Dr. Dan's Elixir
|Potent Magic for Young Minds|
Dread Locks by Neal Shusterman
Dutton Children's Books, Copyright © 2005
Hardcover, 164 Pages
Ages: 12 up
Neal Shusterman does it again. He's one terrific writer. One thing that is so good
about Shusterman's books is that they are to the point. He tells a story unburdened
by verbosity and he tells it well. Every page reveals some important information.
Just as there are not too many words, there are none wasted either. Shusterman's
books are keepers and I like to keep mine in a prominent place in my home library.
Dread Locks will find a home there.
Peter Baer: the second son of very wealthy parents, basketball star his junior year,
good-looking, popular with the girls and bored out of his tree. Several times in the
book Peter comments about the problems of wealth. One point is that when you
have everything and can have anything you want, life becomes blasé. Nothing is
new or exciting. Peter has parents who are too busy making money to pay much
attention to their children, which also includes a little sister. Garrett, the oldest,
takes joy in making Peter look bad, Peter enjoys getting Garrett back and Katrina
enjoys the special status as youngest child and therefore gets away with what she
wants. This is Peter's world when the book begins. Then one day Peter goes back
to his bedroom after breakfast and finds a beautiful girl sleeping in his bed.
The beautiful girls turns out to be Tara who has moved into the mansion next door
with her parents who are never seen. Peter introduces Tara to his family, while in a
sort of semi-stupor. Strangely no one seems to upset that a total stranger had gotten
into the house and was sleeping in their son/brother's bed. By the way, Tara wears
sunglasses whether it's night or day.
This is the beginning of a whirlwind, rollercoaster relationship between Peter and
Tara. The more Peter likes Tara the less confident he feels about their relationship.
Tara is hard to explain without giving you the story. Let's just say that she is
strange. She has very unusual hair and seems to have some kind of power over
other people. Uncommon things begin to happen with the people at school and to
Peter. He begins to live a life of mixed feelings. A life of mixed morals where one
moment he approves of Tara's actions and the next moment he finds himself
opposed to them. Peter's actions show his ambivalent mental state. He follows
Tara's example or he rides like mad on his motorcycle to save someone from his or
her fate. However, all in all Peter is a goner. He's head over heals for Tara. She's
not just beautiful; she's exotic and seductive. A lethal weapon, so to speak.
Tara wins over Peter's conscious and seduces him to become like her. In the end
they share the same fate. I was saddened by the events at the end of the book. As
Peter was ambivalent over Tara, I found myself ambivalent about Tara and ended
up loving her as well. This is not to say that my affections did not include Peter.
It's just too easy to identify with one or both of these well-developed characters. At
the very least one can feel sorry for them both. Furthermore, Tara's victims are
usually people with a flaw of some sort that almost make the reader feel that they
deserve what they receive.
Shusterman's work here is a page-turner. That and the economy of words (length
of the book) make it a great ride. Shusterman never seems to fall short in his
descriptions of characters, depth of the story or plot. As in other Shusterman works
I have read, character development is supreme in his work. This book has no
cardboard stand-ups (a term that's mine as far as I know, it stands for a paint-by-number character, a façade, a veneer, in short a warm body to take up space). Even
Peter's wealth is not block to identification. We all long to be rich or we've seen
rich people portrayed in television and the movies, and thus identification is not
Second only to character is Shusterman's plot development. The plot here is
complex in that it not only deals with Tara's presence and her affect on others, but
there is growing tension between Peter's feelings for Tara and his conscious (while
he still has one). The conflicting feelings Peter has make him unpredictable and so
one never knows what is going to happen next. Knowledge of who Tara is weaves
in and out of the story giving the book a believable mystic thread that builds to
quite a crescendo. The plot twist at the end is so polished the reader never sees it
I highly recommend this book to young adults, but I do not limit that
recommendation to only young adults. I think adults of any age can enjoy this
book. I also think the story here is timeless. Dread Locks will become a classic
young adult read.
Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton
Delacorte Press, Copyright © 2006
Hardcover, 389 Pages
Age: 12 up
Endymion Spring is a Da Vinci Code for young adults. Not that young adults
would not enjoy or are incapable of understanding the Da Vinci Code by Dan
Brown, just that here we have a young adult novel with the same unpredictability
and complexity of code and clues. This is a captivating, page turning, and mind-boggling novel.
Blake Winters, twelve-year-old and reluctant companion, travels to Oxford
England with his mother and little sister. His mother needs Oxford, the college, to
do research for an academic book. Blake's little sister, Duck, is easily his
intellectual equal and probably around ten. She knows all the buttons to push to get
Blake's attention although he usually ignores her. Blake's parents are separated so
both of the children are stressed and depressed about their situation. In fact, Duck's
name -- and we never learn her real name or it slipped past me -- comes from the
fact that she wears a bright yellow raincoat with a orange hood all the time. On the
day of the "Big Argument" which led to the separation, Duck slipped into her
room. She returned with the raincoat on and said it was to protect her from her
parent's tears. She has worn the raincoat as a talisman ever since. Blake and Duck
are memorable characters wherein they take on flesh and blood in one's mind. I
found Duck to be more real because of the crazy stuff she does that my own
children have done. For example, my eight-year-old taught me how to pronounce
the first name in the title of this work. That is something Duck would do, just stick
her nose into Blake's business and give the solution to a problem.
So Blake and Duck find themselves on a research trip with their mother. What
could be more boring than spending time around scholars and the world's largest
library? Personally I would love it but that's the difference between a 55-year-old
and a 12-year-old. To Blake, it's the kiss of death. However, they are not in
England long before the book Endymion Spring throws itself at Blake. Literally.
The battered, old book is so irresistible that Blake sneaks it into his backpack. It's
not long before he discovers the book has magical properties. The main one being
the supernatural nature of the paper in the book. Among its fantastic features is the
ability to make print appear on a page and at the same time have that print readable
by only one person. To anyone else the book looks like it has blank pages. What
appears is usually in the form of a riddle that at first looks undecipherable but parts
of it come clear as pieces of the puzzle fall together.
Blake and Duck soon learn that the book they have is the key to finding the last
book. They do not know right away that the book, Endymion Spring, has chosen
them for this task. Others at Oxford are searching for the last book. Not for literary
reasons, but because legend has it that the last book holds the secrets of the world.
Top of the list being unlimited riches and unlimited power. Oxford is not without
it's greedy and power hungry people.
The pursuit of the last book brings Blake and Duck to the brink of death more then
once. Their race against time to find the missing pages of Edymion Spring is
exciting and spell binding. When all of Edymion Springs's pages are restored a
riddle appears that will lead to the last book. Pursuit of the last book impacts Blake
and Duck's personal world in more ways than just being pursued by people who
will kill for the book.
Edymion Spring is one of the best books I've read in 2006. As a debut novel it
stands out among the others I've read and reviewed. I recommend this book to
everyone above the age of twelve. Engage, be engrossed, enjoy and be enhanced
by this book.
Keeper Of The Isis Light, The by Monica Hughes
Simon & Schuster, Copyright © 1980
G. K. Hall & Co. Large Print Edition
211 Pages, Reprint 2000 by Sagebrush
Olwen Pendennis has been keeper of the Isis light since she was three. Her parents
were killed from exposure to too much radiation and died leaving her in the care of
an almost too human robot named Guardian. For thirteen years Olwen has been
alone with Guardian and together they have kept the light running. The Lights are
like the lighthouses of old. Safely keeping ships away from danger and leading
them to safe havens and hospitable planets. Planets suitable for human habitation.
And I doubt the lights are lights so much as they are subspace or radio
transmissions giving out planet coordinates to be used in hypo-space jumps (not
unlike hyperspace or warped space).
Olwen hasn't just kept the lights on; she's spent her life exploring Isis and has
come to think of it as her planet. She loves basking in the high-level radiation
beams from the planet's sun Ra. She has explored every mesa within sight and all
the mountains she can reach in a week. One of Guardian's rules is that she must
never wander further than "there and back again" in a week. Olwen knows every
tree, plant and insect. She has had a long time to study her surroundings and
become acclimated to Isis. Guardian has also helped her to become acclimated.
Suddenly the isolation that Olwen and Guardian have enjoyed for so long is broken
by contact from a colony ship. A ship from an overcrowded earth has always been
expected but never seriously considered. One day it is there and the next it is
landing and scorching the valley grasses with fire. Almost immediately Olwen
wants to visit the colonists and Guardian constructs a protective suit for Olwen that
includes a human looking facemask. Olwen does not want to wear it but Guardian
insists she must do so to protect her from any bacteria or viruses the colonists
might be carrying which could be of harm to her. Olwen agrees but feels awkward
and uneasy inside the strange suit. And why a faceplate that looks like a human
rather than a traditional helmet? Guardian reassures her that this is the safest
solution and never having had a reason not to trust Guardian, Olwen agrees to wear
the strange suit. One begins to ask questions about Olwen from this point.
Olwen isn't among the colonists long before she notices and meets a young man
her age named Mark. She shows him all the wonders of Isis even though he must
wear a heavy space suit to be protected from Ra's higher radiation levels in
Olwen's beloved mesas. During these explorations they talk of many things and
their relationship grows to the point of mutual love. Olwen has learned how lonely
she has been for the past sixteen years. This realization also changes how she
thinks about her relationship with Guardian.
Now you know about a third of this story. The rest of this novel, winner of the
Phoenix Award, is the story about the real pain one experiences in the transition
from adolescent to adult. It is also the story of love and loss in Mark and Olwen's
stormy relationship. Monica Hughes has done a superb job of bringing Olwen to
life as a fully fleshed out character that the reader learns to love and care about. I
must say that I am embarrassed for the remarks I made some months past about
Ms. Hughes book, Invitation To The Game. I loved the sweet sincerity of this great
story, one in which Ms. Hughes shows us all of the sides of coming-of-age: the
need for independence from authority figures, the need for interdependence with
friends and loved ones, and the need for intradependence wherein we learn to rely
upon ourselves. I most highly recommend this book and the hunt to find it.
Keeper of The Isis Light is a little hard to obtain. It can be had in three to four
weeks for $13.15 from Booksamillion.com. It can be obtained faster and cheaper
from Alibris.com and Half.com. Both web sites offer the book for less than $3.00
and both ship within two or three days after the seller receives the order. So happy
hunting and great reading.
Secret Under My Skin, The by Janet McNaughton
HarperCollins, Copyright © 2006
Paperback, 368 pages
Ages: 12 up
The Secret Under My Skin is a post-apocalyptic story. I have mentioned before that
this is my favorite sub-genre in science fiction. I love post-apocalyptic stories
because they let you see how people face the destruction of society and what they
do to rebuild it. It's a chance to see men, women and children at there very best
(and worst I should point out). It seems that human beings are their best when
things are at their worst. One is allowed to witness individual reactions to the
circumstances and come to understand what it means to be human in apocalyptic
This novel is the sweet story of Blake Raintree's journey from street urchin to
slave to servant to student. Blake must come to terms with who she is and what
that means. At the beginning she knows very little and thinks her name is Blay.
The secret under her skin is a microdot that her parents had injected there as a
precaution against the coming technocaust. The dot tells her real name and has a
recording from her mother. Starting with the microdot we begin to learn more
about Blake. She also has an object she was carrying when she began to work for
the Bio-Indicator. It's a cassette tape. Lem, who becomes a close friend and
protector, works out a way to listen to this piece of dead technology.
There are three parts to the society that Blake lives within. There are sections
where children run wild and have their own gangs or tribes, the work farms that are
very concentration camp oriented and then there are the communities which have
been maintained and protected by the weavers guild. Children, born to be free, end
up on the street or in a work camp and, if they are extremely fortunate enough, are
born in a community.
All in all this is a very interesting story and one comes to care a great deal for
Blake and the resolution of her problems. Why am I less than jubilant about this
book? Because it took until page 156 for the story to begin to go anywhere for me.
Sure we got lots of background in those first 156 pages, but it was overkill.
Twenty-five pages would have been sufficient to cover the background. We need,
but didn't get, more of Blake's life on the street. We get too much of her life as a
servant to Marella the new Bio-indicator. Way too much. Once the reader arrives at
page 156 the story takes off and it quickly becomes a page-turner with believable
characters and a real story line. One actually comes to care about Blake and what
happens to her as well as her friends and surrogate family. If I hadn't been doing a
review, I would have stopped around 50 pages because at that point there wasn't
I said I love good post-apocalyptic fiction and I do. That part of the story is
interesting and well thought through. It's the telling of the story that bogged it
down and made the book a labor to read. I've not read anything else from this
author so I can't recommend something redeeming. I can tell you there is better
post-apocalyptic science fiction out there. Try The Postman by David Brin, Earth
Abides by George R. Stewart, Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Alas, Babylon
by Pat Frank, No Blade of Grass by John Christopher, Ariel by Steven R. Boyett,
Davy by Edgar Pangborn, The Disappearance by Philip Wylie, Shade's Children
by Garth Nix and Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien to name a few.