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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Three YA Action-Adventure Novels that Require Young Readers to do some Serious Thinking

Westerfield, Scott (2011) Goliath  New York:  Simon Pulse

Opening lines:  "Siberia." Alek said.  The word slipped cold and hard from his tongue.

In Westerfield's earlier books, Behemoth and Leviathan, we met Alek, a Prussian prince whose parents were killed in the war; and Deryn, a midshipman on board the Leviathan, who is actually a girl in disguise, serving in the royal navy to avenger her father who was also killed in the war.  We also became acquainted with the magnificent world of alternate history that Westerfield has crafted around these characters.  The action takes place in an alternate reality where the world powers have aligned over their technology choices.  Germans, Prussians, and others have developed walking tanks and battleships, designed around remarkable steam-powered technology.  The United Kingdom and its allies, building on the work of Charles Darwin, have crafted a remarkable array of living creatures, weapons, and even ships -- like the Leviathan, a massive, biological dirigible.  The detail that Westerfield builds into his world makes it wholly believable.

Goliath is the final book in the series.  Alek and Deryn, along with the crew of the Leviathan must transport Nicolai Tesla -- who many have crafted a doomsday weapon that could win the war -- from Russia to Japan, across the Pacific Ocean, and on to New York.  Along the way they have to deal with the Japanese army, William Randolph Hearst, Pancho Villa, and pesky reporter who seems to have discovered Deryn's secret.  And Deryn must deal with the fact that she is in love with Alek, and he hasn't figured out that she is female yet.  The series wraps up in a most satisfying way.

One of the things I love about this book is that it challenges readers to picture the scenes clearly enough that they can understand the concepts behind some of the scenes.  This book will make you think -- without realizing you are doing so.

Strong middle school readers could handle this one.  High school readers would find it relaxing.  The book has nothing particularly objectionable in it. 

Lane, Andrew (2010) Death Cloud.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux

Opening line:  "The first time Matthew Arnatt saw the cloud of death, it was floating out of the first floor window of a house hear where he was living."

With the remarkable popularity of the BBC Masterpiece Theater television series Sherlock, high school students are once again picking up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Complete Sherlock Holmes.  Conan Doyle's writing style is actually remarkably accessible, but for students who need a bridge from the TV version to the original, Andrew Lane has come out with a remarkably well-written series about Holmes as a teenager. 

The first book in that series, Death Cloud, has a 14-year-old Sherlock Holmes, on holiday from boarding school, teaming up with a street kid names Matty and with an American girl named Virginia Crowe to solve what at first appears to be a bizarre murder, but turns out to be a much more complicated plot involving international espionage, an early form of biological warfare, and a delightfully creepy villain. 

I have read a lot of new stories about Holmes and Watson over the years.  This one stands out fo two reasons.  First, although Watson is nowhere to be found (Conan Doyle's work makes clear that Holmes and Watson met for the first time after college and after Watson had served in the army), the new supporting characters mesh really well with Holmes's approach to solving mysteries.  Second, Lane gives you enough little pieces that it is the sort of book that has you constantly guessing and predicting what will happen next.  I also appreciate the way he seeds references to characters and moments in the original stories to help your readers make connections (for example, Holmes's older brother Mycroft plays a significant role in this book.)  Although remarkably sharp middle school readers could handle this, it seems best-suited to high school.

Stewart, Trenton Lee (2008)  The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey.  New York:  Little Brown and Company.

Opening line:  'on a bright September morning, when most children his age were in school fretting over fractions and decimal points, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was walking down a dusty road."

The Mysterious Benedict Society is back -- and this book is certainly as clever and interesting as the first one (though perhaps not quite as suspenseful).  The society finds out (on the eve of setting out on a world-wide scavenger hunt designed by their benefactor, Mr. Benedict, to challenge and reward them for their service in the first book) that Mr. Benedict has been captured and that the scavenger hunt he designed for them could have far-reaching and deadly consequences.  

All of the society has returned -- Reynie (whose remarkable ability to recognize patterns was so helpful in their first adventure), Sticky (whose photographic memory comes in handy at several points during this adventure), Kate (sort of a role model for young engineers), and Constance (whose main talent int he first book was her stubbornness.  In this one she develops an additional talent).  And, as in the first book, there are plenty of puzzles, clues, and mysteries built into the fabric of this most excellent story. 

Middle school readers who are capable of some endurance in their reading would find this book tot their tastes.  High school and college readers will like it too. 


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