Vango: Between Sky and Earth by Timothée de Fombelle, Trans. by Sarah Ardizzone

Information

Goodreads: Vango: Between Earth and Sky
Series: Vango #1
Source: Library
Published: 2010

Summary

Nineteen-year-old Vango is about to be ordained when gunshots ring out across the plaza. The police want Vango–but so do a shadowy group of men.  Unsure of why he’s being attacked, Vango flees.  He will travel across Europe, by airship, by train, and by boat, in search of his past, hoping it will unlock the secrets of his present.

Star Divider

Review

Vango: Between Sky and Earth is one exciting adventure.  It begins with the flight of nineteen-year-old Vango, on the verge of being ordained a priest when a call for his arrest leads to his escape up the side of Notre Dame.  In search of answers, he tangles with Russian spies, stows away on a German zeppelin, and makes his way back to the hidden island where it all started.  Pirates, war criminals, and Scottish heiresses all make an appearance,  Readers who love a blend of genre tropes with high-stakes drama will love Vango: Between Sky and Earth.

There is simply something about the book that is intoxicating.  No matter how many improbable, how many impossible things occur, each new occurrence is always a shock.  What next? is the recurring question.  Will the beautiful Ethel make a dramatic get-away in her fabulous car?  Will a chase across the rooftops of Paris occur?  Will the main in the disguise be friend or foe?  Readers who take their literature seriously may not be amused, but readers who just want to have a good time are in for a treat.

The historical setting adds to unique flavor of the book.  Vango washed ashore on an Italian island in 1915.  But now the Nazis are rising to power.  Vango’s friends have to make life-or-death choices.  And Vango himself seems tied up in world events, without knowing why.  Villains seem to lurk around every corner, but there is hope that heroes will rise to face them.

Vango: Between Sky and Earth is a marvelous adventure, one perhaps unlike anything else being published on the YA market today in the U.S.   It gripping, magical.  It is impossible to put down.

5 stars

The Door to Time by Pierdomenico Baccalario, Trans. by Leah D. Janeczko.

the-door-to-timeINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Door to Time
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2004

SUMMARY

Eleven-year-old twins Julia and Jason have just moved with their parents into the old Argo Mansion, situated on an isolated cove.  There they discover the house is full of old treasures and that its previous inhabitant Ulysses Moore may have left a series of clues leading them to a grand adventure.

Review

The book presents itself as the files of Ulysses Moore and only if you read the copyright material do you discover Pierdomenico Baccalario as the actual author.  This presentation, coupled with the narrative structure of the book, initially had me convinced that Scholastic had hired a series of ghostwriters to churn out quick time travel series to make money.

The premise of the book is nothing new.  Twins Julia and Jason move to a house full of antiques and secret passages.  A local boy, Rick, becomes their friend and volunteers to show them around and help them explore the old mansion.  Rick then starts crushing on Julia.  All of this is very standard.  (Indeed, I could not help but think of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prince of Mists.)  Then, of course, they begin a treasure hunt as it seems previous owner of the house Ulysses Moore has left a trail of coded messages for them.  And there’s a standard villain who wants to stop them.

The cover material suggests that this series is clever and engaging and will have readers solving puzzles.  But the readers themselves are seldom offered any puzzles to solve; this is mostly done by the characters and the story does not really feel interactive.  Besides, the characters solve every puzzle with astonishing ease.  It’s all very much as if the author just wants to hurry up this preliminary junk already and get to the time travel stuff.  Seriously, if the characters are stuck for more than ten minutes on a clue they start sniping at each other and dramatically declaring they want to give up.  Fortunately for them, I suppose, none of the puzzles are difficult or, if they are, a magic clue ends up in their hands or someone among them randomly possesses the specialized knowledge to solve the problem.

Normally a book like this would help draw out the drama by adding in bits of everyday life.  Perhaps the treasure seeking must stop for bedtime or a family trip to town.  Maybe someone is going to have a friend over or will go on a date.  But no outside characterization happens here; everything revolves, uninterrupted, around the puzzle-solving.  This means that we mostly see the characters in context of their ability to solve puzzles and do not otherwise learn much about them.

What we do see of them is a little awkward.  Jason is established as a dreamer who very often has flashes of convenient insight that allow him to solve a problem without any work.  Rick is…well, the author tells us he’s a natural leader, so I guess it must be true.  We certainly do not see enough of him in action to judge for ourselves.  Julia is somewhat problematic.  I think she’s supposed to be relatable as a girl because she’s into the city and friends and she does stuff like sunbathe while the boys explore.  But every time you think she’s falling into a female stereotype, the author goes, “Just kidding!  She’s sunbathing but only for a short time because she can’t sit still!  She’s full of action!  She’s athletic!  She does stuff!”  But also, she’s a girl.  And she’s going to whine like a girl and do other stuff that apparently females do.  It’s as if the author is not entirely sure how to write a female character.  And it doesn’t help that the only other female characters are 1) the overly protective mother stereotype, 2) the female villain stereotype, and 3) a shop owner who would be interesting if she only had a larger role.

This story simply is not original enough to make me want to read twelve more books in the series and the characters aren’t compelling enough, either.  I suppose it must have sold well or there would be no point in publishing twelve more installments.  The series, however, simply is not for me.

Krysta 643 stars

Leepike Ridge by N. D. Wilson

leepike-ridgeINFORMATION

Goodreads: Leepike Ridge
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2007

SUMMARY

Eleven-year-old Thomas Hammond floats down the stream and over a waterfall one day, then finds himself trapped underneath Leepike Ridge.  With only a few sardines and a light, Tom will have to find the courage and the wits to stay alive long enough to find his way out.  But up above a gang of treasure hunters is thwarting the search efforts.

REVIEW

N. D. Wilson’s first book for children differs from his later selections in that it features no fantasy magic, and yet it still suggests something of the magical, or at least the wondrous.  Tom Hammond, after all, finds an adventure right in his back yard–the kind of adventure that tests one courage and changes one forever.  It’s the type of thing any young reader secretly longs for–the chance to prove themselves a hero.

It’s true that a gang of treasure hunters, or perhaps just thugs, ups the stakes a little and makes the adventure just a little more than the type of thing one could reasonably expect if also whisked down the river to an unknown subterranean world.  They give an old-timey Western feel to the whole, which almost provides comic relief, even though they’re capable of murder.  This weird balance between comical and dangerous almost makes their presence seem extraneous to the story, as if they were not fully thought out.  But they certainly relief the tedium of watching a character walk around a dark cave system, which is probably the point.

Tom’s story underground takes up just enough space in the book to keep it interesting, though I admit that descriptions of him climbing about did bore me a little.  Still, Wilson adds in his signature philosophy to lighten these scenes–that is, he provides somewhat cryptic but high-sounding phrases and allusions to make it seem like something Big and Important is happening here.  Which, it is.  Tom is going to find out if he’s a hero.  He’s also going to find out if he’s a dead hero or a live one.

Altogether, the book is fast-paced read that is classic Wilson-a boy, an adventure, and a hint of something greater behind it all.  Fans of 100 Cupboards and the Ashtown Burials series will find a lot to love here, even if the book is not fantasy.

Krysta 644 stars

Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera

Ms Rapscott's GirlsInformation

Goodreads: Ms. Rapscott’s Girls
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 2015

Summary

The Great Rapscott School for Daughters of Busy Parents advertises its services for those parents too preoccupied even to teach their daughters what a birthday cake is or how to tie their shoes.  However, the greatest lesson, headmistress Rapscott believes is How To Find Your Way.  Soon her students are parachuting through the sky and skimming through the sea.  But on all their journeyings will they ever find Dahlia Thistle, the student who went missing before she even arrived?

Review

 Ms. Rapscott’s Girls attempts to achieve a quirky tone reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Here we have the mysterious building, the slightly insane owner, and the host of children, each one more unlikely and perhaps unlikable than the previous.  Unusual adventures led by an adult apparently oblivious to danger complete the similarities.  Because, despite the presence of all the elements, this story fails to capture the same magic.

Roald Dahl manages to capture the personalities of his characters in a few deft touches, but in this book, even with informative backstories and and blatant capitalization (“That is how so-and-so become known as Trait”) could not make its girls come to life.  I should have felt sorry for them, sorry for their loneliness and their poor upbringing, which has led them to become so disagreeable because they never were taught how to get along or to be polite or to be useful.  Instead I had difficulty keeping track of them all (the lazy one and the other one, whoever she was) and really did not care what happened to them at all.  I figured Ms. Rapscott would not really let them drown or anything.

I love quirky books and middle grade books and books about boarding schools.  I love adventures and books that feature a band of girls who are (or become) friends.  Even so, I could not love this book.  Without any characters at its heart, the story simply fell flat.

Krysta 64