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?

—–

3.5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Advertisements

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.

—–

4 1/2 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

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.

—–

3 Stars

Trouble Makes a Comeback (Audiobook) by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney: Not as good as its predecessor, but a heckuva fun read/listen

Trouble Makes a ComebackTrouble Makes a Comeback

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)
Series: Trouble, #2

Unabridged Audiobook, 7 hrs., 56 min.
Listening Library, 2016
Read: May 23-24, 2018

After the explosive ending of Trouble is a Friend of Mine, life has settled down for Zoe — so much so, she may have achieved “normalcy.” Her grades are good, she’s got a nice job, she’s dating the backup QB (maybe not the brightest guy, but he’s nice), and even has a couple of friends. The biggest stress in her life is the SATs just around the corner (she’s over-prepared but doesn’t believe it). Her mother’s got a new live-in boyfriend, and other than all the health food he’s insisting they eat, things are good on that front, too — better than they’ve been in years.

Which means, it’s time for Digby to come back to town and muck everything up. And boy howdy, he does a great job of that.He’s got a lead on his missing sister, and he wants Zoe to help. Oh, and he’s pretty sure there’s a drug ring afoot at her school, and he might as well take that out while he’s at it.

The drug story runs just like you’d think it would — maybe a bit too conventionally, really. But it does it’s job — giving Digby, Zoe and the rest an easier target than the quest for his sister. And is good for enough laughs and tension that it feels like more than just a distraction from the “real” story.

That story, the hunt for clues to his sister’s fate is huge. We learn so much more than we did in the first novel — and find out that so much that Digby thought he knew wasn’t quite right. In the end, this task feels out of the reach and capabilities of these two — even if it’s inevitable that they’ll get somewhere that the police, FBI, and other professionals never did.

I may not have done myself a favor listening to this so soon after the first novel — I may have liked it better with a cool-down period. Still, I just don’t think it’s as good. Which is strange, the story’s more focused, there’s less stage-setting needed — we know almost everyone already, the situation is clear, etc. But the story wasn’t as gripping, I kept waiting for something to happen — and when it did, it seemed too easy. Plus, the whole “high school story” thing — romantic relationships, etc. — was more significant to this book. None of this made it a bad book, just a “less-good” one. Still, plenty of fun, and I really want to get the sequel, which can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Nevertheless — I enjoyed the novel (and McInerney is a big part of that) — I laughed, I had fun, I enjoyed the tension, and might have even gotten wrapped up in the emotional moments. A strong sequel that does an admirable job of setting up a sure-to-be knockout final book in the trilogy.

—–

3.5 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

Trouble is a Friend of Mine (Audiobook) by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney: The most enjoyable mystery I’ve come across in months!

Trouble is a Friend of MineTrouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)
Series: Trouble, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs., 49 min.
Listening Library, 2015
Read: May 16 – 17, 2018

Preparing to survive a typical day of being Digby’s friend wasn’t that different from preparing to survive the apocalypse.

I don’t remember exactly what I was reading, but I came across a reference to this book filling the Veronica Mars dialogue hole for the writer (or something like that — I stupidly closed the tab and moved on so I can’t get the quotation right, or credit the source…). That sounded good enough to try, and boy, oh boy, am I glad I did. I doubted it’d come close to Veronica Mars, because none of the things I’ve read compared to it have ever come close (not that I haven’t enjoyed many of those things, even in their non-Mars-ness), but that was wrong of me — there’s a strong Mars-like vibe here.

Actually, that’ll work for a very reductionistic and not very accurate summary of this book: It’s Veronica Mars, gender-flipped, narrated by the Wallace figure.

I should’ve paid more attention to the piece I skimmed, I didn’t realize until I’d started that this was a YA mystery, but it works okay for older readers. There’s a soupçon of romance — and only that. I just want to throw that out before some of you decide to bow out of this one from the start.

So, post-bitter divorce, Zoe and her mother move to a small town from NYC. Mom’s an English professor at a community college and Zoe’s trying to fit in — temporarily. Her plan is to blow this popsicle-stand and move on to a Private School, make her mark there and step on to Princeton. She just needs to nail this semester.

Enter Digby. This odd boy who always wears a suit and refuses to fit in. First, ropes her into working on an insane independent study project (which he shows no signs of ever working on), showing up in the least convenient places, and leading her into all sorts of trouble — despite her best intentions.

Digby has a dark past, the events of which shape his every move (that’s obvious, I know — but he’s self-conscious about it) and the way that everyone in town sees his every move. It’d be very easy for this past to turn Digby into some sort of Bruce Wayne-y do-gooder crusader; or angry, rebellious young man — neither ends up being the case. He’s a brilliant kid with little regard for societal norms (not that he’s not very aware of them and how to use them for his own benefit). I’m doing a horrible job describing him — while there’s all that going on, Digby is observant, quick-witted, a creative thinker, resourceful, with a sharp-tongue, an odd-sense of humor and the teenaged-boyest teenage-boy appetite.

Zoe is strong-willed (except when it comes to Digby or her father), smart, careful, cautious, determined and focused. But she wants to be more — she wants to be adventurous, popular. I just don’t think she can admit that to herself. She’s a great character with a voice that makes you just like her.

Speaking of voice, I’ve gotta give kudos to Kathleen McInerney. She narrates this tale with life, verve, and humor. This is good material and she makes it live.

In addition to Zoe and Digby, we’ve got Henry — an old friend of Digby’s, the clean-cut quarterback — and many other mainstays of high school fiction (the meangirl, the computer geek, the bully athletes). Zoe’s mother is a better-than-average adult character for YA fiction, she’s not perfect, but she’s a committed and caring mother. Her father, on the other hand, is a little more typical — over-bearing and focused on his goals for his daughter (that’s typical for a character, not a father, I want to stress). The characters and the relationships between them feel grounded and believable — which makes it easy to want to see them succeed and to buy into the outlandish situations that Digby introduces Zoe and Henry to.

I’ve gone on a lot without talking about the plot — what kind of situations are there for Digby to involve his friends in? Let’s start with the cult with a headquarters across the street from Zoe’s house, and the very creepy guys who live there. There’s drug dealing, a missing high schooler, some dumpster arson, a gynecologist who definitely needs to review the Hippocratic oath, a case the police have given up on, and high school drama. It’s actually very difficult to say the plot is about X, because Digby has an agenda that he really doesn’t fill people in on until the last minute. And he seemingly hops around from caper to caper in an ADHD-manner. Minor spoiler: it’s not the case, he as some kind of a plan.

I’ve done a lousy job selling you on this book, some of that is because it’s such a quirky, oddball of a story — and the rest is due to a sloppy job on part, so let me sum up before I make things worse. The book moves swiftly and smoothly, making you smile frequently — impressed with Digby’s dogged determination and enjoying (even while rolling your eyes at his antics). The dialogue is snappy, the characters are likeable, you’ll find yourself invested in this crazy story — even if you’re a couple of decades past the target audience. Tromly has given us a great gift in Zoe and Digby, give this a shot, you’ll have a great time.

—–

4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

BOOK BLITZ: Daughter of the Sun by Zoe Kalo

Daughter of the Sun
~ Cult of the Cat Series Book 1 ~
About the Book:

Title: Daughter of the Sun
Series: Cult of the Cat Series, Book 1
Author: Zoe Kalo
Genre: YA Contemporary Fantasy / Paranormal
Word Count: 93,000 words
No. of Pages: 330

Mystery, adventure, a hint of romance, and the delicious sweep of magic…
Sixteen-year-old Trinity was born during a solar eclipse and left at the doorsteps of a convent along with a torn piece of papyrus covered with ancient symbols. Raised by nuns in the English countryside, she leads a quiet life until she’s whisked away to the Island of Cats and a grandmother she never knew. 
But before they can get to know each other, her grandmother dies. All that Trinity has left is a mysterious eye-shaped ring. And a thousand grieving cats. As Trinity tries to solve the enigma of the torn papyrus, she discovers a world of bloody sacrifices and evil curses, and a prophecy that points to her and her new feline abilities. 
Unwilling to believe that any of the Egyptian gods could still be alive, Trinity turns to eighteen-year-old Seth and is instantly pulled into a vortex of sensations that forces her to confront her true self—and a horrifying destiny.
Get Your Copy of this Book. Available for FREE for a LIMITED TIME ONLY! 


About the Author:

Storyteller at heart…


A certified bookworm and ailurophile, Zoe Kalo has always been obsessed with books and reading. The pleasure of writing and sharing her fantasy worlds has remained. Today, Zoe passes her stories to you with lots of mystery, adventure, a hint of romance, and the delicious sweep of magic.

Currently, she balances writing with spending time with her family, taking care of her clowder of cats, and searching for the perfect bottle of pinot noir.

Contact the Author:
Website * Facebook * Twitter

Batman: Nightwalker (Audiobook) by Marie Lu, Will Damron: aka Gotham Season 9, just didn’t work for me. DNF’d.

 Batman: NightwalkerBatman: Nightwalker

by Marie Lu, Will Damron (Narrator)
Series: DC Icons, #2

Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs, 39 min.
Listening Library, 2018
Read: April 27 – 30, 2018

Let me get the Audiobook portion out of the way quickly — Damron does a capable job. He didn’t particularly wow me, but I had no complaints about his work. I could see myself really getting into a book he narrated.

This is essentially Gotham, season 9. Bruce is on the eve of graduation, turning 18 (yet his guardian, Alfred, is still treated as if he has any standing in his life), and finds himself on the wrong end of the law and serving probation by doing community service at Arkham Asylum. While there, he becomes fascinated by an accused murderer — she’s part of a criminal/political (technically a terrorist group, but the label was never used) group targeting Gotham’s one percenters.

The line between the Bruce Wayne of this book and the Dark Knight we all know is pretty weak. You’ve got Alfred, Lucius Fox, Bruce’s dead parents, Gotham City — sure — but there’s nothing that distinctively Batman about them (as used here). Even when you throw in Harvey Dent as a troubled youth with a strong trust in the legal system as one of Bruce’s best friend and numerous references to bats, and you’re supposed to thing that you’ve got yourself the building blocks of the Caped Crusader. But it’d have been incredibly easy for this to be any other rich youth with a knack for electronics. This doesn’t have to be a Batman story, it could be almost any generic YA hero.

If you want to read an inexperienced, fallible, Batman (as seems to be the case here), read Miller’s Batman: Year One or Barr’s Batman: Year Two — they treat the character the way he should be treated. This book just wasn’t. I got about halfway through (maybe a little over halfway) before I just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to move on.

I liked the Wonder Woman installment in this series just fine — why didn’t this one work for me? Well, while Diana wasn’t the hero we all know — she was still clear in her purpose, driven to do right and capable. Bruce is none of those things — which is odd, because he’s typically been depicted as driven and single-minded since childhood. That’s the Bruce we all know, and should’ve seen here.

I can see why some people will enjoy this, but I just can’t bother to finish.