Saturday, March 24, 2012

Chronal Engine

Chronal Engine by Greg Leitch Smith. Clarion Books, March 2012

UPDATE:  Since publishing this review Chronal Engine has been named as a Junior Library Guild selection!!  Congratulations to Greg!

It is always a joy to have a new book that no one knows about yet to share with the students and librarians.  I've been in that happy position this week as I've subbed in my district's libraries.  The short version of my book talk is: teens are forced back to the Cretaceous era on a rescue mission. This is no Land Before Time with cuddly, roly-poly baby dinos. These dinosaurs are looking for their next meal and would greatly enjoy a snack delivered from the twenty-first century. 

Soon-to-be-eighth-grader Max and his older twin siblings Emma and Kyle are resigned to spending the summer with their grandfather at his ranch while their mother is away on a dinosaur dig in China.  Soon after they arrive disaster strikes and Max must determine if the story of his great-great grandfather's Chronal Engine is true and if it really is capable of moving them back in time.  The reader can easily believe in the machine's abilities as Smith draws on his electrical engineering background to describe the electronics involved. It may be imaginary but is sounds technically feasible.. 

Of course there are dinosaurs, big dinosaurs, little dinosaurs, baby dinosaurs, flying dinosaurs and ginormous alligators. The action is fast paced and gripping as the rescue party discovers they are no match for the sheer mass of these animals, much less their claws and teeth. I admit to some audible gasps and "Oh NOs" while I was reading. OK, I may have even shrieked once.

Humorous shout-outs to Star Trek and Star Wars will tickle fans.  For Texans, there are landmarks, real and imagined, that evoke the Lone Star State. 

Smith demonstrated in his first book, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo that he has a fine ear for youthful dialog and humor.  (Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo is an excellent audiobook. The performers who read the story are pitch perfect which is a tribute to Smith's writing. I highly recommend it.)

Young paleontologists will find much to enjoy as prehistory facts and knowledge weave naturally into Max's thoughts and comments.

The book is also enhanced with full page black and white illustrations by Blake Henry.  His style gives the story the feel of a graphic novel.  Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series saw a return to the illustrated adventure novel which works with science fiction stories like these.  When storytelling with larger than life creatures it helps to show their size and weight. Here, the heroes' Volkswagen zooms beneath the legs and tail of a sauropod and a T-Rex turns and stares menacingly into the reader's eyes. 

Although the ages of the characters are eighth grade and high school, this book will also work very well with upper elementary school readers. Readers of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Red Pyramid series will be natural sells for this title. I would love to see the character Brick Heck (from the television series The Middle) reading this book.  I wonder how difficult it is to feature a non Hyperion title on that ABC network program?

Smith adds an "Author's Note" which cites many of his resources and reviews his efforts to accurately seat his story in current paleontology research.  Personally, I greatly enjoyed his discussion of the "Robinsonade" survival genre (Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Gulliver, etc.) and how it has been a staple in literarture, movies and television.  Chronal Engine fits perfectly into this tradition. I am hopeful that there will be additional books to follow. There are many points in the story to continue and Smith would have time to develop and deepen his characters.   The family is dealing with the loss of their father in Afghanistan. There is much here to explore besides another place and time.

Check out the interview with Greg Leitich Smith at cynsations
There is also a reading/activity kit , including an extensive Dinosaur Word Search at

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Midnight in Austenland

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale.  Bloomsbury, 2012

I'm afraid I am a sure-sell when all things Jane Austen. Hale's first book Austenland which I reviewed (here) in 2007 was entertaining Jane Austen fanfiction.  I savored the concept of a place like Disneyland for Austen lovers, hence the name Austenland.

The story was picked up by Twilight's Stephanie Meyer who is producing Austenland -- the movie which is in post-production according to IMDB.   If you wander back to July 2011 on author Shannon Hale's blog, squeetusblog, you will find her posting a bit about being on the movie set.

In this new book, Hale keeps the setting and some of the background characters including Mrs Wattlesbrook who manages the place, Colonel Andrews, who interacts with the visitors like a Disney Character at the parks, and Miss Charming, a perpetual guest at Pembrook. 

Charlotte Kinder is a divorced mother of two.  She is successful in business but feels alone and like a failure because of her divorce. When the opportunity to take a vacation presents itself, the travel agent suggests Austenland and Charlotte, who has only recently read Jane Austen's works, books the trip. 

Hale tells the story in a sort of pendulum swing fashion between the past and present.  The reader learns more about Charlotte's past as she tries to understand herself in an ongoing dialog with her Inner Thoughts. In the first story, Hale played off Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  Here she puts a spin on Northanger Abbey.  Has there been a murder at Pembrook Park or is Charlotte, like the NA character Catherine Morland, seeing things that are not there? 
This was a fun read for spring break.

As New Zealand discovered there is gold in fan loyalty.  This time around Peter Jackson et al are rebuilding Hobbiton for the filming of The Hobbit so it will be a permanent part of the New Zealand tourist trade for year to come. (See Hobbiton Movie Set Tours)  I wonder if a similar idea might be pursued to create a real Austenland type hotel for Austen fans.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Great Spring Break Read-a-thon

I have decided to see how many books I can enjoy over Spring Break. It will be productive and edifying to devote a swath of time or maybe at least a small corner of time to reading this week.  We are enjoying local entertainments instead of traveling so I will enjoy a vacation of reading. 

As Emily Dickinson described it so well:

There Is No Frigate Like a Book
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

On the Blue Comet

On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells.  Candlewick, 2010.

On the Blue Comet was a pure joy to read.  My childhood memory of pressing my cheek against the train board to gain a eye/ground level view of the trains was echoed in this story.   The story's main character, eleven year old, Oscar Ogilvie is a kindred spirit as he performs the same ritual. We both were trying to imagine ourselves into the small world of the trains.

When I was a child, we had a model train set up.  We did not have a basement but my father designed a over-sized folding platform for our HO model trains which included a train we had actually ridden on, the Santa Fe Railway Super Chief.

Wells sets her story during Great Depression. Oscar and his father share a love of model trains and they have an elaborate set up in the basement of their house.  Each year they add to their collection but the hard economic times have put a stop to that.  In fact, things are so bad that they must sell the train set to the local bank manager who uses the trains as a display in the bank lobby.  Oscar's father leaves to look for work in California, promising to send for Oscar when he finds some.  The kindly night watchman at the bank allows Oscar to visit and run the trains after the bank closes.  One night the lobby is invaded by bank robbers and Oscar escapes into time and an unlikely landscape.

This story mixes history, time travel, and fantasy along with cameo appearances by some famous people in history.  A great deal of the reading fun was identifying the people Oscar comes in contact with. 

Bagram Ibatoulline has contributed glowing paintings that have been meticulously researched.  Period fashion and architecture are reflected in illustrations which allow the reader to reach back in time too.

The book reminds me of how much model trains added to our childhoods. We learned -- hands-on --about electricity, direct current, transformers as well as trouble-shooting, patience and craftsmanship.