Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

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

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 foreign.

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 coming.

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
Ages: 12-17

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 fiction.

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 much story.

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.


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