Thursday, 3 April 2014

review: Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage

by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith
Quirk Books, February 4 2014
middle-grade contemporary
review copy received via publisher (thank you!)

After solving a kidnapping, Nick and Tesla's summer hasn't calmed down just yet: their friend Silas's father just got robbed, and without the valuable comic that was stolen the family shop might go under. Then robberies start springing up around town, with the only suspects being a series of robots that are coming from the new owner of a shop... who their Uncle Newt just happens to be in love with!
The cover:

Whoever came up with the base design for this series is a genius. The blocking of "Nick and Tesla's" above the title makes it easy to swap out the new title for each book in the series, and the small details (the eyes in "Robot", the coloured rectangles to the right of the title, the gears) make this cover wonderfully easy on the eyes. Then, of course, there's the actual illustration: an excellent sense of movement draws our attention to our protagonists in the centre.

The book:

This sequel to Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab (which I also reviewed) is almost entirely an all-around improvement — which is something, considering I rated the first a 4.3 out of five. The humour is perhaps the standout: ramped up somehow, intangibly, there are a lot of funny situations and conversations which Nick and Tesla find themselves in, and the authors don't hesitate to use the most prominent adult, their Uncle Newt, for comic relief.
"You're just trying to provoke me," Nick said. "You know I'm just as good with electronics are you."
"Oh? How much you wanna bet?"
Tesla gave her brother a hard, challenging stare.
He was right about her trying to provoke him. But that didn't matter.
Because it still worked.
"How about five million dollars?" Nick said.
Tesla shook her brother's hand.
"It's on, dude," she said.
(p. 36)
A stylistic choice that separates this book from the first is the time spent in Nick's head; that is to say, the omniscient point-of-view is scaled back in favour of a more limited-third-person perspective in the form of Nick's thoughts. This is somewhat disappointing, given that Tesla's the only girl in the group of four friends (Nick, Tesla, Silas and DeMarco); it'll be interesting to see whether they move further into Nick's head in the next book, or switch to Tesla, or perhaps revert to omniscient. Nevertheless, both of our main characters feel authentic, and the strongest instances of characterization occur when their contrasts to each other are highlighted.

Once again, the secondary characters are beautifully developed: Silas and DeMarco get into plenty of trouble with Nick and Tesla, and their respective responses to each situation makes for humour and also insight into their characters. The adults involved are portrayed with efficient strokes (Angela, for example, needs only one page to establish her loquacity), and the introduction of new character Hiroko Sakurai is a positive for both drawing out another shade of Uncle Newt's character and also boosting the diversity in this book.

The propulsion of the plot renders it very quick-paced, yet still makes time for the series's larger arc involving the mystery of their parents' job and disappearance. Though there isn't much of a lead-up tension-wise to the climax, the plot twist ties into the final action scene nicely, and a last mysterious phone call pulls readers closer to the overarching mystery and the next book.

And of course, the science experiments! This time they're robot-themed, very diverse in scope and as before, well-integrated in the story. In fact, I continue to be awed by the way a concept book like this can integrate the story and the DIY part so well. At this point it's unsure how many books there'll be in this series, but from a reader's standpoint there isn't any reason to slow down yet. Full steam ahead with this delightful, original MG series.

Ethnic balance: 3 out of 5. Added one WOC, but she plays a major role, so I'll bump up the rating 1 whole mark.

Rating: 4.4 out of 5

Sunday, 23 March 2014

review: The Mark of the Dragonfly

by Jaleigh Johnson
Delacorte Press, March 25 2014
middle-grade fantasy/steampunk
ARC received via publisher

Summary (from Goodreads):
Piper has never seen the Mark of the Dragonfly until she finds a girl amid a caravan wreckage in the Meteor Fields. Anna doesn't remember a thing about her life, but the tattoo on her arm is proof that she's from the Dragonfly Territories and thus protected by the king. Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home. The one sure way to the Territories is the 401 train, but stowing away is a difficult prospect—getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible... Life for Piper just turned dangerous. A little bit magical. And very exciting, if she can survive the journey.
The cover:

It is so, so static. The ARC's back cover features a much more interesting illustration featuring the three main characters in motion on the important 401, and one wonders why the designers instead went with a boringly symmetrical symbol which has no hint of uniqueness to it, along with a standard sans-serif all-caps font only slightly re-arranged.

The book:

The writing in this book is rather sub-par, and this is evident from the first few pages. Jaleigh Johnson tells rather than shows often ("Piper was too tired and worried to deal with this mess." p. 43) and stuffs world-building exposition into her dialogue throughout the book, so that her characters give half-page speeches on technology, races and politics. This problem exacerbates the unrealistic dialogue Johnson occasionally places in the mouth of her protagonist; in Piper's conversations with Anna, the former often sounds more like a mother ("That's my girl"; "Put that incredible brain to use") than the sister which the characters soon come to resemble.

But now we come to the many good aspects of this book. The relationship between Piper and Anna is wonderfully developed and essentially everything kidlit doesn't tend to have in a girl-girl friendship, especially given the very interesting — and later telling — characterization of Anna, who is truly endearing. If I may say so without spoiling anything, their relationship is also intricately tied into the magical aspect of this otherwise-steampunk book, and furthermore related to the plot. These layers are basic, but also not too common, which makes them all the more awe-some, in the awe-inspiring sense.

The plot is also strong; one of the easiest ways to check for pacing is to see where the main action events take place, and in The Mark of the Dragonfly Piper, Anna and green-eyed Gee run into different sorts of trouble in a town, onboard the train and in a dramatic mansion in the climax. In between, Piper and Anna have enough mysteries to unpack that there is a near-perfect balance of slow and fast scenes. (Indeed, Piper's scenes with Gee are made all the more touching for the excellent pacing. Though I do have to insert a complaint about his green eyes making him all ~special~ here. He's a chamelin — why does he need to be any more special?)

Now, the worldbuilding. In retrospection, the beginning is slower as Piper's old way of life is detailed, yet the amount of set-up Johnson leads us through doesn't feel quite enough somehow. There remains much about the politics of the entire planet to be explained, especially considering the ramifications which Anna's past (well, present) is supposed to have on the kingdom. Piper's magical ability is an interesting introduction of fantasy, and the meteor showers themselves are a potential-laden concept which hint at other worlds. Enough substance is there to provide a firm foundation for the forthcoming companion novel, which according to the author's website will feature different characters.

Overall, if you can overlook the awkward writing and dialogue, The Mark of the Dragonfly is a well-paced and richly-characerized novel that does justice to the genre of steampunk and the age category of middle-grade.

Ethnic balance: 2 out of 5. An interesting, non-Western-sounding selection of names for cities and towns, but no mention of ethnicity beyond Gee's "olive" (ugh) skin.

Rating: 4.1 out of 5

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

three years for PtC. whoa. + giveaway!

It's hard to believe, but I guess add up enough long absences, sporadic memes, five-reviews-in-a-row streaks and catch-up posts and you get three whole years. Wow, I remember a while ago (in my one year post, in fact) thinking that two years was ancient in the blogosphere. This makes me want to hug my wee blog so hard. :) We made it to three years, y'all!

If you've been reading all this time, or if you just clicked through from some SEO site, or if you've dropped by intermittently to comment, thank you. I appreciate every pageview, every comment, every thought you've had in response to what I've written here. There's nothing like being a small-time book blogger to make you understand how much time it takes to read and respond to a blog post, so please know I am so happy and grateful.

I'd like to host a giveaway now! If you would like to win an advance reader's copy of Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Curse, please enter below. Full disclosure: this book has been published in finished form (March 4, 2014). Open to Canadian and US residents; ends March 30, 2014. (As always, if I have any international readers, I'm so sorry!)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

All my love.

- Eden

Friday, 14 March 2014

review: Locomotive

Apologies for the month-long absence! I'm back, just in time for March break and all those review copies piling up on my shelves. Thanks for reading.

by Brian Floca
Atheneum BFYR, September 3 2013
historical picture book

Summary (from Goodreads):
It is the summer of 1869, and trains, crews, and family are traveling together, riding America's brand-new transcontinental railroad. These pages come alive with the details of the trip and the sounds, speed, and strength of the mighty locomotives; the work that keeps them moving; and the thrill of travel from plains to mountain to ocean.

The cover:

The symmetric/assymetric feel of the cover, with the train splitting the cover in half but the smoke lilting away to one side, is pleasing to the eye and offers a bit of depth at the same time. The colour scheme is a bit bland; the sky is all one shade, and so is the ground below, presumably so as not to draw attention away from the train itself. Overall, this wouldn't be something that would jump off the shelf had it not won a Caldecott.

The book:

I picked this up after it won the Caldecott Medal, and it's relatively easy to see why it won the award. The illustrations are expansive, detailed and coloured an ideal balance between lush and sparse; the variety of different perspectives lend an almost cinematic feel to the picture book. Brian Floca also succeeds in telling a story through his illustrations, apart from his words.

Which is a good thing, because the book is not entirely successful in its wordage. Not only is Locomotive far longer than a standard 32-page picture book, each spread hosts a veritable paragraph of words describing the action and movement of the train. The designer of this book did their duty by rendering the onomatopoeia verbs (e.g. "clang", "hiss", "huff") in larger block font, as both an extra visual texture layer and a signal to read-out-loud-ers to emphasize these words. However, this just underscores the other text on the page that isn't decoratively blown up. Floca uses redundant word-spillage in a medium where less is most definitely more when it comes to text, and it makes for a tedious read.

These textual problems culminate in what is perhaps the biggest problem: lack of a narrative. This is a historical non-fiction picture book, but any non-fiction writer can tell you that narrative is a powerful tool, and in a picture book as long as this one is, it's almost imperative. It's impossible to flip the pages fast enough to follow the story told through the illustrations — there's simply too much text to read, a problem that I've been fortunate enough to encounter very rarely and is thus all the more puzzling for it. Finally, there are the diversity issues inherent in the building of this colonial railroad to consider, involving the Native American people and East Asian workers. An intriguing post over at the blog American Indians in Children's Literature draws the author into a discussion about this.

Locomotive was not the experience of a captivating picture book. There is, evidently, a reason why picture books stay within page limits.

Ethnic balance: Eesh. Let's go with 1.5 out of 5, for certain mentions of Native Americans and Chinese workers.

Rating: 2 out of 5