Secret Origins

September 15, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

secretSecret Origins by James Riley

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The Story Thieves series continues down its metafictional road, this time turning to comic books to drive its story in Secret Origins. Owen and Bethany get sucked into the world of Doc Twilight, who they both believe to be Bethany’s father. Though the two of them have sworn off jumping into books after the debacle of The Lost Chapters, the thought of finally finding Bethany’s father is too great for them to ignore. Plus, Owen is convinced that he knows about about comics to keep them safe, but this is the third book in a five-book series; of course it’s not going to go as planned.

Riley is ramping up the conflict with this book. The first two books in the series were more standalone, and while Secret Origins has its own plot to resolve, it’s also focusing more on the over-arching conflict of the entire series. The secrets behind Bethany’s father’s disappearance are coming more in focus, and are indicative of a larger problem that she and her friends will have to overcome. Interestingly, Kiel is notably absent from the book, though Earth Girl becomes a central character for the first time. This makes sense, considering that this book is focused on comic books, and Earth Girl is a comic book superhero.

Secret Origins isn’t as clever as The Last Chapters, but it’s still entertaining. I found myself laughing aloud more with this book, though it did take me a lot longer to finish. The story wasn’t as compelling, and it was harder for me to stay with the book for extended amounts of time. By the end, I was just ready to be done with it so I could move on to the next thing. Still, anyone who’s come this far will want to keep reading, and it would be disingenuous of me not to say I plan on reading the fourth book when it’s released.

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The Stolen Chapters

September 8, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

chaptersThe Stolen Chapters by James Riley

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Story Thieves was clever, but derivative, populated with characters who were hard to care about in the beginning. The story improved, but about halfway through, I wasn’t sure if I would keep reading the series. By the end of the book, I still had concerns, but it wasn’t terrible, and I had already received the book from the library, so I figured I’d keep moving forward. If nothing else, it wouldn’t take long to read, being a juvenile book, right?

I’m glad events conspired to keep me reading, because The Stolen Chapters is a much better story than Story Thieves. The plot is more complex — Owen, Bethany, and Kiel are suffering from amnesia in a plot that involves them going head-to-head with a criminal genius — and the characters start out being likable, since we got to that point at the end of Story Thieves. Plus, Kiel’s arrogance has tempered, Owen is no longer trying to use his friends for his own means, and Bethany becomes more of a central character in the main plot.

The story starts in media res, with everyone waking up to find themselves in danger, with no memory of how they arrived there. It works well to draw the reader in, since we only get the answers when they do, and it’s a surprisingly complex, clever plot that takes the central idea from the first book and makes something more compelling out of it. This is the book I feel like Story Thieves should have been, but Riley had to cover the events in Story Thieves to get us to the point where The Stolen Chapters would make sense.

I’d recommend this book to juvenile and adult readers with an interest in book-jumping, but the problem is you have to read the less interesting Story Thieves first. I have to remind myself of my graphic novel rule: Don’t judge the entire series off of the first book alone, since first books are mostly exposition. I’m just not used to having to do that with book series, too.

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The Island of Dr. Libris

August 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) ()

librisThe Island of Dr. Libris by Chris Grabenstein

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As fun as the two Mr. Lemoncello books were, I went ahead and moved on to another of Grabenstein’s books, since it seemed related, even if it wasn’t part of that series. The premise of The Island of Dr. Libris is definitely different: a twelve-year-old boy is going to stay with his mother for the summer, their divorce pending and weighing on his mind, and while he’s there, he becomes part of an experiment where people are trying to harness his imagination.

It’s a weird setup, especially when the different stories Billy reads start to mesh together in a “Fractured Fairy Tales” sort of way. I expected the story to be a wacky mash-up of the stories with Billy running around trying to fix them, but it took a more somber tone. I didn’t mind that it bucked my expectations, but I don’t think the execution was that good.

Dr. Libris is the one behind the experiment, and it’s evident from his notes peppered in the story that he’s looking to make money off of his findings, but it never goes anywhere in the story. He’s there just to allow the events to get started, but once the experiment is deemed a success, his part in the story ends, even though there was still half the book to finish.

Grabenstein seems to want the story to focus more on Billy’s parents pending divorce, but he spends more time on the stories come to life to pull it off. Billy ultimately uses his ability to pull things out of stories to make an attempt to fix his parents’ marriage, but it comes off too late in the story, and simplifies whatever problems might be contributing to the divorce. His attempt rang true — he’s only twelve years old, and his understanding of love and relationships is naive — but the resolution didn’t.

When Grabenstein focuses on telling a story just for fun, he does a fine job, but his attempt to add depth to a silly story falls flat. I mentioned in my review of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library that the story was told without any pretension of being anything more than a fun story; The Island of Dr. Libris tries to be more, but suffers for it. For juvenile stories that take a more mature look at adult issues, look to Brian Selznick’s work.

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Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics

August 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

olympicsMr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein

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If you liked Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, it’s safe to say you’re going to like Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics. It has the same characters, the same tone, and the same message (friendship, teamwork, and libraries are all important) as the first book, and it’s just as much fun to read.

Pretty much everything I said about the first book is true about this one. It’s a juvenile book, so the characters are drawn broadly, but you’re going to like the protagonists and dislike the antagonists. Grabenstein mixes things up a bit by excluding some of the characters from the first book, and he brings in a new cast of characters through the Olympic themselves.

See, this time around, Mr. Lemoncello has received a lot of complaints from children across the US, saying it wasn’t fair that they couldn’t participate in the escape from the first book. In order to make it more fair, he creates the Olympics, where the country is divided by region, and each region sends a team of four to participate in the Olympics. Once at the library, the teams participate in twelve different events, with the team that wins the most medals being the winner of the Olympics. Of course, not everyone is happy with the way things are happening, which leads to the central conflict of the book (which, despite appearances, isn’t Kyle and his friends defending their title against the other teams).

At the beginning of the book, I wasn’t sure if I would like it as much, as it seemed to be a bit of a carbon copy of the first book in the series, but by the end, I had been just as caught up in it as I had the first time. It’s a fun book, it’s easy to read, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is. If the series sounds like something you would like, find it and read it and have fun with it. I know I did.

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Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

August 21, 2017 at 2:00 pm (Reads) ()

escapeEscape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

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Not sure if you’ll like this book? Well, the back of the book tells you everything you need to know in one quote: “In this cross between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and A Night in the Museum …”. Twelve kids go into a state-of-the-art library, built by the enigmatic and eccentric Mr. Lemoncello, and try to solve puzzles to find a secret exit. He (or she!) who does wins an extraordinary prize.

Straight up, this book is a lot of fun. It starts fast and maintains its pace throughout the story, keeping us engaged with lively characters and an engaging plot. We don’t have any Mike Teevees or Veruca Salts, but neither do we have any Uncle Joes or Charlie Buckets, instead, we have everyday kid protagonists who are easy to like, and everyday kid antagonists who are as equally easy to loathe. The plot doesn’t wander far off its mark, which is fine, since the story is set in one location, and there’s only one goal in mind for all the characters. It’s a simple story that plugs along without pretention.

It’s best to understand that this is a kids’ book. Its characters are drawn with a broad brush, without much complexity or depth. We get enough to know who we should like and who we shouldn’t, but we’re not getting a bunch of backstory or ambiguity in their characters. It’s straightfoward, easily accessible, and pretty mindless, none of which are bad things, so long as you understand that going into the book. Anyone looking for a Harry Potter or a Percy Jackson are going to be disappointed.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a love letter to libraries and books and reading and knowledge. Sure, it’s written for kids, but adults who are still kids at heart, or who have a soft spot for the libraries of their youth, will find a lot to like here. It’s morally sound, with good behavior rewarded in the story, and its main theme is friendship (though teamwork takes a close second). If it sounds like anything you might like, then I’ll bet that you will. I highly recommend it.

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A New Hope: The Life of Luke Skywalker

August 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lukeA New Hope: The Life of Luke Skywalker by Ryder Windham

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When I set out on this Star Wars reading project, I decided against including all of the novelizations of other works, save for the adult novelizations of the movies. It cut out a lot of the juvenile books, since most of them were retellings of even the adult novels, but it appears that a few of them squeezed through the cracks. Ryder Windham’s biographies of the characters are a few of those.

For the most part, the books have been entertaining, and in some ways even enlightening (it’s nice to get Obi-Wan’s viewpoint when he first talks to Luke about Anakin and Darth Vader in The Life and Legend of Obi-Wan Kenobi), but they’ve been a collection of details from other works. The Life of Luke Skywalker collects dialogue and scenes from Star Wars, the radio plays, some comics, and even a novel from the Legends Expanded Universe, so very little of the content is original. Windham borrows from these sources to build a single story of Luke, but what he chooses to include and exclude seems odd. The largest details are left out (those from Episodes IVVI), and some scenes are hastened through, as if he were trying to cram as much as possible into the story. As a result, the story doesn’t feel cohesive, or even complete.

This is the last of the biographies written by Windham, the others being about Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, and Darth Maul (no love for Leia there, I guess), but none of them have felt necessary. With the earlier books, I thought they would serve a purpose as an introduction into the larger works, but now that I’ve read one where I don’t know some of the details Windham covers, I can see that it only causes confusion. I’d skip over these if I were to do this project over again.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

August 7, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

universeThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe by Ryan North, et al.

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I’m not a fan of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the series. The character I admire for all of her positive traits, and I endorse giving this book to young girls interested in comics so they can see what a female superhero can be, but for me, a forty-five year old male with no children, female or otherwise, it doesn’t quite ring my bell. It’s a shame, really, because for all the other childish things that appeal to me (The LEGO Movie, the Animaniacs, and almost everything Pixar has ever created), I expected this series to hit all the high notes.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe, though, surprised me. Maybe it’s because I had written off the series for not being my thing, and went into the graphic novel with lowered expectations, or maybe it’s because it’s a standalone work without the inherent baggage of ongoing titles, or maybe it’s just a better written work. Whatever the case, I found myself laughing more at the story than I did with the two collections I’ve read.

The characters are the same, their dynamics are the same, and the storyline is similar to what one would find in the series (only with a clone added into the mix). The running gags carry over from the main series (the Spider-Man theme song continues to make an appearance in one form or another), and the commentary along the bottoms of the pages is still there, but something about it clicked for a change. It’s not enough to convince me to keep reading it, but it was an improvement over the main series.

I’d still recommend this to younger readers, especially girls, but boys, too, so they can see there’s more to being a female superhero than skimpy outfits and assisting male superheroes. Adult readers, though, may have a harder time getting into it.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True

August 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

squirrel2The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True by Ryan North, et al.

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I have a rule with ongoing graphic novel series: Read at least two collections before drawing a conclusion on how much I like them. The Unwritten had a bit of a boring start, but once it caught its groove, it surprised me with how much it could do. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was a title I’d heard a lot about, all of it good, but Squirrel Power just didn’t quite do it for me. Squirrel You Know It’s True is more of the same style presented in the first collection, which is good or bad, depending on how much you liked the first one.

Look I get it: she’s a positive role model for young girls; she attempts diplomacy before violence (and usually succeeds at it); and her adventures are light enough for young readers, but not without serious consequences. If I had a young daughter, I would love for her to read these books. The thing is, I don’t, and there’s just not enough to the stories by itself to encourage me to keep reading it. I loved (and still love) Ambush Bug, the Animaniacs, and the Looney Tunes cartoons, so the loopy sense of humor the series has should have appealed to me, but somehow it was more ingratiating than funny. The Twitter exchanges were still the highlights for me, but overall, it didn’t quite hit my funny bone.

I’d recommend this series to readers with kids, but for adult readers, I’d suggest they pass on it. They don’t take long to read, so the investment of time is slim, but there are so many other good series written for adults that it doesn’t seem worth it to devote what short time it would take to read these books. I have another of her books to read (what can I say? They were on sale, and my expectations were high), but I don’t see myself adding it to my titles to follow.

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The Marvels

July 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

maRVELSThe Marvels by Brian Selznick

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Brian Selznick is a fantastic writer. The Invention of Hugo Cabret was so good, and Wonderstruck even better, that I bought a copy of The Marvels around when it was released. It took me a few years to get around to reading it, but I finally bumped it up my to-read list, and I’m pleased to say that it’s as moving a book as either of his first two books.

Selznick’s books are told equally in words and pictures, and The Marvels is no exception. What makes The Marvels different, though, is that the first half of the book is told 100% in pictures. Some of the illustrations have text, but for the most part, they’re wordless, and tell the story of a family who lives in the theater. The story goes back to a shipwreck in 1766 and takes us all the way through the early 1900s, showing the lives of a family who worked and were raised in the theater. Then, the story shifts to 1990, and is told 100% through narrative. Like any Selznick book, though, there’s a puzzle beneath the story, telling us more than we realized, and when the pieces all fall into place, the real story shines through.

Selznick creates his characters to be lively and engaging, even when they’re as unlikeable as Uncle Albert, and they’re what carry the story. Had the entire book been told with narrative and pictures interspersed, like he did with his previous two books, it could have become overly complicated — Selznick does tell the story of several generations of one family, after all — but the way he balances the two stories is perfect. In the end, the characters we’re meant to know the most about — Joseph, Albert, and Frankie — are the ones we grow to care about, and that they’re the ones whose lives are covered through the narrative isn’t a coincidence.

I don’t feel like The Marvels is quite as strong as Selznick’s other books (there seems to be a bit too much back-and-forth between Joseph and Albert that doesn’t go anywhere), but that’s not to say that I didn’t like it. It moved me as much as his other books did, enough so that I had to blink several times to be able to make out the words as I neared the end of the book. Anyone who read and enjoyed Selznick’s previous work should read The Marvels; it’s as brilliant as anything else he’s written.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power

July 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

squirrel1The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power by Ryan North, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot about Squirrel Girl, all of it positive. I hear she’s a good role model for kids, especially young girls, and that she’s more inclined to solve problems with diplomacy than with punches. Plus, I hear there’s a loopy sense of humor to the books, so when I saw that these were on sale, I figured it was time for me to see what all the fuss was about.

The good news is I see all of the good I read about in other reviews; the bad news is I still couldn’t get that invested in it. I do think she serves as a strong role model, and it’s refreshing to see a female superhero who isn’t all about skimpy costumes and helping the male superheroes, but the tone of the book put me off. I grew up on Ambush Bug, so I was prepared for loopy and irreverent, but there was something about the characters that didn’t do it for me. Part of it, I think, is the feeling that these books are supposed to be part of official continuity. Continuity, to me, suggests a level of seriousness that doesn’t exist with this title. The fact that she couldn’t keep her secret identity secret (not that it’s broken in this book, but come on; it’s not going to last) opens up a vulnerability to all the characters who know her, and it all fell apart in my head.

There were parts of the story that made me laugh (the Twitter exchanges that started a couple of the issues cracked me up), but for the most part the humor grew tiresome. I gave up on trying to read all of the editorial comments that were at the bottom of each page, as they became distracting, slowed me down, took me away from the story, and in the end weren’t really worth the time. Plus, I was reading a digital copy of the book, and in order to read them all, I had to enlarge the page. It was too much effort for not a lot of gain.

My disappointment might lie with my expectations being too high, but I’m not feeling it so far. I still have a couple other collections to read (they were on sale, and I do still abide by my rule that I have to read at least two collections before drawing any conclusions on a title), but I’m not champing at the bit to get to them. I’ll get there when I get there. I can appreciate the title, and I would recommend it to readers looking for positive comics with a female lead, but so far it’s not going to be a go-to title for me.

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