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Friday, April 29, 2011

The Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

I waited quite awhile to read Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan after it was published, because to be honest, it looked nowhere near as good as his Uglies series was. He wrote an amazing series about a girl who was trying to take down her technologically advanced society that revolved around beauty, and now he was writing books about World War One? It seemed like quite a leap.
But then along came the yearly camping trip that I go on with my family, in which I got a frenzy of books to read while out in the wilderness. Leviathan was one of them. On a boring, rainy day in the woods, this book was my salvation. Not only was it catchy and action-packed, it was (get this) illustrated!

It's a strange book series. Like the blockbuster movie Avatar, it can appear silly and bizarre. After seeing previews full of blue alien people doing epic stunts, you are a bit weirded out. But then you actually see the movie and are like, whoa, this is awesome! (That's how it was for me anyway. Never mind the fact that this was only one of the most successful movies of all time.)

But getting back on track, the Leviathan books take place in 1914, when the planet was on the brink of it's first World War. But as the book trailer for it urges, put down your history books there. This is no historical fiction. In the world of Leviathan, the Austro-Hungarian Clankers are trying to win the war by using their mind-bending robots and machines as weapons. The British Darwinists are fighting against them using fabricated animals that can do amazing things. So it's robots verses monsters in this alternate history novel. There are 2 main characters.

There's Alek, a fifteen year old Austrian prince and heir to a European empire. When the Germans assassinate his parents, his people turn on him and he is forced to run away with his men and a wickedly awesome stormwalker machine. The Germans are after him and he has nowhere to go but try to get to the safe place his father left behind for him, but it won't be easy getting there.

Then theres Deryn, who is probably one of the best and boldest feminist characters ever created. She's a fifteen year old girl who has disguised herself as a boy so she can serve in the British Air Service. She winds up becoming a midshipman on the Leviathan, the biggest airship in the British fleet, where she struggles to keep her identity hidden.

When Alek and Deryn's paths collide, they have no choice but to become allies when they should be enemies. It's up to them alone to save the Leviathan from destruction and possibly change the course of the whole war. Over the trilogy they are taken around the world on an epic adventure as they encounter strange new places, interesting new people, bizarre monsters and machines, and scary new enemies, all while fighting out a war.

Yeah, so it's not your typical book series. It's definitely original. Book 1, Leviathan, focuses mainly on how the 2 main characters eventually meet, save the airship, and form an alliance. Book 2, Behemoth, is about Alek and Deryn trying to overthrow the Ottoman Empire as things get more dangerous and strange as they grow closer. Book 3, Goliath, is a mystery. It isn't even released yet, and won't be until mid September, but in order to rap up such a story, I have the feeling it will be quite the book. It will complete the Leviathan's journey around the world and will feature the characters quests to either win or put a halt to the war.

To be honest, I can't wait for Book 3 to come out. I thought the 2nd book, Behemoth, was better then the first book, Leviathan. Normally a sequel is never better then the 1st book, but I thought this was the case here. By Book 2, the setting had been established and you could focus in on the characters and what was happening to them without needing as much of an exposition. I have high hopes for Goliath, which will hopefully contain lots of fast-paced action.

Remember how I said before that they were illustrated? Well I'm not lying. An newly published, illustrated YA series exists! Beautiful black and and white pictures are featured every few pages, and they enhance the story. Sometimes in a battle scene, it's hard to picture everything because the author has so much to describe, things get crazy. But here you have pictures that help you understand everything. And they are big and frequent pictures too. This isn't Harry Potter where readers are only treated to an tiny illustration at the beginning of every chapter, no, it is here that you get big, detailed pictures that often take up a whole page. It definitely contributes to the books coolness.

It's also fun to hear about (and see, thanks to the pictures) all the crazy things that exist in Leviathan world. There are talking lizards, air balloon jellyfish, walking beds, beetle taxis, and an enormous flying whale (which is the airship.) It's fantasy at its best. Very weird, very creative. The characters are great and make you smile. There's some good guys, some bad guys, and then the just-plain-messed-up guys. One person you meet is a scientist named Dr. Barlow. She's the cunning and clever granddaughter of Charles Darwin. And then there's a certain creature (they're called beasties in the books) that is adorable and can talk, and becomes a sidekick to Alek and Deryn in the 2nd book. Just Google the word "loris" and you'll get an idea of what it looks like, and you'll probably like what you see. Yes, there's other abnormal animals too, but this one is easily a favorite.

The action scenes are intense. I normally hate war books, but these are fine by me as long as I have pictures to show me what's going on. It can get a bit confusing, I will warn you. Uneducated readers, like I was when I first picked up Book 1, won't understand it as well as they could if they were familiar with WW I history. You have to adapt to everything, the setting, the historically driven plot, even the early 20th century slang they use. Really, be prepared to hear the expression "barking spiders!" used A LOT.

With all the fantasy and randomness in the series, people who don't have imaginations won't like it. But there is some historical accuracy in it, more then one would expect. And Alek and Deryn, despite being a prince and a soldier in disguise, are pretty normal in personality and act like teenagers when they can. For example, Deryn has fallen hard for Alek, (of course) so it's too bad he doesn't know she's a girl, or he would feel the same way. Fortunately, Westerfeld assured his fans over a U-Stream chat he did a few months back that Alek would find out her true identity in the 3rd book. This should be good, I'm looking forward to it. Beside that element, they are 2 great characters, especially Deryn who shows serious girl-power. So there is some realistic themes to it, thank goodness.

So while thousands await the final book in the trilogy, I will encourage fans of the steampunk and fantasy genres to give the series a try. Even though it's about war, it's a lot of fun. I think you either love or hate this series, or possibly think it's just plain weird. Weird but good.

Books that combine so many themes together to make one crazy and new world. Fun, illustrated, and action packed.
4/5 stars

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Cupcake Queen by Heather Hepler

With so many novels out there today about scandal, war, intrigue, drama, and violence, sometimes we just need a break from the heavy stuff. So what are supposed to read then? Well, one book you can check out is The Cupcake Queen by Heather Hepler.

This was a cute book all about finding where you truly belong. It involves all the good stuff, a rock-paper-scissors league, pink frosting, a beauty pageant, cats, Jolly Ranchers, and much more. But here's what really goes on:

Penny Lane (named after the Beatles song) feels like her life has fallen apart. When her parents separate, this New York City gal is forced to go live with her mom in the small town of Hog's Hollow. At first, Penny hopes that the move is only temporary because she can't stand living there. She is constantly bullied by some mean girls at school ever since the Queen Bee's birthday party was ruined by some cupcakes that Penny and her mom made at their bakery, The Cupcake Queen. But life slowly starts looking up. She makes a few new friends, does some serious cupcake making, and a certain good-looking-but-mysterious boy catches her eye. So Penny begins to adapt to her new life. But one important decision she must make could shatter it all. Should she go back to her old life in New York or stick with the town she's come to love?

So yeah, you don't exactly come across life or death drama in this story. Don't expect any serious action, because at times it can be as sweet as it's title. But it was still nice, even if it was a bit slow at times. Penny is a girl we can all relate too, and we are right by her side through every page. This is an innocent book too. No suggestive themes, violence, language, or drugs here! It was a most well-behaved story! The most intense it gets is when the characters go into their personal lives. Penny's parents have their problems. Her friend Tally's dad ignores her while he's on the road. Her friend Marcus' mom is dead. But with support, they overcome these parental issues.

I think my only problem with it was that it was wrapped up far too quickly. It didn't explain much, I was expecting more out of the ending. I guess it didn't go into as much detail as I wanted. Oh well. I think people will enjoy it anyway.

So basically if you are looking for something sugary-sweet and adorable, The Cupcake Queen is the way to go.

Cute, fun, and at times, possibly
heart-warming, this book is a great read when you don't want anything too intense.
3/5 stars.