Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
March 2006

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
EOS, Copyright © 2004
$6.99, 501 pages
Age: 14 and up

The time is now, the day is today and the missing elements are airplanes and frequent flyer miles. They were never invented and the air is ruled by huge blimps or dirigibles (airships in the novel). These airships are more than just a blimp, they are opulent and grand. Given their huge size they can offer pleasure cruise accommodations and still get to their destinations relatively fast. Think of them as the Titanic of the air (no hint of ending here). So, if you need to go to England or India you hop an Airship and expect a very relaxing trip in a nice stateroom with extravagant meals.

This novel has all the adventure and intrigue to keep you turning pages. I could barely put it down. There is grave danger, emergency landings, possible sabotage during flight, pirates, cutthroats, a damsel in distress, and a new species of flying mammal to be discovered and documented.

Mr. Matt Cruse is the cabin boy. He was born on the Aurora, his father plunged to his death from the Aurora and Mr. Cruse has spent nearly all of the last three years of his life aboard the Aurora. Matt is a dutiful son and sends most of his pay home to help his mother and two sisters. He has done this since his father died three years ago.

Mr. Cruse comes from a poor family and we are never really told how much schooling he has. In spite of this and the curse of being the lowly Cabin boy Matt appears to be extremely bright and a fast learner. Matt knows every inch of his ship. Frequently throughout the book he refers to the Aurora as his ship. If there is a door or hatch somewhere, Matt knows where it is and the fastest way to get there. Without Matt Cruse there would be no book. He is the driving force within the story.

Yet Matt must overcome many obstacles that come with his youth. His feelings of inadequacy because he has no rank, officially not really part of the crew although he can take nearly any crewman's post in an emergency, his lack of rank and the fact he knows the ship better than anyone but the captain, the unfair loss of his post to sail maker (which is a crew position with rank), that he only feels close to his father when he is on board and in the air, and his growing attraction for Miss Kate de Vries.

Miss Kate de Vries is another matter. She may be rich, but she is no Barbie. Her family's wealth has not "undone" her. She has a bright, active mind, reads all manner of scientific magazines, and has the true heart of an adventurer. Her adventurous nature must be inherited from her grandfather. In the beginning of the book the Aurora makes a thrilling attempt to rescue Kate's grandfather from a severely damaged hot air balloon. It is a year after the tragic death of her grandfather that Kate and her guardian (think of Mary Poppins gone sour) show up on the Aurora to investigate her grandfather's death. The guardian doesn't know this and sleeps a lot and while she's asleep the mice play.

Kate is essential to the story because she is impulsive but not afraid. She'd be just as likely to swim across the Amazon as go to a tea party. This impulsive trait is what leads Matt into danger most of the time. Over time Kate develops a strong attachment and admiration for Matt, as he for her and the adventure becomes theirs. Never the less, one gets the feeling that Matt is sometimes torn between his loyalty to the Aurora and his feelings for Kate. Most of the actions in the story serve the goal of proving the existence of the "Cloud Cat." A hypothetical animal that Kate's grandfather was pursuing when his balloon was damaged. Kate inherited his logbook and believes he truly saw something miraculous and she intends to prove him correct. Oh, yeah, and don't forget the pirates.

I highly recommend Airborn by Kenneth Oppel to all readers. For your interest, there is a sequel out now in hard cover. Its title is Skyborn. Word has it that it's as good as the first. I'll let you know soon.

Airborn has garnered the following awards: Michael L Printz Honor Book, School Library Journal Book, ALA Notable Book, BCCB Blue Ribbon, Governor General's Literary Award Winner (Canada) and ALA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults.

ORVIS by H. M. Hoover
Starscape, Copyright © 1987, 2002
$5.99, 216 pages
Age Group: 10 and up

I must say from the get go here that I enjoyed this book so much it will become a permanent addition to my personal library and certainly I will read it again over the years to come. For a book that is aimed at a reading level of age ten and up, I found ORVIS to be quite full of sophisticated issues of which most ten-year-olds would not be aware or care about. Toby (Tabitha West) is tough, Thaddeus is good support, and ORVIS' every action or comment is a surprise. I would easily recommend this book to any of my associates who are on the other side of middle age like myself.

ORVIS is a multi-purpose, multi-function robot that has been ordered to a particular dump and to junk itself upon arrival. It appears that most of the earth is a landfill that spreads between cities. The children at Hillandale Academy refer to these vast horizons of trash as "the empty." ORVIS is an old robot. He has seen military action, planet exploration, library cataloguing and antique buying and selling, etc. from six owners. ORVIS currently has no owner and therefore no purpose and is therefore obsolete. Obsolete robots are usually scraped but ORVIS is so old that none of his parts are compatible with more recent models. Therefore he is to do nothing but think while surrounded in trash until his fuel cells are depleted (about 25,000 years).

Toby finds this situation unthinkable. We first see ORVIS through the blurry eyes of Toby. She is crying and has gone to the dump to be alone because her heartless parents, whom she never sees, are pulling her out of Hillandale Academy and sending her to another school on Mars. Toby does not want to change schools because she likes it down here on earth. Most people want to get off this rock and into one of the orbiting habitats than man has constructed for himself. Not Toby!

ORVIS is on his way to the dump as well and he (from what ORVIS says and does I have assigned him a male gender) and Toby meet on the road. Along the way they also meet Thaddeus who is another outcast for having been born in space and not a habitat. Being born in and grown up in space, Thaddeus is small for his age and is therefore picked on by the older children. ORVIS responds to all of Toby's questions and they have quite a conversation together. Toby, much like a child who finds a lost kitty, invites ORVIS to her room at the academy to hide. She feels what ORVIS has been ordered to do is not humane. From this point on, the story surrounds Toby's efforts to save ORVIS from destruction, find herself a way to stay on earth, and everyone live happily ever. Hey, what is fiction for?

Does ORVIS obey Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? Let's see. The first law states that a robot may not injure a human being, or though inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Time and again ORVIS comes to save the day. When Toby and Thaddeus least expect his help, ORVIS is there. He shields them, hides them and carries them off to safer places. ORVIS follows Asimov's the first law.

The second law of robotics states that a robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law. ORVIS was on his way to the dump when he met Toby. He was intent on going to the dump to spend the rest of his clockwork life. However, Toby spoke to him of freedom as they shared the road. Her logic was that having no owner meant he was free to pursue his own interests. She said it did not mean he had no purpose. ORVIS traveled on to the dump and thought a great deal about this new information. After some contemplation he decided to be free. Studying birds was to be his new purpose.

The third law of robotics states that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law. On the surface it appears that ORVIS obeyed this law by listening to Toby's arguments and freeing himself. However, when the second law was broken law three was automatically violated because the three laws are tied to each other.

Space does not allow me to elaborate on all the fascinating issues I found in ORVIS so let me list them so that you may discover them yourself and see what H. M. Hoover has to say on these topics.

  • Who people are is more important then how they look.
  • That being smart is more important than being popular.
  • That every choice we make in life leads to other choices therefore making the right choice is paramount.
  • That every lie we tell means we must tell another lie to protect the first lie and so on.
  • The dissolution of the nuclear family and the raising of children in hives.

Lastly, it is hard to close this discussion without at least one parallel to the Wizard of Oz. Surely ORVIS and the Tin Man are brothers. Both wanting the thing they already have - a heart. Remember what the Wizard said to the Tin Man when he gave him his heart? He said, "Remember, a heart is not judged by how much you love but by how much you are loved by others." Read the book and discover the heart of ORVIS.

The Various by Steve Augarde
Yearling, Copyright © 2004
$6.50, 448 pages
Age: 10 up

I have read a lot of books about magic, but never a book as magical as this. Where I may have doubted magic before, I will no longer. Where I have required hard data as proof, I will now trust my fellowmen. No longer will I doubt the existence of the various tribes of little people. Others have seen them, therefore I must believe.

It's been a long time since I read a book where I looked forward to the conclusion but dreaded it just the same. I think the last was back in 2001 when I read Replay by Ken Grimwood. Nevertheless, last night I found myself torn between a compulsion to get to the story's conclusion and an addiction I knew I would be unable to feed. It was a difficult time. Fortunately the second book of this trilogy is coming out in August just in time to save my summer. In the meantime, be sure you read this one.

Margaret, or Midge, is a twelve-year-old girl who gets to spend the summer at her uncle's farm. At first she dreads the idea, but she is unable to accompany her mother on her on a business trip. Midge is a strong willed, tough, funny girl. If she were my niece she could live with me year round. She's the kind of person who never gets underfoot or is simply a pain. Midge begins her summer by exploring the farm. Lots of outbuildings and barns exist as mute evidence to her uncle's inability to finish a project or embrace farming. And everything is in poor condition. What many would call rundown.

Midge begins her exploration of the out buildings and in one of them she finds a dog-sized horse with wings. The horse, which introduces himself to Midge as Pegs, is injured and trapped by a piece of farm equipment. Had Midge not stumbled across him, he would have surely died of his wound. She cares for the Pegasus until he is ready to move and carries him to his home. It is at the conclusion of this journey the Midge discovers the little people. Midge is astonished at the magic and wonder she sees. Pegs asks for her help in saving the forest they live in and Midge agrees. From this point forward the story is swift footed and sure.

Carrying Pegs home was no easy job and required crawling through a hidden tunnel in a large briar hedge that connects our world to the world of the Various. The tunnel is maintained by the little people but still contains needles and the sharp ends of branches. Midge is pretty scratched up when she enters the world of the Various of the Little People. The Various contains all the tribes of the little people. There are Elves, Dwarves, Fairies, etc. All the good creatures from the Lord of the Rings but none exactly alike. It is almost as if Augarde has taken the characters of all these beings, written them on ping pong balls and used a lottery machine to roll out his characters. He not only makes up new names for each tribe, but no particular creature can be followed directly back to any other book. The little people in this book are not stereotypes or flimsy paintings or shadows. They are fully fleshed right down to the tiniest of the Various. Neither is Midge or her two cousins, George and Katie. Katie, an unbeliever, turns out to be the Sigourney Weaver of this story and pretty much helps to save the day.

Mr. Augarde has crafted a masterpiece in this book. It is artfully done and reads like a hot knife through butter -- smooth and easy. One feels they are gliding through the book rather than trudging along. There is no trudging in The Various. I can honestly say there was something novel on every page. I recommend you read The Various. Celandine comes out in August. Then we'll see who gets to Bordors/Waldens first.

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