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



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!




Pocket full of suspense

All Fall Down, by Ally Carter (2015)51ccdgnz5rl

Opening line: “‘When I was twelve I broke my leg jumping off the wall between Canada and Germany,’ I say, but the woman across from me doesn’t even blink.”

Okay, so that’s a great opening line, right? If that’s your first take at All Fall Down (having not read anything about it), you might be wondering if this is set in some future world where the landscape has shifted politically, if not geographically. And while that sounds like a book I might want to read, that’s not the case here. Instead, we soon find out that our main character, Grace, spent her summers at the U.S. Embassy in Adria, Italy, where her grandfather is the ambassador. Now, Grace is back in Adria, but this time without any other members of her immediately family. Her father is in the military and her mother died in terrible accident three years ago, or so everyone tells Grace. But Grace was there. She saw the man who shot her mother. And she’s going to stop at nothing to prove it.

The opening line and the dust jacket blurb (“Grace Blakely is absolutely certain about three things: 1. She’s not crazy. 2. Her mother was murdered. 3. Someday she is going to find her killer and make him pay.”) easily give you a sense of what this novel is going to be about: SUSPENSE. And it does that well. I had a sense of what was going on, but I really had to read to the end to figure it all out. And it definitely leaves you with a giant cliffhanger, leaving you ready for the second installment.

I also loved the exotic setting of Embassy Row, having all these teenagers from all over the world gathered in one place, making it feel almost like some sort of international summer camp. I don’t know how realistic it was, but the whole thing felt escapist anyway, so that doesn’t really matter. This one will be an easy sell to the seemingly endless line of girls lately who are asking me for “realistic fiction with some romance and mystery.” (New genre perhaps?)

Fun, enjoyable, actually might read the sequel. 1.5 stars.

Secret? What secret?

The Secret of the Old Clock, by Carolyn Keene (1959 edition)

I was not a Nancy Drew reader when I was a kid. I ate up American Girl books, tore threw Baby Sitter’s Club, and dabbled in the Boxcar Children, but for some reason, Nancy Drew never came up. I’m not entirely sure why, considering my mom had some of her old ones in the basement, and mysteries were just about my favorite thing. It just never happened.

And, boy, am I glad I didn’t waste my time.

Next week in Children’s Lit is Series Week, and Nancy Drew, being one of the most extensive series in children’s literature history, is naturally on the list. So I read it. And I was kind of excited to finally crack into this one. What kind of children’s librarian would I be if I hadn’t read Nancy Drew?

I can honestly say I don’t believe I will ever recommend the Nancy Drew series to one of my students. Let me tell you all the things wrong with it:

1. The mystery is boring. The whole concept is that she’s trying to find a will of a man who was basically a stranger to her in order to help out some other strangers. Finding a will is boring enough for children (who generally don’t care about wills), but the mystery part of it? ANSWERED IN THE TITLE. THE WILL IS IN THE OLD CLOCK. MYSTERY SOLVED.

2. None of the character development feels true. Throughout this book, Nancy meets all kinds of new people. And these people proceed to tell her their entire life stories, including all the embarrassments, complications, and rough patches, within the first thirty minutes of meeting Nancy. Yeah, right.

3. Nancy never makes a mistake. She’s super polite, she says all the right things, she knows just how to react in every situation, she tells the truth, and she always helps someone in need. Ugh.

4. The dialogue is stifling. “Do come to see us again,” Grace called. “Yes, please do,” Allison added. Nancy promised she would. “As soon as I have some news,” she said. Borrrr-ing.

5. The newer edition is even more dumbed down than the first edition. The original edition of the book published in 1930 had African American characters, more climactic scenes (even a gunshot!), and imperfection (alcohol!). All that was wiped in the 1953 edition. Oooh, how I hate censorship.

There’re more terrible things, but I hate to waste more time talking about it. I’m really not clear why this is in the top 100 most sold children’s books in history. Why do people like this? There are PLENTY of interesting, mysterious, convincing, entertaining, and wonderful children’s books out there to recommend to kids. This doesn’t have to be one of them.

Get ready…. One BLACKHOLE.

Dreaming of My Secret Agent Lover Man

Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block (1989)

What a strange book this is.

Another one on my long list for YA Lit, Weetzie Bat is one of the weirdest books I’ve encountered in a long time. And yet, I really liked it. I mean, take this pulled quote, for instance:

“In between kisses My Secret Agent Lover Man made films of Weetzie putting her hands and feet into the movie-star prints at Graumann’s, serving French toast at Duke’s, dressing up in Fifi’s gowns, rollerskating down the Venice boardwalk with Slinkster Dog pulling her along, Weetzie having a pow-wow and taking bubble baths. Sometimes he filmed her surfing with Dirk and Duck, or doing a reggae dance with Ping while Valentine and Rapahel played drums.”

And this is what the whole book is like. All 109 pages of it.

The story starts with Weetzie Bat (daughter to Charlie and Brandy-Lynn Bat) and her gay best friend Dirk palling around late 1980s Los Angeles, drinking lemonade and swinging rubber chickens out of windows while driving down the street. Sometimes they hang out with Dirk’s grandmother Fifi, who lives in a house that I picture as the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. Pink and sugary.

I tagged this as a fantasy story, but really it’s only slightly fantasy. And actually, it would be better categorized as “fairy-taley”, if that were a category. Right before Fifi dies, she gives Weetzie a “golden thing” that produces a genie when Weetzie tries to polish it. The genie gives Weetzie three wishes: “a Duck for Dirk, My Secret Agent Lover Man for me, and a beautiful little house for us to live in happily ever after.” And so it happens. Exactly as she wishes for. Dirk soon falls in love with a guy named Duck, and Weetzie snags a fella named My Secret Agent Lover Man. And Fifi leaves them her house in her will. Together, all four of them (with a couple more additions), live and love in Fifi’s old house in L.A.

Block addresses a combination of issues through her unique characters, in a time when many of these things were still left unsaid, including homosexuality, blended families, divorce, drugs, and AIDS. And actually, she addresses all these without actually writing any of those words. They are dealt with, confronted, but not the central focus. Like we all face in life, Weetzie and her strange family deal with some really tough stuff, but instead of dwelling on that, they “choose to plug into the love current instead.” Basically, Block agrees with the Beatles. All you need is love.

Charming and strange, in all the right ways (think The Little Prince).

2.5 stars

Templars and Archers and Assassins, oh my.

The Youngest Templar: Keeper of the Grail, by Michael Spradlin (2008)

The Youngest Templar: Trail of Fate, by Michael Spradlin (2009)

The first book in the Templar series was on my recommended reading list for Children’s Lit last semester because the author, Michael Spradlin, was coming to campus as part of our annual Children’s Literature Festival. We didn’t end up reading it in class, and I didn’t actually see Spradlin at the festival (I was off visiting with authors that I had read), and it wasn’t really high on my summer reading list. I mean, look at the cover. I will be the first to admit that I judge books by their covers ALL THE TIME. There are a lot of books out there. Why should I read the ugly ones? The children’s librarian I had been working with last semester had a similar reaction to it. But as the wonderful librarian that she is, she started it in hopes of encouraging her students to participate more actively in the Festival. And what did she find? She couldn’t put it down and immediately had to read the second one (the third has yet to be published, unfortunately). So I took her word for it. And her word was right.

Fifteen year old Tristan is an orphan who was dropped on the doorstop of St. Alban’s Abbey in England circa late 12th Century. Tristan’s life is changed forever when a group of Templar Knights show up in hopes of a resting place. Soon he becomes the squire to Sir Thomas of the Templars and is whisked away to Dover for battle training. Right from the beginning Tristan finds an enemy in Sir Hugh, a Templar who seems to have it out for Tristan for a reason that Tristan doesn’t understand. Also, he caught King Richard’s special guards following him without cause, leaving him to wonder what Sir Hugh and the King know about him that he doesn’t know.

After a few weeks of training, Tristan boards the ship with the rest of the Templars to head for the Holy Land as part of King Richard’s Crusade. Once in the Holy Land, Sir Thomas gives Tristan his most important task yet: to take the Christian relic, the Holy Grail, out of danger and back to England–and he is to let absolutely no one know that he has it. Yet, Sir Hugh seems to know Tristan’s burden, and the chase begins.

Along his journey, Tristan meets an archer from Sherwood Forest named Robard Hode (Robin Hood?), a deadly Hashshashin assassin named Maryam (Maid Marian?), and a young French princess named Celia (hmm…maybe I don’t know my Robin Hood trivia well enough, but I can’t come up with a connection for this one). Together, these capable youngsters seem to meet trouble at every turn with Sir Hugh constantly on their backs. If I say one thing for Michael Spradlin, it’s that he knows how to work a cliffhanger! Each chapter ends where you want to know more, and each book ends with a mysterious and aggravating “To be continued…” Unfortunately because of this, the books can’t really stand alone and I won’t have any sort of closure until the third book comes out in late October. Grr…

Another reason why I love reading YA books.

2 stars, both.

Big Wheels Keep on Turnin

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (2001)

I just finished this book for my Literature for Children class, which is supposed to cover kid’s books from infancy through 6th grade. Mortal Engines is NOT for kids that age. I’m not sure what my professor was thinking.

I’m not even sure where to begin to explain this book. It is all over the place. But here goes.

The first of a four-book series, Mortal Engines sets the stage–a stage that is a barren, post-apocalyptic world that was destroyed by the Ancients’ nuclear Sixty Minute War, and in which most of the cities are Traction Cities, which roll around on huge tank-like tracks and devour smaller cities to accumulate resources.

Orphan Tom Natsworthy works in London (where all power is controlled by Lord Mayor Magnus Chrome) as an Apprentice Historian , whose job is to find and preserve artifacts from the Ancients, such as “seedies” and computer scraps. Tom meets his idol and Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine, and in a sudden bustle, saves him from a disfigured knife-thrusting girl, who jumps off the moving city. To Tom’s surprise, Valentine pushes him off after the girl, causing Tom and the reader to question his heroic and handsome appearance. Amazingly, both Tom and the girl, whose name is Hester Shaw, survive the fall but are now stranded in the desolate “Hunting Grounds.” Hester is on a mission though–a mission to kill Valentine, whom she says murdered her parents and left her with her scarred face–and Tom is left with no other options but to go with her.

Meanwhile, Magnus Chrome sends his man Valentine off on a secret operation and Valentine’s daughter Katherine (whom Tom has the hots for) sets out to solve the mystery of this scar-faced girl who tried to kill her dad. Katherine, who has always been on the upper crust of London society, soon learns some of the shady ways the city operates, and the golden image of her father, her best friend, comes into question.

The chapters bounce back and forth mainly between Tom’s storyline and Katherine’s storyline, with a few side jumps to Valentine, Chrome, and Shrike (a.k.a. Grike in the North American version–what’s that about?), the post-death-robot-killing-machine-but-maybe-still-has-a-heart-of-some-sort fella. Although it took me a while to follow what was happening, Reeve definitely keeps your interest by all the jumping. It was a page turner, for sure.

But a children’s book? I don’t think so. Not only did it deal with really intense apocalyptic, environmental, and imperialistic issues, but the violence is CRAZY. I think I can tell you, without ruining any plot lines, that SO MANY PEOPLE DIE IN THIS BOOK. In HORRIBLY awful ways–sword through the throat, sword through the chest, explosions, nuclear meltdown, the list goes on and on… At the end, I said out loud,  in my quiet, sunny apartment, WHAT THE…..? Like many books in series, the ending isn’t really an ending, but I’m not sure that I’ll pick up the next one. There are only so many more characters left, and I don’t really feel like watching them kick the bucket too.

1.5 stars

My vote’s for Peeta.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

I have to admit something. Sometimes I think YA books are just better than grown-up books. I spend serious amounts of time in the kids and YA sections of book stores. There are just as many YA books that I want to read as adult literature. It’s embarrassing sometimes to be sitting in the dentist’s office reading books meant for fourteen year olds, when I’m almost twenty two. And yet, they’re just. so. good.

But I wouldn’t be embarrassed about this one.

Joining the ranks of The Giver, Farhenheit 451, and 1984, The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss, a teenage girl attempting to keep her family alive in the post-apocalytic society of Panem. The Capitol of Panem, in order to remind their citizens who is in control, requires that two tributes (a male and female) from each district (12 districts total) be sent every year to complete in the Hunger Games, a gladiator-style, televised fight to the death. The worst part: the fighters are all children.

When Katniss’s younger sister is selected to be a tribute of District 12, Katniss volunteers to take her place and is suddenly thrust into a fight for her life. Quickly, Katniss must learn how to compete in an arena of killers, some of whom have been training their whole lives for the honor of being victor. Brutal, horrifying, and heartbreaking at times, Collins keeps the pages turning with Katniss’ dark humor and realistic struggles–struggles that all teens go through, despite her somewhat unique situation. OH, and there’s a romantic storyline too (TWO actually), so you’re sure to get your fix of teen angst. First, there’s Gale, Katniss’ best friend from District 12, the guy who has been her companion since childhood. Then there’s Peeta, Katniss’ District 12 partner in the Games, whose affections for Katniss may just be a plot to win. Katniss spends a lot of her time confused about who has feelings for whom and whether she likes anybody. Let’s be honest–when you’re a 16-year-old girl, who cares if 23 people are trying to kill you. What really matters at the end of the day is who you’re kissing.

This is just the first book of a trilogy, so the ending kind of sucks (it’s NOT and ending, in fact), but I’m almost through the second book and I’m loving this one even more. I’m thoroughly bummed that the next one isn’t coming out until the end of the summer. What’s a girl to do?

2.5 stars (I really want to give it a three. But I just can’t quite do it.)