Category Archives: Science-fiction

More than Meets the Eye: What We Found in the Sofa

sofaWhat We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World, by Henry Clark (lexile: 730; AR book level: 5.1; 355 pp)

Nothing is quite what it seems.  Certainly not the dark green sofa that River, Freak and Fiona find one morning sitting at their bus stop, in front of the old Underhill mansion.  Nor the odd coin, zucchini-colored crayon, and double-six domino they discover between the sofa’s cushions.  All are keys to a much bigger mystery, involving an evil billionaire bent on taking over the world.

River, Freak, and Fiona are themselves more than they seem, too.  All three are middle-school misfits with difficult circumstances, gradually revealed as the story unfolds.  In fact, theirs are the only three families left living in a section of town nicknamed “Hellsboro” — so called because 12 years ago a chemical plant accidentally (?) set fire to the nearby underground coal seam, and it’s been burning ever since.

The action begins when Fiona (the science/internet genius) discovers online that the zucchini crayon is rare — so rare that someone might pay a lot of money for it.  So they decide to auction it on ebay, and the bidding soars into the thousands!  But what if the sofa — and its contents — actually belonged to old Mr Underhill?  So they try to contact him … and I’ll leave you the fun of discovering the rest.

This is Clark’s first novel (he has previously written for Mad magazine), and it is refreshingly original, clever, funny, action-packed, and very well written.  The plot is certainly a little wacko, but the three main characters are wonderfully-believable and likeable middle-schoolers.  In the end their quirks become their strengths, and their courage does, indeed, save the world.  There are hints of a sequel, which I hope will be just as much fun as this first book.

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away: All Things Star Wars

luke_skywalkerI saw the very first Star Wars film (now called A New Hope) WAY back in 1977, and was immediately hooked.  Much more than just another sci-fi flick, it was an EPIC to me:  think Tolkien with spaceships.  Like many boys then and now, I wanted to BE Luke Skywalker, to wield that lightsaber, to blow that Death Star to smithereens.

All things Star Wars — including books –are still hugely popular with guys.  And many of our library patrons are surprised to find we have a BUNCH of Star Wars books of all types, for virtually all reading levels.  Here’s an overview of some in our library.

Beginning Readers

luke_skywalkerLuke Skywalker’s Amazing Story, by Simon Beecroft (lexile: NA; AR book level: 2.3; 32 pp)

For young fans who are 1st- or 2nd-grade readers, here’s a VERY abbreviated version of all three of the first movies (New Hope, Empire, Return) in a few pages with pictures from the movies.  The author uses the clever device of ending many pages with an ellipsis that prompts the reader to guess the name of the new character introduced on the next page.  It even has a simple index that kids can learn to use!

There are other Star Wars beginning readers at various reading levels.  You can find all of them in our library system by clicking here.

Graphic Novels

new_hope_gnStar Wars, Episode 4, A New Hope (91 pp)

There are plenty of Star Wars graphic novel series, but this is my favorite.  Instead of drawings, these are illustrated with actual pictures from the movies, with the movie dialogue in speech bubbles.  Readers who know the movies will find these easier to read because the content is already familiar.  The others are:

Some other Star War graphic novel series:

kotor1Commencement (Knights of the Old Republic series #1)

This comic book-style series is set 4,000 years before Luke Skywalker’s days, and tells the story of Padawan Zayne Carrick, falsely accused of murder and a fugitive from the Jedi.  There are loads of battles, droids, wild characters and unique planets in the 10 volumes (each about 140-160 pp).  Click here for links to all the titles  in our library system.

droidsStar Wars Omnibus series

These are compilations of Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse Comics.  Each volume contains400+ pages of comics centered around a single theme or time period in the Star Wars saga.  Some retell the movie stories, but most are stories that happened before, between, or after the movies.  For example, the Droids volume contains the adventures of C3PO and R2D2 before they met Luke Skywalker.  Click here for all the Omnibus volumes in our library system.  You can find a good guide to all the Omnibus volumes (28 so far) and their contents here at the Wookiepedia.

There are lots of Star Wars graphic novel series — click here to see all of them in our library system.

Enough for now.  I’ll save some other Star Wars stuff for a future post.

What Came From the Stars

came_from_starsWhat Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt (lexile: 930; AR book level: 5.5; 294 pp)

On a far away planet, the peaceful Valorim face their final moments as the evil Lord Mondus and his minions besiege their city.  As the fight comes to the  innermost tower, the last of their people forges all the combined Art of the Valorim into a single jeweled chain and casts it into space to keep it from Lord Mondus.  Across unknown galaxies it travels, until it lands — in the lunchbox of 12-year old Tommy Pepper, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Tommy doesn’t realize what he’s received, but he has a lot of other things to distract him lately.  His mother died 257 days ago, his father and younger sister are each grieving in their own ways, and an unscrupulous real estate investor is trying to get their beachfront cottage.

Soon, however, Tommy’s friends and family notice that he is able to do some pretty remarkable things, like painting a picture that actually moves.  It all seems natural to him, like the memories he has of a planet with two suns.  But they know something strange is going on when someone starts breaking into homes and even the school, ransacking but never stealing.  Something sent from far away is trying to regain a lost treasure, and Tommy and his friends will need to fight to defend his family — and perhaps, though he doesn’t realize it, save a distant planet.

What Came from the Stars shifts back and forth between Earth and the Valorim world, as the two stories gradually come together.  It may be labeled science-fiction,  but it’s much more a story about grief, forgiveness, and friendship.  You will certainly like Tommy Pepper, his family and friends.  (And you may wish that — even for just a moment — you could wear the Art of the Valorim and do the unbelievable.)

Some reviewers really like the story of Tommy Pepper, but found the interspersed narratives from the Valorim’s planet difficult to follow.  Schmidt introduces a number of made-up terms in the Valorim language, and the picture of what’s going on there is painted in spare detail.  The reader does have to work, and the complete background story is not clear until the very end.  To me, that mystery was part of the appeal of the book, and fit the storyline.  Tommy and his friends had to gradually piece together what was going on, and so does the reader.  One of Schmidt’s many strengths as a writer is that he doesn’t tell you too much — just enough to hint, and leave you the “aha!” moment of discovery.

Alien Imagination: Escape from Planet Yastol

Pamela Service has written several short, fun science fiction series that are sure to appeal to those looking for easier chapter books.  In earlier posts I’ve reviewed her Stinker from Space and Alien Agent series.  Here’s the beginning of her latest, full of weird aliens and fast-paced adventure.

real-aliensEscape from Planet Yastol (Way-Too-Real Aliens #1), by Pamela Service (lexile: 620; AR book level: 4.2; 102 pp)

Imagine you’ve written a pretty cool story about another planet and the aliens living there — cool enough to win your school’s annual writing contest and get published!  THEN imagine discovering that everything you’ve imagined (in the book) is REAL!

That’s what happens to 11-year-old Josh Higgins.  One day when he and his sister Maggie are walking home from school, they’re kidnapped by these weird blue guys, and then whisked away to the planet Yastol — the very place Josh wrote about!  Turns out humans are the only creatures in the galaxy that can “channel” other places: they think they’re writing fiction, but it’s really true.  And the blue villains want a precious resource Josh described in the book — but he and Maggie aren’t about to help them.

Of course Josh wrote the book — he knows Yastol.  Can he use that knowledge to outwit the bad guys, find some help, and, most importantly, get back to Earth?

In the end, he and Maggie escape with the transportation device that brought them to Yastol, which sets the stage for more extra-terrestrial adventures in the sequels.  The next two books so far:

The Not-So-Perfect Planet (lexile: 630; AR book level 4.1; 115 pp)

The Wizards of Wyrd World 3 (lexile: 700; AR book level 4.6; 112 pp)

Building Character: GOOD books

“Can you recommend a GOOD book?”

I get that question from parents who are looking not for a well-written story, but rather one which somehow embodies GOODNESS.  They want their children to experience books in which the characters model (or ultimately learn) traits like sharing, respect, integrity, honesty, perseverance, self-sacrifice, or courage. I think they are wise: good stories inspire and encourage us, children and adults alike, to be stronger, better, kinder.

Fortunately, there are many excellent choices, including this older gem I discovered recently.

The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key (lexile: 720; AR book level: 5.0; 126 pp)

Little Jon has fallen … fallen through a forgotten door.  From where?  To where?  Well, he has landed in a cave, in the hills of the rural eastern U.S., perhaps around 1960.  He emerges with the realization that he doesn’t know who he is or where he’s from.  But the reader soon learns that Jon can do some amazing things: communicate with animals, run very fast, read minds … and maybe more.

His first encounter with people is frightening, and he runs away.  Then he is found by the Bean family.  Tom & Mary and their three children take him in, though he is strange to them and at first seems unable to speak.  Soon they discover some of Jon’s remarkable abilities, and wonder where he might be from.  But word leaks out about this “wild boy” with the strange powers.  Local folk are frightened or angry; the CIA and the military are interested in him for their own reasons.  Can the Beans keep protecting him?  Can he somehow get back home before it’s too late?

The breathtaking beauty of the book (for me, at least) is that Jon is both so innocent and wise.  Hatred, dishonesty, anger, and prejudice are all completely foreign to him and, it seems, to the Place from which he came.  And there are a few good folk in the story — like the Beans — who understand how wonderful that is.

This older story (1965) is classed as science-fiction, but the sci-fi element is very minor.  If you look at the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find dozens of adults who call it one of the most memorable, even influential, books they read as children.

Among others I have already reviewed, I can also recommend:

An out-of-this-world summer: Aliens on Vacation

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know I love science fiction.  Even better is good sci-fi that is also funny, like this terrific new series by a first-time author.

Aliens on Vacation, by Clete Barrett Smith (lexile: 770; AR book level: 5.1; 251 pp)

“When the taxi pulled up to Grandma’s place, I wanted to burrow under the seat and cower in shame.  I blinked a few times, but the view didn’t get any better.  Of all the places my parents had dumped me for the summer, this was the dumpiest.”

David “Scrub” Elliott would rather be back home in Florida, at basketball camp with his best friend, but his too-busy parents have sent him all the way to the wilds of Washington state.  He’s spending the summer with a hippy grandmother he’s never met, who runs a crazy outer-space themed place called the Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast.  No internet, no cell phone reception, no friends  — it was going to be a weird summer.

“Weird” doesn’t begin to describe it when David starts to meet the inn’s guests.  None arrive by car or bus or even the front door.  Each room is equipped with a transporter, and the guests — with their extra arms, 100 eyes, or glow-in-the-dark skin — come from other planets.  Grandma disguises them to look (roughly) human, and they go out to enjoy a quiet vacation in a remote corner of this primitive planet, Earth.

David becomes his grandma’s right hand man in helping to care for the guests,  and keep them out of trouble with the suspicious local sheriff.  But then he meets this really nice local girl.  How can he get to know her and still keep Grandma’s secret safe?  And then there’s the camping trip with some ADHD alien kids with disastrous consequences.  Will David’s fast thinking save his Grandma’s inn?

The story is fun, creative, fast-paced, and perfectly told in David’s own middle-school voice.  [And a Romance Alert, for those wary of such things: There is a KISS — you can close your eyes at that point if you want.]

There’s already a sequel:  Alien on a Rampage.  I can’t wait to read it!

Boom!

Boom! by Mark Haddon (lexile:NA ; AR book level: 4.1; 195 pp)

Imagine you and your best friend decide to bug the teacher’s lounge at school — pretty clever, huh?  But in the process you overhear two of them talking secretly in a strange, unknown language.  Do you forget about it?  Or do you decide there’s a mystery afoot that has to be pursued?

That’s what Jim and Charlie do in this funny, fast-paced adventure set in Great Britain.  They soon find themselves in over their heads, however, when they see their teacher’s eyes glowing blue, and a strange man with even stranger powers threatens them.  (Can YOU burn through a tabletop with your fingertips?)  The story moves quickly, with a kidnapping, a crazy motorcycle ride to the wilds of northern Scotland, and a (literally) out-of-this-world trip to not only rescue a best friend, but even keep the planet from being blown up.

This is light adventure, with funny characters and dialogue.  The interaction between Jim and his rebellious older sister (who turns out to play a pretty important role) is great.  And I loved the giant monkey-faced spider alien named Britney who had apparently learned all her English from 70s disco.  The story includes some British English vocabulary, but readers can figure it out from the context.