Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Sailor TwainSailor Twain by Mark  Siegel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mystery, Romance and Legend on the Hudson

Let’s get one thing straight: the mermaid in Mark Siegel’s graphic novel “Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson” (First Second, 2012) is no cute Disney creature wearing strategically placed seashells. She’s beautiful, all right. She’s also seductive—and, quite possibly, dangerous, more like the Sirens of Greek mythology than the Little Mermaid.
The year is 1887. Elijah Twain, a young steamboat captain, rescues an injured mermaid from the waters of the Hudson River. He carries her to her cabin and nurses her back to health. Twain is a poet, and she becomes his muse. He keeps her a secret from the rest of the boat, from his wife, and most especially, from Lafayette, the ne’er-do-well womanizer and owner of the ship. But Twain suspects that Lafayette may have a secret of his own—and that it may have something to do with mermaids. A meeting with C.G. Beaverton, enigmatic author of “Secrets and Mysteries of the River Hudson,” propels the story forward to its unexpected and deeply satisfying ending.
Siegel weaves together legend, local history, intrigue, and romance in a kind of fairy tale for young adults. His gorgeous, moody charcoal drawings capture the feeling of New York’s Gilded Age perfectly. In an interview with the “Los Angeles Times,” Siegel said that the idea came to him on his morning train rides to work in Manhattan alongside the Hudson River. Of the appeal of mermaids, Siegel said “...a song that we can’t resist, even though we know it’s going to pull us down—anyone who’s lived a bit on this planet knows mermaids. Some people can be mermaids to us. We can be mermaids to others, sometimes. And chemical siren-songs too, like crack, or smack, or alcohol, even coffee (not all mermaids spell disaster for us sailors, of course.)”
In the tradition of a 19th century novel, Siegel began serializing “Sailor Twain” in 2010 ahead of book publication. You can read the opening chapters, along with Siegel’s commentary, at http://sailortwain.com/chapters/.
“Sailor Twain” is one of those books that compelled me to turn back to the first page as soon as I read “The End.” It does include some nudity (and not just the mermaid’s bare breasts) and a few sex scenes. I’d recommend “Sailor Twain” for older teens and adults.

Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 16 books. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at http://www.saralatta.com. This review was originally published in the Sunday, December 23 edition of the News-Gazette.


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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Never Fall Down (review)


Never Fall Down

Arn was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist regime, came to power in Cambodia. He was a happy, mischievous kid who hustled for spare change by singing and dancing with his brother, selling ice cream, playing games of chance.
            And then the peasant soldiers, wearing black pajamas and hats, came to town. Arn would never be that happy, mischievous boy again.
            “Never Fall Down” (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 2012), a National Book Award finalist by Patricia McCormick, is based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the genocide inflicted on the Cambodian people. Tens of thousands of people died from starvation, overwork, and disease; many more were tortured, killed, and buried in mass graves.
            When the Khmer Rouge soldiers first come to his town, Arn was happy; the war, they said, was finally over. But soon those with education or money disappear; those who remain are marched into the countryside. Arn is separated from his family and assigned to a child labor camp, where they work punishing hours under the blazing sun. He watches other children, weak from hunger, disease, or exhaustion, die before his eyes.
            McCormick uses Arn’s distinct and beautiful voice to tell the story of how he survived those brutal years: “I see some kids die in the field. They just fall down. Maybe it’s malaria. Or maybe they starve. They fall down, they never get up. Over and over I tell myself: never fall down.”           
One day, the soldiers ask if any of the kids play an instrument. Understanding that this may help him survive, Arn volunteers to play in the band—even though he’s never played a note in his life. Under the tutelage of an old musician, he quickly learns to play a traditional stringed instrument called the khim. The beautiful traditional Cambodian songs are forbidden. Instead, he and the other boys play revolutionary songs to bolster the spirits of the workers and, increasingly, to drown out the sounds of soldiers killing people they suspect of being traitors.
            Arn is forced to watch, and later, take part in, the brutal murder of innocents. He learns to key to survival: “I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.” Just as the country is about to be liberated from the Khmer Rouge, he is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier.
            Arn escapes from the army; he ends up in a refugee camp in Thailand, very near death from disease and starvation. An American minister adopts Arn and two other Cambodian boys. The final section of the book describes Arn’s struggle to overcome the guilt and trauma of his experience with the Khmer Rouge; he has dedicated his life to humanitarian causes around the world.
            “Never Fall Down” is not an easy read; there are many scenes of death and graphic violence. But it is also a beautiful and important book.  
            To learn more about Arn Chorn-Pond, go to http://arnchornpond.com/.

This review originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, December 12, 2012. Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 14 books. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at http://www.saralatta.com.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Soldier's Secret: The Incredibly True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero (Book Review)




Frank Thompson wasn’t your ordinary Civil War soldier. For starters, Frank was extraordinarily versatile, serving as a nurse, mail carrier, and a spy. By all accounts, Frank was unusually brave. And while Frank was slight of build, with cheeks as smooth as a girls’, the same could be said of many underage boys who enlisted to help fight for their country.  
            But Frank was no underage boy. Frank’s real name was Sarah Emma Edmonds, a young woman who had been living as a man for three years before enlisting in the Army. “A Soldier’s Secret: The Incredibly True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero” (Amulet Books, 2012), by Marissa Moss, is an unflinching account of the life of a Civil War soldier—one who must hide her true identity.
            Sarah Edmonds grew up on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada, skilled at hunting and riding a horse. When her abusive father arranges for her to marry an older man when Sarah is sixteen, she cuts off her hair, dresses in her brother’s clothing, and runs away from home.  She gets a job as Frank Thompson that allows her to travel, selling books door to door—and finds that she’s very good at it. But when President Lincoln calls for volunteers to fight for the Union, Frank is among the first to enlist. 
Frank helps amputate limbs, carries out the wishes of dying soldiers, slips into enemy camps disguised as a slave and a peddler woman, and delivers letters and messages to the troops. But she also has to grapple with being a woman in a man’s army, and finds herself falling in love with another soldier.
            Moss’s meticulous research comes to life in her graphic descriptions of the brutality of war: “Wildflowers dot the fields with yellows, blues, and purples, while birds chirp in the trees as if all is right in the world. But all around me I see horror after horror, dead men, broken men, men crying over the bodies of brothers, fathers, sons, and friends.”  
            The book is not all so grim. Some passages are downright funny: “Really, I don’t know anything about men’s bodies except what I’ve seen in the hospital. I can’t imagine sitting on a horse with that extra bit in the way. My God, I think, Jerome has that problem, and so does Damon, and Dr. Bonine, and the chaplain, and the officers right in front of me. I can’t look at any of them now without wondering which pant leg holds that extra central leg and how does it keep from getting squashed when they sit down?
Older teen and adult readers who like “A Soldier’s Secret” might also want to read “The Secrets of Mary Bowser,” by Lois Leveen (William Morrow, 2012). “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” is based on the true story of an escaped slave who poses as a slave in the Confederate White House to spy on President Jefferson Davis. And as a special bonus, Moss has written a picture book about Edmonds for younger readers: “Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero” (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2011)

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, November 11 2012 edition of the News-Gazette. 


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Age of Miracles (review)



In his book “Writing Science Fiction” (St. Martin’s Press, 1988), author Christopher Evans says, “Perhaps the crispest definition is that science fiction is a literature of ‘what if?’ What if we could travel in time? What if we were living on other planets? What if we made contact with alien races? And so on. The starting point is that the writer supposes things are different from we know them to be.”
            Karen Thompson Walker, in her debut novel “The Age of Miracles” (Random House, 2012), asks the question “What would happen if the rotation of the Earth begins to slow, if the days and nights alike grow longer and longer?” Like all good science fiction, Walker’s book goes beyond “what if” to “what does it mean?”
            Walker’s prose is flat-out gorgeous. Julia, who in the course of the story turns 12, opens the story: “We didn’t notice it right away. We couldn’t feel it.
            “We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
            “We were distracted back then by weather and war…. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began.”
            Set in a southern California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow. At first, Julia feels not “fear but a thrill…a sudden sparkle amid the ordinary, the shimmer of the unexpected thing.”
But as the extra minutes of the days and nights stretch into hours and then days, the grave consequences of the slowing become apparent. Birds fall from the sky, whales wash up on beaches, people fall ill—all victims of the Earth’s changing gravitational and magnetic fields. Food supplies are threatened. To preserve order (and the stock markets), the government tells people to stay on the 24-hour clock, even though that would mean falling out of sync with the sun. The few “real-timers” who insist on trying to maintain their own circadian rhythms are shunned by the “clock-timers.”
Despite the widespread implications of the slowing, “The Age of Miracles” is very much Julia’s coming of age story. She watches as her parents grow apart, divided by their responses to the slowing; suffers the rejection of a friend who believes that the apocalypse is near; and falls in love with a quiet, thoughtful boy named Seth.
The catastrophic upheaval of the Earth’s natural rhythms can be read as a perfect metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood. Julia ponders, “…the slowing triggered certain other changes too, less visible at first but deeper…. Perhaps my adolescence was only an average adolescence, the stinging a quite unremarkable stinging…. Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

This review originally published in the Sunday, September 30, 2012 News-Gazette. Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 14 books. You can learn more about her work and read past reviews at http://www.saralatta.com.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Another day, another body



What if you woke up every morning in a new body? One morning you are a white teenage boy; the next, a sixteen year-old Asian-American girl. You wake up in the body of a clinically depressed girl who wants to commit suicide, or a boy whose beloved grandfather who has just died. You may be gay, straight, desperately underfed, or morbidly obese. Each morning, you check in with your host, accessing the facts of your new situation. It’s been like this your entire life, and you’ve learned to live in the body of strangers, always your age, one day at a time. Never get attached, don’t interfere, and try not to screw up your host’s life.
            That is the premise of “Every Day,” by David Levithan (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012).  As the book opens, A (the name the character has given him/herself) wakes up in the body of Justin, a handsome but selfish jerk. A meets Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon, and A’s rules for living fly out the window. Because A has fallen in love—and wants to be with Rhiannon every day.
            In the days that follow, A finds ways to see Rhiannon when possible. (One of the quirks of A’s condition is that his/her soul can’t travel across long distances. The only way A can move from one part of the country to another is when that day’s body goes on a trip—which poses a big problem the day one host is supposed to fly to Hawaii for a wedding.) It takes some doing, of course, to convince Rhiannon that A jumps from one body to the next on a daily basis. But she does, and then she’s faced with the dilemma: can you be in love with a single person who inhabits a different body every day?
            “Every Day” is a love story, but it also raises provocative moral and philosophical questions. How do attributes like race, gender, sexuality, or class define us? A particularly likes and identifies with host body Vic, who is “biologically female, gendered male. Living within the definition of his own truth, just like me. He knows who he wants to be. Most people our age don’t have to do that. They stay within the realm of the easy.”
            Need I add that Levithan writes like an angel? He pulls off his implausible premise with aplomb, and the ending is both bittersweet and satisfying. 

This review was originally published in Sunday, September 9, 2012 edition of The News-Gazette.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (Review)




On July 16, 1945, a fireball 600 feet wide exploded in the sky above a top-secret site in New Mexico bearing the code-name Trinity. Years later, the chief architect behind the experiment recalled, "We knew the world would not be the same."

In "Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb" (Hill and Wang, 2012), Jonathan Fetter-Vorm has written and illustrated in vivid detail the race to build, test, and drop the first atomic bombs.

The effort began in 1939, with the discovery that subatomic particles called neutrons could be used to break uranium atoms into pieces, a process called nuclear fission. Scientists around the world soon realized that nuclear fission, which releases seventy million times more energy than a chemical reaction, could be used to create an enormously powerful bomb.

American scientists--many of whom came from Europe--were concerned that the Nazis might be developing an atomic bomb. They convinced Roosevelt that it was essential for the U.S. to build the weapon before Hitler did so. The U.S. resolve to build the bomb--one of the most expensive undertakings that humans had ever attempted--was solidified when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. The man they recruited to lead the effort, which came to be known as the Manhattan Project, was a brilliant physicist named J. Robert Oppenheimer. For many, he would become the face of the atomic age, even as he came to have grave doubts about developing nuclear weapons.

Fetter-Vorm's explanations and illustrations of the fundamental science of nuclear reactions and the making of the bomb are among the clearest I have ever read. The historical details are equally compelling, and Fetter-Vorm does not flinch from the political and moral consequences of the atomic bomb that have shaped our lives even to this day.

Readers who want to dig a little deeper into the history of physics will enjoy another graphic book, "Feynman" (First Second Books, 2011), written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick. This biography captures the colorful life and scientific achievements of Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who also worked on the Manhattan Project.

The science in "Feynman" can be a challenge for some readers, but Ottaviani and Myrick manage to channel Feynman's gift for explaining difficult concepts to non-scientists. And it is no challenge at all to appreciate Feynman as the wise-cracking, safe-cracking, bongo playing genius who lived life to its fullest.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, August 19, 2012 edition of The News-Gazette.



Sunday, July 29, 2012

While he was away



 After years of drifting around the country, seventeen year-old Penelope and her single mother Linda ("'Flotsam and jetsam,' she always said."), have returned to her mother's hometown of Killdeer, Oklahoma. Having inherited a house and bar and grill from her broken, alcoholic father, Linda struggles to deal with the betrayal of a mother who left when she was just a child.
But for Penelope--Penna to her friends--the move to Killdeer brought her to her soul mate, a fellow artist named David. But now, in the summer between her junior and senior year, David is shipping off to Iraq--and Penna is about to become an Army girlfriend.
"While he was away," by Karen Schreck (Sourcebooks Fire, 2012) is Penna's story, but it is much more than a chronicle of young sweethearts separated by war.
Sure that their love will last, Penna is determined to do all the things that Army girlfriends are encouraged to do: write constantly, always have have your phone nearby, send care packages, keep busy, stay positive.
Penna does everything she's supposed to do, but it's not always easy. For one thing, her mother is making her work at the Red Earth, the family bar and grill--and she's a hopeless waitress. Fortunately, she makes friends with Caitlin, another waitress at Red Earth; Jules, another Army girlfriend; and Ravi, David's troubled boyhood friend. ("...when they were young, they were just about the only brown-skinned kids in school. On bad days, David got called 'Spic' and 'Beaner.' Ravi got called 'A-rab' and 'Towelhead. ... They were loyal to each other.")
Penna also vows to find out more about the mysterious grandmother, Justine, who left Linda when she was only a toddler. Justine's first husband--and true love--was a soldier she married at the age of eighteen before he left to fight in World War II. He never returned--a fact that deeply resonates with Penna. Justine remarried and had Linda, but, as Linda bitterly recalls, "she left us for a ghost."
Even as the war changes David in ways that Penna only gradually comes to understand, Penna, her friends and family are transformed by events at home. This story about cross-generational love, loyalty, and forgiveness is a reminder that the fingers of war reach past the battleground and into the hearts and lives of everyone involved. 

This review was originally published in the July 29, 2012 issue of the News-Gazette. To learn more about Karen Halvorsen Schreck and her writing, visit http://www.karenschreck.com/. 



Kill Bill Meets Buffy



 “Kill Bill meets Buffy in this supernatural samurai tale.” If the publisher’s blurb grabs your attention like it did mine, then you’ll love “Katana,” by Cole Gibsen (Flux, 2012).
            Rileigh Martin is a skater chick who just wants to go to her junior class’s end-of-the-school-year party, maybe hook up with this cute guy she’s had her eye on for the past year. But when Rileigh and her best friend Quentin witness a mugging in a shopping mall parking lot, something—someone—is awakened inside her.  Rileigh foils the thief and defends herself against the thug and his two buddies with impressive martial arts skills she never knew she possessed.
            Rileigh would like to believe that her fighting skills were powered by pure adrenaline, but that doesn’t explain her the voice inside her head giving her battle tips and warning her of danger, or her incredible fighting skills.  And if definitely doesn’t explain her strange, vivid dreams of fifteenth-century Japan. She thinks she might be going crazy—not the way she was planning on spending her summer.
            As it turns out, she’s not crazy—just the reincarnation of a female samurai warrior named Sensi who died 500 years ago. Or at least that’s what a handsome martial arts instructor named Kim tells her. And now that others know of her powers (her fight was caught on a security camera), she is very much in danger. An enemy from her past would like to see her dead.
            Rileigh wants none of this. She simply wants to be a normal teenage girl who—finally!—seems to have caught the eye of the guy she has a crush on. And, truth be told, it takes her longer than I’d like to embrace her samurai self. But when she finally does, Rileigh becomes the great, kick butt-character you want her to be.
            Rileigh learns to master the katana, a deadly Japanese sword that’s also the key to her past. As the spirit of Sensi grows stronger, she also finds herself falling for Kim.
            “Katana” isn’t perfect. Although Quentin is a terrific character, the stereotype of the gay best friend is getting kind of old. The dialogue is sometimes kind of awkward. Even so, “Katana” is a lot of fun. It’s jam-packed with action, and the fight scenes are incredibly well written. Romance? Check. We’re talking soul-mate love. Add to that a good dash of humor, and you’ve got a great summer read.
            Gibsen is a talented young author from southern Illinois. A second book in the series, “Senshi,” is due out in 2013.
This review was originally published in the News-Gazette on July 8, 2012. To learn more about Cole Gibsen, check her out: http://www.colegibsen.com/