finds herself with cat-eyes and Garrick uses this to accuse her of being a witch. The punishment: death.

With the help of some unlikely allies–the town drunkard, a talking dead, and the ghost of a scientist Riley and Chevie have see die twice–Riley must rescue Chevie before she dies a gruesome death at Garrick’s hands.

Chevie and Riley make for an entertaining, wisecracking pair. Together, they find a sense of family and happiness that they had been missing for most their lives. It is easy to root for their success against the out-of-his-mind villainy of Garrick. This series isn’t quite at the level of Artemis Fowl cleverness, but fans of Colfer will not be disappointed either. I would have liked more on the rules of time travel and the effects of the time tunnel in this particular story because the rules differ in ever series and knowing how they work makes believing the universe of the story easier. Because of this confusion, it was a little unclear to me where Chevie and Riley end up at the very end of the story.

As always, Colfer delivers and I am excited to see what he comes up with next.

Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Good and Evil is More than the Light and Dark Side

star warsHow do good people come to commit great acts of evil? Does that make them evil in turn? These are the questions that Star Wars has always concerned itself with. But where it normally tells the story of the Jedi and how emotions can tip the scales and lead a hero to the Dark Side (“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda), this story, like the newest movie, The Force Awakens, concerns itself with the Imperial forces that so often serve as nameless, faceless troops.

Cienna Ree is a poor girl from the planet Jelucan. She is one of the valley-folk who believe hard work, honor, and an oath are the highest of all callings. Thane Kyrell is a second-waver, from a rich, self-important family that has never cared much for him. They may be from the same planet, but they might as well be from different worlds. If not for the fact that the two share one dream, one love: flying. They form an unlikely friendship, built on the desire to become pilots. Together they practice, building each other up, so that one day they can fly for the Empire, which seeks to bring order and stability to the galaxy.Mostly, Thane just wants to fly and escape his cruel family. Cienna believes the Empire can bring aid to those in need and wants to bring honor to her family. Thanks to their joint training, the pair not only get accepted into an elite Imperial Academy, they excel. They become first in their year and upon graduation are given important postings. But as they serve, their paths diverge. Thane becomes disillusioned with the Empire as he sees the destruction and devastation it creates while Cienna remains steadfast to her oath to serve and rages against the rebels that kills someone she cares for. When Cienna and Thane end up on opposite sides, can their love for each other and their inner goodness overcome everything that threatens to tear them apart?

I have read a number of Star Wars books over the years, but this might be my favorite. Cienna and Thane are both well-defined, real people who are relatable and easy to root for. Even as they make bad choices, you hope they will be able to see their mistakes and make up for them. In some ways they remain naive even as they reach the point where they should be jaded, but where it can be a turn-off in other stories, there is something endearing about this quality in Cienna and Thane.  This book puts a face on the nameless masses that help the Empire reach its great successes and shows how they might have come to fight for a tyrant.

The only thing that ruined my reading experience was the fact that I kept trying to figure out how everything fit into the bigger Star Wars universe. The back-of-book summary promises some sneak peeks into the new movie and I could not help but scrutinize every new character, every ship, every incident to see if I could  figure out what pieces would be relevant. Is there a character with the last name Ree or Kyrell? What about Windrider? Should I have heard of the planet Jelucan or the ship Mighty Oak Apocalypse? The questions were distracting and made it harder to stay in the mindset of the book. The exact timeline of the book is not laid out clearly in comparison to the cinematic universe. It took a lot to decipher when things in the book lined up with events in the movie. It was almost like a puzzle that I would have liked to spent less time solving, but it was not enough to keep me from enjoying Lost Stars anyway.

Voyagers: Project Alpha by DJ MacHale (Book 1)

The Multi-Author Series Trend in Middle Grade

voyagers1As Earth’s fuel sources are running out, the world must face blackouts and the threat of complete power loss. But there is hope. An extraterrestrial substance, known as “the Source” can provide power for everyone, if only it can be recovered from somewhere deep in space. The catch – only children could survive the trip in the Gamma Speed trip required to get there and back in time. Eight twelve-year-olds are tested to determine which four will be chosen for the mission. But as they compete in tests of intelligence, agility, and strength, it quickly becomes clear that there is a lot more they aren’t being told.

In my childhood, having multiple authors writing for a single series was a secret – Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Sweet Valley, Baby-Sitters’ Club. Times have changed. Rather than publish an entire series of books under the guise of a single author, now popular authors are being recruited to write a book or two in new series. The 39 Clues, first published in 2008was the first time I saw this. Now there are a number of series like this one, including Spirit Animals and Infinity Ring. It makes sense – you can put out more books in a much shorter span of time and each author brings their respective fan bases. But do these books hold up?

The struggle of the first book is in the sheer number of characters. We spend the first part of the series getting to know the eight children competing for a spot on this world-saving mission. There are simply too many of them to get to know them particularly well. Dash, as the center of the story, is fairly well fleshed out, but I barely remember the other characters, much less what made them unique. It would be helpful to see more of their personalities so they feel real. The strength of 39 Clues was that the main characters and siblings Amy and Dan were a grounding force in the story. No matter how crazy things got, no matter how many others were introduced in the story, they always felt real and relatable. This was what I felt was missing here. Dash did not have the emotional depth to anchor the story and we do not get to anyone else well enough to compensate for him.

Though the character development could use more work, the book shows promise. The strength of this first book is in the plotting. While some details (such as which four kids are chosen for the mission – a detail partially given away by the cover itself) were obvious, the story had a number of twists and surprises I did not see coming. While it is made clear fairly early that the characters are not being told everything, the extent of those secrets is not made clear until they are unexpectedly revealed. As the team travels to collect “the source,” readers can expect an array of surprises and exciting adventures.

Can book two, written by Robin Wasserman, make up for the character deficits here? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.

Fires of Invention (Mysteries of Cove #1) by J. Scott Savage

coveFires of Invention reminded me a lot of City of Ember, one of the earlier dystopian novels I read when I started my general binging of all things middle grade and YA. The two share many things in common—a city built underground, supplies dwindling, strict rules, and a history that turns may not be quite accurate. Cove is a city where tradition and “the way things have always been done” is more important than creativity and innovation. Calling someone an inventor is the worst insult you can give. It is better to stick with tradition than create something new, no matter how helpful it is or how many people’s lives it might save.

The hero of the story is Trenton, a boy whose mind is full of inventions. When he sees a machine, he can tell almost instantly how it works and how to make it better. Despite his efforts to bury these instincts deep, he cannot help but create things. One day he is sent into a narrow mining shaft where the mining belt is broken, he discovers an illegal screwdriver that sets him on a path of discovery.

The screwdriver, he learns, was that of Leo Babbage, the most infamous inventor of Cove, who is said to have killed a bunch of people, and himself, when one of his inventions backfired and exploded. It is more than a screwdriver though. It is a clue to something much bigger. With the help of Babbage’s daughter, Kallista, Trenton follows the clues, which leads him to several major discoveries that could change his life and all of Cove, forever.

One of the strengths of Cove is the way it delves into relationships. Trenton’s mother, who was injured in a mining accident, is overprotective and distant. She loves him, but doesn’t understand him. His father, on the other hand, is loving and supportive, relating to Trenton’s creativity in ways Trenton can’t even imagine. Simoni, his long-time crush, forces Trenton to examine what he wants out of a relationship. And Kallista is driven, outspoken, and angry; with her help, Trenton learns to question everything he has always believed.

I’m excited to see where book two takes Trenton, though given where this book ended, it is hard to imagine it being anything like the first.

Resist (Resistance Trilogy #2) by Tracy Lawson

The frequency of terrorist attacks in the United States has led to the creation of the Office of Civilian Safety and Defense. Slowly, the OCSD has made life safer for the American people–by controlling all aspects of their lives from food to schooling to travel. If people don’t congregate, they won’t become a target. But when the OCSD releases a new treatment meant to protect the public against airborne chemical attacks, things begin to look suspicious. Former high school sports star Tommy and current college student Careen soon find themselves tangled up in a resistance group bent on stopping the OCSD from accomplishing its real goal: Power. Together they manage to shake the American people’s faith in the OCSD, but the battle is not over. Careen finds herself a wanted criminal and the face of the rebellion while Tommy struggles to reconnect with the parents he thought he had lost and to find his place in the fight. But being part of the resistance bring its own set of challenges. Can everyone be trusted? What should be sacrificed for the sake of freedom?

The concept of this series is a powerful one because it seems only just outside the realm of possibility. What would people give up for the promise of safety? Quite a lot, according to this series, whether they realize it or not.

There were two main issues I’ve had thus far in the series. The first has to do with the OCSD’s master plan. In a bid to gain power, the OCSD convinced the public that an airborne terrorist attack was imminent and began giving the people the drug in phases. Phase one was a sort of LSD-type drug that made people hallucinatate and dependent on the government to help them survive. Phase two weakened their wills so that they became highly susceptive to instructions and orders. Phase three…total control? I’m not entirely clear on what the third phase was meant to do, the plan having been foiled by Tommy, Careen, and the rebellion. This supposed antidote is where the plot sort of loses me. I find it hard to believe that those who were on a placebo drug (employees whose jobs were deemed essential services) would not have noticed that drugged-out behavior of their friends, family, and neighbors. Wouldn’t it have led to a significant number of accidents, injuries, and deaths? I can buy the idea of people willingly allowing many of their rights to be stripped for the sake of safety. I can buy a corrupt government department scheming for power. I’m just not sure this particular plan makes any sense. In book 2, the OCSD has been exposed and embarrassed and yet somehow it seems to mostly be running (with some issues that have more to do with the post office than anything else).

The second issue I’ve had is in the characters. I want to get to know them better, to understand more about their motivations. And I want them to be more active. So much of book 1 had Tommy and Careen on phase one and so much of book 2 had them mostly following orders and reacting to events happening elsewhere. I also wanted to be more invested in their relationship, but that requires seeing them together–truly together, when not on drugs. I think book 3 will see some of this, as this is the final showdown and the characters will have to take a stand in some way or another.

Where Resist shined was in showing that nothing is black and white. It isn’t as simple as the OCSD is evil and the rebellion is good. Much in the way that The Hunger Games made us question Alma Coin, book two in the series makes us question the members of the rebellion. Each person has slightly different desires–glory, love, recognition, philosophy–and those differing goals call into question who the good guys and the bad guys are in this story. If you love that ambiguity, this is the story for you.

Project ELE by Rebecca Gober and Courtney Nuckels

Project ELE tells about a time when a virus has wiped out a large number of the population and the Earth’s temperature is rising to uninhabitable temperatures. Fifteen-year-old Willow Mosby must leave her life (and much of her family) behind and go into a F.E.M.A. shelter to survive. What she finds there are friends, love, amazing new abilities, and unexpected danger.

I was surprisingly disappointed by this book, which is the first in a series. There is a lot of promise in the idea (as someone who likes dystopian novels and stories about people with “powers”), but the execution was lacking:

– The story is told from Willow’s perspective. I tend to find first person narratives difficult in the best of times (the characters are too in their own heads and they tend to whine a bit too much), but here it was particularly problematic because Willow is perfectly bland. She’s a sweet girl with no real defining traits. Reading the story from her perspective didn’t make me feel closer to the action and it didn’t add to the experience. She didn’t have unique insights (by contrast, Cia from The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau had unique observations about the people around her and what their behavior might indicate, which was why I found it so enjoyable) and her thought process was never clear enough for me to relate to why she did some of the things she did.

– Considering that half of Willow’s family will likely die while she is in the relative safety of the shelter, she does not think about these family members very often. I could believe this more in a third person narrative where we don’t have the character’s inner thoughts and don’t know what she is thinking at all times, but with first person, we should see her thoughts occasionally drift in their direction every so often, even if she pushes them away and doesn’t want to dwell on it.

– It takes too long to get to the point in the story where Willow and her friends discover amazing new abilities. It feels like we spend 2/3 of the book in a standard dystopian novel and then suddenly we are in a superhero story. The shift is disorienting. The special abilities elements needed to be integrated into the story earlier (even with hints and clues) and some of the details before that could have been shortened or cut out to make the story feel more cohesive.

It is very rare for me not to want to finisha book, if only because I like to know what happened, but in this case, I don’t intend to pick up book 2.

Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (Book 5) by Eoin Colfer

Fourteen-year-old Artemis discovers an unraveling time tunnel connecting demons with the earth. These imps have sworn revenge on humans generations ago, and their unpredictable appearances threaten to expose the entire fairy world (not to mention put the human world at risk as well). Artemis is called into service to help the fairies figure out when and where the demons will be and outsmart his latest nemesis. Worse, there is an evil demon overlord looking to take over the human and fairy worlds.

Book five in this series is such an excellent book, which is a major accomplishment for any author. By book five many authors are running out of new and exciting ideas but Colfer finds a way to keep things fresh and exciting. Best of all, he adds two new, promising characters–one of them a love interest for young Artemis. (We have seen Artemis mature, but for the first time we are seeing him grow up as well.)

The book ends with the best feel-good moment of the series yet, developing Artemis and Holly’s relationship further than ever before. Their story has come so far and continues to be as exciting as when we first started it.

Uglies: Specials (Book 3) by Scott Westerfeld

Tally has gone from Ugly to Pretty to dreaded Special. Now she is specially enhanced to help keep the people of her city in line–the pretties stupid and the uglies ready for their operations.

Once again we have the all too long passage of isolation where Tally is forced to reconsider her life while out in nature alone. I get that it is a theme, that being out in nature changes you. At the same time, it gets slow and tedious and a bit repetitive. (I say that despite enjoying the book.)

It is hard to get in touch with Tally and the other main characters because their personality change from one moment to the next. Tally is the sort of character who tends to get forced into situations and only takes action as a last resort. As a result, she is not my favorite character (of the many books I have read), but the fight itself–the bigger struggle against the city and the operations–is still interesting.

[SPOILER:] I am not sure how I felt about the resolution of the love triangle, it felt like an easy out. Tally never truly had to choose and technically she got them both in the end yet there was never the sense that her feelings for David ever resurfaced exactly. It is powerful to see her reaction to Zane once she finally sees him. It really highlights the ideas of being obsessed with beauty, being controlled by the government and brainwashing in a way that nothing else could.

Though not my favorite dystopian series, Westerfeld has a way with words that makes even the slower sequences enough to keep you turn pages.

Uglies (Book 2): Pretties by Scott Westerfeld

In the follow up to Uglies, Tally has become a pretty. We all know why, but Tally doesn’t remember much about her last few days as an ugly or why she ended up pretty. There are a lot of things she isn’t sure of, thanks to a procedure that affects the brain. But events conspire to help Tally remember why she became pretty and how she can regain the clarity and understanding that was taken away from her in the operation.

The story remains imaginative and interesting. Westerfeld has delved into his world and let us see the inner workings of pretty town (which were as mysterious to us as to the uglies in book one). Seeing this helps fill in the details that were missing before.

Like in the first book, there are long stretches of time where Tally is alone or stuck in her head. Sometimes it gets a little slow because of this, but it does help portray just how different the operation makes a person.

Shay’s storyline is a bit shocking and I am not sure I truly believe her character would take the turn she does. I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to ruin it. (Perhaps if the change was a bit more gradual it would be a bit more believable, but it seems fairly sudden and very extreme considering who she was before.) In a way, it almost feels like it was done for shock value over anything else. It was a good twist, but not the most realistic one.

One of the more interesting elements of the book was the love triangle involved. Since Tally does not remember David much, it makes sense that she would fall for someone else in New Pretty Town. This is one storyline that I would have liked to see more of and it felt like when the issue could finally be confronted, so many other things were happening and we didn’t get a chance to really go into it. If I could change one thing about book two, it would have been that. Even one more day would have been nice.

The series remains exciting and I can’t wait to see where book three takes it. (As interesting as it would be on screen, it would probably be a nightmare to shoot with all the surgeries and physical changes each character must undergo. I suppose a really good makeup team might suffice.)

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Tally Youngblood is about to turn sixteen, which means she can finally become pretty, like all of her friends before her. At sixteen, everyone has an operation to turn them into beautiful people and tally is the last. But until then, she has to kill time in Ugly Town, without her friends for company. Desperate to see her best friend Peris again, Tally sneaks over to New Pretty Town to see him and in the process meets Shay, another Ugly who is waiting for her sixteenth birthday. The two become quick friends, but when Shay disappears before her surgery, everything changes for Tally. The authorities insist that Tally help them find Shay, or she will have to stay Ugly forever.

Westerfeld does a masterful job of taking society’s obsessions with beauty to the extreme. He is particularly good at showing how flawed the obsession with beauty is and how brainwashed people are about it.

Tally was a realistic character who, unlike most book characters in these types of dystopian societies, is not a rebel. She likes to play some pranks, like any Ugly does, but at heart she truly does want to become a Pretty. It is only circumstances out of her control and the friends she meets that makes her begin to question this chosen path. (This makes her somewhat passive in the beginning, but she grows into an active character.)

The weakest point of the novel is a stretch of time where Tally is on her own. Having no conversation and companionship, though important to the story, makes things go a bit slowly for that section. However, any loss of pace there is quickly made up in the excitement that follows.

I would like to find out more about the country as a whole (we get a little bit of it, but for the most part we only really see Tally’s community) and what adulthood is like in this dystopian world. Since it is a four book series, I am sure there is more to come and already I have begun reading book two. This is definitely one of the better dystopian novels out (and came out slightly before this new obsession with this genre) and I highly recommend it.