Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The League of Seven by Alan Gratz

Congratulations to Connie Saunders who won Blue Birds from last week's blog.

Readers of this blog are no strangers to book reviews by North Carolina author, Alan Gratz. He is well known for historical novels, like Prisoner B-3087 and Samurai Shortstop.  But he also writes contemporary books like his newly releasedCode of Honor, (Scholastic, August 2015) and steampunk fantasies. 

Alan’s love for creating complex worlds and populating them with characters who readers can relate to and learn from, shines through every page of this engaging book.

Without a word of backstory, Alan immerses the reader into this fantasy world, giving you just enough information that will make you want to keep reading.

The secret entrance to the headquarters of the Septemberist Society could only be reached by submarine. Twelve-year-old Archie Dent had been there a dozen times before and still he had no idea where it was. Manhatta? State Island? Breucklen? Queens County? For all he knew, the submarine they took to the group’s secret headquarters didn’t go to any of New Rome’s boroughs at all. It might turn right around from the Hudson River Submarine Landing in Jersey and head back to Hackensack territory. And asking didn’t help either. His mother and father didn’t know where it was, or they wouldn’t tell him.

“I’ll bet the Septemberist Society is under the big statue of Hiawatha in New Rome Harbor,” he told his parents as they wove their way through the crowd down to the submarine docks. “That would be so brass!”  (p. 1)

Introduction of protagonist with a voice. Check.

Introduction of a believable steampunk world based loosely on cities and states the reader is familiar with? Check.

Next comes the conflict: Enter the Mangleborn and their descendants, the Manglespawn. Monsters so horrific they can only be defeated by the superhuman powers of the League of Seven.

In the opening chapter Archie meets his first monster:

It was something else. Something black and shiny and big, bigger than Archie, with too many legs and too many eyes and a curled, segmented tail with a thick stinger at the end….It wasn’t a giant spider or a giant scorpion or—were those human hands under there?...Something unnatural. Something monstrous.
Something Manglespawn. (p. 20)

Archie quickly learns that his parents, along with several other members of the Septemberist council, have come under the Maglespawn’s control. His mission, set up within the first 25 pages, is to rescue his parents.

Plain and simple, right?

Of course not. Alan Gratz wouldn’t be the master storyteller that he is if there wasn’t also an interesting sidekick, Archie’s machine man Tik Tok servant, Mr. Rivets; as well as two other members of the new League of Seven. Archie meets Hachi, a fierce warrior with a vendetta to vindicate the death of her parents and Fergus, an electrical tinkerer with the supernatural ability to absorb and discharge lectricity. Together, the four travel up and down the east coast of the United Nations of America in a mammoth search for Archie’s parents.

The story includes great battle scenes, times when Archie is tested and uncovers huge truths about himself, and even tiny sparks of romance. But one of the things I enjoyed the most was seeing how much Alan enjoyed writing this book. I can imagine the look of glee on his face when he first imagined p-mail (messages delivered through pneumatic tubes via a series of tubes called the Inter-Net); p-mail hackers who send messages from a “Nigerian prince who needs a small sum of money transferred to him to free up a fortune in stolen diamonds… an old con [that] many people fall for.” (p. 128); and personal gramophones that are steampunk versions of iPods.

The League of Sevenfirst in the trilogy with the same name, won the 2015 SIBA Young Adult Award and will appeal to middle school, young adult, and boy and girl readers.  The second book in the series, The Dragon Lantern came out in June with equally fantastic illustrations by Brett Helquist.
Alan proudly displays the first
two books in the League of Seven series.
Sorry, no giveaway this time. I’m saving my copy for my grandchildren. But you can look forward to hearing about The Dragon Lantern in a future review. Visit Alan’s website for ordering information from southern indie booksellers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Blue Birds and an ARC Giveaway!

This is the reason I love well-written historical fiction: It draws me into a place and time that I am barely familiar with, brushes me with information and imagery, and leaves me wanting to know more.

Enter Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose (G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Group USA). Written from the points of view of two fictional characters: Alis, the daughter of one of the British colonists to settle Roanoke Island and Kimi, a Native American who lost her father and sister at the hands of the English, this novel-in-verse creates a plausible story of the British who came to be known as the Lost Colony
"Roanoke map 1584" by John White - A British Museum photograph of the map. [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roanoke_map_1584.JPG#/media/File:Roanoke_map_1584.JPG
Roanoke is the small pink island in the middle right.
Rose's excellent deep POV makes the reader feel like you can reach out and touch the protagonists; their longings, conflicts, beliefs and fears are exposed to the reader in simple, yet powerful language. The alternating viewpoints are an excellent way to show what it meant to both the English and Indians for colonists to settle the New World.

Be warned. In order to share the beauty of Rose’s free verse, but at the risk of including some spoilers, this review consists of portions of the novel. (Please note: I am quoting from an ARC which is the uncorrected text.)

The book opens with the colonists’ arrival at Roanoke and Alis remembering her uncle’s words when he give her a small carving of a bluebird. This snippet foreshadows Alis’ conflicts: 

“The graceful bird
its wings rest so daintily.
This Uncle Samuel promised me:
Birds return home
no matter how they fly.
One set free might wander

but will eventually rejoin his flock." (p. 28)

Kimi watches with curiosity as Alis explores the area outside the palisade. Kimi is surprised to find a young girl in their midst; she longs for the her dead sister’s company. But she also deeply mistrusts the English. She returns to work with the other women:

Like the corn,
a woman
spreads her roots wide,
like the bean,
a woman
settles her roots deep.

If we hope to rid ourselves of them,
push them from us
Once and for all,
We must do it
Before their roots take hold." (p.34)

Their first meeting is poignant. First from Kimi’s viewpoint:

Her eyes fly to me,
grow wide
but do not falter,
though she wears panic on her face.

Her skin too delicate,
like a thin-barked tree;
her body bundled,
thick like a caterpillar." (p.45)
Then Alis’ viewpoint:
she stands.
Markings spiral up her arms,
snake down below her fringed skirt-
the only clothing she wears-
Like fine embroidery stitched into skin.
Copper flashes at her earlobes,
a rope of pearls encircles her neck.
Short hair covers her forehead,
the rest gathered behind.
She studies me."  (p. 46)

Kimi finds the wooden bird when Alis accidentally drops it. Alis doesn't go anywhere without it and Kimi assumes it is a source of power to her. Here are Kimi's thoughts and observations:

"I dance her wooden bird
across my fingertips,
perch it on the back of my hand.

The girl is not welcome here.

Her hair,

so colorless,
her eyes,
pale pools of water.

I imagine her

cowering in her village
without her power.
I want to see
her weakness.

She comes 

from brutal people,
yet is as loving 
with her mother as we are.

Can both things be true?" (p. 62)

The girls, both longing for a friend, are drawn together risking discovery and disapproval from their families. From Alis:

"I stay
long enough to study
the patterns on her arms,
close enough 
to meet her eyes
with no urge to lower my gaze.

We are not together, 

but neither are we apart.

Three times 

I have come here.
Three times
we have met.


fascinating, fragile
grows between us." (p. 94)

Even as they are drawn to one another, tragic events swirl around them. Their budding friendship is tested by old prejudices, present fears, and the painful consequences of their families' decisions. From Alis:

"I cannot escape the truth
that living here brings danger.

    I imagine meeting Kimi

    in a place we mustn't hide.

It never was expected

we'd remain on Roanoke.

    If we had never journeyed here,

    how much my life would lack.

We are impoverished,


    I'm most myself 
    when with her.

How might I find peace

when two worlds war inside?"  (p. 311)

This beautifully written novel will be an excellent classroom resource for readers ages 10-14.  And even if you don’t win it, I hope you will read and/or purchase it for the middle grade girl in your life. The images of friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice—and the blue birds themselves--will stay imprinted in your mind long after reading it.
North Carolina
Outer Banks

Click here for an interview with Caroline Rose. And click here for a link to the September issue of Talking Story, where Joyce Hostetter and I are giving away this ARC in our issue on Character Education. Leave a comment on this blog to be entered once in this giveaway; leave a comment through the newsletter and I'll enter your name twice. 

"Croatoan" by Unknown - English Wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Croatoan.jpg#/media/File:Croatoan.jpg
The author’s notes at the end verified how well Caroline Rose used the minimal facts we know about the Lost Colony and the Roanoke and Croatoan Indians. 

Note: This review was initially posted on LitChat


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