Friday, June 20, 2014

FIREFLIES by Bree Wolf: a Review by J. Lee Graham

Bree Wolf’s Fireflies, her first it seems in the Middle Grade Genre, is an oddly wonderful fusion of The Well-Wishers by Edward Eager and the Southern Gothic stories of Truman Capote. Ms. Wolf has created a delightful, sweet twelve-year-old boy named Gabriel, who lives in New York City and inside his computer in a fantasy world adventure game where characters use stereotypical face-cringing Tolkien speak. I love how Ms. Wolf creates one of those god-awful fantasy games complete with cheesy dialogue and everyone eating stew.

Her hero Gabriel laps it up. It’s all he has. His parents are a dysfunctional mess (taking no responsibility for Gabriel’s spiral into this addiction in the first place) and Gabriel tends to respond to their screaming and their horrible behavior by pressing his nails into his palms in a type of pre-adolescent PTSD which breaks your heart. To add to this, no one at school even knows or cares who he is. When Ms. Wolf writes simply, as she does describing a ridiculous game of hangman in the classroom, you want to reach out through the pages and take Gabriel on a long walk.

As the class kept guessing, Gabriel crouched down in his chair, letting his hazelnut hair fall in his face. He had figured out the answer long before the hangman eventually died on the noose, but he didn’t raise his hand. He never did. They would all look at him if he did. The mere thought made his hands tremble.

His parents force him to go to North Carolina (on a 10-hour train ride? I didn’t understand that one as they live in a two- story apartment in Manhattan and could afford plane fare.), but it is here that the novel kicks in. There is a lot of plot: a sick girl, a scavenger hunt and on and on, and while at times, it may feel like too many things happen in all of one summer, it was the characters themselves that kept me reading Fireflies. This was the glue Ms. Wolf uses to create some wonderful friends for Gabriel to slowly commune with. Their dialogue was fun and natural and even when one of them calls another a “drama queen” (do kids even say this, and do they know the actual history of the expression?) it didn’t matter. Relationships in a MG novel have to work for me regardless of the plot, and there are moments of real beauty when Ms. Wolf allows her characters to breathe and find each other and above all, commit to each other.

Many of my favorite scenes centered around the local swimming hole, and I had to marvel at the (subconscious?) themes Ms. Wolf utilizes. {In two of my own time travel MG novels, a lake is featured prominently, not simply for plot points, but as a strong metaphor for transformation.} It is an ancient metaphor, the ‘baptism’ if you will of a character coming to terms with a newer part of him/herself. In Fireflies, each character has an interaction with the water that subtly exposes his or her hidden fears and gifts.

Another powerful symbol is the use of scissors by a female character when interacting with Gabriel. What she creates with the scissors seemed to be pushing the believability envelope, but their conversation, her intention and the ritual and the symbolic meaning behind it all was quite moving.

The use of technology in MG is so difficult sometimes and often I find myself scratching my head wondering how to incorporate it into fiction without it erasing all the drama and tension. In this novel, the techno traps did confuse me. Gabriel has a cell phone (we learn much later in the story), but there’s no mention that he either calls or doesn’t call his parents and vice versa. The characters can take pictures and send them to each other on their phones, so that means emails and internet access, yet Gabriel doesn’t use the phone to play his fantasy game? He instead, goes into a library and simply logs on to his game. There is no mention that he has a library card that would allow him to do this.

Some continuity issues with months and school schedules (the North vs the South) also pop up, but these are all trivial details. Perhaps just a good copyeditor to tighten up the inconsistencies is all that’s required.

Gabriel comes through in the end, and I hope there perhaps is a sequel in the works. Ms. Wolf is getting her feet wet and one can feel her itching to write more. Again, Ms. Wolf’s sympathetic and sensitive writings around relationship, friendship, the power of living in the present, and living life to the fullest are tremendous enough reasons to read this charming book.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

High Wind to Idaho by Rod Barclay: A Review

In Rod Barclay's terrific adventure yarn, High Wind to Idaho, the love Mr. Barclay has for historic narrative that crosses cultures and binds them is fully displayed in his premiere Middle Grade novel. The plot is relatively straight-forward and any jump to the Amazon listing provides the details

Mr. Barclay has done his homework and it shows. His creation of an Idaho farm, a Japanese home, the beauty of San Francisco and the inner workings of train travel, all set in 1896, is marvelous. The book is full of scientific details about airship travel and temperatures and altitudes, barometric pressure etc etc to fill the heart of any ten year old budding scientist, and it is cleverly worked into a story line that is quite appealing. 

The two boys, Yoshi and Billy, from two very different worlds, become a metaphor for so many themes in this novel. There is not only the major theme of friendship despite or because of their cultural differences, but also broader themes that touch on race, prejudice, mass hysteria and our own universality in this journey of life.  Sometimes Mr. Barclay dips in and touches the themes, and when he does, it is beautiful. Often they simply resonate like a dinner bell on an Idaho farm. 

Mr. Barclay presents a great concept: seeing two very different cultures through two very different eyes. The hard part with a tale such as this one was deciding who the main character really was. Equal weight was given, so it seemed, to both Billy and Yoshi, and while it felt as if the tale was, in theory, through Billy's eyes, having the other point of view expressed almost equally left me feeling a little unsteady. 

Mr. Barclay provides warmth to his characters and allows them to be vulnerable which is one of my favorite qualities when reading fiction in this genre. When tensions mount, he doesn't quickly resolve the issue, and the train ride to San Francisco had me reaching for some herbal de-stressers.  Often, the Idaho community speaks like they're straight out of "Little House on the Prairie" (" fair makes my heart ache...") and the hokeyness of it all got a little strained. There were a few anachronistic touches that jarred me once in a while. Would a boy from 1896 think the words, What the? ?

These are trivial. The book is great. The story is a blast. Thank you, Mr. Barclay, for a very enjoyable read. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fourth and Ape, the Field Goal Kicker with the Secret Gorilla Leg by Jeff Weiss: A Review

Jeff Weiss' first Middle Grade novel, Fourth and Ape, the Field Goal Kicker with the Secret Gorilla Leg  is a fun 'boy' adventure reminiscent of the old Disney movie, "The Absent-Minded Professor" and other such genres. Mr. Weiss' Amazon page spells out the plot and there isn't much more to it than that, but the protagonist begins to grow on you as he tries to deal with his new found dilemma. With a nod to Kafka and a twisted nod to steroid use in sports today and all its ethical and legal ramifications, Mr. Weiss shies away from becoming too serious. While the book is touted for readers aged 7-12, I would think this work (with its more simplistic dialogues) would appeal mostly to the 7-10 year olds. 

It takes awhile (a bit too long for me) to figure out some basic premises. I never knew where the action takes place, and it isn't until pg 202 that seagulls are mentioned, so I know the setting is, at least, somewhere coastal.   Mr. Weiss writes in the first person and for many, many pages "I" is just a high schooler "I" (with a short physical description thrown in) and there is an odd weightless feeling that keeps the book from being grounded. I am one of those readers who wants the three unities established from the get go so that I can begin the journey on sure footing. On page 30 "I" finally identifies himself as Ivan Zelinka; on page 67 we are told he drives, so he must be at least 16, but these piecemeal tidbits tossed at us seemed unsettling. It was hard to establish the essence of the main character: I wanted something concrete to hang my hat on. After page 67, I felt 'better'.  Perhaps a nine-year-old would not be so picky.

Don't get me wrong: Mr. Weiss has a great story, and I actually laughed out loud when the Coach says to Ivan, "What the heck did you eat for breakfast?" The football narratives are compelling and fun and full of those terrific grounded details I longed to see in the other scenes. The scientists are one-dimensional and somewhat silly, but the whole plot is silly and Mr. Weiss, you can tell, is smiling as he writes each enjoyable word. 

A bit of continuity can go a long way. A trip to the zoo just at sunset becomes a four hour tour whereby at the end of the tour the narrator writes, "Everyone groaned. No one wanted to go back to the tents . It looked like there would be another half-hour of twilight..."
I don't know where this story takes place, but they have five hour long sunsets. Next time, I'll bring my watercolors. 

I also couldn't understand why a 6'3" high school footballer who weighs 200 pounds would be wearing pajamas while camping in a tent. 

But those are annoying details that can be readily explained. Mr. Weiss clearly loves his character Ivan. He endows him with the skills and the sensitivity to see the powerful force and lessons the animal kingdom can teach us. He gives Ivan an innocence and growing pains all at the same time, and I love that Ivan understands the yin and yang of food and reads Kafka in German.  Now if he would only stay away from those mysterious laboratories late at night. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: Mystery on Church Hill by Steven K. Smith

Steven K. Smith has written a short Middle Grade novel (#2 in a series) called Mystery on Church Hill where the main character, a 3rd grader named Sam Jackson, and his older brother (4th grader), Derek, join forces to solve a mystery. While the book describes itself as geared for readers aged 7-12, I would venture to guess it would be best suited for seven and eight year olds. Middle Grade is a very large genre. 

It's a short piece where I was reminded of the "Scooby Doo" series of old and I couldn't tell if Mr. Smith was exhibiting a tongue in cheek homage to an old favorite of his (the villain actually says, "meddling"!) or simply innocently writing toward an audience for which this book is intended. 

The story is set in Richmond, Virginia and it felt like a world most comfortable for those readers who enjoy and resonate with a more suburban culture. There is a 'cartoon' feel here as all the adults are one-dimensional, and again, because of my estimate of the age range of its readers, the book would still hold their interest. Often, Sam and Derek felt like they were whirling around inside a giant cartoon. Everything felt rather antiseptic, and I was looking for something more solid to hang my hat upon, but then again, a seven year old would probably not even notice. 

Where Mr. Smith shines is when he involves us in actual historic events. The places and people and the skullduggery that beleaguered the famous and infamous of the 18th Century suddenly grounds the book and the cartoon wash instantly evaporates. Mr. Smith is passionate about this and the book is a terrific portal to introduce history to young readers in a captivating way. 

My head scratching is with the characters themselves. I found that Sam and his 3rd grade companions acted and talked as if they were much older. The boys call each other by their last names in jock-like fashion and they interrupt the teacher incessantly in the classroom scenes with odd random one-liners. While I am completely supportive of writers who raise the bar on vocabulary, I was thrown by this level of discourse among third graders: 
“Wow, thanks for the pep talk, Derek,” said Sam. “You should be a motivational speaker."
And then there is this one: 
“A solar microscope, very interesting! It actually fits, given his Enlightenment philosophy – using light and your senses and all.”

I must be out of the loop. 

It's a quick read with a nice wrap up lesson. I applaud Mr. Smith also for a portion of his sales going to support CHAT: Church Hill Activities & Tutoring, a non-profit group who work with inner-city youth in the Church Hill area of Richmond. 

Perhaps that's the best lesson of all.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Graveyard Scavenger Hunt: A Review

Graveyard Scavenger Hunt, a Middle Grade novella by Brian Barnett, offers a refreshing young man named Pete Davidson. Pete has to stay with his mysterious, elusive grandparents for a week and in the first few chapters Mr. Barnett creates a believable dichotomous world. We see the contrast between Pete's more sheltered, synthetic life (he sits in the backseat as his mother drives him to the house; he brings two heavy, full suitcases with him when he is only staying a week), and the rural, organic life of his grandparents (who raise their own food and have goats for milking). Pete's reaction is one of uncertainty and fear. The relationships among the characters begin very believably as Pete gets embarrassed by yet desires his mother's support, has a father who is "very busy", and has to communicate with two very lovable yet unpredictable grandparents. (My only 'irk' was that I didn't know where the action took place. Was it in a particular state? I had to surmise it was Kentucky, but that is only a surmise.)

Mr. Barnett never loses sight of his main character and it's a relief to see a young boy so NOT sure of himself, who makes mistakes, rolls his eyes, and just plain feels lost. 

Even after a stern warning from his grandfather not to enter the adjacent cemetery, Pete jumps into it at sundown to retrieve a drawing that had blown away, and it's here that the novella takes on a completely different tone. Thrust into a new world that Tim Burton would most likely love to re-create for a movie set, Pete is forced to enter a Scavenger Hunt that has deadly consequences if he should lose. The Hunt is full of ghouls and witches and skeletons, and the characters spin by so quickly that it's a bit like Alice in Wonderland on speed. 

What Mr. Barnett succeeds at so effortlessly is keeping Pete grounded while battling these baffling demons. Pete may not be strong or athletic ("All the years of watching television and playing video games had sapped him of his childhood energy.") and his fears keep him very paralyzed at times, but his ability to talk his way out of situations is his finest coup. 

I only wished Mr. Barnett had made the book longer: I wanted to spend more time in the Hunt and have deeper interactions with all the characters. But, as the ending soon provides, one can tell a sequel is in the works. 

This Middle Grade novel blurb says it is geared for kids ages 8-12, but I think it would work best for the 8-10 set. It's not that scary, nor was it intended to be. It's more like a wonderful ride at a theme park. It would make a great gift for a young boy to read and would hold his interest while he is in the car on a two-three hour drive to say, his grandparents' house. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Back to the Blog!

I've been weaning away from this blog, and I want to get it up and kicking again. I've put out an "APB" on Goodreads to all Middle Grade authors an invitation to read their work. Their piece must be finished, either published or self-published and I would review the piece on my blog page. 

Already, I have two authors contacting me, and the announcement went out yesterday! 

I want to give back to the Middle Grade Author Community what so many others have done for me: they've reviewed my time travel novels and posted them on line. Mahalo! 

So, feel free to contact me!