Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner

Animal tales are the best, and Hilary Wagner has created a delightfully creepy fantasy filled with adventure and great deeds in her debut novel Nightshade City.

Beneath the human city of Trillium lies another world called the Catacombs. Here there be rats, intelligent rats, who suffer under the hand of the evil High Minister Killdeer and his wicked henchman, Billycan, a former lab rat. Peace once reigned in the Catacombs until Killdeer and Billycan turned the democratic society into a dictatorship with the Bloody Coup.

Now a rebellion is in the works, and three young rats–Vincent and Victor Nightshade, and the clever young Clover–are drawn into the conflict to defeat the Catacomb’s oppressors. Led by Juniper Belancourt, an older one-eyed rat who remembers the days of peace, they seek to establish a new beginning with their own Nightshade City.

Kids who loved Redwall will really enjoy the world Wagner has created with her characters and story. Wagner does an excellent job keeping the younger reader engaged;  the story is tense, but not overwhelming for children. Wagner leads the younger reader through harrowing events with such grace, because she has a way of intertwining a line of hope with every wicked thing that happens.

Her characters are sharp, and so far, adults and kids alike love Billycan as one of the up and coming villian greats. Billycan is the perfect bad guy, yet at the same time, the reader can’t help but feel a little sad for him too.

All the characters of Nightshade City leap off the page and will engage the reader’s imagination. Yet beneath all the adventure, Nightshade City shines bright with hope. It’s a story of what can be achieved when everyone works together, but the tale never loses sight of Vicent’s love for his brother Victor. Together they learn about friendship and the courage they will need to one day lead in Nightshade City.

My rating:

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Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

*****SPOILER ALERT:  If you have not yet read The Hunger Games this review contains spoilers of that book.*****

  This is the second book in a  planned trilogy by Suzanne Collins centered on The Hunger Games.  The Games have ended and Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12 as heroes, being the first tributes to ever defy the Capitol and figure out a way for more than one participant to survive the Games.  As they travel around the country to promote their victory, it becomes evident that they have sparked dissent amongst the downtrodden citizens of the 12 Districts of Panem.  Through their defiance, they have inspired others to stand up against the repression and cruelty of  the Capitol.  As the unrest spreads, Katniss and Peeta become unwitting symbols of the rebellion and the Capitol must scramble to come up with an even more twisted way to keep the districts under their control and quell the uprisings that threaten to erupt.

This being the “middle child” in the trilogy you might not expect much.  But though this installment starts out a bit slowly, it gathers steam and becomes almost as gripping as the first installment even though we know much more about what to expect this time around.  The love triangle centered around Katniss, Peeta and Gale is a bit disappointing since Gale is such a peripheral character this time, but most likely it will all play out in the third and final book which will follow our characters into the mysterious District 13 and the inferno of rebellion that is “Catching Fire” in this segment.

Can’t wait for the third book and also the movie which is due out in 2011.  Word is that Suzanne Collins is writing the screenplay and if you read The Hunger Games it no doubt crossed your mind what a fantastic movie it would make. 

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Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Miranda is a typical teenager, worried about homework and boys, until the day the meteor smashes into the moon and knocks it closer to the earth, setting off a chain reaction of tsunamis, climate change and even volcanoes that shroud the earth in ash.  Miranda and her mother and two brothers must go into survival mode, hoarding food, scavenging for firewood and living in their boarded up house, fearful of looters. 

The book is written in Miranda’s own words, in the form of a journal.  Unfortunately,  it just didn’t ring all that true for me.  The day after the meteor,  after gathering around the television and learning that most of the east coast is submerged and there are hundreds of thousands of casualties, all Miranda’s mother can say is  “We’re fine.  We’re well inland.  I’ll keep the radio on, so if there’s any call for evacuation I’ll hear it, but I don’t think there will be.  And yes, Jonny, you have to go to school tomorrow.”

On a side note,  I loved the cover art on this book.  The huge moon looming over the small house evoked the fear that Miranda and her family felt.  As Miranda said,  “It was tilted and wrong . . . it was still our moon and it was still just a big dead rock in the sky, but it wasn’t benign anymore.  It was terrifying, and you could feel the panic swell all around us.”

My Rating: 

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

“Coraline discovered the door a little after they moved into the house.”  Thus begins the creepy adventures of a little girl who discovers an alternate world in her own house.  The world beyond the door is similar to her own world.  There is even an identical set of parents…but wait!  Are those big black buttons in place of eyes?  Soon Coraline realizes that her “other mother” wants to keep her permanently in her world.  She even has a lovely set of black buttons for Coraline. 

This is the graphical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s hugely popular children’s book, Coraline.  Not having read the original book, I can’t really compare them, but it seems the ideal story to receive the graphical treatment.  The illustrations by P. Craig Russell are detailed and realistic, evoking the kindness of Coraline’s real mother and the evilness of her sinister “other mother” equally well. 

This book will be released as a major motion picture in stereoscopic 3D in February of 2009.  See the trailer here

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Let the games begin!  It’s some time in the (not so distant?) future and what was once America is now Panem, a glittering Capitol in the Rockies, surrounded by twelve miserably oppressed districts.  As a yearly reminder of their helplessness, the Capitol requires each district to conduct “Reapings” where one boy and one girl are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen (cool name for a cool girl!) lives in District 12, what was once Appalachia, with her mother and little sister Prim.  When Prim’s name is drawn at the Reaping, Katniss volunteers herself to take Prim’s place.  Soon Katniss and Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, are off to the Capitol for the Hunger Games, a deadly reality show televised to all of Panem where the 24 kids, or Tributes, from the districts must compete in a kill or be killed survival game with no rules except that you can’t eat your opponents.

One of the fun things about writing these book reviews is how it has made me realize that I’m always drawn to certain types of books.  Dystopian futuristic themes (The Road by Cormac McCarthy or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood) always pull me in and this one is no different.  Though there are similar ideas out there, Collins does a first rate job of building the suspense,  making it next to impossible to read to the end of a chapter and stop.  Will Katniss become the first Tribute from District 12 to win the Hunger Games in years?  Does Peeta genuinely care about Katniss, or is he weaving a “star crossed lovers” story to garner sympathy from the viewers?  And what about Rue, the young slip of a girl from District 11 who reminds Katniss so much of her sister Prim?  There can only be one winner of the Hunger Games.

My Rating: 

What I Was by Meg Rosoff

This coming of age story is a quick read, and in fact Meg Rosoff  has previously published in the young adult category.  This one straddles the line between young adult and adult fiction.  Nearing 100 years old, Hilary looks back upon his life and the time he spent in the 1960’s  at St. Oswald’s, a private school for boys with a “long history and low standards.”  Having managed to get himself expelled from several other schools, his parents half-heartedly hope that this time Hilary will make something of himself.

Gloomy Victorian buildings, vile food (pink sausages, green liver, brown stew, cabbage boiled to stinking transparency), and an undistinguished faculty do not bode well for Hilary’s success in turning his life around.  Then one day, while engaging in a fitness run along the beach with his classmates, Hilary falls behind and comes upon a cottage on the beach inhabited by a boy named Finn.  What follows is something of a love story, though not so much physical love as romantic.  Hilary becomes infatuated with Finn, devising ways to slip away from school and spend time with him, desperately trying to gain the affection of the elusive Finn, who lives a solitary Robinson Crusoe style life alone on the nearly inaccessible beach.  A touching story of first love with a surprising twist at the end. 

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