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.