January 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

SF for Kiddies

I don’t typically fall for jacket blurbs but when I read what author Jerry Oltion had to say about Rocket Science -- “If the Hardy Boys stayed up half the night reading Astounding Magazine by flashlight, this is what they would dream after they turned out the light” -- well, I had to have this book. Just the mere possibility, of combining the boy detectives with an element of outer space science fiction was enough to pull me in before the book even arrived. Once I started,and found everything that Jay Lake was able to fit into this outstanding book, I was one very happy reader.

Rocket Science is set in small town Kansas immediately after the end of WWII. Vernon Dunham is happy to see the return of his best friend Floyd and although he feels a bit out-of-place in all the patriotic fervor of the returning servicemen, he accepts the childhood illness that prevented him from fighting. Vernon spent the war years working on a classified project for Boeing Aircraft and while he is thrilled to have Floyd back he can’t help but think that his wild stories about seeing action in Germany are a bit over-the-top. Of course Vernon has no idea just what Floyd has in store for him, or for that matter, what the Germans have been up to.

In short order, Lake has the plot flying with Nazis, Communists, the U.S. Military and the mob all converging on the town of Augusta, and Vernon finds himself in the middle of the kind of action that he has only dreamed about. Floyd managed to have an amazing state-of-art aircraft shipped home from overseas and it seems everybody knows about it and wants a piece of it. Unfortunately they also seem to want a piece of Vernon as well. Then the plane starts talking, and well, things really get interesting.

Rocket Science is a great adventure/science fiction story. From start to finish Lake channels the talents of the great writers from the Golden Age of science fiction. This book is just flat-out fun. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this ride. As soon as I was finished I put my copy in the mail to my older brother -- I knew he was going to love it too and I didn’t want to keep him waiting.

I lucked into another surprising sf novel recently, John Lunn’s very smart and suspenseful, The Aquanauts. This is a perfect book for not only budding physicists (or anyone interested in black holes or time travel) but also for teenage girls who might not be sure that science fiction is for them. I hate -- let me stress that -- I HATE how one genre of books always seems to be directed to boys or girls over the other. Science fiction in particular is such a great literary destination for any reader interested in limitless plot potential and fascinating science but it seems to get pigeon-holed on the “boy” side of the library. Personally, I barely passed physics in high school and don’t even get me started about chemistry, but that does not mean that I don’t have an interest in these subjects -- it just means that my teachers sucked and I had little chance to learn anything the conventional way. Lunn’s book is perfect for someone like me who is curious but maybe a little intimidated -- he crafts a wonderful story about some great characters caught in a catastrophe and how they must be both brave and smart in order to get out alive.

The Aquanauts is first and foremost about Greta and her father and a relationship that has left him buried in his research and the daughter with way too much time on her hands. In an attempt to learn just what her Dad is doing, Greta asks to accompany him off the coast of Oregon to the deep underwater lab where he and a small group of “labbies” and techs are hard at work on… something. Once she arrives Greta meets the three other non-adult residents: Jules, who is already practicing for her career in the military, Marco a seventeen-year old genius and his little brother Nicky. In short order some bad things happen and the true nature of just what the mysterious research is about begins to materialize. The kids are forced to figure out on their own how to save themselves and everyone else. Along the way there is some traveling through time and consideration of the nature of black holes and the secrets of the universe. Most significantly, Greta learns just how horrible people can be to each other when they wrap themselves within the distanced shield of "science."

I liked the adventure in The Aquanauts but I also thought it was very cool that Lunn made danger a real element to the story. This could have been a silly little lark of a book, where stuff happens and the kids prevail and they all get patted on the head and sent on their way. The four “aquanauts” find themselves literally running for their lives and the lives of everyone they love in the course of this story. They are physically hurt, they struggle against major obstacles and in the end they suffer some losses -- they pay a price for getting caught up in the uncontrollable events that surround them. To soften the blow, Lunn gives readers a nice little romance and more than a few laughs along the way, all of which combine to make this a great read. I have a very hard time finding decent young adult science fiction, and The Aquanauts is certainly the type of book that is tailor-made to start readers on a lifetime of sf reading.

Switching gears a bit, Animus is one of those great small press books that it takes a lot of luck to find in the midst of our “Big Box Bookselling” world. When author Paul Collins mentioned it on his blog, I went hunting for the publisher and in short order had this perfect little gem sitting in my hands. Animus is termed “a moving picture book” and as such has some pop-up and sliding door/window sequences. While the mechanics are efficient and well done, it is the gorgeous artwork and rather unique story that made me a fan. Author/illustrator Seonna Hong has a perspective that is both fresh and appealing and she highlights it perfectly with this small tale of a little girl and a mean dog. Nothing earth shattering here -- the girl is sweetness and light and the dog is really a mean bastard -- but the way in which Hong presents her almost 1950s heroine and her clash with the endlessly angry dog is really quite charming.

Hong is an accomplished artist and actually got the idea for Animus while planning a 2004 solo show of her work in New York. “[I] only imagined in my wildest dreams that it would be published,” she wrote me recently, “...so really the initial intent was to just put it out there and hope that it resonated with a wide group of people.” She considers herself an artist first, who “created a narrative for readers of all ages.” As the story is simplistic on one level and rather witty, even cheeky, on another, it was clear to me that Animus would suit readers from my own four-year old son to the typical misunderstood teenage artist and most certainly should be appreciated by all moving book aficionados.

What really intrigued me about Hong’s art however, and made the book that much more surprising, is her characterization of her work as “as a sort of visual journal... my ‘Railroad’ show was a reflection of my feelings of being a new mother... and then Animus being a general story of finding resolution -- I think that's something that we're doing throughout our lives -- and most recently "People in the City" being about relationships... connectedness and disconnectedness in the city.”

As an artist, she comes to writing from a different place -- a different point of view – and that difference made Animus just that much more unusual and thus appealing to me. I hope that she continues to publish, in any format, and that her fans from her other career will follow her. Animus should be just the first book from Hong, and not an aberration. “I also think that because I straddle the animation world and the fine art world, my audience is getting used to the fact that I like to change it up, shift gears, try new things... so sometimes along the way, new people get a chance to see what I'm doing.”

So certainly there is more for young readers and art fans to look forward to from Seonna Hong!

Finally, one of my favorite childhood books was a series of encyclopedias, The Book of Knowledge. (I really am revealing myself to be a major geek here, aren’t I?) The set covered a ton of different subjects, like most reference books, but what drew me to them were the story collections in each volume. I liked the fact that there was no theme requirement to those volumes -- a fairy tale story would be printed side by side with something funny or thoughtful or dramatic. I was reminded of The Book of Knowledge when I picked up the second volume in the Kids’ Night In series -- it is the same sort of eclectic offering and just as satisfying as my childhood memory. That these stories are all written by contemporary authors to raise money for the international agency War Child just makes the collection that much more impressive.

Kids’ Night In is an Australian publication, (the first volume is available through Amazon’s Canadian site, and Girls’ Night In, its chick lit companion, is available in the U.S.), and as such introduces a lot of authors that North American readers might be unfamiliar with. There are over fifty stories, poems and illustrations in the new volume and while I had some immediate favorites, the book appeals on every level. You can find cute, happily-ever-after stories here, as well as snarky teenage fits of fancy, (Linda Aronson’s “About Last Night” is the funniest excuse letter I’ve read), straight fantasy, dramatic looks at modern war and its effect on civilians and on and on. Anthony Horowitz has a chapter left out of his first Alex Rider book, Margo Lanagan contributes a heartbreaking poem of quiet contemplation and Eoin Colfer has a story about post WWII Poland, a fish and a boy that manages to be more about a boy and his grandfather than anything else and nothing at all like the Artemis Fowl books, which was a surprise, but a pleasure nonetheless.

I was quite happy to see John Marsden here, because I am a big fan of his picture books, and his story, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” is a great take on the genre and presents the sort of situations that I personally always suspected were lurking in those sort of books -- most writers are just too afraid to let them out. (Marsden, rest assured, is afraid of nothing.) Garth Nix catches a giant octopus, or so he says, and Chef Jamie Oliver even provides a recipe for mini pizzas. There are some comics, some stories about animals, both large and small, and Sally Rippin has written a story called “Tropical Disease” that I swear I was told by a guy I knew in Alaska, and it really happened, just like she says in the story -- honest!

I have come across other anthologies for young adults, but they are almost always build around themes and while some of them can be quite good, they don’t introduce their readers to new authors or new genres; they serve a specific audience and that’s it. Kids’ Night In Vol. 2 is what my parents would have considered an excellent travel book when I was growing up -- it’s the sort of thing that could be traded back and forth between my brother and I and both of us would have found plenty in here to enjoy. More importantly, readers will find a ton of new authors to explore further after dipping into this collection which is exactly the sort of thing they should do after starting here. Finally, War Child is an excellent and impressive charity to support, especially when we all seem so hellbent lately on creating as many child refugees as possible. Buy the book, enjoy some great literature and help change the world for some desperate kids. You couldn’t ask for a better way to start the New Year off right.
Rocket Science by Jay Lake
Fairwood Press 
ISBN 0974657360
220 pages

The Aquanauts by John Lunn
Tundra Books
ISBN 0887767273
221 pages

Animus by Seonna Hong with Shenne Hahn
Baby Tattoo Books
ISBN 0972938850
32 pages

Kids’ Night In Volume 2
Puffin Books
ISBN 0143300164
465 pages