Tesla’s Attic by Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman

From chapter one to the end, this middle grade book is a laugh fest. It’s not the story that’s a joke; it’s the characters who are all like stand-up comedians. Their goofy adventures, glib language and mangled clichés roll through every chapter. There are lots of funny similes and off-the-wall references, some of them aimed at the parents of MG readers.

Nick, his younger bro Danny and their dad inherit a Victorian house. The new residence, new school and new friends kick off the story. Nick moves into the attic where he finds a bunch of old appliances that are not really what they seem to be, and life for Nick begins to get a little weird . . . and dangerous.

Nick gains new friends Mitch, Theo, Vince, Caitlin and Petula. Written in third person, omniscient, we get access to all their thoughts. The switches are for the most part seamless, although I missed a switch and ended up thinking I was in the wrong head a couple of times. The book is mostly dialogue, which is good, because it keeps the story moving and the action in your face. However it tends to be a bit weak in setting scene.

This is book one of the Accelerati trilogy. It’s a fun read. I recommend it.

Book Review: San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach: The Early Years by James Smith

As a teen living in San Francisco, there was no better way for me to escape the humdrum of life than to escape into the fantasy of Playland at the Beach. I could hardly contain my mounting excitement during the long streetcar ride out to the beach terminus. Once there, I immersed myself in the thrill rides, the games, the noise and energy of the place.

All of this came back to me as I thumbed through this fascinating photo-documentary of our local landmark amusement park. Jim Smith has captured the history of the place by piecing together this photo-history of its genesis as a construction project, its ever-changing arcade and its ultimate demise. I could close my eyes for a second and recall the wonderful fear of the Big Dipper as well as the shower I anticipated flying down the Chutes. It was part of our culture, growing up in The City.

As an adult, possibly even now an elder, I can now appreciate the collection of this detail for its value in understanding what creates fun. Those entrepreneurs new what was exciting, what could launch me from San Francisco news boy into make believe astronaut, even though the word was not yet in everyday language. I also reveled in the photos of people now long gone, but then dressed up for the occasion in their finest—a much different time.

I appreciated the photos of phases of construction that revealed the skeletons beneath the rides, each an engineering feat and each the substance beneath the fantasy. Whether this book would go on your coffee table or into the history section of your library, I enthusiastically recommend it.

Book Review: Forever Thirteen

Forever Thirteen is a fantasy, or is it para-normal, or maybe it’s non-fiction and there really is an afterlife. There certainly is in this delightful novel by Crissi Langwell. Most of the characters in the story are dead, but that’s not bad. They exist just like you or me except for a few limitations: most of them can’t talk to the living and most of them can’t connect physically with our living world. Thus lies the problem for our thirteen-year-old protagonist, Joey. He’s dead and he can’t talk to his best friend, Cameron, who is alive. That’s distressing because Cameron is super depressed about losing his best friend, Joey.

The author makes this an enjoyable and exciting adventure for Joey and the reader. The afterlife construct is very much like world building. It’s kind-of-a between existence, like Limbo or Purgatory without the fire. Furthermore, being in the afterlife has the advantage of instant travel to wherever you imagine: No waiting, no TSA, no luggage carousals. Just think about a place and you’re there. Neat!

Other interesting characters include: August who is kind of Joey’s multiple generational brother, Kayla who is not who she is, and Thelma who is not quite alive and not quite dead. It’s a nicely crafted story, well written, with many lovely descriptive lines. I thought Joey’s voice was a bit too mature for thirteen, so I’d rename the book Forever Seventeen. Regardless, it was a good read and I recommend it.

Book Review: Sleeping with the Gods by Jean Wong

Nine unique vignettes, about nine gods, are connected in one book, while oddly disconnected from each other as though cast by nine different authors. Yet themes of music, romance and sex do thread through the stories. And of course, there’s the gods and the fact that I knew there was only one author.

I found each short tale, surprisingly creative and titillating, drawing me in. Ms. Wong’s language is rich in flowing description and detailed imagery. Her characters are always interesting. Like a treasure hunt, I began each section curious about the god and how he or she would emerge, how the story would be cast to include him or her.

Each vignette was a quick read, a snapshot of character, place and event. Characteristically shorts don’t really need a dénouement, yet I finished each section feeling complete; I had met the god; discovered the treasure.

I found this book as enjoyable as it was unusual and you will, too.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

On the fictional island of Thisby, an annual race takes place in which men ride the capall uisce, mythical water horses. Unlike the horses that you and I know, these are animals of great beauty, power, speed and danger; carnivores that can turn on their riders or other horses, and kill them. Such is the backdrop for the story related by seventeen-year-old Kate (Puck) Connolly.

Thisby Island is basically a rock protruding from the North Atlantic into a dystopian environment of fierce, ragged and unfriendly weather. Puck and her brothers, Gabe and Finn are orphaned and live there in abject poverty. About to be evicted, her only chance for keeping their home and remaining on the island is to ride and win the Scorpio Race, in which no female has ever been allowed. Moreover, she’d have to beat her friend and romantic interest, Sean, the current champion.

Sean is a stable hand for the wealthy Malverns, who own him and almost everything else on the island. Their son, Mutt, hates Sean, who has won the race the last four years. Since the horse he rides, Corr, is owned by the Malverns, Sean receives a pittance of the purse. However, it’s Sean’s special ability with the mystical horses as well as everyone’s acceptance of the capall uisce as normal that makes this story more magical realism than fantasy.

Stiefvater paints every scene with wonderful figurative language. The rural community on Thisby comes alive under her pen. Her language is a joy to read. Also, the story is crafted so that its characters develop naturally. However, as well as this is written, I found the voice of the two main characters, Sean and Puck, so similar that I often confused them and had to return to the chapter title, to know what character I was reading. Regardless, I highly recommend this as a great read for adults or young adults.

The Paganini Curse by Giselle M. Stancic

In 1911 New York City, eleven-year-old Aurora Lewis arrives at her violin teacher’s studio and discovers his second-story window open, and his lifeless body on the sidewalk below. Falsely accused, Aurora with her friends, Theo, Eddie and Bill, begin a search for the truth that ultimately places her in harm’s way.

Ms. Stancic does a nice job of peppering the mystery plot with provocative clues and interesting characters. We get a good sense of the protagonist and the cultural inhibitions of a young girl’s life a century ago, even though the story, written in third person, keeps us at arm’s length.

The author’s musical involvement is evident in both the main character and the settings. It’s a coalescing theme throughout the story. Her writing is nicely crafted, clear, understandable and error free. I didn’t find a single typo.

Even though the book is labeled as young adult, I would recommend this for middle-grade girls, due to the age of the protagonist, the diction and the reading level of the text. I think boys would respond to a story with more tension, more threat to the protagonist and a situation where she has more at stake.

I found it distracting to discover young versions of two famous movie leading men, Edward G. Robinson and William Powell, in the first chapter.

Overall, it’s an engaging story. I read to learn the ending. That’s evidence of a good mystery.

Bartimaeus by Jonathan Stroud

I’m still not sure who the protagonist was in this story. Maybe it was the young boy, Nathaniel, a precocious magician trainee or more likely, Bartimaeus, a powerful demon that he conjured and assigned to steal the Amulet of Samarkand. It certainly wasn’t Simon Lovelace, a mature and dangerous magician who humiliated Nathaniel inciting his idealistic boyhood revenge.

Regardless, Stroud is a master storyteller who takes us through the clandestine occult journey of the demon driven by Nathaniel’s naïveté. I found this engaging novel in the Junior Reader section of a local bookstore. The diction and language is not middle-grade. I was forced to my dictionary many times. I can only conclude that it was placed in this section because one of the protagonists, Nathaniel, was eleven-years-old.

The tension in the plot was uneven, although constantly rising toward a climax that was as unexpected as it was totally inescapable. I heartily recommend this to any young reader or adult who enjoys high fantasy and the literary use of the English language.

My Chemical Mountain by Corina Vacco

My Chemical MountainMy Chemical Mountain by Corina Vacco

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Corina captures the voice of adolescent boys like no author I’ve read. Written in the first person, from Jason’s point-of-view, we live the crazy ideas, crazy acts and crazy thoughts of the three protagonists as they careen through their teens. The boys do what boys do, i.e. indulge in gross stuff, living life like they’re immortal. Why else would they swim in a creek that smells and is so polluted, it’s different colors at different times of the day.

Jason seethes in a kind of constant low-level anger. Charlie is the immortal athletic beyond all reason, a veritable hulk. Cornpup is sick, glorying in his contaminated body. The fourth character in the story is the environment, nasty from the first page.

The plot doesn’t build tension to a climax in the traditional mode of storytelling. It starts out tense and stays that way until the climax, a valid characterization of the boy’s lives. It’s a tale that’s comic, sad and tragic. Evil surrounds this community in the guise of corporate necessity and profit.

As a minor comment, I was somewhat disappointed that Jason’s girlfriend, Val, had no voice in the story. Regardless, this is a book for anyone interested in saving our planet.

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I’m sure glad I didn’t read this when I was just about to enter a relationship. I would have walked, no run, no flown to the exit. While reading it, my wife asked me what genre the book was. I answered, “It’s kind-of-a murder mystery – drama – romance – fantasy – ahhhhh, I don’t know what it is, but it’s really good, and well written.”

What else could I say? Any detail would have been a spoiler. One thing for sure, this author can really get into a character’s head, even a totally bizarre head, and make you feel like you’re that person, regardless of whether it’s a man, a woman or a monster. I won’t say any more about that. It’s a page-turner and there’s no way to guess the outcome. It’s too weird and yet completely appropriate. How’s that for confusing?

The setup seems straightforward. Nick Dunne is an out-of-work journalist. He’s thirty-five years old, bright, fit, a good-looking guy, no trouble attracting women. But Nick isn’t focused on other women because he’s married to Amazing Amy, a gorgeous blonde knock-out woman, the kind that men stop on the street and stare at. It turns out that she’s unemployed also, but she has money. Well, I think she has. Maybe not. You’ll have to read the book and find out.

It’s their fifth wedding anniversary. They have no kids and you’d think this would be a great time for a celebration, a party, a trip to the Caribbean, but something’s wrong. Amy has disappeared. So, as you might have guessed, she’s the Gone Girl.

Now, what’s with this Amazing Amy moniker? I won’t be giving too much away to tell you that her parents made a ton of money by creating and marketing Amazing Amy dolls. Not only is Amy missing, she’s all over the place as a doll.

But wait! How can Amy be in the novel if she’s missing? Not only that, she alternates chapters with Nick, both in first person using lots of internal dialogue. Now, this is clever. It’s not Amy, herself. It’s Amy speaking from her diary. So the book begins with Nick in real time and Amy on the pages of her diary.

So, read this book. I dare you.

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Book Review: Coyote Winds by Helen Sedwick

It’s not often that I feel strongly enough to give a book five stars, but this book ranks among the best middle-grade historical fiction novels I’ve read. One measure of a book is its engagement with readers of all ages and I was as entranced by this story as any pre-teen boy might be.

Through the eyes of two boys, the story line bounces back and forth between 2002 and the 1930s, when Middle America was turning to dust and livelihoods were blown away with the topsoil. The protagonists are teenage: Andy the grandson of Myles Vincent, and Myles at age thirteen in 1930. The juxtaposition of their two lives is only one of the factors that makes this story intriguing as well as didactic.

When Myles saves a coyote pup during a huge dust storm, the boy’s character comes to life and we join the incredibly hard times of a family scratching a living from the soil in an environment that seems personally hostile. More than seventy years later, against the background of this narrative, his grandson begins the process of learning who he is. Their stories intertwine like cords in a rope.

The most surprising voice in the story comes from Ro, the coyote pup that Myles bonds with. It’s not only novel, but informative to see the Vincent family and their neighbors through his eyes. The boy’s relationship with the coyote takes me back to Eric Knight’s Lassie and Albert Payson Terhune’s rough collies at SunnyBank.

The author has done a vast amount of research to make life in the Midwest dust bowl authentic and it shows. She also displays a command of language that makes the book a joy to read. I have been concerned about our young American boys’ disinterest in reading and the negative effect it has on their education, careers and lives. I write for those boys and clearly, this author does, too. I enthusiastically recommend this book for pre-teen boys and everyone else.