February 27, 2014

Nate the Great

Better Nate Than Ever
by Tim Federle

Nate Foster has always dreamed of being on Broadway. But stuck in small town Jankburg, Pennsylvania, his dream may never get off the ground. So with help from his best friend, Libby, he takes off for New York City, intent on landing the starring role of Elliot in E.T. the Musical. Nate's audition is a total disaster, leaving readers thinking it's all over. But then he gets a callback! Thus the tale begins anew, with many more ups and downs that are emotionally exhausting. However, Nate's got a ton of chutzpah and he doesn't give up easily. He'll have you cheering for him all the way. No wonder reviewers everywhere love this book. 

For more on Nate's adventures in showbiz, read the sequel Five, Six, Seven, Nate!And to avoid an audition disaster, get Acting A to Z: The Young Person's Guide to a Stage Or Screen Career by Katherine Mayfield (reviewed on my other book blog: inquisitive-kids.blogspot.com).

February 25, 2014

Stage training

Theater Shoes
by Noel Streatfeild

When orphans Sorrel, Mark, and Holly are sent to live with their grandmother, a renowned British actress, she immediately enrolls them in the Children's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. The children are reluctant at first, especially as they're expected to be stars, but they soon get used to it. Sorrel discovers a talent for drama, Holly shows flair as a comedienne, and Mark has a good singing voice.

Streatfeild depicts a theatrical education and career very well, especially the pressure that comes from teacher and family expectations. Sorrel has the most difficulties, battling feelings of inadequacy as she goes through auditions, and dealing with the jealousy of her actress cousin Miranda. Kids will also have a fondness for Mark, who wants to be a sailor not to an actor. He's helped by Petrova of Ballet Shoes fame, who hadn't wanted a stage life either.

Readers who enjoyed Ballet Shoes and Streatfeild's other shoe books will like Theater Shoes as well.

February 19, 2014

Lois Lowry's masterpieces

The Giver Quartet
by Lois Lowry

Anyone who has ever read The Giver, Lowry's first book in this collection, has never forgotten it. The story of Jonas and Gabriel will haunt you long after you have finished it. The sense of unease continues in the second book, Gathering Blue, which, while not a sequel, nonetheless continues the themes of freedom and choice introduced in the first. Each book in the set can be read on its own, but they are even more powerful when read in sequence. Irrepressible Matty from Gathering Blue gets his own story in Messenger, while all characters come together movingly in Son, the concluding book of the quartet.

Words can't really express how great these books are. I can only say that you must read them! Very highly recommended.

February 12, 2014

Last Wild Boy not very successful

The Last Wild Boy
by Hugh MacDonald

In a city called Aahimsa, men have become outsiders - forced to live outside the city walls. Those who aren't terminated are kept as laborers or sperm donors. Sexual relations are forbidden and children are conceived by artificial insemination or cloning. The city is ruled by women, also known as insiders. In this futuristic story, an insider named Nora finds an outsider baby. Her decision to keep him becomes a desperate life or death struggle. 

The story is divided into three parts. The first part describes Nora's escape from Aahimsa, the second part has her meeting an outsider named Mabon, who helps her find the Happy Valley, and the third part takes place nine years later, when the valley comes under attack. A subplot concerns Nora's friend Alice, who is the daughter of Blanchefleur, the mayor of Aahimsa. Blanchefleur is determined to eliminate Nora and Adam (the baby grown into a boy), while Alice prepares for her future as a mother-to-be. 

I couldn't help comparing The Last Wild Boy with Lois Lowry's superior novel‚ The Giver.  Both portray seemingly safe communities that mask ulterior undercurrents, both have babies in need of saving, and both feature characters who dare to look for something better. However, MacDonald's story lacks the subtlety of Lowry's novel and the emotional resonance is somewhat muted. Part of the reason is writing quality. Where Lowry keeps to one perspective and uses tight, descriptive prose, MacDonald offers several perspectives and long, overly descriptive passages. He describes every character's appearance, every act they undertake, and every detail of any room they happen to be in. It slows the story's pace, and makes for stretches of boring reading.

Another reason is the story itself. Jonas, of The Giver‚ comes by his awareness gradually, so that his reasons for saving Gabriel is very clear. It's uncertain why Nora decides to save Adam. She is fully aware of termination and up until she finds the baby, she has no problem with it. Indeed, she gets angry when anything contradicts the history that she knows. Even though she and Mabon have a growing attraction, and they've lived among outsiders for nearly ten years, her views haven't changed. She even prevents Adam from knowing about his past and why he is special.

Alice (Nora's friend) is an underused character. She is even more conflicted than Nora because she will eventually succeed her mother as mayor. But she is given little to do. I suspect MacDonald was unsure about her also since her scenes always felt like an intrusion.

The ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and Adam's easy acquiescence (to go into hiding) is mystifying. Maybe if it had been Adam's story to begin with, The Last Wild Boy might have been a more satisfying book.

February 5, 2014

Mermaid tale disappoints

Kira's Secret
by Orysia Dawydiak

Kira has never been to the beach by herself. Her parents have forbidden her to go anywhere near the water. Frustrated, Kira starts sneaking out to the seashore anyway and makes an unusual discovery: her hands appear webbed under salt water. It's clear that Kira is a mermaid. Now unsure of who her parents really are (Kira is adopted), she tries to find out more about her background.

An interesting premise is marred by inconsistent characters and illogical behaviours. Kira starts her search for her family not, as one would presume, at an adoption agency, but in the library, where she checks out books on mythical sea creatures. She is described as timid and hesitant, but as soon as she grows a tail, she becomes headstrong and sassy. Her friend Cody scoffs at the existence of mermaids, yet researches them anyway and accepts Kira a little too readily. When he and Kira start searching the sea, they do so without maps or any real knowledge about where to look. However, Kira conveniently meets a pod of dolphins who just happen to know where some merrow live. These merrow turn out to be Kira's relatives, who don't exactly welcome her kindly. Yet her snobbish cousins suddenly tell her that her parents are still alive and where to find them. But she doesn't find them! The open ending makes clear that another book is planned.

Readers who stick around will rightly assume that Kira will reunite with her parents and possibly make peace with her other relatives. She'll also have to contend with some school bullies who suddenly pop up in the final chapter. They spread a nasty but unbelievable rumor about her, using language that sounds really out of place. It makes the story sound even more serious than it did before. It needs a dash of lightness and a slower pace to fully develop into a more compelling read.