Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout: An All-Ages SF that is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser

Voyage of the DogsVoyage of the Dogs

by Greg van Eekhout

Hardcover, 208 pg.
HarperCollins, 2018
Read: October 1, 2018

           Of course, the humans couldn’t go alone. There had to be dogs. Because wherever humans went dogs came along. Like rats, only more helpful. Dogs would herd livestock. Dogs would keep watch against the unknown. And, more importantly, dogs would keep the human crew company during the long spaceflight, and on their new home, far away from Earth.

But first they had to get there.

I guess this is technically a “Middle Grade” book — but forget about that. Call it All-Ages instead — that way, adults and YA readers and . . . everyone can enjoy this SF guilt-free. I should also include this line from The Big Idea post Van Eekhout wrote on Scalzi’s blog: “Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book. Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.” It’s important to get that out of the way.

Let’s start with this: the rationale to bring dogs along on a spaceship. It’s brilliant. It also points to one of the biggest problems with Starfleet, the Colonial Battle Fleet, the Serenity, etc. A lack of animals. Sure, NCC 1701-D had pets (not that we saw them often), but they were sealed up in cabins. And Firefly‘s episode “Safe” had cattle, but that was an oddity. The animals aboard Laika are there for purposes — like the main character, Lopside. He’s there to hunt rats — where there are humans and cargo, there are rats. Something small and fast — and with a good nose — is needed to hunt rats down.

The book will do a better job explaining the roles of the other three dogs and what advances in breeding have led to dogs being capable of being more than the dogs we have today — while still remaining dogs — to become Barkonauts.

These poor, brave dogs go into the hibernation state just before the humans do to complete the voyage to a nearby star system as part of human exploration and colonization, the first mission like this humanity has tried. But when the dogs wake up, they notice something’s wrong — part of the ship is missing, as is the crew.

They’re too far into the mission to turn around, too far away for a rescue mission to reach them. At this point, Lopside and the others have to try to salvage what they can and limp along to their final destination.

Lopside is a terrier mix, he’s brave, he has (understandably) abandonment issues — which are not helped at all by the absence of the humans. He’s a little scatter-brained (like a good terrier) and he’s incredibly loyal and has a great heart. The other barkonauts are as well-drawn and lovable.

Van Eekhout is clearly a dog-lover and it comes out in his characters. He’s also a pretty good story-teller, because even with that spoiler, I was invested in the outcome and really wasn’t sure how he was going to pull things off in a way that was satisfying and that wouldn’t reduce semi-sensitive 5th-graders across the globe to quivering balls of tears (a lesson Wilson Rawls could’ve used, I have to say — no, I’m not still torn up about Old Dan and Little Ann, why do you ask?). He does succeed in that — although some might get a bit misty at a point or two. It’s a fun and creative story, and takes some oft-repeated SF tropes and deals with them in a refreshing way.

Ignore the stars — I can’t bring myself to give it more, I don’t know why. Pay attention to what I have said above and this: read the book. It’ll warm your heart, it’ll make you make you a little sad, it’ll give you something to grin about — and it tells a good story, too. What more do you want?

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3.5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

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Trouble Never Sleeps by Stephanie Tromly: Tromly (and Digby & Zoe) saved the best for last.

Trouble Never SleepsTrouble Never Sleeps

by Stephanie Tromly
Series: Trouble, #3

Hardcover, 299 pg.
Kathy Dawson Books, 2018
Read: September 17, 2018

This picks up right on the heels of Trouble Makes a Comeback leaving Zoe and Digby (and their friends) to deal with the social fallout of the events of that party. Then and only then can they start to decide how they’re going to deal with the deal Digby was offered: steal some top-secret research data in exchange for information on his sister’s whereabouts. Sure, it’s technically treason and will likely end up destroying Digby’s life as well as the lives of Felix’s family.

Meanwhile, there’s a complication to the caper in the last book — Zoe left something tied to her in the evidence collected by the police. The repercussions of that caper are also in danger of hurting some of the students they set out to save.

Both stories are good uses of the characters, and were strong stories on their own. While I have enjoyed Digby’s schemes and how they work out (or how they almost do), but I had a hard time swallowing his plan (or how it was carried out) for the non-high school caper. By the way, it took several tries to stay away from spoilers in that sentence. However, once I decided to not care about how outlandish it all was, I enjoyed reading it.

The key to this book — series, really — are in the characters and their interactions. Not just Zoe and Digby (but nothing’s more important, or better, than that), but Zoe and her mom, Zoe and her friends/frenemies/enemies at school, and Digby’s strange interactions with everybody. I don’t know if Tromly hit that better this time, or just as well has she had before — either way, the dialogue sings and you believe it. These relationships are complicated and real and they make the books come alive.

I should probably add that the reason I didn’t listen to the audiobook (unlike the last two) is because my library didn’t have a copy, unlike the last two. It’s not a reflection on Kathleen McInerney’s work — it was good for me to see that it was Tromly’s words and not just McInerney’s great narration that hooked me, though.

It’s hard to talk about this book in any kind of depth without spoiling book 2 and ruining things here. So I’ll stop now. It’s a fun adventure, with laughs, tension, and all the warm fuzzies you could ask for.

The trilogy started off strong, stumbled a bit and then more than recovered with this one. It’s the strongest of the series easily — and sticks the landing (which I worried about, not because I didn’t think Tromly could do it, it’s just easy to miss). I’m going to miss Zoe and Digby. I’m so glad that I found this series this year — it’s been a blast to listen to and read. Great characters, strong character arcs over the trilogy, a good overall story, with some great smaller stories in the individual books. This series is going down as one of my favorite YA series ever.

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4 1/2 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Bearded by Jeremy Billups: A Charming Picture Book about a Bearded Bear

Bearded

by Jeremy Billups

Hardcover, 34 pg.
Billups Creative, LLC, 2015
Read: September 5, 2018
Picture books about bears are everywhere — I have a hard time believing many kids get out of the picture book stage without exposure to at least 4 of them (and that’s before they’re at the Pooh or Paddington stage). But how many of those bears have been bearded?

Enter Jeremy Billups and his little book.

This is the story of a little red-haired girl (no, not that one) traveling the world with her bearded bear, having all sorts of adventures and meeting a bunch of different animals. There really isn’t a lesson, moral or much of a plot — just a bunch of quick looks at the pair. A few quick lines and a picture on each pair of pages.

The art is simple and arresting. They just pop off the page — this is one of those times I wish I had the necessary vocabulary to describe why I like the drawings, but I don’t. I bought a print of what turns ot to be page 16 before I even picked up the book to flip through. I’ve bought a handful of prints this year, and it’s my absolute favorite — I like it even more now that I’ve read the book. Also, If you ever see a better picture of someone making buffalo wings, I’ll eat my hat.

Oh, and the endorsements on the back cover are a lot of fun. If that doesn’t convince you to try it out, I can’t imagine what will.

Great art, cute story, fun rhymes — everything you want in a picture book. Even better — animals with beards are the best animals that aren’t dogs. This is a charming little book that’s sure to please.

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4 Stars

The Day That A Ran Away by B.C.R. Fegan, Lenny Wen: The Best Reasons (Excuses?) Schoolwork wasn’t Done that I’ve Ever Read

The Day That A Ran AwayThe Day That A Ran Away

by B.C.R. Fegan, Lenny Wen (Illustrator)

Kindle Edition, 32 pg.
TaleBlade Press, 2018
Read: July 9, 2018

Things are going bad for poor Jet — his teacher has noticed that he hasn’t finished his assignment of writing out the Alphabet. So he explains to Mrs. May that he did, in fact, do it, but . . . well, did you read the title? A ran away.

From there, Jet goes on to explain why each letter isn’t on his paper. D was scared, I just didn’t want to, something nefarious might have gone on with L, and so on. Each letter gets its own page with a fantastic picture personification and a line or two describing (in rhyme) why that letter didn’t make it onto the work.

Wen’s art is never not delightful, but I really enjoyed this one and have flipped through it a couple of times just to look at the drawings — I love the T and O characters in particular. I’m not sure I can describe it, it might take away from the value if I could — but T’s teeth are about the best bit of art I’ve seen this month. The details he fills the pages with are wonderful, eye-catching and will entertain adults as much as kids.

I’m a little surprised that I’ve become, at this stage in my life (my kids are teenagers or older) to become a fan of picture book creators — but these two have turned me into one. This book demonstrates why. Typical of Fegan and Wen, The Day A Ran Away this is imaginative, fun, and well-written. I cannot imagine a child of picture book age (and maybe a little older) not being entranced by the art, there’s plenty going on for parents/others to point out, and a story that’s fun enough to read that someone wouldn’t mind repeating a few dozen times — which is more important than non-parents can realize.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinions about this book.

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4 Stars

BOOK BLITZ: Shadow Games by Jim Lester

 photo Shadow Games_zpsutlxortm.jpg

Coming of Age
Date Published: June 2018
 photo add-to-goodreads-button_zpsc7b3c634.png
Danny McCall loves basketball more than anything in the world. So why would he risk his basketball scholarship, the love of his life and his entire future to fix the point spread in a series of college basketball games?
Set in the early 1990s, Shadow Games is an exciting page-turner, filled with fast-paced hoops action. A topical novel for readers of all ages, the book is a powerful portrayal of the loss of youthful innocence.


About the Author

 photo Shadow Games Author Jim Lester_zps3ykf5nop.jpeg

Jim Lester is the author of three successful young adult novels: Fallout, The Great Pretender and Till the Rivers All Run Dry. He has a Ph.d in history and is the author of a non-fiction book entitled Hoop Crazy: College Basketball in the 1950s.
Contact Links
Purchase Link

 

 

 

 

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Picket Town by Chris von Halle: An Age-Appropriately Creepy SF for the MG reader in your life

Picket TownPicket Town

by Chris von Halle

PDF, 178 pg.
Clean Reads, 2018
Read: July 31, 2018

Amanda is bored. Every day is the same — her life isn’t bad, she actually likes it. But she wants more. She’s not sure exactly what it is that she wants — but it’ll be found outside the city limits of New Pines (she calls it Picket Town). She and her friend Sam spend their days after school playing a computer RPG, eating with their families, playing the game some more and repeating the whole thing the next day.

Then something starts happening — some of the kids in town come down with some sort of bacterial infection that requires them to be hospitalized while a cure is worked on. Amanda starts to wonder if everyone is going to be okay — no matter how often she’s assured that the grown-ups have everything under control. She wants to strike out, she wants to learn something — and on the way home from school, they pass the same sign forbidding them to enter the forest that they walk by every day. But this day, this particular day she decides she’s had enough — and then she convinces Sam to come with her. They climb over the fence and explore the forest. This is the most thrilling thing they’ve ever done. Right up until the point that they find a what appears to be a flying saucer (well, a saucer that’s landed). Pretty much everything they’ve ever known ends right there. What follows is exciting, dramatic, and unexpected (well, at least for the target audience — Middle Grade — adult readers will have a pretty good chance of seeing what’s around the corner, most of the time).

I wasn’t so sure that I was going to enjoy this at the beginning, I’m not sure why, it just didn’t seem like it clicked. But it honestly didn’t take long before it reminded me of the better SF I read in grade school, and I was in it for the long haul. Although, honestly, I’m not sure any of the books I read when I was that age would’ve gone where von Halle took this. That’s a compliment, by the way, it may not look like one.

I’m not crazy about the conclusion, I have to say, as much as I liked almost everything that came before. There’s a good twist to it — and I really liked it. But the ending itself? I don’t know — it relied too much on a big info-dump, and then the reveal for Amanda and Sam could’ve been executed a little better. But I think those are quibbles, and I really don’t imagine that there’s a Fourth Grader out there that’ll say the same thing.

This isn’t a MG novel that transcends the label and that’ll appeal to adults — in other words, not everyone is J.K. Rowling. I’ll give you a moment to digest that revelation. This is a MG novel that knows its audience and that will deliver what it wants. Were I in that audience, I’d be re-reading this a few times. I’m not, so I’ll tell people to give it to someone who’ll appreciate it more.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, given above.

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3 Stars

My Lady Jane (Audiobook) Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, Katherine Kellgren: This YA Romance/Alt-History/Fantasy is simply delightful

My Lady JaneMy Lady Jane

by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows, Katherine Kellgren (Narrator)
Series: The Lady Janies, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 13 hrs., 47 min.
HarperAudio, 2016
Read: July 2 – 5, 2016

           You may think you know the story. It goes like this: once upon a time, there was a sixteen-year-old girl named Jane Grey, who was forced to marry a complete strange (Lord Guildford or Gilford or Gifford-something-or-other), and shortly thereafter found herself ruler of a country. She was queen for nine days. Then she quite literally lost her head.

Yes, it’s a tragedy, if you consider the disengagement of one’s head from one’s body tragic. (We are merely narrators, and would hate to make assumptions as to what the reader would find tragic.)

We have a different tale to tell.

Pay attention. We’ve tweaked minor details. We’ve completely rearranged major details. Some names have been changed to protect the innocent (or not-so-innocent, or simply because we thought a name was terrible and we liked another name better). And we’ve added a touch of magic to keep things interesting. So really anything could happen.

This is how we think Jane’s story should have gone.

So begins the Prologue to this wonderfully fun book. It’s that second paragraph — but specifically the parenthetical sentence — that locked in my appreciation for the book. Thankfully, it continued to be as good as that paragraph, but I was going to be a fan of anything that happened from that point on.

The advantage you have with historical figures that no one knows anything about, is historical novelists — particularly those who like to play with their history — can do pretty much what they want. Lady Jane Grey is probably the English monarch that people know the least about (if they know about her at all) making her perfect fodder for this story.

This is one of those books that I can’t figure out how to summarize, so I’m just going to steal the publisher’s blurb, as much as I hate doing that, but my attempts have a mess, and theirs worked:

           In My Lady Jane, coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have created a one-of-a-kind YA fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, featuring a reluctant king, an even more reluctant queen, a noble steed, and only a passing resemblance to actual history—because sometimes history needs a little help.

At sixteen, Lady Jane Grey is about to be married off to a stranger and caught up in a conspiracy to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But those trifling problems aren’t for Jane to worry about. Jane gets to be Queen of England.

Like that could go wrong.

The characters are wonderful — no one’s perfectly good, or perfectly evil (although there are a few that come close in both directions). The authors keep things moving well, never letting the story detract from the characters, or one part of the narrative take over (there’s plenty of action, romance, friendship, espionage for everyone). Yes there’s magic, yes there’s comedy, but there’s also a lot of heart — a lot of joyful storytelling. This has it all. I really can’t point to a favorite bit, or favorite theme or anything. This is just one of those books I enjoyed all of.

Inside this novel is a love letter to books — and Jane is the representative book lover par excellence (though she could like poetry and novels a bit more) — there’s a treasure trove of quotations about reading, books, and related topics in these pages. All of them delightful.

The novel is clearly clever, witty, with a lot of heart, etc., but what sealed the deal for me was Katherine Kelgren’s outstanding performance. I would’ve enjoyed the novel pretty much no matter who wrote it (I’m not sure Scott Brick or Dick Hill could’ve pulled if off, but you never know), but Kelgren absolutely sold it. Her accent work was outstanding, the life and verve she brought to the project just wowed me.

I’m blathering on, I realize — yet I’m not sure I’ve actually said anything. Bah — just grab the book or audiobook. I don’t care if you’re YA or just A, if you like romance or not, male or female — if you like a fun story that’s well told and never takes itself too seriously (but never makes a joke out of anything important), read it. You’ll have a blast.

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4 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge