Isle of Swords
Thomas Wayne Batson
Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2007
I will admit that this book impressed me. Much as I loved Christian children's fantasy books in my youth, I've found a good many of them lacking in literary merit as I've grown older. Batson's book doesn't water down the story for the sake of the gospel, however. There's no praying for miraculous victory over demonic bad guys at any point in the book. The center of this story is a good man who has been forced into piracy for a living, a life he hopes his daughter may one day avoid (though it's the only thing she wants to do and she thinks he won't let her become a full-fledged crew member because he thinks she can't handle it), and a young man with amnesia and some wicked scars all over his body. The Captain Declan Ross (aforementioned good man/pirate) has befriended some monks whose monastery--neutral ground, by the pirates' code--is about to be sacked by the sickest evil pirate on the seas. The monks ask Ross to take one brother with them, the brother with a map to a great sacred treasure, and the rest of the book is a race between Ross's crew and the evil Bartholomew Thorne's ship to find the treasure on the Isle of Swords.
For the most part, this is a very good book. The characters are likeable. The story is always moving forward. The monk (obviously the Christian voice throughout the novel) is respectful and believable, and while he's always ready to teach or to reach out using scripture, he's not your stereotypical goodie two-shoes Christian you find in many similar stories. He's a human character with faults like all the others. Rather than relying on literal Deus ex machina devices, Batson tells a story of people going through conflict on their own with spiritual principles guiding them without forcing their hands. And here's the best part: it's an exciting story! The bad guy is wickedly evil. Some of his scenes are legitimately cringe-worthy. The protagonist's spiritual journey goes from full-on doubter to curious seeker. There's no forced, tied-up altar call anywhere in the book, and you can believe the subtle change and see the priest's influence on him throughout. There's lots of fun and a ton of action. I think Isle of Swords would stand up fairly well with most fans of YA adventure stories. Which leads us to...
The Lightning Thief
I saw the movie made from this book last summer and just now got around to reading it. Completely different story. I know all adaptations have some changes, but trust me, these were different stories. I mean, okay, in each story, Percy is a son of Poseidon, he goes to a summer camp for kids with Greek deities for parents, and he, Grover, and Annabeth go on a quest to find Zeus' thunderbolt because somebody stole it from Olympus and the gods are going to start a war.
Similarities: over. (Okay, there are a couple of scenes from the book that made it into the final cut of the film, but not really that many)
I enjoyed the film. It made for a good summer popcorn flick. But the book is so much better. I know how cliche that is, but it's quite true. The characters have more depth and are therefore more interesting. The story is more intelligent. The surprises are more surprising. Riordan nails the character voice in the narrative (it's actually one of the book's strongest elements). Really, "visual effects" were the only thing that the movie did better than the book.
This is a really fun adventure story that admittedly isn't perfect, but is a quick read with some really entertaining scenes. Also a fun "who's who" introduction into Greek mythology for middle school readers.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
Amulet Books, New York, 2008
Here's a book that suffered bit from sequel-itis. The humor just wasn't as fresh or funny as the first time around (though the storyline where Greg's mom joins in his weekly Dungeons and Dragons type game is golden). Everything's still pretty amusing, and the illustrations are again a highlight, but it just didn't seem to have the comic brilliance of the first book.
Then again, I asked some kids about it, and they told me the series didn't really even get very funny until the second book. So maybe I'm just old.
Number the Stars
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1989
This was one of my sister's favorite books back when it was relatively new, and it's good to see that it's still popular among kids over twenty years later. (Yikes!) All I really knew about this book growing up was that it was that girls seemed to love. That's still true, by the way. I posted on Facebook that I was reading it, and close to ten women chimed in with "I love/loved that book!" For just one hundred thirty-seven pages, this book really packs a wallop. There's great emotional depth. The protagonist of the story is a young girl named Annemarie. Annemarie lives in Denmark during the time of Nazi occupation. She and her family become involved in an operation to smuggle Jews out of the country into Sweden. Yeah, it's fairly heavy stuff. But you can't help but marvel at the bravery and pride of the folks who secretly defied the Nazis. An afterward explains how much of the book came straight from reality. More than a touching story about a girl and her best friend, it's a book that celebrates the "regular people" who fought back during the second world war. I don't want to sound like a publicity pamphlet or anything, but it was actually fairly inspiring.
Philomel Books, New York, 2009
I didn't really like this book. I can't exactly pinpoint why without rambling, but basically the story was jumbled and confused, the themes were dealt with awkwardly, and the humor wasn't all that funny to me.
The Sea of Monsters
Hyperion Books for Children/Miramax Books, New York
More Percy Jackson adventures. There was a little less intrigue this time around but just as much adventure. Percy meets his cycloptic half brother and the two of them (along with Annabeth, because what's an adventure without a girl along?*) leave camp on an adventure to rescue Percy's buddy Grover who (for some reason) is about to be married to Polyphemus (of The Oddesey fame). Okay, so that part didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but the rest of the story was just solid fun. You got monsters, donuts, monsters eating donuts, centaurs, chariot races, cyclopes, Confederate zombies, and a host of other adventures that somehow manage to form a cohesive episodic quest narrative. The narrative voice is again a strong point, and while it's still clearly aimed at younger readers, there's enough innocent fun in each chapter to give just about any lover of adventure stories a good time.
Isle of Fire
Wayne Thomas Batson
Thomas Nelson, 2008
This one wasn't quite as sharp as Isle of Swords was. The story went in too many different directions and tied together somewhat sloppily at the end. Everything seemed to happen very quickly. For example, fairly early in the story, the King accepts the testimony of the second-in-commend of one of his lead naval commanders (#2 is working for the Big Bad, of course) without any investigation or examination, and pretty much all of Parliament goes with it, despite the fact that the commodore in question has a strong reputation of sound judgment. This is needed to advance the story, but it just sorta seems to happen without any real reason. There are a few such instances where things seem rushed just to get to the next point. Also, there's a new main antagonist thrown into the mix, and while his storyline is good, it sort of stumbles back into the main narrative at the end and the New Big Bad (the Bigger Badder?) sort of bows out pretty unceremoniously. Ultimately, this is just a book that tried to do too much in too little time.
Now, that's not to say it was a bad book, because it wasn't. I enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed each of the characters' continued arcs from the first book. The development was still realistic, and the faith element, while more prevalent due to the nature of Story #2, was treated realistically and sensitively. If you read and like the first book, I'd recommend reading this one to see how things wrap up. (I assume this is the last, anyway)
*Answer: a Tolkien adventure