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Book Review: Oliver’s Surprise

To cynical adult readers, it might seem like every bump on the head in a middle grade or young adult novel results in time travel and world-leaping. Yet anyone who truly understands the genre can tell you this is as valid a literary device as sniffing madeleines in a Parisian cafe. (And certainly more believable than faxing oneself back in time!)

Carol Cronin’s YA novel, Oliver’s Surprise, begins with the traditional bump on the noggin. And yes, Oliver gets whirled back in time—in this case to the Great Hurricane of 1938.  But Oliver’s Surprise is anything but a typical time-travel story.

For one thing, Oliver doesn’t run into a lot of historical figures. He runs into his own grandparents.  He even ends up being a guest in their house, and though they don’t have any idea who he is, he quickly figures out who they are.  This makes life a little tricky for him.

Also, unlike many time-travel novels, Oliver doesn’t end up in the right place at the right time. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. A horrible hurricane is coming, and not only is it going to devastate the little Rhode Island town of Dutch Harbor, it’s going to kill a lot of people: the men he’s working with at the docks; maybe even Finn, the boy who’s befriended him. Should he tell them? Would they believe him if he did?

Last but not least, the main character in most time-travel stories ends up “saving” history in some way: teaching King Arthur, inspiring Shakespeare, making sure the hero’s parents meet and get married. But Oliver’s Surprise is more about the past coming alive, how death and loss experienced in the moment are so much more acute than what the history books describe. Yes, Oliver does end up having an effect on history, but it’s a lot subtler and more personal than what readers are used to.

The writing in Oliver’s Surprise is tight and evocative, and Carol Cronin—former member of the U.S. Sailing Team and winner of two races at the Athens Olympics—is able to completely immerse us in the world of skiffs, schooners, goosenecks and derricks. And Laurie Cronin’s beautiful illustrations give the book a warm, nostalgic feel.

My only complaint about Oliver’s Surprise? It felt much too short. I wanted more of Oliver, more of his world, more about the hurricane. But since Ms. Cronin has already written a sequel, I guess I won’t have to wait very long.

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Leviathan


Leviathan
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Steampunk! Steampunk! Steampunk! The word’s all over the blogs and book sites, all over Twitter. I’m even thinking of naming my next dog “Steampunk.” And yet, there’s nothing new about the genre. If you count Jules Verne, this stuff’s been around for at least 150 years.

What is new is steampunk’s growing popularity in the young adult market. D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo, Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines—the list of imaginative, engaging titles for YA readers keeps growing. And though no steampunk novel has yet reached the heights of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, it’s probably only a matter of time.

So, enter Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, the newest addition to the steampunk catalog. Westerfeld (author of the terrific Uglies series) doesn’t do anything very different from his predecessors. He’s got the historical period (World War I, in this case) to monkey around with. He’s got the elaborate, steam-driven machines and disgusting bio-mechanico hybrids. He’s even got a war between the two technological societies. But the one thing he does that most steampunk novels fail to do is tell a story even a 10-year old can understand.

The story starts with Prince Aleksandar, 15-year old son of Archduke Ferdinand, getting whisked away on the night his father and mother are assassinated. He and his guardians escape in a “walker,” a tank that moves on mechanical legs instead of treads, and they are chased by even bigger walkers and other monstrous mechanical devices. The goal?  Get Alex to a safe place and wait out the war.

Enter our second character: 15-year old Deryn, a Scottish girl who’s disguised herself as a boy to join the British Air Service. Where the Germans and Austrians do everything with steel and steam, the Brits build everything from genetically engineered animals. So Deryn’s ship is a giant whale with a host of symbiotic creatures living inside its gut. The creatures expel hydrogen, filling the whale, and what should be a gentle ocean-bound giant becomes a high-flying military airship.

As you might expect, Alex and Deryn eventually cross paths. The collision between their different technologies, cultures, politics and personalities not only provides great tension and pathos, but also sends them careening toward the very center of the Great War.

Leviathan is a fun read, and Westerfeld tells it well.  But what really makes Leviathan stand out is its accessibility.  Most steampunk novels sag a little (or a lot) under the weight of their historical and technological details.  In the worst cases, it’s enough to make your eyes roll back in your head.  But Westerfeld has struck a balance, creating a world rich enough to fascinate, but simple enough that even the youngest YA reader can understand what’s going on.  That’s no small feat in this genre.

Finally, I have to mention one non-literary reason to rush out and buy Leviathan: the beautiful artwork. From the stunning cover and end-papers to Keith Thompson’s captivating black-and-white drawings, the pages of Leviathan are as much fun to look at as they are to read. And that’s saying a lot.

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Book Review: The Dust of 100 Dogs


The Dust of 100 Dogs
The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King
Don’t be fooled by the over-the-top, romantic pirate death scene at the beginning of A.S. King’s wonderful The Dust of 100 Dogs: this is not your grandfather’s pirate story. The basic premise is that 17th century female pirate Emer gets cursed just as she’s dying, and she is condemned to be reincarnated one hundred times as a dog before she can be human again.

No, the book does not go through all one hundred dog lives.  After the initial curse, we fast-forward to Emer’s first human reincarnation in three hundred years. She is Saffron Adams now, a 20th century teen who is the genius child and grand hope of her manipulative alcoholic mother and mentally unbalanced father.

What makes Saffron a genius—and makes the novel so intriguing—is that she not only remembers everything from her past life as a pirate, she also remembers her one-hundred dog lives. That gives her a 300-year head start on most kids her age, and some very useful canine common sense.  It also offers her a chance at lifelong wealth and independence, if she can only find the treasure she buried just before she died.

The chapters about 20th century Saffron’s sufferings (it’s not easy to quell your inner pirate) are layered with chapters about 17th century Emer’s path. Here and there, we also get sprinklings of rules that Emer compiled during her centuries as one kind of dog after another, and these provide some interesting counterpoint to her human interactions.

The book’s development feels a little uneven, at times, and certain aspects (including the dog rules) are never integrated as fully as a reader might like. Also, the violence of 17th century Emer’s life may be too much for a Young Adult audience.

For an adult audience, however, The Dust of 100 Dogs has enough history, humor, tragedy and insight to satisfy all but the most picayune readers.  And how often do you find historical massacres, star-crossed lovers, embroidery, swashbuckling, sea battles, treasure, reincarnation, proms, and pirate sex all in the same book?

Okay, so there are no vampires. But you can’t have everything.

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