The Eternal Smile, by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

The Eternal Smile
Three Stories

by Gene Luen Yang
& Derek Kirk Kim

First Second, New York, 2009. 170 pages.
Starred Review.

It’s hard to decide how to classify this graphic novel, whether it’s fantasy or science fiction. Since the flavor is more bizarre, mind-tripping science fiction, that’s the primary category I’ll file it under.

The Eternal Smile tells three stories. I expected them to be linked, like American Born Chinese, but these were only related by a similar theme. All involved virtual reality and a person’s (or frog’s) deepest desires. They talked about the disconnect between reality and our dreams, yet how dreams do make us who we are. All three left me feeling thoughtful and meditative and satisfied.

I don’t think of myself as a graphic novel fan, but Gene Luen Yang and a few others are changing that. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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Review of Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom, by Tim Byrd


Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom

by Tim Byrd

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009.  186 pages.

Okay, I admit.  When I read the first chapter of this book, it reminded me way too much of the Spy Kids movie that my children watched until it nauseated me.  I wasn’t at all sure I could finish the book.

However, I found that, at least in small portions at a time, I began to be intrigued to learn in what over-the-top way Doc Wilde and his children Brian and Wren would get the better of the sinister amazonian frogs of doom.  The less I took it seriously, the more fun I had reading it.  For me, this did require only a few chapters at a time, but once I got in the habit, I did find myself coming back for more each night.

The book is described as a tribute to the old pulp adventure novels.  That is perhaps my problem — I never was a fan of those books.  But I am looking forward to having this book on the library shelves.  I think it will be a natural choice for young comic book fans ready for a little more text and a lot of rollicking adventure.

The story is indeed over-the-top.  Brian and Wren take after their father — tanned, golden-haired, strong, agile, good-looking, and incredibly smart.  Throw in being magnificently wealthy with all kinds of high-tech gadgets invented by Doc Wilde himself, and you won’t be surprised when they get out of every life-threatening situation thrown at them.  The fun comes in at how they get out of it this time.

I like the villains — sinister mutant frogs of various shapes and sizes, some with razor-sharp teeth.  There’s something simply inherently silly about Frogs of Doom.

Again, I think this might be a great pick for reluctant readers, especially young boys who like adventure.  It’s just silly enough and adventurous enough to provide heroic escape.

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Review of Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan


Tales of Outer Suburbia

by Shaun Tan

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2008.  96 pages.

Starred review.

Truly Shaun Tan is the supreme master of the short-short story genre!

This book contains fifteen illustrated stories that are strange, strange, strange.  They are bizarre, they are haunting, and they are completely delightful.

There’s water buffalo who lives on the corner and points people in the right direction.  There’s an exchange student who leaves a surprising gift.  There’s a boyish expedition to the edge of the world.  All the stories are told as if someone’s matter-of-factly telling something that happened to them, once.

This is the sort of book you have to share.  I found myself exclaiming over each story, so of course I got my teenage son to read it.  Even that wasn’t enough, as I decided I had to share it with my other son, too, so this is his present for his twenty-first birthday. 

As The Arrival did, in many ways this book creates an entirely new category.  Let’s see, I suppose you might call it illustrated science fiction short-short stories.  I think I’ll just call it irresistible.  Try it yourself — read one story and see if you aren’t too intrigued to stop.

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Review of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons



by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

DC Comics, 1986. 

Winner of the Hugo Award.

Starred review.

I finally read Watchmen this week, since I definitely have to take my teenage son to see the movie the day it comes out.  Watchmen is acclaimed by many as the greatest graphic novel of all time, and I can see why.  This book has layers upon layers upon layers of meaning.  You definitely only scratch the surface of all that’s going on the first time you read it.

Set in an alternate 1985, the story begins with the death of costumed hero The Comedian.  Rorschach, another masked hero, thinks there may be a plot against masked vigilantes.  Someone with great power must be behind it, because who else could have thrown The Comedian out a window?

My son is rereading the book in the Absolute Watchmen edition.  The pages and pictures are larger, so it’s easier to see the many important details all lurking in the pages before you even notice them.  As I was writing this, my son noticed another one — that Rorschach didn’t have the distinctive speech bubbles until he really “became” Rorschach.  (I hadn’t noticed that he even had distinctive speech bubbles.)  There are thousands of details planted like that.  This is a graphic novel where you would still notice new details on the twentieth reading that fit perfectly and provide clues to what’s really going on.

This book is a mystery, a social commentary, a science fiction adventure, an alternate history, and so much more.  Mind you, it is a dark story, with lots of sex and violence.  If you wouldn’t be comfortable watching an R rated movie, then you won’t want to read this book.

At first, I thought I just enjoyed it as a work of art.  There’s no question that the book is superbly executed, thought-provoking, and interesting.  However, on reflection, now that I’ve finished it, I find I really did care about the characters.  They grew on me.  I did like them, and they seem like real people, with real concerns and complexities.  For example, I found myself annoyed right along with Laurie when Jon starts talking about what’s going to happen in a few minutes.  Each character is distinctive, with their own hang-ups and desires, and the authors portray that skillfully, and make you care.

Definitely worth the hype.  I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.  And I’m sure I’ll come back to the book some day, and try to pick up a few hundred more details that I missed the first time.

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Review of Starcross, by Philip Reeve



by Philip Reeve

performed by Greg Steinbruner

Recorded Books, 2008.  7 CDs.  7.5 hours.

Starcross is a worthy successor to Larklight, another rip-roaring adventure of Art and Myrtle Mumby in the outer reaches of the galaxy.  Once again, we’re in alternate-reality 1851, where space travel has been discovered through alchemy, and the British Empire rules the ether (rather than the waves).  It turns out that there is all kinds of life out there in the solar system, and the British Empire has outposts among the natives on every planet.

At the start of this book, the Mumbys, with their mother, are invited to Starcross, a sea-resort hotel on an asteroid which has never been known to have any water.  Sure enough, the “tide” comes in every twelve hours, and the dry sea bed fills up with water as if it has always been there.

Obviously, something strange is going on at Starcross.  And what about the top hat in Art’s closet that seems to be calling out to him to put it on?  Or the strange shadow across the balcony and the little voice saying “Moob”?

Sure enough, the adventures involve international intrigue, mortal danger, and this time even time travel.  Once again, I lost track of how many times their lives were in peril.

Listening to these books on CD makes them all the more fun.  These would make excellent family listening, as it will appeal to all ages.  The narrator does an excellent job giving each character a distinct voice.  The way Art and Myrtle pick at each other seems completely realistic for a brother and sister and is just one of the amusing touches the books are packed with.

You do not have to read (or listen) to Larklight in order to enjoy Starcross, but why would you want to miss it?  Almost all our old friends from the first book show up in this one, and add to the fun.

Here’s a light-hearted adventure story by a writer with a wild imagination and a delightful sense of humor.  We’ve got space travel and pirates and spies and aliens and mind control and time travel and speeding space trains and proper ladies and British soldiers and a sinister plot to take over the solar system.  What more could you want?  Huzzah!

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Review of A War of Gifts, by Orson Scott Card


A War of Gifts,

An Ender Story,

by Orson Scott Card

Tor, Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2007.  126 pages.

Here’s a Christmas story that takes you into Ender’s world.  We follow the story of Zeck, who’s been brought up to believe that Santa is a form of Satan.  When Zeck is sent to Battle School, he refuses to participate or ever fire a weapon, because he also believes that War is not a valid field of study.

Then a Dutch boy puts out his shoe for Sinterklaas, and gets a Sinterklaas poem.  This starts a trend of the students, where religion is forbidden, finding subversive ways to celebrate Christmas, claiming it’s a national observance, not a religious one.

As the “war of gifts” escalates, Zeck’s life is touched in a way that he doesn’t expect.

A nice Christmas story, quite different from typical ones.  Ender fans will especially enjoy it.

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Review of Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix


Among the Hidden

by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Book #1 of the Shadow Children series

Aladdin Paperbacks, 2000.  153 pages.

I finally read the first book in this series, having completely forgotten that I read the second book already, Among the Imposters ( ).

This book sets the stage for the series.  Luke lives on a farm.  He’s never gone off the farm or seen anyone outside his family, but he was able to help with chores — until the woods got cut down and a housing development was built behind their house.

Now Luke must not even go in a room with an open window, for fear someone might see him.  Luke is the third child in his family, and in this future society, third children are illegal.

However, Luke finds a way to look outside and watch his new, rich neighbors.  When one family — mother, father, and two children — have all left the house, he notices someone else still moving around.  Could there be another third child living in hiding.

I read this book with our Homeschoolers’ Book Group at the library.  The kids’ reaction was mixed.  Most didn’t like the ending, which sets up the rest of the series.  Still, Margaret Peterson Haddix does a good job of quickly setting the stage and helping us understand this alternate world.  The suspense is high as we worry with Luke that he will get caught — or else never get to go out of the house again.

This book was read by one of the teachers in the local middle school, and then many kids came to the library looking for more in the series.  It won’t hook every kid, but those who get hooked want to find out what happens next.

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Review of The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart


The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart

read by Del Roy

Listening Library (Random House), 2007.  13 hours, 17 minutes.  11 compact discs.

I had not one but two parents tell me that their kids loved this book.  When I saw it on audiobook, I thought I’d give it a try.  Audiobooks are working well for me for light-hearted fiction that I can enjoy in small doses.

Renny Muldoon is a brilliant orphan who knows he is completely different from other children.  When he sees an ad offering a test for gifted children looking for special opportunities, he goes to the test and begins the adventure of a lifetime.

Renny ends up on a team with other exceptional children who are offered a dangerous mission with the fate of the world at stake.  The mysterious Mr. Benedict explains why only children can save the world now.

The adventure yarn that follows is a lot of fun.  Sure, there are several coincidences and several places where believability is strained.  However, it’s definitely an entertaining and exciting story.

Del Roy’s voice sounds like a kindly grandfather telling you a story, and I quickly thought of his voice as coming from Mr. Benedict himself.

This book is excellent for upper elementary age children who will enjoy some good, clean, and clever fun.

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Review of The Host, by Stephenie Meyer


The Host

by Stephenie Meyer

Little, Brown, and Company, 2008.  619 pages.

Starred Review.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Host, liking it even better than Stephenie Meyer’s more famous Twilight series.  This one was written for adults, so that may be some of why I liked it.  But I also thought it was well-written.  She didn’t have the whole traditional spectrum of vampire stories to contend with.

Of course, she did have the noble tradition of body-snatcher stories up against her!  But I haven’t read or watched very many of those at all.  Her description of what it would be like if mind-stealing aliens tried to take over earth seemed right.  Of course!  That is what would happen.

Wanderer is an alien who has lived on seven different planets.  But when she is put into the body of a human on earth, it doesn’t go as smoothly as with any other host.  The host begins by hiding things from Wanderer.  Names of people she loves, and where they might be hiding.  She doesn’t want Wanderer to tell a Seeker.  However, this host, named Melanie, should not still be there at all.

Melanie’s voice gets stronger.  Wanderer is ready to give up, to find a new host and let a Seeker be put into Melanie’s body.  But somehow, she can’t bring herself to give up Jared and Jamie.  Instead, she goes to find them.

Can Wanderer, nicknamed Wanda, keep from betraying the humans she now loves as much as Melanie does?  Will those humans even give her a chance, since they think of her as the monstrous mind-thief alien who stole Melanie’s body?

I found myself believing that indeed humans would not just disappear if powerful aliens invaded our planet.  Indeed, the aliens might find more than they bargained for.

The Host is a wonderful exploration of life and love and what it means to be human.

I knew the human exaggeration for sorrow — a broken heart.  Melanie remembered speaking the phrase herself.  But I’d always thought of it as hyperbole, a traditional description for something that had no real physiological link, like a green thumb.  So I wasn’t expecting the pain in my chest.  The nausea, yes, the swelling in my throat, yes, and, yes, the tears burning in my eyes.  But what was the ripping sensation just under my rib cage?  It made no logical sense.

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Review of Lionboy: The Truth, by Zizou Corder


Lionboy:  The Truth

Book Three of the Lionboy Trilogy

by Zizou Corder

read by Simon Jones

Highbridge Audio, 2005.  6 hours on 5 compact discs.

The Truth brings the Lionboy trilogy to a most satisfying conclusion.  In the earlier books, Charlie’s parents were kidnapped, and Charlie went after them.  In the third book, Charlie is the one kidnapped.  His parents and the friends he has made along the way come to his rescue, but in the end Charlie’s own ingenuity, courage, and loyalty save the day for far more people and animals than just himself.

There are a few outrageous coincidences in this book, as there were in the earlier books.  However, it’s all in good fun.  This is a rather wild adventure tale set in the near future.  The action takes Charlie across the globe to the very seat of the sinister Corporacy.

Charlie can still talk to cats, and in this book he becomes better acquainted with Ninu, a chameleon who can not only take on the colors around him, but also the languages.  With Ninu’s help, Charlie can talk to any person and any thing.

Like the rest, this makes good listening material, and would be great for a family car trip.  There is plenty of action to keep you diverted, and once again the narrator has a delightful voice (and accent) to listen to.

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