Mezzowriter's ReadWriter Blog

Reading, Writing, and The Search for Buried Gems of Literature

What I’m Reading #42: Out of the Ashes August 9, 2010

I was looking for a fast read today, so I picked up Michael Morpurgo’s Out of the Ashes.

It’s a simple, fast read, so this review will be too.

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Out of the Ashes by Michael Morpurgo

Macmillan Children’s Books, 2001

Cover is a little deceptive; On first impression you might expect this to be about a wildfire.

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

On New Year’s Day Becky Morley begins to write her diary. By March, her world has changed forever. Foot and mouth disease breaks out on a pig farm hundreds of miles from the Morley’s Devon home, but soon the nightmare is a few fields away. Local sheep are infected and every animal is destroyed. Will the Morley’s flock be next? Will their pedigree diary herd, the sows with their piglets, and Little Josh, Becky’s hand-reared lamb, survive? Or will they be slaughtered too? The waiting and hoping is the most agonizing experience of Becky’s life.

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Strengths: As I’ve said, it’s a simple read, with just over 110 pages.  The narrative is straightforward and clearly constructed, in the voice of the 13-year-old narrator, Becky.  The simple language fits with the diary approach Morpurgo uses.  It’s a unique story about an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, which may strike some readers as archaic at first.  Such agriculturally devastating illnesses would seem to have gone the way of polio and smallpox, when in fact these dangers still exist.  It’s a excellent way of bringing the subject to present day, particularly through the use of the young narrator.  However, I still got an unreal sense of not quite being sure where in time I was.  The only solid placement in time is provided by the author, who is firm that it recounts events of 2001.  A fast, interesting read.

Potential Flaws: It’s interesting, but not particularly gripping.  In some places, the lack of detail did make me chafe a bit as I was reading, but if Morpurgo is to remain true to his young narrator, he almost HAS to withhold more of the gory details.  Of course she would be sheltered.

My Rating:

Not fabulous, not terrible.  Probably very enjoyable to younger, middle-grade readers.  A unique topic, and as simple reads go, you could do far worse.


 

What I’m Reading #41: The Enemy July 31, 2010

I love horror movies.  Especially anything about zombies.  So when I found Charlie Higson’s book on a search on Amazon, I knew right away I had to have it.

A devastating disease has struck everyone over the age of sixteen.  Those who didn’t die from it have turned into decomposing, brainless creatures that survive by feeding on anything that’s still alive—including children.  Young survivors have barricaded themselves in supermarkets and other buildings, fighting off attacks from the grown-ups, who travel in packs, like hungry dogs.

The group of kids from a store called Waitrose includes fearless fighters, clever engineers, and wise leaders.  They are tight-knit and determined to survive, but they are running out of food and their scavenger hunts are growing more and more dangerous.  Marauding grown-ups are picking them off one by one.

Before long the Waitrose kids are offered a safe haven in Buckingham Palace.  They make their way to it, crossing London on a perilous journey that will test them in harrowing ways.  But their fight to stay alive is far from over—the threat from within the palace is as real as the one outside it.

Full of unexpected twists and quick-thinking heroes, The Enemy is a fast-paced, white-knuckle tale of survival in the face of unimaginable horror.   (Back cover excerpt)

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The Enemy by Charlie Higson

Hyperion, 2010

I picked up an ARC, so my cover was slightly different. Pretty run of the mill.

Another cover version. I'm not too impressed with the overly-sensationalist tagline at the bottom.

A third cover version.

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From Booklist

The imagined zombie apocalypse has been the inspiration behind dozens of movies, books, and comics over the past decade, and though Higson adds few innovations, his gusto is something to behold. Eighteen months have passed since everyone over 16 succumbed to a virus that turned them into rotting, ravenous monsters, and there are enclaves of kids all over London eking out survival. Barricaded inside of a store, about 50 refugees have constructed their own society—which is shaken when a boy arrives spinning tales of a wonderful settlement housed within Buckingham Palace. The action from that point alternates between the group’s harrowing journey across the city and the grueling plight of Sam, a nine-year-old whose separation from the pack leads to an encounter with cannibals. Some of the characters feel like placeholders, but the action is of the first order—Higson writes with a firestorm velocity that inspires to the sweeping reach of Stephen King’s The Stand (1978). A muscular start to what looks to be a series. Grades 9-12. –Daniel Kraus

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So…

I really liked this story…the FIRST time I saw it, which was when it was a movie called 28 Days Later.

28 Days Later was released in 2002

b

I couldn’t help but make comparisons while I was reading.  There are some pretty  notable parallels:

1.  Situation: A devastating, fast-spreading disease decimates the population, leaving few alive.  Minor variations between the book and the movie as to WHO survives and why, but otherwise, it’s the same conflict.

2.  Setting: London and other parts of England

This was one of the more striking things I noticed.

In 28 Days Later, Jim (played by Cillian Murphy) finds himself wandering lost in a deserted London. Note Buckingham Palace in the background.

The setting is completely deserted, with the remnants of a more civilized time left behind; supermarkets abandoned, cars left in an eerie graveyard of sorts in the streets…

More post-epidemic devastation

In both cases, I think the choice of England helps facilitate the notion of quarantine, isolation, etc.  Its “island status” makes it a little more believable that they could really be cut off from the rest of the world.

3.  Inevitable Decisions and Their Ramifications:

After realizing their living situation is really unsafe and becoming even more so, the small band of survivors is lured by a mysterious stranger/radio announcement  to make a dangerous journey to a “place of safety.”  (Read: Buckingham Palace/stately manor house in the country.)  Even though they know it will be EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, they band together and go anyway.

And encounter the grown-ups/zombies along the way.  Also some very frightful chase scenes in the subways/tunnels.

Being chased through London

Run! Zombies!

Following a harrowing trek, during which some of their friends are lost in battle, they arrive at their destination.  And meet David King/Major Henry West, the leader of a small band of survivors…

Leader of a suspiciously sinister power structure...

...who tries to present a sense of normalcy while hiding ulterior motives.

And the group realizes they are no safer than they were before.

Of course, chaos ensues, with the inevitable infighting and squabbling and rampant grown-ups/zombies:

The disintegration of order...

And so on, and so forth…

Of course, there are differences, such as the age of the protagonists, and the book’s lack of the sexual elements in the movie, but overall, the arc of the plot is VERY similar.

That being said:

Strengths: It’s definitely a high-action, fast-paced plot.  Battle scenes are vivid, and pretty gory.  However, they’re not really over-the-top for the zombie genre.  Characters are varied and well-developed, and for the most part extremely likable.  Also a plus is the presence of strong female characters who aren’t over-feminized and dependent upon the males.  Maxie is a great example.  I admired how well Higson translated the dissolution of order into a child’s society; it was reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in the breakdown of the group from within.  It’s a large cast of characters, which is difficult to manage well, but Higson handles it nicely.  He’s also not afraid to kill off characters where it seems to fit, regardless of how important those characters are, and to that I say bravo; it’s not easy to let go of a strong, well-liked character (sorry for the semi-spoiler, but I’m not telling you WHO).  Add some very high-tension side plots, and it is a tight narrative without glaring holes or inconsistencies.

Potential Flaws:

If you were hoping for a totally original story, you’re not really going to get it here.  As I’ve said, I felt like I was reading a young adult 28 Days Later.  Which isn’t necessarily a flaw in itself.  However,  if you DIDN’T like that movie, you’ll probably have a hard time with this book.

My Rating:

Fast-paced reading, strong characters, and a well-constructed plot tie this together despite the comparisons that tie it to the earlier and unrelated movie.  Enjoyable and disturbing at the same time, as long as you’re not bothered by predictable plots.

 

What I’m Reading #39: Mercury July 16, 2010

After reading Journal: The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Amy Zoe Mason, I decided to go back to a genre close to my heart: Graphic Novels.

Graphic Novels were an important part of my Master’s Project, so I’m always interested in what’s out there.

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Mercury by Hope Larsen

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

A striking cover, one that in retrospect is particularly appropriate...

I wasn't able to find the real source of this postcard, but I like the color effects used here. The book itself is entirely done in black and white.

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. Grade 8 Up—Set in Nova Scotia, this book relates two coming-of-age stories in tandem, showing how the past interweaves with the present. In the present, Tara and her mother have lost their old farmhouse in a fire, and Tara’s mother is struggling to support them from far away while Tara lives with relatives. She loved the old house and wants to rebuild it, but her mother is pressured to find a job elsewhere. In 1859, Josey, Tara’s ancestor, falls in love with a gold dowser who has convinced her father to open a mine. Her mother, who has supernatural sight, is sure that the dowser means no good. The stories collide as Tara goes searching for the gold said to have been hidden on her property, and Josey’s tale reveals how it came to be hidden. Elements of the supernatural echo in both settings as Josey experiences the same visions her mother has and Tara discovers that she has a knack for dowsing. Though the end of the story leaves things hanging for Tara and her mother, the actions that the girl takes to gain control of her destiny suggest that she will find a way to achieve her goals. The storytelling, both in words and pictures, brilliantly offers details from Canadian history and modern life. The dialogue varies from funny to poignant. An excellent graphic novel, particularly for fans of Faith Erin Hicks’s The War at Ellsmere (Slave Labor, 2008).—Alana Joli Abbott, James Blackstone Memorial Library, Branford, CT
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Larson (Chiggers, 2008) won an Eisner Award for Special Recognition in 2007 and is establishing an oeuvre of thoughtful, girl-centric graphic novels that often feature touches of unobtrusive fantasy, lending a dreamy quality that helps characterize her distinctive storytelling style. Mercury tells two tales: one of Josey, who lives in a small Canadian town in 1859; and the other of her descendant, Tara, who has returned to the same town in 2009, a year after her house burned to the ground. Tenth-grader Tara’s burgeoning relationships and her difficulty reacclimating to her old school will be more identifiable than Josey’s forbidden courtship with itinerant prospector Asa, but the use of two time lines delineates the different eras’ outlooks on family and romance, which brings some immutable human truths into high relief. The gentle dose of magic realism doesn’t feel incongruous and underscores the powerful ways in which past touches present. The insights unfold leisurely, but patient readers will find themselves deeply invested. Comparisons to Craig Thompson’s Blankets (2003) wouldn’t be inappropriate, but Larson continues to perfect her own unique style and offers something the graphic format is sadly short on: a coming-of-age story for girls. Grades 9-12. –Jesse Karp –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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I like the Booklist review because of its focus on the coming-of-age story for girls.  I’d say I’m pretty much on board with both reviews here.

Strengths: This will have a broad appeal for many readers.  For obvious reasons, it will probably speak to girls more.  However, the appeal of the graphic novel will pull in other groups as well.  Graphic novels are excellent alternatives for those who may struggle with reading.  Larson’s illustrations are straightforward and the dialogue easy to follow:

A page from "Mercury," courtesy of ComicBookResources.com

Tara is a likable heroine, but not perfect, and many readers will identify with her social awkwardness.  As the narrative alternates between the past and the present, it’s easy to follow, not just by the plot changes.  Larson emphasizes through format and the use of black backgrounds on the pages of the story in the past.  It’s another helpful visual cue for a struggling reader.

A page from the past. Courtesy of ComicBookResources.com.

Overall, it’s a fast, interesting read.

Potential Flaws: I didn’t have too many complaints about this one.  The ending is a little abrupt.  Without giving spoilers, it’s hard to verbalize why I feel this way.  There are also details about Tara from before the beginning of the narrative that I wanted, as well as details about Josey’s life afterward.  I suppose it’s the author’s choice what to add and what to lose, but as a reader, I was left yearning for more detail.

My Rating:

A fast-paced, unique tale.  Applause to the author for featuring a girl’s coming-of-age tale in a graphic novel.  Excellent use of the alternating past/present narrative.

 

What I’m Reading #37: Mercy, Unbound July 11, 2010

This was another used bookstore find.  I was snagged by the title and sold by the cover.  Even the teaser from the back is promising:

“Mercy O’Connor is becoming an angel.

She can feel her wings sprouting from her shoulder blades. They itch. Sometimes she even hears them rustling.

And angels don’t need to eat. So Mercy has decided she doesn’t need to either. She is not sick, doesn’t suffer from anorexia, is not trying to kill herself. She is an angel, and angels simply don’t need food.

When her parents send her to an eating disorder clinic, Mercy is scared and confused. She isn’t like the other girls who are so obviously sick. If people could just see her wings, they would know. But her wings don’t come and Mercy begins to have doubts. What if she isn’t really an angel? What if she’s just a girl? What if she is killing herself? Can she stop?”

I’ve always been a fan of the teen problem novel, and I admit I find the topic of anorexia fascinating.  I figured I couldn’t lose.

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Mercy, Unbound by Kim Antieau

Simon Pulse, 2006

b

I love the delicate, ethereal quality and the fact that they used a brunette model.

b

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From Booklist

Gr. 9-12. Funny and painfully honest, this debut YA novel by the author of several adult books tells the teenage anorexia story from the viewpoint of Mercy, 15, who denies she has an eating disorder until she is sent to a treatment center in New Mexico. Like her loving mom, Mercy is a strident atheist who wants to save the world, and she feels the political burden of starvation, both past (her Jewish grandmother survived Auschwitz; many in her dad’s Irish family perished during the potato famine) and present (the suffering of AIDS orphans). The plot lurches at the end, the political stuff is sometimes heavy, and Mercy’s wildly misleading comment to her counselor–if she and the other patients “had been born black in South Africa, [we] would most likely have AIDS”–is never challenged or corrected in context. Still, many readers will want this for the family story and for the teen talk, which is fast, frank, and irreverent. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Strengths: The parallel to Shelley’s Prometheus, Unbound is quite clever.  Like Shelley’s play, Antieau’s book is divided into 4 parts, and Mercy’s feelings regarding the suffering she sees in the world mirror those of Prometheus. I really found this to be a unique and clever approach.

Potential Flaws: This book had a great deal of promise.  As I’ve said, I’ve always been a fan of a good problem novel.  But, that being said, I was really disappointed with this read.  The political/moral issues that keep cropping up, although accurate, are heavy-handed.  Further, I felt that this was potentially two novels.  The first was the typical problem novel about anorexia.  Unfortunately, it never really delivered; Mercy’s repeated “I don’t eat because I’m becoming an angel and angels don’t need to eat” really flies in the face of the fact that in truth, anorexia is about body image and control issues.  The “angel” approach trivializes a serious issue.  The second novel was a “what if” story; what if Mercy really WAS becoming an angel?  This was a direction that I was hoping the story would go.  Again, unfortunately, Antieau doesn’t deliver that either.  Ultimately, while the Prometheus parallel was a good one, I also felt that it was one that would most likely be lost on a significant portion of the intended audience.

My Rating:

A disappointment.  Much promise, but not much delivery.  Too many false starts, heavy-handed political issues, and just not much punch.


 

What I’m Reading #36: The Compound July 7, 2010

The next entry on my dystopian fiction reading list is S. A. Bodeen’s The Compound.  I was pulled in by the back cover excerpt, definitely not by the less-than-inspiring cover…

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The Compound by S. A. Bodeen

Feiwel and Friends, 2008

b

The use of the manhole cover doesn't match the "compound" idea. I'd have preferred to put the door of a vault instead...

b

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Bodeen, acclaimed as the writer of such picture books as Elizabeti’s Doll, turns out a high-wire act of a first novel, a thriller that exerts an ever-tighter grip on readers. Eli, the 15-year-old son of a billionaire techno-preneur, has spent the last six years with his family in the massive underground shelter his father has built, knowing that nuclear war has destroyed the world he knows—and killed his grandmother and his twin brother, who couldn’t reach the compound in time. With nine years to go before the air outside will be safe to breathe again, the food supply shows signs of running out, but Eli’s father has a solution—provided they jettison all morals and ethics. Repulsed and already suspicious, Eli begins investigating his father’s claims, and sets up a family death match against a man who grows increasingly irrational and sinister but no less powerful. As far-fetched as the premise may be, Bodeen keeps Eli’s actions true to life and uses clues planted fairly and in plain sight. The audience will feel the pressure closing in on them as they, like the characters, race through hairpin turns in the plot toward a breathless climax. Ages 12-up. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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This is probably one of the best summaries I’ve seen for a book.  This really encompasses the major elements of the plot.

Strengths: This definitely IS a thriller, and a good one.  Bodeen creates a disturbingly real vision of a frightening question:  how would you survive if you were the ONLY survivors of a nuclear winter, and would you even WANT to?  It’s an uneasy question that hovers over the entire story, particularly when the mysterious “Supplements” enter the plot.  In some sense, the ending does seem a bit predictable; I saw it coming, but it was well-written enough that it didn’t bother me.  The real shock of the book hits you from nowhere in the MIDDLE of the story.  From that point, there’s a constant building of tension that is very well-crafted.

Potential Flaws: Superficially, the cover art doesn’t do the story justice, in my opinion.  A more fickle reader might walk by this one.  Covers are important.  And where I usually stumble across multiple versions of a cover, my searches only turned up this one.  As far as the story is concerned, there’s a bit of unbelievability about the ridiculous wealth Eli’s father must have.  However important it is to the plot (there’s no way the compound would exist without it) it’s just a little too convenient.

My Rating:

A tightly constructed, tense thriller.  A little too real for comfort, but hard to put down.

 

What I’m Reading #35: Leviathan July 5, 2010

I’ve always had a penchant for beautiful books.  Beautiful writing, beautiful illustrations, etc.  In this case I was absolutely NOT disappointed.

I’ve had Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies” series in my TBR pile for quite some time.  After I moved to Arizona, they were lovingly boxed and are still in my storage unit.  I turned my attention to the books I DON’T have in storage and the books I stumble across in used bookstores.

I found a copy of Westerfeld’s Leviathan on Saturday.  I’d finished it by Sunday night.  All 440 pages of it.  What Ellen Hopkins does for verse novels, Westerfeld does for Steampunk.  I’m officially in love with it.

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Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Simon Pulse, 2009

B

Lovely metallic touches here...

B

This is one of those covers that begs to be touched.  It’s rich and dark and steely.  I couldn’t keep my hands off it.  And when you open the book, the inside cover presents you with this:

B

This is the kind of art that makes me want to STEAL books. But I resisted the temptation and paid for it…


Synopsis: (from jacket flap)

“It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up.  The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition.  The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry.  Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.

“Aleksander Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run.  His own people have turned on him.  His title is worthless.  All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.

“Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service.  She’s a brilliant airman.  But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

“With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure.  One that will change both their lives forever.”

See more of the delicious artwork (by Keith Thompson) on Westerfeld’s website.

Other cover art:

An ARC cover, perhaps?

UK Hardcover

New Cover Art

And, not to be missed, the sequel, Behemoth:

Coming October 2010

——————-

Ok.  Here goes:

Strengths: This book is like your favorite food; you want to wolf it down but know you need to savor it.  I wanted to sink my teeth into it and devour it.  Westerfeld creates his alternate reality, Steampunk vision of WWI in epic proportions.  Meticulously detailed, the two main plotlines converge upon each other without losing their individual character and strengths.  Seamless melding creates an even richer narrative, aided by Keith Thompson’s outstanding illustrations.  It’s visually sumptuous.  [As an aside here, I’d label this as a hybrid novel–your experience of the book is critically dependent upon the illustrations, but it’s FAR from being a picture book.]  Alek shines as a flawed and impetuous youth forced to become a man by circumstances wholly beyond his control.  Deryn is a spunky, edgy heroine with more courage than most of the men with whom she serves on the Leviathan.

Readers will find the world of the Clankers and the Darwinists irretrievably interesting.  Fans of Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars will be intrigued by the mechanical war machines of the Clankers.  The creations of the Darwinists, or “beasties,” as they are frequently referred to, pull the ideas of the present day back into a bygone era.  Further, the historical timelines of this period remain largely intact; the war is in fact started with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the alliances of the different powers mirror the reality.  As fantastic as the ideas are (particularly with the notion of the whale-ship Leviathan as a floating ecosystem), anyone who picks this book up will be sucked in.  Westerfeld combines historical accuracy and utter fantasy with amazing skill.

Skillfully written and richly envisioned, with effortless flow, particularly in action scenes.

Potential Flaws: I’d have to be reaching to find much wrong with this book.  On a superficial level, I’ll say I prefer the 2009 cover art to the new art which is designed to match Behemoth.  The new art makes me want to go watch Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

The only hiccup in my reading dealt with the age of the characters.  Throughout the book, despite being told the age of the hero and heroine (15-16), I simply could not see them at that age.  It seemed more appropriate to view them as younger, perhaps aided by Thompson’s illustrations.  I was quite happy to envision them as younger, so much so that when Deryn begins to react differently to Alek, I was knocked a bit askew.  Call it a continuity problem.  To me, this was the only wrinkle in an otherwise outstanding tale.

I know.  I’m reaching.

My Rating:

Rich and gritty at times, solidly constructed on a fascinating premise, and full of believable characters.  A delightful balance between fantasy and reality and Steampunk.

 

What I’m Reading #34: Dusk July 4, 2010

When this one showed up on the shelf at my favorite used bookstore, I had to grab it.  It’s a really striking cover.

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Dusk by Susan Gates

Putnam Juvenile (May 19, 2005)

B

The US cover. I love the colors and the double helix dissolving into feathers.

The UK cover. Not so eye-catching...

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From School Library Journal

Grade 7-10–SERU (Sensory Enhancement Research Unit) is a secret facility devoted to enhancing military capabilities. Among its genetically mutated experiments are extremely clever and dangerous rats; a killer guard dog; and Dusk, a human girl who possesses hawk genes, the result of a failed attempt to create perfect night vision. When a fire erupts and destroys SERU, all of the specimens escape to a nearby deserted town. The military pulls out to cover its illegal operations, and the escapees live there under a strict, and very tense, state of peace. Two years later, a boy enters the village and disrupts that truce. It is then that Dusk has to take sides: is she human or animal? Gates creates an interesting science-fiction story, weaving in elements of survival and family dynamics. The mutated animals are just plain scary (the dogs are slightly reminiscent of Stephen King’s Cujo [Penguin, 1981]), and the genetic mutation issue makes readers wonder if this could really happen. At times a bit confusing (there’s a lot going on in the first chapter), this is a decent novel that leaves readers still concerned about the future of the title character. Will she ever really be free? But, perhaps, that’s just an excuse for a sequel.–Carly B. Wiskoff, Great Neck Library, NY
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Strengths: This had such a unique and spooky premise I couldn’t resist it.  Particularly with the debates going on regarding cloning and genetic research.  I definitely agree with School Library Journal; you really are left uneasily wondering if this could really happen.  Gates’ narration keeps Dusk remote from us, only showing us the animal side of her at first, with increasing glimpses of her humanity as the story progresses.  The inner struggle she feels between her human and hawk genes becomes more and more palpable.

Potential Flaws: Not much aside from a woefully abrupt ending, as though the story is only half-told.  Readers will want to know more about Dusk’s transition from her wild existence to a more human one.  It’s been 5 years and no sequel appears to be forthcoming.

My Rating:

An intriguing read with a unique premise and disturbing realism.