Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
January 2007

The Big Empty by J. B. Stephens
Razorbill (Penguin), Copyright © 2004
Paperback, 214 pages
Age Group: 12 up

The United States has been decimated by a virus know as Strain 7. However, it wiped out whole cities before it got its name. Strain 7 was not partial in doing its evil work. Among the dead are most organizations, the most crucial being the government of the United States of America. The President is now a self-appointed dictator who used to be a television news anchorman. Think of the weatherman in the White House. Congress no longer exists and has been replaced by a board of directors hand picked by the "President."

The president and his board of selected survivors have decided it is best for the nation to displace all of its virus survivors in the coastal states leaving the central United States a forbidden and barren land known as "The Big Empty." No rationale is ever explicitly provided for this policy except that of consolidation of resources. However, one gets the opinion that the President's goal is control of these resources is the vast area formed by this forced migration.

It has been two years since Strain 7 ravaged Los Angeles. Living in this horrid, government-controlled and soldier-enforced housing project are our survivors, those who were naturally immune to Strain 7. Living in this new world order is Keely Gilmore. A high school student who lost her father and little sister to the virus and her doctor, mother to a crushing regime of virus research and hospital work. For all intents and purpose Keely is motherless as well.

Keely feels she has no future. What good are her excellent grades and scholarships in a world where very few professors actually survived? Teachers need only have a slight ability in a needed area to become a teacher. No credentials are needed. That would be like asking me to teach history when I only have an interest in the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

Instead Keely is worried that she has no future at all until she is contacted by a guide from the fabled new capitol in the midst of the Big Empty. Keely sets out for her journey across America to find Novo Mundum which is Latin for "New Beginning."

Along the way, Keely meets six other youths who are headed in the same direction. United by a common cause to find a life better than in the government controlled coastal states, they set out together to find Novo Mundum. Along the way they encounter government soldiers and extremist rebels who murder and pillage. Called the Slashes due to the self-inflicted scars on their right cheek, soldiers are to be feared because it is rumored they shoot on sight when patrolling the big empty.

This is a novel of extreme circumstances and utmost character. Here Mr. Stephens has done his greatest work. Character development in this story is artfully crafted. It doesn't take much to identify with any one of these seven souls because they are indeed believable. No cardboard stand-ups here.

Furthermore, each of the characters has a skill needed for the journey to be successful. However, often they don't know they have the courage they need to survive a situation until that moment comes. Like when frail and fragile Irene holds a gun on two others until she is positive they are friends or enemies. She does not hesitate to fire the weapon.

There is also tension between a couple of the teens that could lead to disaster if not checked. The tension between the cast of characters keeps the story going and keeps one turning page after page.

My only complaint with this novel is that the ending is too abrupt. Up to the last two pages, this story moves along like a locomotive with each page revealing new information. Then, boom, the book abruptly ends. The players we have learned to love and upon whom we place out trust are led to the gate of Novo Mundum, welcomed, and we never get to see what's inside. How does the community operate and what happens to our pals when they are inside? Do the love interests intensify? Do they share a bond and hang together as a group? Why were individuals recruited? Do they each have some special skill?

In spite of a lack of closure, I recommend this novel as worth the time. As stated before, every page is a joy to read and the characters are memorable. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works.

Red Rider's Hood by Neal Shusterman
SPEAK (Penguin), Copyright © 2005
Paperback, 181 pages
Age Group: 12 up

Red Rider's Hood is the second book in Shusterman Darkfusion books. This is not a trilogy, nor a series but a collection of stand alone novels. You need not read Darkfusion books in any order and that's a major benefit.

What is a Darkfusion book? Shusterman states, "I have always been intrigued by innate creepiness of fairy tales. I became excited about the idea of 'fusing' them with mythological stories and legends." In this particular book, Shusterman successfully weds the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood with the legends about Werewolfs. Dread Locks, which I reviewed last month, is also a Darkfusion book.

Red Rider is a sixteen-year-old boy who comes to stay with his grandmother while his parents are on a second-honeymoon cruise for three weeks. Little does Red know that his grandmother is a werewolf hunter from the old days when she and her husband followed werewolf rumors from city to city to clean them out. She knows all there is to know about werewolves.

Red comes to town and immediately notices that something is wrong. People walk around looking at the ground to avoid eye contact. He learns of two gangs: the Wolfs and the Crypts. The leader of the Wolfs, Cedric Somes, steals Red's newly-restored Mustang. Red goes to get it back and notices the entire gang seems strange. He later learns they are werewolfs. At this point Red learns about his grandmother's participation werewolf war some thirty years ago and that the girl he likes is a werewolf hunter as well.

Red volunteers to become a double agent. He's quick on his feet and always good with a joke. Something weird begins to happen to Red the longer he pretends to be a werewolf pledge. He starts thinking how cool it would be to become a wolf. First he must prove his is worthy by performing several tasks set for him by Cedric. The longer Red pretends to wish to become a wolf, the more he actually does. Soon he is torn between his grandmother and the wolf club.

Once again Shusterman produces a page-turner that is unique in its construction and purpose. Shusterman's economy of words is evident again. What Shusterman can do in 181 pages, would take another writer 300 pages. Shusterman's books grab you with their information-rich pages of wit and wherefore. In a day of long, drawn out series like Robert Jordan's Eye of the World, it's refreshing to be able a find a novel that can be read in a couple of days and yet is as fulfilling as a 600 pager.

Red Rider's Hood has my most sincere recommendation. Use it for a quick fix in-between the struggles at school or work. It is a striking fusion of Little Red Riding Hood and the legends surrounding werewolves. I highly recommend this novel.

Duckling Ugly by Neal Shusterman
Dutton (Penguin)
Hardcover, 211 pages
Age Group: 12 up

Cara is a high school student and hideously ugly. Her face is deformed and covered with zits and other oozing wounds. Every mirror she looks in cracks and every pool of water clouds over. I would assume that anything that holds her reflection, shopping store windows and such, would shatter as well. Whatever it is that shatters does it with such violence as to embed shards in Cara's face and other exposed skin. If Helen had the face that launched a thousand ships, then Cara has the face to sink them.

Not only does she crack glass, she puts up with wisecracks as mean and ugly as her face. Her most popular class is English and she has excelled in spelling. Winning the spelling bee every year comes as a surprise to no one. Cara eats lunch alone except for the occasional student with a guilty conscience who thinks they can make amends for whatever they've done by eating lunch with the freak. Cara calls the chair where they sit the "Mercy Seat." She is not without a sense of humor and it's certainly better than that of her peers. Their favorite epithet is Flock's Rest Monster -- Flock's Rest being the town in which they live.

And then there is a boy, Gerardo. He first sits with Cara to get away from his mad girl friend. He doesn't know the reason he returns, but eventually he comes to know that there is a real person behind the ugly face. In fact, Cara has intelligence, wit, and deep feelings. As he begins to meet the real person and call her friend, Cara naturally falls for the only person who has seen value within her. Then he betrays her and in her rage she runs away to find her destiny -- something an acquaintance had emphasized she would need to do sooner than later.

In her rage, Cara marches out into the desert and much to her surprise comes upon a beautiful valley full of beautiful people. She dwells with them for a while and they accept her with all her faults. She comes to know that true beauty comes from beneath as she and Aaron come to love each other.

And the day comes when Aaron offers Cara the cure for her ugliness. She need only rinse her face from the water in a large basin deep within a cavern. The water drips from a gigantic stalactite above. Cara expects the water to cloud over when she gazes into the pool, but is does not. One splash of the cool, clear water and a tingling feeling. Cara stands and throws her head back to rid it of the extra water and the face revealed by that move is a face that could launch a million ships.

Shusterman's Duckling Ugly is the third and best of the Darkfusion series and is one of the most powerful books I've read. I would place is second only to Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. It is a perfect fusion of the ugly duckling fairy tale and the legend of the fountain of youth. And what it says about true beauty, due to an incredible plot twist, is breathtaking.

The Amulet of Samarkand: Book One in the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
Miramax Books, Copyright © 2003
Hardcover, 462 pages
Age Group: 12 up

His parents give up Nathaniel, for an untold sum of money, to become a magician. In the world of this novel there are two groups of people: Magicians and Commoners. Nathaniel is to become an apprentice to a magician. He loses his birth name, being called simply boy until his twelfth birthday when his master gives him a name. All very complicated and sad for the child.

Nathaniel embarks on his apprenticeship under the tutelage of an incompetent and cruel magician. Almost to Nathaniel's detriment is the fact that he is extremely bright. He masters much on his own just from reading in his master's library. He becomes a master magician long before his education is finished. This ability and its resultant skills allow Nathaniel to stay alive and escape grave danger throughout the book.

The other main character is a demon called Bartimaeus. He is summoned by Nathaniel and commanded to do a number of things. They develop a friendship that is unknown between magician and demon. Together they conspire and win back an item of magical proportions -- saying any more would give away the book. The point of view flops back and forth between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus. This is a unique relationship and only further installments of the trilogy will tell if they begin to work more closely all the time. Somehow I suspect that they will.

Nathaniel's pride is hurt at the first meeting of magicians he is allowed to attend by an evil magician named Lovelace. Nathaniel vows to get his revenge. This is when he begins to read on his own, practice incantations and experiment with magic. When he thinks he is ready he summons a demon, Bartimaeus, and commands him to steal a particular powerful magical artifact from Lovelace. The demon is successful but in spite of Nathaniel's precociousness, it is the beginning of trouble. Big trouble!

Lovelace is one of the most powerful magicians in the book. The stolen item is central to his hopes and dreams of even more power. One would think Nathaniel has met his match and then some. However, Nathaniel has a tenacious nature that surprises everyone except Lovelace. It all comes down to a final battle between Lovelace and Nathaniel. Lovelace wants to destroy and Nathaniel wants to save. In order to do so he must not only overcome Lovelace and his magic, he must also destroy the huge and horrible demon brought forward by Lovelace as well as a rift in the universe.

My only irritation during the reading of this novel was the footmarks in each section from Bartimaeus' point of view. Most of the footnotes are further explanations of statements in the novel's text made by Bartimaeus and most of them struck me as superfluous and trivial. Having to check them caused a loss of momentum in those sections, thus slowing down the reading of the entire work. I suggest that whatever part of them that is relevant should have been included in the text of the novel.

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