The Last Child, by John Hart

The Last ChildOne of the best things about being in a book club, even with the same members coming every month, is that you can never guess how everyone is going to react to a book, even yourself. One of the weirdest things is when you think a book is kind of okay and then everyone else LOVES it, and you’re like, but, seriously? Such was the case with The Last Child. I found myself in a room with ten people who loved the book and I just couldn’t figure out why.

It’s not a bad book, by any means, and it’s got a pretty decent plot going for it. The story takes place in a rural North Carolina town wherein two girls have gone missing about a year apart. One of our protagonists, Johnny, is the twin brother of the first missing girl, Alyssa, and he’s spent the last year trying to figure out what happened to Alyssa and watching his family fall apart around him — his father left, his mother turned to drink and drugs, and a horrible man stepped in to boss Johnny and his mother around. Noooooot fun. Our other main protagonist is Clyde Hunt, the detective who caught Alyssa’s case and didn’t solve it. He is now on the case of the new missing girl and is hoping, mostly for his own sake, that solving it will also bring Alyssa home.

So, interesting. And the mystery itself is pretty cool, with the appropriate twists and turns and oh-I-should-have-seen-thats. But everything else? Not so great. Hart’s characters are pulled straight from the mystery-character vault; there’s the trouble-making but mystery-solving kid, his only partially willing sidekick, the detective with a vested interest in solving a case, the same detective with feelings for a victim, and, possibly worst of all, the giant black man with the mind and temperament of a child but also mystical powers (see: The Green Mile). And the writing is tough to get through, with every sentence about twice as long as it needs to be and a whole prologue that doesn’t have anything to do with anything, really.

So, less interesting. There were lots of pieces of this book that were really fascinating, like the relationship between Hunt and Johnny and the whole discussion of rural life and politics, but the rest of the book just kind of fell down on the job for me. But there are ten other people, just in Jacksonville, even, who completely disagree with me and want to marry this book and have its babies, so clearly your mileage may vary.

Recommendation: I’d recommend a lot of books over this one, but if you like mysteries and have this one handy it’s not the worst choice you could make?

Rating: 5/10

City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau

City of EmberAnother pick for my library book club — this one I hadn’t even heard of until I found four copies of it in my children’s section, and then I figured, hey, if we already have a lot of copies of it…

Also my coworker said it was good. I’m not that lax with my book club picks, y’all.

So this book. It is yet another post-apocalyptic kids book, but the twist to this one is that you find out at the beginning that some people called “Builders” built (naturally) the titular city after some catastrophe and left time-locked instructions to be passed down mayor-to-mayor for a couple hundred years so that the future residents could come back to wherever their ancestors started.

Except, of course, the instructions get lost, and now Ember is a couple decades past its expiration date and barely hanging on to its stores of canned food and lightbulbs, which are super important because when the lights go out they ALL go out, and there’s no sun or moon hanging around to help out.

Our hero Lina finds the instructions shortly after they’ve been baby-nommed, but with the help of our other hero Doon she sets off to solve the mystery of the instructions and of the weird way that Ember’s mayor has been acting lately.

And… that’s practically the whole book. It’s super short and super fast. It’s also the first book in a series of four, which is part of why it seems so fast — as soon as you reach what feels like the midpoint, the book is over and it’s time to go buy the next one. I was not warned of this! At least it’s not a cliffhanger; if you take the book as standalone, which I am likely to do, it ends in a place where you can kind of make up your own ending.

I enjoyed the trade-off in narration between Lina and Doon, and I liked that they were young enough that there was no dang love story mucking everything up (though I’m sure that’ll come in a few books…) and that they shared pretty equally in responsibility for solving the instruction puzzle and attempting to follow through on said instructions and generally trying to make their town a better place. And I’m intrigued by a a lot of the details that didn’t get explained in this book — the unknown area outside of Ember’s light, the reason for building Ember in the first place, why Ember wasn’t made self-sustaining in the first place — all those sorts of things that will probably get explained in later books.

But I probably won’t read those later books, because there was so little to the book as it stands that I’m just not invested. Like Divergent, if I had had all the books sitting in front of me it might have been a different story, but sadly, I did not. I will definitely be foisting the series on all my little library patrons, though, and I am positive they will tell me all about it when they’re done.

Recommendation: For kids who haven’t yet delved into post-apocalyptic/dystopian worlds and/or are slightly too young for The Giver.

Rating: 6/10

Bone Quill, by John and Carole E. Barrowman

Bone QuillGrarrrgh, cliffhangerrrrrrrrr. I hate cliffhangers. I like my books to have an end, even if it’s one that leaves a million questions to be answered by the next book. Not only is it polite to give readers an ending, it makes it easier for this particular reader to, you know, remember what happened when it comes time to read the next one! It’s only been a couple weeks since I finished the book and it’s already leaving me…

Which is really unfortunate because this book was otherwise fantastic! It begins pretty soon after the end of the last book, which saw our intrepid child artists alternately fleeing and fighting bad guys and demons using crazy art magic. Now Matt and Em are stuck inside their grandfather’s castle, safe but bored out of their skulls — well, until they inadvertently figure out a way to be neither of those.

See, it turns out that in addition to being able to animate things that they paint and speak telepathically, the twins can also — wait for it — time travel via painting. Because of course they can. On the plus side, this helps them find their missing mother; on the minus side, they find themselves in the middle of an epic battle eight hundred years ago that it is possible they may have started. Dun DUN.

I loved this book for all the reasons I loved Hollow Earth, plus reasons like time travel (yay!) and characters making very terrible decisions (yay?). I am still surprised by the realistic interactions between the kids and their respective lower-case guardians, in which the kids listen to the adults exactly as much as they think they need to, and the adults understand that the kids are still going to go do incredibly stupid things but are willing to let them make mistakes. This approach does not always work out for the best, but does any, really?

I am also very intrigued by the dun DUN parts toward the end of the story that lead into the dreaded cliffhanger, and am curious to see how the Barrowmans are going to get everyone out of this one in the appropriate number of pieces. They will, right? This is a series for kids. It’s going to be okay. I think. When does the next book come out?!

Recommendation: If you can stand it, wait to read this one until the next one comes out, someday. Otherwise, read it now!

Rating: 9/10

Rare Beasts, by Charles Ogden

Rare BeastsI saw a few books in this Edgar & Ellen series going out of my library around Hallowe’en, and when I picked up this first one and noted the phrase “fans of Lemony Snicket” in a blurb on the back, you know I was sold.

The premise is simple: Edgar and Ellen are twin kids left alone at home by their parents, who have clearly run screaming from their weirdo children. The twins are inveterate troublemakers and spend their days running around their giant house, playing a game of hide and seek in which the loser gets hog-tied, and their nights painting rude words on their village’s signs. When they get bored of all that, they venture out into the village to bother the normal folk.

In this book, the twins realize they have no money to fund their schemes, and so they scheme to sell exotic pets for outrageous sums. The pets are, of course, pilfered from all the villagers and decorated with glitter and whatnot, and also of course it proves difficult for the twins to sell these pets a) to people who are looking for their own missing puppies and cats and pythons and b) for thousands and thousands of dollars to people who live in a small village.

It is a super adorable story vaaaaguely reminiscent of the Snicket in that it shares the same sense of humor if not Snicket’s way with words. There are also some delightful references to Poe (of course) and an ending that is appropriate to the reality of the story, which I wasn’t quite expecting. I like that we are obviously supposed to sympathize with the twins’ boredom and sense of adventure, but not with their actions. Good lessons for small children!

I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series unless I somehow run out of books to read at work (unlikely!), but I will definitely be recommending it to a few short people I know.

Recommendation: For your favorite trouble-making child.

Rating: 8/10

Who Could That Be At This Hour, by Lemony Snicket

Who Could That Be at This HourSpeaking of kids with no parental guidance who are measurably smarter than the adults around them…

Man, I love Lemony Snicket. I’m not sure how this book got past my radar last year, but there must have been something really exciting going on, because otherwise I would have tripped over myself to get in line to read this first book in a series about the childhood of one Mr. Snicket, the writer of many fine books about my favorite orphans.

So it turns out that as a child, Snicket was part of some shadowy organization (of course) doing shadowy things (of course), and as we meet him he has just graduated Shadowy School or whatever and is off to train as an apprentice to a chaperone called S. Theodora Markson, who we find out is ranked last on the list of chaperones (of course). Snicket chose her to further his own mysterious plans, but her one accomplishment is ruining said plans, so he’s stuck with her on a shadowy-organization-approved case involving the retrieval of a maybe-stolen maybe-valuable object. Theodora bumbles her way through the case while Snicket, of course, learns the true facts, but if you’ve ever read Snicket’s work you know things don’t wrap up in a nice neat bow at the end.

The series is titled “All the Wrong Questions,” and as such there is a recurring theme in the book of Snicket asking questions and then remarking from the future that that was entirely the wrong question, and here are some questions he should have asked, or possibly here are some questions of equivalent worth that have nothing to do with anything. It is both dryly humorous and also a great way of getting the reader (or at least me) to think a little harder about this book that is just flying by and see those clues that Snicket is planting. Snicket also pulls in the “[word], which here means [meaning]” phrase from his previous books, except in this one he actually has his characters speak this phrase, which is ridiculous and wonderful.

I loved this book. It’s sarcastic and funny and pulls in a lot of references that the kids who read this book will hear of as adults and think, ohhhh, that’s where that came from. Even my usual complaints about books for kids fail here, because Snicket takes those stories’ failings to extremes that make them hilarious. Basically, this book was written just for me, and I couldn’t dislike it if I tried.

Also, fair warning, Snicket has given me my new catchprase: “Don’t repeat yourself. It’s not only repetitive, it’s redundant, and people have heard it before.” Thanks, Snicket! My friends are going to love you!

Recommendation: For people who like happiness, if happiness can be defined as complete insanity wrapped in sarcasm.

Rating: 10/10

Hollow Earth, by John and Carole E. Barrowman

Hollow EarthI may have mentioned before in this space a love of things Doctor Who and Torchwood. Not an unhealthy obsession, like some people I know, but enough of one that when I saw a book partially written by Captain Jack come into my library, I mean, I checked it out immediately.

That book was Bone Quill, the second in this Hollow Earth series, because of course it was, and of course again we didn’t have the first book in my library so I made my home library bring it to me. Libraries are awesome, guys.

Also awesome? This book.

In the world of this story, there are people called Animare who can draw things and make them come to life through the wonders of imagination and also people called Guardians who have super-empathic abilities that allow them to keep the Animare from going overboard with the redrawing life thing. These two sets of people are not supposed to make babies with each other, but of course babies were made, and those twins are our fine protagonists. They have abilities of both Guardians and Animare, and are actually kind of better at both than they should be, and the head of the Council of Fancy People Who Make the Rules (and some other members, but mostly the head dude) would really like them both to be stopped before they can be way too awesome.

So the twins and their mother run off to Scotland and the twins learn about their powers and how to really use them and bad people come and bad people are stopped (spoiler?). There are some pretty awesome action scenes involving animated Scotland-parts and drawings made in minds rather than on paper and all that fantasy stuff is pretty awesome.

But I think what I liked best about the book was the way the Barrowmans made all the kids (the twins and the friend they pick up) into real kids — feeling smart, being stupid, and understanding that both of those states can coexist. They even acknowledge that adults sometimes know what they’re doing, and in fact call for help when things get dangerous! I’ve read so many orphan or pseudo-orphan stories where the kids are 2000 percent smarter than the adults around them, and those can be awesome, but it’s great to see a story in which children are loved and cared for and still go out and defeat bad guys (with help).

I will definitely be reading Bone Quill sometime before the library wants it back, and then probably pining away for the third book as soon as I’m done!

Recommendation: For fans of fantasy and heroic kids and art and Scotland.

Rating: 9/10

The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud

The Amulet of SamarkandDear Bartimaeus, You are wonderful, let’s go hang out together. Love, Alison.

I listened to this book back in the day and fell madly in love with it — I mean, how could you not fall in love with Simon Jones? It’s impossible! Ever since, this book has been one of those books that I find not many people know about, and when I do find a person who has read it and loved it we are clearly meant to be BFFs (well, at least in one case!). So obviously I was really excited when my in-person book club put it on the schedule for September, although I wasn’t going to have time to listen to it again and was a bit worried about reading the book without the help of the handsomely voiced Mr. Jones.

I needn’t have worried; the book is nearly as fantastic as read by the voices in my head and also THERE ARE FOOTNOTES. Why was I not informed of the footnotes earlier? Goodness me I love a footnote, and actually I felt like the constant asides made a heck of a lot more sense having a party at the bottom of the page as opposed to hanging out in parentheses as I had assumed. There’s just something about seeing that little superscript and knowing there’s something hilarious waiting for you just inches away…

Ahem. I digress. Without footnotes. How disappointing!

So anyway, the book is as hilarious as ever. Our intrepid narrator is the aforementioned Bartimaeus, who enters the book in a cloud of stereotypical demon trappings because wouldn’t you, if you were a demon, and proceeds to joke and trick and mostly luck his way out of all sorts of magical problems, most of which are caused by the third-person-narrated Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a very young magician in a world where magicians rule via threats, intimidation, and the enslavement of demon-types, and even though we first meet him doing that third thing and also he’s young and therefore dumb and annoying (I do not miss being dumb and annoying), he’s a decent kid and I was pulling for him the whole book.

The plot of the novel involves Nathaniel having Bartimaeus steal an unexpectedly potent magical thing from an expectedly potent magician, which of course turns out to be a very terrible idea and ends with lots of magical fights and a few deaths. But the reason I love this novel is its world-building. Stroud takes your average fantasy world with magic and spells and pentacles and whatnot and makes it disturbingly like our regular world with class struggles and power-hungry politicians and foolish children and also wisecracking djinnis. Well, I wish our world had wisecracking djinnis, anyway.

I also, as you may guess, love Bartimaeus, who is basically the greatest character ever characterized. He’s a demon who just wants to do his thing, no matter what he is actually required to do, and who will grumble amusingly until such time as he can figure out how to do his thing. He also has a healthy sense of his place in society (not too high on the demon scale, not too low) and uses it to great advantage, which is a pretty good life lesson, actually!

I’ve read the rest of the (increasingly inaccurately named) Bartimaeus Trilogy, and they were all pretty decent, but this remains my absolute favorite of the series and one of my favorite fantasy novels in general. If you haven’t read it, take a few hours and rectify that situation!

Recommendation: Read it, even if you don’t think you like fantasy, and especially if you like sarcasm and awesome fight scenes.

Rating: 9/10 (I have to admit that Simon Jones is what makes it a 10!)

an RIP read