Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Review: Skeleton Creek

Skeleton Creek
by Patrick Carman

Something is wrong in Skeleton Creek, and teens Ryan and Sarah are determined to figure out the mystery. They've lived in Skeleton Creek all their lives, but an innocent question from Sarah - why is the town called Skeleton Creek - leads them to uncover clues that something is not right. Everything seems to be tied into the dredge, an old, abandoned machine in the woods that was used for mining gold, but when Ryan and Sarah go to the dredge to investigate, a terrible accident happens. Laid up with an injury, Ryan continues the investigation from home, using the Internet and other resources, while Sarah takes her video camera out to try to gather more information. But it seems like everyone in Skeleton Creek is trying to hide something, and the two teens have been forbidden to communicate with each other. Will Sarah and Ryan be able to uncover the truth before something terrible happens?

Skeleton Creek is a story told in alternating text and video, to make the book more interesting to reluctant readers in our media saturated world. It's an interesting idea, and I think it's done well: the text and video are very well integrated and go hand in hand to create a compelling story. Ryan is an obsessive writer, and the text of the book comprises his journals, as he documents everything. Sarah is equally obsessed with her video camera, and at various intervals in the text, a password is provided to view another of Sarah's videos on the web site. There is also an alternate reality game at, which is built around the idea of trying to uncover evidence that the story of Skeleton Creek is real.

The text is written in a fairly simple style, but I think that was done intentionally to make it easier for reluctant readers. I'm not the intended audience for the book, and I honestly didn't expect to enjoy the book for its own sake. I read it with the intent of evaluating whether it would appeal to its intended audience. And as I expected, for the first part of the book, I didn't find the story very compelling. However, after the first video, I started finding myself pulled into the story more and more. I got so wrapped up in it that I almost screamed after watching the last video, and immediately went online to try to find someone else who had read it to talk about it with me. The book ends on quite a cliffhanger.

I don't think that the text of the book would stand alone very well, however, I don't think it was intended to. The words and the videos are designed to work together, and they do that. I'm not a writer, but I think it's probably difficult to write books that are simple enough for kids who have trouble reading, yet compelling enough to hold the attention of a tween or teen reluctant reader. Skeleton Creek addresses that problem by using the videos to hook the reader, and the fairly simple text to tie it all together.

The book is typeset using a font that looks like it's printed by hand, to enhance the illusion that the book is Ryan's journal. It's not a fancy or cursive font; the letters are printed in a fairly simple block style and the words are set in all upper case. I don't know if it would be difficult for struggling readers to read or not.

I was a bit confused when I finished the book; not only does it end on a cliffhanger, but there were many threads not wrapped up. My advance reading copy didn't say it was part of a series, but I've since been told that there is a sequel coming out later this year, which cleared up my confusion.

One thing that I found frustrating was that I'm often not at the computer when I read, and I kept having to stop reading every time I got to one of the video pages, until I could get back to my computer. I don't know if this would be a problem for the intended audience or not, because I don't know how much they have their computers handy while reading. I couldn't help wondering if there would have been a way to tie this into the ubiquitous mobile phones. Could it have been set up to text the password to a certain number to get the next video delivered to your mobile phone? I don't know enough about mobile technology to know if this is possible, but if so, I think it would be a great way to do a project like this in the future.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cover released for The Last Olympian! (Percy Jackson Book 5)

The cover has been released for The Last Olympian, the fifth and last book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series! You can see the new cover to the left. Also see the Interview with Blackjack the Pegasus on Rick Riordan's blog.

The Last Olympian will be published on May 5. You can preorder it from or from your local independent bookstore through IndieBound.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Book Review: Ender in Exile

Ender in Exile
by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game is probably one of the best known science fiction stories of the last few decades. It started life as a novelette, then became a novel, then spawned many sequels. Yet Ender in Exile, 23 years after the original Ender's Game novel, is the first direct sequel which follows Ender immediately after the events of Ender's Game. All of the other books in the series have either taken place much later, or followed different characters.

Ender in Exile is worth the wait. It's a feel-good book that finally allows us to see the story that we've waited for all these years, as Ender grows from a guilt-ridden and war-weary child into the adult we meet in Speaker for the Dead, tries to make sense of the past, and seeks his purpose in life.

How does a thirteen-year-old who has just saved the world, and been both deified and vilified, cope? Where does he go from here? Clearly, he can’t go back to being a child; he’s been dealing with adult level responsibility for years. And yet, to everyone who doesn’t know him, he is still a child, and their reactions to him are colored by their expectations. So Ender has to deal with the machinations and political maneuvering of the people around him, most of whom see him either as a tool or an obstacle, while simultaneously dealing with his own feelings of guilt and remorse for the xenocide of the buggers (not to mention the deaths of the two bullies).

I found this to be a very compelling book, not in an edge-of-your-seat way, but because I was so involved with the characters that I just didn't want to stop reading. Reading this book, it really struck me that Card's genius is in creating characters that you can't help but like. Some of his characters - Ender in particular, but others as well - seem just too good to be possible, and yet, reading the books, they’re utterly believable and you can’t help being drawn to them.

The only part of the book that I didn’t find quite as compelling was the last part, a trip to Ganges colony where Ender has to deal with the threat from a young man who has ties to Ender’s past. This episode doesn’t really fit with the rest of the book, and feels like it was tacked on just to resolve some hanging threads. Ironically, though, in the afterward, Card makes it clear that this is the story he really intended to tell in this book. He planned for a few chapters leading to Ganges colony, but on writing it, that part expanded and became the true story. I almost felt that he could have left the Ganges Colony episode out, and it would have been a stronger book, but having set out to tell that story, Card obviously was reluctant to drop it completely.

Ender in Exile isn’t published as a young adult book, but like the rest of the series, it has strong appeal to a young adult/teen audience. Perhaps even more so than some of the other books in the series, since this is really Ender’s coming of age story. Ender is essentially an adult mentally, because of his extreme intelligence and Battle School  experiences, yet physically and emotionally he is still a teen. Among other things, Ender has to deal for the first time with his own growing feelings towards the opposite sex, and a potential romantic entanglement which is complicated by the political machinations of those around him.

There’s one tiny little thing that may annoy some teens: Ender’s parents are shown to be a lot more intelligent than their children give them credit for, that they not only understand their children and know what Peter and Valentine are up to, but are able to manipulate them through that understanding. As a parent, I quite enjoyed this scene, but when I was a teen wouldn’t have stood for it. Back then, I knew that I was smarter than my parents. However, this minor glitch is more than made up for by the pleasure of watching a teen Ender outsmart all of the adults trying to take advantage of him.