Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

pointofhopesFrom the back cover:
It is the time of the annual Midsummer Fair in the royal city of Astreiant, and the time of the conjunction of the spheres approaches, heralding the death of the monarch. Each year a few youngsters run away from home to go on the road with traders, but this year a far larger number of children than usual have gone missing during the Fair. Someone is stealing them away without a trace, and the populace is angry.

Nicolas Rathe, a city guard, must find the children and stop whatever dark plan is being hatched before the city explodes into chaos.

Review:
It took me nearly three years to finish reading Point of Hopes, and two months to write this review after I finally completed it. Those facts should give you a good indication of just how riveting this mystery isn’t.

Nicolas Rathe is a “pointsman” (basically a policeman) in the city of Astreiant. When dozens of children suddenly go missing, Rathe is on the case. He enlists a few friends to help—Philip Eslingen, a foreign mercenary to whom Rathe seems to be attracted, and a necromancer buddy from the local university who was, for some reason, played in my head by Paul Bettany. Primarily, Rathe’s investigation consists of visiting various parts of the city and talking to people to no avail, until finally a bit of evidence turns up on page 279. The three guys collectively put the pieces together, and I really liked the bits where they were working in concert. Too bad they were only together in the final 70 pages!

Thankfully, the setting of Point of Hopes is more intriguing than its central mystery. For one, gender equality is absolutely the norm. Just as many women as men participate in professions seen as traditionally male in our society, and many women are in positions of power. In the fantasy setting of Astreiant, your occupation is determined by the alignment of the stars at your birth, which reads to me as a metaphor for objectively selecting people for a job based solely on their abilities. Equality of sexual preference is also a facet of life in Astreiant—it’s not that same-sex relationships are merely tolerated: they’re commonplace. No one would think of considering them invalid or sinful.

Aside from not being very exciting, the most irritating aspect of Point of Hopes for me was the dire need for better editing. There were many, many, many instances where a comma was used in a spot that needed a semicolon and many pages that suffered from wall o’ text syndrome. I can’t help but feel like it would’ve read faster if it weren’t so dense-looking. Lastly, I wonder at some of the names. I tend to think characters’ names “aloud” in my head, and while this is obviously not a problem for the lead characters, I was stymied by names like “Cijntien.” Plus, it’s weird to have fantasy names like that alongside such normal ones.

Anyway, there is a sequel to this entitled Point of Dreams. I own it, so will likely read it someday, but at the rate I’ve gone with this story thus far, I wouldn’t expect a review until at least 2015!

Additional reviews of Point of Hopes can be found at Triple Take.

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Book description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

Review:
It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was a kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out their doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.

Additional reviews of Tomorrow, When the War Began can be found at Triple Take.

Conspiracy 365: January – March by Gabrielle Lord

For 2012, the three of us at Triple Take have decided to focus on YA fiction from Australia and New Zealand. First up is the first volume (January) of Gabrielle Lord’s Conspiracy 365 series, in which a teenage boy named Cal must survive attacks on his life for the next 365 days whilst investigating his father’s mysterious death. The publishing schedule was pretty nifty for this series, with the first twelve books (named after the months of the year) coming out throughout 2010 during the month reflected in their title. The thirteenth book in the series, Revenge, was published in Australia in October 2011, but hasn’t made it to the US yet.

Because I couldn’t read just one, please enjoy the first three books in the series, with more to follow!

Conspiracy 365: January
Fifteen-year-old Callum Ormond thought his father’s death six months ago was due to illness, but when a crazy-seeming figure (in requisite billowing black cloak) accosts him on New Year’s Eve and tells him his father was killed over something called “the Ormond Singularity,” he begins to wonder. Initially downplaying the warning that he himself should hide out for the next year, he is soon plagued by perils including: nearly drowning in a storm at sea, sharks, a sneaky uncle, foreclosure, fire bombs, kidnappers, criminals, and life as a fugitive. Aided by his friend Boges (no clue how to pronounce that), he tracks down some drawings his father made in his final days (which are reproduced in the book) and attempts to decipher their meaning, all while hiding out from the bad guys, the authorities, and his family.

It’s hard to really know what to say about January, since it’s almost entirely action. “Fast-paced but really kind of… empty” is a phrase from my notes that seems to sum it up best. That’s not to say I disliked it, because it was pretty entertaining. Okay, yes, already the repeated kidnappings are wearing thin, but it really does feel a bit like a 24 for teens, with Boges filling the role of Chloe to Cal’s Jack Bauer. This is aided by the way the story is written, noting the date and time for each first-person entry (though sometimes these occur during moments when one generally wouldn’t pause to describe what’s happening, like when trapped in the trunk of a car) and counting down the days until safety. The pages are numbered backwards, as well, which is a neat touch.

In addition, Cal seems like a pretty good kid. (You know you’re old when, instead of being fully swept away by the adventure, you’re thinking, “Aw, he’s thinking about how worried his mom must be. What a nice boy.”) I genuinely have no idea how he’s going to get out of the situation he finds himself in at the conclusion of this installment, but that’s okay because I have February right here!

Conspiracy 365: February
The basic plot of the February installment of Conspiracy 365 can be summed up as: Cal hides a lot, and also runs a lot. Perils faced by the teen fugitive include nearly drowning in a storm drain, nefarious people circulating recent pictures of him, and a freakin’ lion, which I thought was going to be the most eyeroll-inducing part of the book until the final pages saw him trapped on the tracks while the driver of an oncoming subway train frantically applies the brakes.

A teensy bit of progress is made toward solving the Ormond Riddle, as it appears that one of the drawings Cal’s dad made references the statue of an ancestor who died in the first World War. But that’s it. There’s no real change in Cal’s situation or his goals, unless you count the introduction of Winter Frey, ward of one of the guys out to get Cal. She proves useful, but may not be trustworthy.

Like January, this is a fast-paced and decently enjoyable read, eyerolling aside, but it’s difficult to find much of anything to say about it beyond that. I predict this will be the case for the next handful of volumes until some answers are actually forthcoming. I further predict that the answers will be rather lame, but I still intend to persevere.

Conspiracy 365: March
At first, I thought I was going to need the next batch of three installments immediately after finishing these, but now I’m ready for a break. It’s not that this series is bad, because it isn’t. But it is very repetitive, and the format enforces some implausible behavior on to the characters.

In support of the “repetitive” claim:
• In volume one, Callum has a wildlife encounter with a shark. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

• In volume two, Callum is rescued by a stranger, who becomes somewhat of an ally. Callum has a wildlife encounter with a lion. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

• In volume three, Callum is rescued by a stranger, who becomes somewhat of an ally. Callum has a wildlife encounter with a venomous snake. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

It’s probably not a good thing when your readers burst out laughing when the protagonist is bitten by a death adder! This makes me wonder what creatures will appear in later volumes. I am thinking there will be a bear. Are there bears in Australia? And there’s gotta be a dingo!

Regarding the implausible behavior… back in volume one, Callum discovered a slip of paper with two words on it, possibly the names of places in Ireland, where his dad discovered the details of this big family secret. Since that time, he’s been in internet cafés a number of times but only now, two months later, does it occur to him that he ought to look them up online. He also tries a couple of times to contact a former coworker of his father’s by calling the office, only to find the guy is out on sick leave. Why doesn’t he, say, find a phone book and try looking up the guy’s home number? Maybe we’ll have to wait until May for him to think of that.

More reviews of this series will follow eventually. In the meantime, feel free to make predictions for future wildlife encounters in the comments.

Additional reviews of Conspiracy 365: January can be found at Triple Take.

Hallowed Murder by Ellen Hart

From the back cover:
The police call Allison’s drowning a suicide, but her housemates at her University of Minnesota sorority insist it was murder. That’s when alumnae advisor Jane Lawless steps in to find out the truth.

Abetted by her irrepressible sidekick Cordelia, Jane searches for clues, and what she finds is as chilling as the Minnesota winter—for in those icy drifts, at a lonely vacation house, she risks everything to ensnare a cunning killer…

Review:
Minneapolis restaurateur Jane Lawless has volunteered to serve as an alumnae advisor for her former sorrority, Kappa Alpha Sigma. One morning, while out exercising with her reluctant friend, Cordelia Thorn, Jane discovers the body of one of the girls, Allison Lord. When the local police are quick to dismiss Allison’s death as suicide (which they attribute to confusion over her sexuality), Jane decides to do a little investigating of her own, eventually concluding that she’ll need to set herself up as bait to catch the killer.

I didn’t outright dislike Hallowed Murder, but it does have some major problems. Most significant is the fact that the culprit is not a surprise, thanks to a brief opening chapter that reveals their motive. Other aspects of the mystery are less transparent, though, and Hart at least managed to make me briefly suspect other characters. And speaking of the characters…. Jane is okay, and I like the aura of sadness that clings to her after the death of her long-time partner, Christine, but her friend Cordelia seems to have just one mode—obnoxious. Jane’s brother makes a couple brief appearances, but he is utterly insubstantial. Then there are the victim’s three closest friends, one of whom we scarcely meet before she apparently drops out of the sorority off-camera. Again, it’s not exactly bad, but it’s all quite superficial.

The same can be said of Hart’s writing style. As I look now at the quotes I jotted down, they don’t look so objectionable, but while I was reading they were jarringly simplistic. Too much tell, not enough show. Here are a couple of examples:

The early morning mist had settled around the base of the old bridge, making it appear to float above the water. It looked like a stage set. A perfect setting for a murder. Cordelia shuddered at her own morbidity.

Jane looked around at the young man taking notes. She had never been interrogated by the police before and did not like her words being cast in stone on some stenographer’s pad.

That second one could’ve been “Jane looked uneasily at the young man taking notes,” and it would’ve communicated all of that without seeming so… prim. This was a common problem, with dialogue and character thoughts frequently coming across as stiff and unnatural. Characters were also exceedingly forthcoming with their prejudices. Now, true, this was published in 1989, so perhaps open homophobia was more common, but characters with these opinions don’t even try to disguise them, and generally have no other positive attributes that would make them more three-dimensional—they’re just being used as ignorant mouthpieces. Here’s a quote from Susan Julian, another sorority advisor, after she learns about Allison’s sexual preference:

Having allowed a—I even hate to say the word—lesbian in our midst would destroy our reputation. We can only hope it doesn’t make the papers. I mean, no one would feel safe joining.

I haven’t yet decided whether to read Vital Lies, the second Jane Lawless mystery. The excerpt included in the back of my paperback was not very promising, but some mystery writers do improve over time. And, of course, Hart earns bonus points for managing to mention both Richard III and Doctor Who.

Additional reviews of Hallowed Murder can be found at Triple Take.

You Can Draw in 30 Days by Mark Kistler

From the back cover:
Drawing is an acquired skill, not a talent—anyone can learn to draw! All you need is a pencil, a piece of paper, and the willingness to tap into your hidden artistic abilities. You Can Draw in 30 Days will teach you the rest. With Emmy award-winning, longtime public television host Mark Kistler as your guide, you’ll learn the secrets of sophisticated three-dimensional renderings, and have fun along the way.

In just 20 minutes a day for a month, you can learn to draw anything, whether from the world around you or from your own imagination. It’s time to embark on your creative journey. Pick up your pencil and begin today!

Review:
I was somewhat dubious when I set out to complete Mark Kistler’s instructional book, You Can Draw in 30 Days. Despite his claim that drawing is a skill and not a talent, and that anyone can learn to do it, I had no expectation that I would emerge from the experience with the ability to create vividly realistic drawings. And, indeed, that did not happen. I did, however, learn some interesting and useful techniques, and if the goal has been merely to gain confidence and a grasp of some basic fundamentals, then I’d say it’s been achieved.

First, Kistler has students complete a pretest in which they draw a house, an airplane, and a bagel. Here’s mine. Please do not laugh at that pathetic airplane too much.

From there, students progress through a series of lessons designed to introduce and elaborate on nine “foundation elements,” which include concepts like overlapping, shading, and contour lines. These ideas are reiterated frequently throughout the book, and I enjoyed some more than others. For example, I got a little tired of drawing shadows all over everything, but the way that contour lines—here exemplified via figures Kistler has dubbed “contour kids”—can make objects appear to be in motion is extremely cool.

The first seven lessons focus on basic shapes—spheres, cubes, towers—but then Kistler begins tossing in some rather odd things like koalas, roses, scrolls, and rippling flags. Each lesson is still imparting some essential useful idea, but they do reveal that Kistler’s style is essentially cartoony. Here’s my koala, from lesson eight. The bonus challenge for that chapter was to draw some real-world koalas, and while my efforts look better to me now than they did originally, the fact remains that I did not (and still do not) feel well-equipped to actually faithfully reproduce a realistic-looking koala.

Beginning with lesson 22, Kistler focuses on drawing in one- or two-point perspective. I enjoyed these exercises a lot—possibly because I got to draw with a ruler, which made everything nice and crisp. Here’s my tower in two-point perspective, which looks pretty good despite a couple of minor flaws.

The final three chapters introduce drawing anatomy, and Kistler drops the ball here a bit. Instead of really trying to teach someone how to draw a face, he instructs students to trace an example, provides a few basic pointers, and then directs them to other books for more information. (Perhaps that’s why the included illustration of a student’s attempt is far less accomplished than other examples throughout the book.) Lessons on the eye and hand were better, though, and I’m rather proud of my results for the 30th and final lesson, “Your Hand of Creativity.”

On the whole, the progression of the lessons makes sense and I have few complaints. However, I must voice my objection to Kistler’s attempts to foment enthusiasm by asking lame questions throughout the book. “Are you inspired?” “Are you excited?” “Don’t you feel like a collegiate fine arts student?” This invites readers to say, “Um, no?” I get what he’s trying to do, but jeez. Enough is enough.

Ultimately, a better title for this book would have been You Can Draw Certain Things in 30 Days. I still don’t feel like I can draw well in general, but I think I’m a bit better than before. Certainly, I could apply these lessons to drawing everyday objects that fit the shapes covered in the book. So, if you ever need a picture of your loved one, don’t call me, but if it’s an open cardboard box you want, I’m your gal.

Additional reviews of You Can Draw in 30 Days can be found at Triple Take.

Nancy Drew: The New Case Files, Vols. 1-2

By Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney, and Sho Murase | Published by Papercutz

You might wonder why I read a couple of Nancy Drew graphic novels, but when I tell you that these volumes comprise parts one and two of an arc called “Vampire Slayer,” perhaps you will understand. It was the unlikely union of Nancy Drew and Buffy—and yes, said show is specifically referenced in the endnotes—that compelled me and my compatriots at Triple Take to make this our pick for this month. I admit I didn’t expect to like this very much, but the story turned out to be even more blah than I was anticipating.

Here’s the premise: Nancy and friends Bess and George are on their way to see the hot new movie, Dielight. If they arrive in costume, they get a discount, so when they are chased by a pointy-toothed guy in the cemetery (is it supposed to be a fun twist when it’s revealed that he’s actually running from Nancy’s dog?) they assume he’s headed there, as well. He doesn’t show up for the film, but Nancy spots a mysterious-looking cloaked figure lurking alone in the back of the theatre.

Afterwards, tooth dude pops up again and introduces himself as Gregor Coffson. He is super intrigued by the fact that Nancy is a detective and asks her out, prompting this oh-so-hilarious exchange:

Nancy: Thanks… I’m flattered, but I already have a Ned… I mean… boyfriend.

Gregor: So?

Ned: Hi. I’m boyfriend. I mean Ned.

Gregor: Oh.

Oh boy am I ever rolling on the floor now. *eyeroll*

Anyway, things don’t improve very much from here. Gregor indicates that he has a secret, but he won’t divulge it until he is sure that he can trust Nancy. And because Nancy is a big nosypants, she ends up hanging out with him all the time, oblivious to Ned’s growing jealousy. At first I was pleased that Ned was confident that Nancy would not cheat on him, but that doesn’t last long and he soon begins throwing jealous hissy fits. Gregor’s secret turns out to be totally lame—someone’s stalking him because they think he’s a vampire—and so does the resolution of the story.

Ultimately, the adjective that most comes to mind when describing this story is “lazy.” In addition to the fact that Gregor’s secret is a letdown and Ned’s reaction predictable, there are other signs of shoddy craftsmanship. Gregor claims not to have a cell phone, but then how is he receiving threatening text messages from his stalker? The big reveal (spoilers, if you care) that the stalker is actually Gregor’s long-lost sister Garina is torpedoed when Nancy refers to the girl as Garina several pages before the existence of Gregor’s twin even comes up. And I’d swear that one scene of Gregor and Nancy sitting at a table was simply copied and pasted from one place to another, with only a slight adjustment of Gregor’s arm and the application of some green tint to Nancy’s shirt to differentiate them.

Probably they thought that only kids would read this and no one would notice, but kids deserve effort and originality, too. About the best thing I can say about this is that Nancy’s friend, George, is appealingly androgynous. She should get her own series.

Additional reviews can be found at Triple Take.

Skyfall by Catherine Asaro

From the back cover:
Skyfall goes back to the beginning, to the rebirth of Skolia, showing how a chance meeting on a backwater planet forges a vast interstellar empire. Eldrinson, a provincial ruler on a primitive planet, is plagued by inner demons. But when he meets Roca, a beautiful and mysterious woman from the stars, he whisks her away to his mountain retreat, inadvertently starting a great interstellar war, and birthing the next generation of rulers for the Skolian Empire.

Review:
Skyfall is technically the ninth book in Catherine Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire series, but is first if one is reading in internal chronological order. It works well as an entry point, though there were a few things that could’ve used a bit more explanation—presumably this happens in the books that were actually published before this one.

Beautiful and golden (like, literally) Roca Skolia is a “Ruby Psion,” an extremely rare and valued psion descended from similarly rare parents who currently rule the Skolian Imperialate. Because of her pedigree, she is expected to marry someone of the ruling assembly’s choosing and produce more Ruby Psions, the only people capable of controlling “the Kyle web,” an instantaneous interstellar network that somehow protects Skolia. Roca’s been married twice before and her grown son, Kurj, has a lot of mental anguish about the death of his father, the abuse perpetrated by his stepfather, and the atrocities committed by another group of psions who relish the pain of others.

When Roca’s away on government business (she’s the foreign affairs councillor), Kurj calls an assembly vote to discuss going to war with the sadistic psions. She knows he’ll try to stop her from casting her dissenting vote, so goes underground to try to make it back home in time without attracting his notice. Her route takes her to a remote, unspoiled world called Skyfall by “the Allieds” (descendents of Earth) and Lyshriol by its natives. There, her plans are foiled by a treacherous snow storm, and while she waits for it to pass, she falls in love with Eldri, a passionate and epileptic bard with significant psionic gifts, and ends up pregnant just in time for Eldri’s rival to lay siege to his castle.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to label Skyfall as “a romance novel in space.” Certainly Roca’s relationship with Eldri, who believes she’s a gift from the sun gods and is otherwise baffled by the technology she sees as commonplace, is quite romantic, with the two of them drawn together pretty much instantly and conceiving easily when other Ruby Psion births have required much medical intervention to achieve. Roca’s position brings political factors into their relationship, however. It turns out that Lyshriol was once a Skolian colony, so when Kurj eventually comes looking for her and Roca’s family finds out she has actually married this “barbarian,” it is ultimately Eldri’s genes that convince them to accept him (after a barrage of tests during which Eldri’s mental abilities and illness are evaluated).

There aren’t a whole lot of sci-fi elements to the novel, though there are enough to give one a picture of how things work in the Skolian Empire and its relationships with other spacefaring people. Genetic manipulation seems quite normal, as are cybernetic implants, and I am totally envious of the language node Roca has, which enables her to process and gradually learn new languages. Kurj has turned himself into an intimidating metallic giant, but it’s still not enough to shield him from his self-conflicting inner demons. In his case, Asaro effectively uses technology to show just how damaged he is, with some pretty fascinating results.

Suffice it to say, I’m looking forward to reading more in this series!

Additional reviews of Skyfall can be found at Triple Take.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

From the back cover:
Meet Dwight, a sixth-grade oddball. Dwight does a lot of weird things, like wearing the same t-shirt for a month or telling people to call him “Captain Dwight.” This is embarrassing, particularly for Tommy, who sits with him at lunch every day.

But Dwight does one cool thing. He makes origami. One day he makes an origami finger puppet of Yoda. And that’s when things get mysterious. Origami Yoda can predict the future and suggest the best way to deal with a tricky situation. His advice actually works, and soon most of the sixth grade is lining up with questions.

Tommy wants to know how Origami Yoda can be so smart when Dwight himself is so clueless. Is Yoda tapping into the Force? It’s crucial that Tommy figure out the mystery before he takes Yoda’s advice about something VERY IMPORTANT that has to do with a girl.

This is Tommy’s case file of his investigation into “The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.”

Review:
If you had asked me to sum up The Strange Case of Origami Yoda in one word, my initial answer would have simply been “cute.” When I first finished it, I was left with a pleasant impression but wasn’t sure I had too much to say about it. After a period of mulling, however, I realized that, even if the story itself is fairly straightforward, Angleberger does some interesting things with the way he tells it.

“The big question,” protagonist Tommy begins, “is Origami Yoda real?” The weirdest kid in sixth grade, Dwight, has made an origami Yoda finger puppet, which seems to dispense good advice even though Dwight himself is a big spaz. Tommy compiles a case file of students’ interactions with Yoda in an effort to determine if he’s for real and, therefore, if his advice concerning the girl that Tommy likes should be followed or if it will lead to total humiliation. He allows his friends to add comments and doodles, giving the book a bit of flair.

Origami Yoda offers advice on various topics, like helping a boy not burst into angry tears whenever he strikes out in softball, or helping another kid live down an unwelcome nickname (“Cheeto Hog”). Each chapter recounts a different incident, and though they are nominally written by different students, there is no discernible difference in narrative voice, except in the case of Harvey, Tommy’s obnoxious friend.

Angleberger doesn’t spell out the answer concerning Yoda’s authenticity in detail, but he does show that Tommy gradually gets fed up of Harvey “criticizing everything and everybody all the time” and realizes that he would rather be friends with Dwight, even if he is an oddball. Everyone probably has a toxic friend like Harvey at some point and must make the difficult decision to stop associating with them, and I thought Angleberger handled Tommy’s revelation in this regard rather well.

He also incorporates themes of inclusion and tolerance with subtlety. At no point, for example, is a racial characteristic ever assigned for any of these characters. We know that Tommy is short with unruly hair, Harvey is perpetually smirking, and Kellen is thin, but that’s it. Too, one of the female characters is described as “cute and cool” before it’s revealed a few paragraphs later that she also happens to be deaf. True, characterization doesn’t go much deeper than this for anyone, but I still appreciated the lack of preachiness.

Again, I come back to the idea that The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is a cute read, but I reckon late elementary Star Wars fans would have fun with it. A sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back (in which Harvey is out for revenge), is due out next month.

Additional reviews of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda can be found at Triple Take.

The Science of Doctor Who by Paul Parsons

From the front flap:
Almost fifty years after the Doctor first crossed the small screen, he remains a science fiction touchstone. His exploits are thrilling, his world is mind-boggling, and that time travel machine—known as the Tardis—is almost certainly an old-fashioned blue police box, once commonly found in London.

Paul Parsons’s plain-English account of the real science behind the fantastic universe portrayed in the television series answers such burning questions as whether a sonic screwdriver is any use for putting up a shelf, how Cybermen make little Cybermen, where the toilets are in the Tardis, and much more.

(Note: This is the 2010 revision of a book originally published in 2006.)

Review:
I am not a science person. In my years of schooling, I never once came up with a non-lame idea for a science project and was positively abysmal at experiments. I did pretty well on tests and homework, but if someone’s test tube was going to spontaneously erupt in a geyser of brown froth (true story!), it would be mine.

Suffice it to say, then, that while I enjoy science fiction entertainment, it’s not because of the science. Still, The Science of Doctor Who promises “a plain-English account of the real science behind the fantastic universe portrayed in the television series,” so I reckoned on being able to follow it. Alas, Paul Parsons’s definition of plain English is a bit different than mine.

I was okay with the majority of the material. Chapter topics include the Doctor’s recurring foes, regeneration, gadgets, weapons, space stations, force fields, parallel universes, and more. In general, Parsons would start by mentioning something that happened in a particular Doctor Who serial and then interview renowned scientists as to whether this is actually possible. Most of the time the answer is “no” or “only with extreme amounts of energy/effort,” but there are a few things that are not so far off. The chapters on alien worlds (Lots of planets really do have a north!) and mirror planets were particular favorites of mine.

Stupidly, however, I hadn’t counted on there being so much physics! I frequently found my eyes glazing over during these sections, which were unfortunately clustered near the beginning (making it hard to get started) and end (causing a strong urge to set the book down with only forty pages to go) of the book.

Take, for example, this quote from page 35:

M-theory’s main thrust is to generalize the one-dimensional objects of string theory into p-dimensional objects known, amusingly enough, as p-branes (where setting p = 0 gives a particle, p = 1 gives a string, p = 2 a “membrane,” and so on).

My brain’s response: asdlkjasldkfzzt!

Seriously, is that plain English? I note that Parsons did not bother to define “p-dimensional,” though that probably wouldn’t have been much help to me anyway.

In the end, I did learn some interesting things. In the chapter on Cybermen, for example, I learned that a cybernetic brain implant currently exists that can block the signals that cause Parkinson’s disease. That’s pretty awesome! I also now know that Sontarans reproduce by cloning and it takes only ten minutes for their offspring to reach adulthood. That’s less awesome.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on reading The Science of Doctor Who but now I think I’ll give my brain a rest by actually watching some.

Additional reviews of The Science of Doctor Who can be found at Triple Take.

A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

From the back cover:
Mary Quinn leads a remarkable life. At twelve, an orphan and convicted thief, she was miraculously rescued from the gallows. Now, at seventeen, she has a new and astonishing chance to work undercover for the Agency.

It is May 1858, and a foul-smelling heat wave paralyzed London. Mary enters a rich merchant’s household to solve the mystery of his lost cargo ships. But as she soon learns, the house is full of deceptions, and people are not what they seem—including Mary herself.

Review:
As a convicted thief, twelve-year-old Mary Lang is about to be executed when she is saved by the ladies of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. There, she receives an education and by the age of seventeen is teaching other students the skills they will need to be independent. Trouble is, she’s not satisfied and the few other career options open to her gender don’t interest her much, either. When she mentions this to the two women running the school, they suggest another alternative: the Agency.

The Agency is a covert organization of female spies, operating under the assumption that because women are presumed to be flighty and empty-headed, their agents will be able to retrieve information more easily than a man might, particularly in situations of domestic servitude. Mary quickly agrees, despite the threat of danger, and soon finds herself serving as paid companion to spoiled Miss Angelica Thorold, whose merchant father is suspected of dealing in stolen Hindu goods.

Mary (now using the surname Quinn) isn’t the lead on the investigation and isn’t supposed to actually do much of anything, but she gets antsy, and in the process of snooping meets James Easton. James’s older brother desperately wants to marry Angelica, but James has heard rumors about her father’s business practices, and so is doing some sleuthing of his own to determine whether a family connection would be unwise. He and Mary form a partnership and spend most of the book poking about in warehouses and rest homes for aging Asian sailors and following people on foot or in carriages while maintaining a flirty sort of bickering banter.

Author Y. S. Lee tries to make the mystery interesting, giving us a bit of intrigue between Angelica and her father’s secretary as a distraction, but ultimately it feels very insubstantial to me. Nothing much comes as a surprise and two story elements that could’ve been highlights—Mary’s month-long intensive training and Scotland Yard’s raid on the Thorold house—occur off camera! Too, Mary is harboring a secret about her parentage which is thoroughly obvious: she’s part Asian. Only towards the end did Lee actually make clear that Mary is keeping this a secret from others because of the foreigner bias of the time, and I must wonder whether the intended young adult audience was reading this going, “What’s the big deal?”

Not that it isn’t nifty to have a part-Asian heroine, of course. Mary is competent and level-headed, though I admit I did get irritated by how often she is favorably compared to “ordinary women,” who would scream or faint in situations in which Mary is able to keep her head. When a mystery stars a male sleuth, do we need to hear over and over how much smarter he is than the ordinary fellow? I don’t think so. On the flip side, the overall theme of the book seems to be “don’t understimate women,” and Mary finds time to inspire a scullery maid to seek out Miss Scrimshaw’s and to convince Angelica to pursue a musical career.

In the end, A Spy in the House is a decent read. It’s not perfect, but I still plan to read the second book in the trilogy in the near future.

Additional reviews of A Spy in the House can be found at Triple Take.