“Abarat” by Clive Barker (Joanna Cotler Books, 2002)

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A lot of people have been waiting for Clive Barker to unveil his newest creation since Coldheart Canyon earlier this year.  We all knew it was going to be for kids, but we also knew it was going to be classic Clive Barker, and would be a great first book in the series.  Having read this first installment, I concur with every fan’s automatic assumption.

Abarat is the first book in the series about a young girl, Candy Quakenbush, who lives in Chickentown, USA.  She has never felt she truly belongs in the dead end town which prides itself on maintaining the industry of its name.  And so one day she heads out into the fields, where he finds what looks like the ruin of an old lighthouse and an old pier.  Soon she meets a couple of characters, one good and one bad, and she has just seconds to start up this old lighthouse using a magic she never knew she possessed.  Suddenly the sea comes rushing in from nowhere and she is whisked away to the Abarat, a vast archipelago where every island is a specific hour of the day.  And so Candy is taken on many different adventures, both good and bad, where each time she comes close to losing everything, she somehow manages to break free.

With a vast cast of crazy and unusual characters, any reader would be struggling to deal with what they all look like and how to separate all these places.  Fortunately, Barker hasn’t only been busy writing, but he has also been busy painting for this series.  Abarat features over one hundred original designs and paintings by Barker which he has spent the last four years creating, all to do with the current book at hand.  The result is a visual opening into an impossible world that could only exist within the mind of one man.

The book ends with Candy alive and well on towards another adventure, as Barker ends with a familiar phrase: “So Ends the First Book of the Abarat.”  With three more to come in the series, one can only wonder what Candy is going to get up to next.

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Originally published on December 9th, 2002.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2009)

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We last left Katniss winner of the Hunger Games, and for the first time in history a co-winner with Peeta, but she knows what they did has upset the government and the President, who would love nothing more than to execute them for that they did.  But the couple has become a sensation, worshiped and celebrated across the districts.  Katniss’s actions have even sparked riots and rebellions in the other districts, which she never expected to do.  The government doesn’t hesitate, stopping, destroying and killing those who are to blame, while Katniss wonder’s what her fate might be.

Meanwhile she is also fighting with what her heart’s desire, but is it Peeta or her friend Gale.  Who will she choose?  Then the unbelievable happens, creating a series of events that brings the nightmare back to her and what she thought she was done with, she must now face again, only this time the stakes are raised even further.

Suzanne Collins is a talented writer with a story-telling style that is able to suck in any reader and keep them locked in and hooked to the very last page.  There should be stickers on her books warning that once the reader starts, they won’t be able to stop!  And once fans are done with Catching Fire, they only have to wait until August 24th, 2010, though they may want to check our her earlier series, The Underland Chronicles.

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Originally written on December 11th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse, 2009)

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Most people are familiar with the events that sparked the inception of World War I, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo.  Leviathan begins with the assassination, but then goes on its own alternate history tangent where their son, Prince Aleksander, must flee with his loyal servants from those looking to kill him.  And then Westerfeld introduces the Clankers: great mechanical machines – some the size of small buildings – that travel across the European continent battling each other with their mighty guns.  Aleksander is traveling in the Cyklop Stormwalker.

Meanwhile, Westerfeld introduces Deryn Sharp, a teenage girl looking to be an airman in the British Air Service.  That’s right, airman, and she cuts her hair short and keeps herself disguised as a guy and soon joins the crew – through a string of unusual circumstances and adventures – of the great ship Leviathan.  The British are Darwinists, and instead of monstrous machines, they use genetically-engineered amalgamations of animals to create enormous creatures.  The Leviathan is a massive flying whale that houses an entire ecosystem, as well as a full crew within its mighty girth.

After an intense air battle, the Leviathan must flee, its injured body lumbering along, until it crash lands into the Alps, not too far from the Prince, who soon pays the strange creature a visit and our two heroes meet for the first time.  And as the creature heals itself and Deryn and Aleksander get to know each other, the first book comes to a close.  While the alternate, fantastic world setting is somewhat reminiscent of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Leviathan focuses more on setting the stage without dealing any epic punches, which will likely be made in successive books in the series.

Leviathan is a beautifully designed book, and deserves some awards for this, with its wonderfully Steampunk eye-catching cover, the inlay of the Darwinist/Clanker map of Europe, and the beautiful illustrations within the pages.  The story will capture you, the design entrance you, leaving you wanting the next book in the series.

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Originally written on November 24th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008)

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From the author of the bestselling Underland Chronicles come the first in a brilliant new series that will change how you view your everyday life in more ways than you can count.  Collins has taken a science fiction archetype – a doomed future world where everyone gets by, barely – with a certain cast of characters that sets off the readers emotions to unknown bounds.

North America.  The future.  Now known as Panem, it’s a changed world, the country divided into districts, each district with its own industrial focus – minding, farming, manufacturing.  For the most part, many in the districts struggle to get by, struggle to survive.  Our main character, Katniss Everdeen, is a sixteen-year-old girl who has spent her life helping her family – her mother and younger sister – hunting for food and scraps, fighting to keep them all alive.  She is a teen beyond her years.

The annual event of the Hunger Games arrives: a stark reminder of how worse things could really be if the Capitol didn’t control the districts.  A boy and a girl – between twelve and eighteen – are selected from each district and forced to participate in the Games.  Katniss’s younger sister gets picked, and Katniss does what she’s always done: steps in front, volunteering in her sister’s place, saving her life.  Then she is off to the Hunger Games.

In the style of The Running Man, it is a nationally televised event, akin to the gladiatorial games of Rome, with much pomp and circumstance.  Twenty-four kids find themselves put into the “ring” – an unknown terrain that may or may not be habitable – and with the sound of a gong and the start of the games, they must fight each other to the death until one last child remains standing.  The children find themselves under constant pressure, to survive in the environs, to defend themselves against each other, and if the viewers get bored, creatures may be released to keep them on their toes.

The Hunger Games is one of those books that could be shelved in the young adult section for its use of teen characters, or the science fiction section for its powerful storytelling of a future world with some undeniable and harsh similarities to our own, or the fiction section for is strong characters who deal with very human emotions while fighting each other to survive.  This is strongest in Katniss, who knows how to hunt and fight for herself, but knows little of love and caring for those other than her family, and yet in the Hunger Games sometimes you must make allies to survive, at a cost, for eventually you will have to kill your ally.

The Hunger Games will have you on the edge of your seat, flipping the pages, but also wanting to read slowly and savor the incredible story, and at the end you’ll be somewhat annoyed by the abrupt ending.  Have no fear, the sequel, Catching Fire, will be out September 1st, while Collins continues work on the third book in the series.

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Originally written on August 28th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.