A writing style analysis of a steampunk series opener: Monsters, robots, and POV, oh my!

 

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The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz (2014)

Opening Line: “The secret entrance to the headquarters of the Septemberist Society could only be reached by submarine.”

I love a story in which the opening line leaves me with SO MANY questions. (What is the Septemberist Society? Why is it called the Septemberist Society? Why can you only reach it by submarine? Why is it secret? Who’s in the Septemberist Society? Is it a real thing? Where is the headquarters located? I could go on.)

In anticipation of Alan Gratz’s author visit to our school in October, I’ve been attempting to read through all the books of his we own in our library. His black/white/red covered books (see: Prisoner B-3087, Projekt 1065and Code of Honor) are wildly popular with our students, and while I can definitely understand why that is the case, they weren’t doing the same for me. I liked them fine, but I didn’t love them. It was starting to make me feel anxious. As a librarian, I want to be able to earnestly and honestly and exuberantly push these books on my students prior to his visit. I was trying to piece together what the issue was until I opened up League of Seven, and was immediately gripped by the story. Phew.

Our main character is 12-year-old Archie Dent, son to researchers for the Septemberists, a secret society aimed at keeping the world safe from the Mangleborn, massive world-destroying monsters. Several times throughout the history of humankind, the Mangleborn have risen up and destroyed civilizations, and it is only through a League of Seven heroes that they are quelled and trapped beneath the earth once again. It’s been many generations since the Mangleborn have awoken, but according to research by Archie’s parents, there are rumblings of a rebirth. This becomes very clear when they arrive at the Septemberist headquarters and council has been infiltrated and taken over by strange bug-like creatures buried in the backs of the council-members necks. Soon Archie learns that Thomas Alva Edison, evil genius, is attempting to use lektricity to awaken the Swarm Queen, a Mangleborn locked under the swamps of Florida, and he is using Archie’s parents to help him. Archie is thrown together with two other young people, Fergus — whose impressive mechanical knowledge makes him desirable to Edison — and Hachi — a First Nations girl who has great skills in weaponry and a vengeful death wish for Edison — and together, they must figure out a way to stop Edison and the Swarm Queen from killing Archie’s parents and destroying the world. No biggie.

Okay, so there are some definite differences between League of Seven, and the black/white/red books (subsequently referred to as BWR books). First of all: genreLeague of Seven is an alternative steampunk historical fiction novel (as opposed to realistic historical fiction). We’ve got some some robots, some ancient legends, some real-life characters making a very different impact on society (hello there, villainous Thomas Edison), all set in a much different picture of 1870s America.

Secondly, tense. I’ve noticed his other books (that I’ve read so far) are written in present tense. This gives the narrative an urgent, action-driven focus. For some reason, this tense style feels more juvenile for me. Again, I see value in it for the intended audience, but for me, it’s not my preference. League is written in past tense.

Next, point of viewLeague is written primarily in the third-person limited perspective (with Archie being the limited scope), although we do see a more omniscient perspective occasionally. This is my FAVORITE pov to read. I think it gives the author flexibility while still allowing the reader to feel personally connected to the protagonist. I think it also lends authenticity to the text. The BWR books are written in first person, which again, tends to be the more comfortable choice for my students. However, authors who write for middle grade audiences are still ADULTS (primarily), and when they write in a tween voice, even the best authors are impostors.

Now maybe my English major analyzer is in overdrive here and these aspects are just correlation not causation. I feel like I’ll certainly be more aware of these things in the future. Let’s just say I’m super pumped to be able to promote this series to my students this fall in anticipation of Alan’s visit. I’ll still booktalk all his books, but the BWRs basically promote themselves. League is a little more off the beaten path, but I think will be a HUGE hit with those insatiable fans of our dear friend Rick Riordan.

2.5 stars. Next two books in the series are already out!

 

 

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Finding truth while being lost

51w1vnrjk9lThe Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes (2015)

Opening line: “The laughter starts as a low murmur.”

Hallelujah Calhoun has found herself back at a church youth camp, after an extended absence from all youth group activities. Although the reader isn’t clear about what happened exactly, we know that it involved the preacher’s son, Luke, and extremely disappointed parents. We know that since, Hallie has quit choir, has lost her friends, and has retreated inside herself. But now she’s back at camp, hiking through the Smokey Mountains, and every moment in the same vicinity as Luke and his cohort is excruciating.

There is a new girl at camp, however, named Rachel, who is outgoing and attempts to befriend Hallie. When she and Rachel and Jonah (Hallie’s friend prior to the Luke incident) find themselves separated from the hiking group, Rachel is insistent in hiking back to camp, and Hallie and Jonah agree to go with her. But when they reach a Y in the trail, they choose the wrong path, and soon are completely lost. Day turns to night turns to morning and night again, and days  go by without any sign of rescue. Before long, their situation turns dangerous, and they have to rely on each other entirely if they are going to have any hope for survival.

I struggled to get into this one. I found myself dreading finding out what actually happened between Hallie and Luke, while I was simultaneously somewhat bored by the tedium of their being lost in the woods. Nothing was particularly wrong with the novel, I just wasn’t immersed. But THEN, for the last 150 pages, I simply could not put it down. The intensity of their situation picks up, we finally hear the full story of “the incident” (don’t worry middle school librarians, it’s early-teen friendly, and even a healthy way for teens to explore early romantic pressures), and we are able to see some hope among their desperation.

Hallie’s story is wonderfully relateable, and I will definitely recommend it to my kiddos.

2 stars

Skink Love

51-1fjjtcllSkink, No Surrender, by Carl Hiassen (2014)

Opening line: “I walked down to the beach and waited for Malley, but she didn’t show up.”

When Richard’s best friend and cousin, Malley, doesn’t show up when they plan to meet, he’s worried. She’s been known to disappear before, but for some reason, this feels different. While he’s waiting for her at the beach next to a protected sea turtle nest, he is thoroughly surprised when a scraggly old man emerges from the sand, looking like a crazed hobo. Turns out, however, that this man known now as Skink used to in fact be the governor of Florida. Now, he’s gone off the grid, fighting injustice and environmental crime on his own terms. Including hiding for sea turtle egg nappers and kicking the crap out of them. And filling the gas tanks of litterers with beer. And chasing down missing cousins just because.

Thankfully, Malley calls to check in, but each time she talks to Richard, she seems to be more and more cryptic about her whereabouts and wellbeing. And soon Richard is sure she didn’t just run away. Malley’s in danger, and Richard is ready to drop everything and find her. Luckily, there’s a crazy ex-governor with a car and a mission to right wrongs.

This is the fourth Carl Hiassen book I’ve read, and I’ve really enjoyed every one of them. My first was actually one of his adult novels, Double Whammy, which is where I first met the character Skink, and he was my favorite. I’m so glad he’s back again here for a younger audience. This one is for slightly more mature readers than his quartet of other young reader novels, but I disagree with the Grade 9 and up SLJ review. There’s a few bad words and a more mature theme (cyber predator), but I think 7th and up would be more appropriate.

Really enjoyable, really engaging, and I just love Skink.

2.5 stars

 

Snow Day = Graphics Day

We had a snow day Friday, which is much different in South Carolina than it was in Illinois. First off, they called it at about 6pm the night before (unheard of), and we didn’t get snow until late Friday night, although the freezing rain and sleet all day did make the unsalted roads fairly treacherous. I’m not complaining, to be clear. Plus, I had been forewarned by my new coworkers to expect it, so I took home a whole stack of new graphic novels we got in this past week, and put my snow day to good use!

51vjlju6ullDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, by Don Brown (2015)

Opening line: “An unremarkable wind leaves Africa and breezes toward the Americas.”

Don Brown, gaining a reputation for his graphic non-fiction for young people following The Great American Dust Bowlpresents a graphic representation of the most horrific natural disaster our country has seen so far this century: Hurricane Katrina. His artwork is haunting, and he will give students new to this topic a lot of surprising and jarring details about this disaster. I wanted to love this one, but found myself having trouble connecting one panel to the next, and also found some of his details confusing or strangely placed. I wished for a more cohesive narrative. And although written for a slightly older audience, I loved A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge much more.  1.5 stars

51p2bmkuorjlLost in NYC: A Subway Adventure, text by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sanchez (2015)

Pablo is new to NYC, and although he is used to new places (as his family moves a lot), he’s not at all used to the NYC subway system. He quickly becomes separated from his class on their field trip to visit the Empire State Building, and has to navigate the crazy colors and numbers to get himself to the right place. A very quick read, but the drawings are full of rich and fun details that could easily let you spend a long time on each page. 2 stars

51fryuowq-lThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Volume 1, by Ryan North and Erica Henderson (2015)

Opening line: “Squirrel Girl, Squirrel Girl! She’s a human and also a squirrel!”  (sung to tune of the SpiderMan theme song)

I don’t read a lot of superhero comics, but Squirrel Girl is one I can get behind. Doreen (aka Squirrel Girl) is starting college at Empire State University, simultaneously trying to blend in as a regular college student (although stuffing her enormous tail into her pants gives her a hiney rivaling Kim K’s), and jumpstart her career as an awesome superhero. As part squirrel, Doreen can climb and leap with the best of them, but her real power lies in her ability to communicate with and instruct squirrels to do her bidding, besting even the strongest of villains. Plus, she and her sidekick Tippy Toe are generally hilarious. I’m a big fan. 2 stars

41vjt-xeoalTrickster: Native American tales, A Graphic Collection, ed. by Matt Dembicki (2010)

This is a compilation of more than 20 Native American trickster tales, adapted into graphic novel format. Each story is collected from a different Native American storyteller or author, and is illustrated by a different artist. I have to say, with the vast variety of stories and artists, some I liked better than others. A couple of my favorites included the brightly-colored “Mai and the Cliff Dwelling Birds” and the dark and haunting “Coyote and the Pebbles.” There were others, however, that I did not enjoy, like “When Coyote Decided to Get Married” (in which everyone was turned to stone because Coyote was pissed that one of the maidens he sent for was tarnished goods) and “Paupaulenalena” (which combined a hard-to-read font, creepy pictures, and a super bizarre story). I don’t know. I guess I feel good that we have it in my library, but it was not my favorite of the pack, to be sure. (1 star)

 

All the cliffhangers

16101054SYLO, by DJ MacHale (2013)

Opening line: “It was the perfect night for a football game. And for death.”

Oh boy. Let’s talk about a cliffhanger. Right from the very beginning.

Ninth-grader Tucker lives in a peaceful island town off the coast of Maine where no one is concerned with much more than lobster festivals and football games. In fact, it’s at one such Friday night game that the star of the football team drops dead moments after making a spectacular touchdown. Then later that night, Tucker and his best friend Quinn are out on a bicycle joyride to work off the weirdness of the evening, when they experience something out of this world. A strange shadow giving off an eerie melody hovers just off the cliffs where Quinn and Tucker watch, before it explodes.

And that’s only the beginning of the crazy mess. Soon the President is putting the island under a quarantine and a special military unit called SYLO has taken control of the island. But no one is giving them any answers. And the answers they are giving don’t make any sense. As aggravating as this is for Tucker, I swear it was just as aggravating for me, especially when we reach the end of 400 pages with still no answers. This may appeal to fans of Maze Runner, as I got the same sense in that one and had to keep reading the whole gosh darn series, despite the fact that I didn’t really like it. I liked this one more, but still find it annoying that I am compelled to read the remainder of the series to figure out what the hell is going on. If someone wants to spoil it for me, that’d be fine.

1.5 stars