Today I Read…Hollow Earth

Hollow EarthToday I read Hollow Earth by John and Carole E. Barrowman.

Twelve-year-old twins Matt and Em Calder love to draw, and they have a special gift–when they draw together, their drawings come to life. Their mother Sandie has told them never to reveal what they can do, and they understand that it’s dangerous to be different. But one hot and boring day they draw themselves into a picture of a river at The National Gallery, and Sandie panics and tells them to grab their emergency bags–they’re leaving London. They leave out the skylight as three mysterious people try to break down their front door.

Sandie takes the twins to the island of Auchinmurn in Scotland, where they finally meet their grandfather and learn the secret of their gift. The twins are Animares, people born with the ability to bring their artwork to life using their imaginations. But they are also the offspring of an Animare and her Guardian, her telepathically bonded protector–something that has never happened before, and that some people believe should never have been allowed to happen. The twins are learning more about their abilities every day, but they may not be learning fast enough. There are dangerous people who want to use the twins to open the way to Hollow Earth, the legendary place that holds all of the monsters and beasties and things that go bump in the night that have ever been created by Animares, and they’ll stop at nothing to do so. And one of them may be the twins’ long-lost father…

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I’ll admit it, I’m a fangirl. I discovered John Barrowman through his acting work, as Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood, and I’ve been following his career ever since. I’ve read and highly enjoyed his two autobiographies, Anything Goes and I Am What I Am, both co-written with his sister Carole. They tell lively and entertaining anecdotes from Barrowman’s life, though not always ones that show him in the most dignified light, but they feel honest. I was excited to read their first fiction work together. Since the publication of Hollow Earth they’ve also written a Torchwood novel, Exodus Code, and a sequel to Hollow Earth named Bone Quill, both of which are on my to-read list.

That aside, this is a lively adventure story, with enough mystery to keep it interesting and set up the next book nicely. Every time the twins learn something about their powers and their family, there is something more to discover. Their gifts, the others like them, the council that oversees the Animares, their missing father who abandoned them as infants, their grandfather, the history of Auchinmurn island, the Hollow Earth Society, the existence of Hollow Earth…

The book has loyal friends, dastardly villains willing to use children to accomplish their probably dastardly plans (they’re mysterious plans, we’re not quite sure, but what other plans would dastardly villains have?), mythical beasts, long-forgotten history, and art and imagination that can change reality. You can see the authors’ interest in the imaginations of creative people and what they create using those imaginations. This book will appeal to anyone who still wishes that they will one day stumble across a silk-bound book named The Neverending Story.

The chapters are fairly short, and the language isn’t too complicated. Matt and Em are twelve, turning thirteen at the end of the book, and the violence isn’t terribly graphic- they find people injured but rarely see actual violence. I’d probably recommend this for about a grade 6-8 reading level.

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Twelve-year-old twins Matt and Em Calder were sitting on a hard, wooden bench. The gallery was quiet and not yet open to the public, but they were not happy. Their mum had made promises that morning about their plans for this sweltering day, and they didn’t remember having to stop to look at paintings being one of them.

Setting their backpacks on the floor in front of them, the twins glared at their mother.

‘Behave yourselves,’ Sandie warned. ‘Do not leave this bench. Do not even think about it. I mean it. I’ll only be gone ten minutes at the most. I’ll be right over there.’

She pointed to the tall, yellow-haired man in a dark suit, holding a stack of books in his arms. The man dipped his head towards them in his usual acknowledgment. Em smiled politely, but Matt turned away, more interested in a woman wheeling a trolley with a wooden crate, the size and shape of a painting, strapped to it through the next gallery. A museum guard followed close behind her. At the lift, the guard swiped a key-card across the security pad. The doors opened. Dismissing the guard’s help with a wave of her hand, the woman eased the trolley into the lift. The guard backed away, but as the doors were closing, he changed his mind, shoved his foot between them, and ducked into the lift with the woman and the painting.

‘Matt! Are you even listening to me?’

Matt slumped on the bench, shoving his sister to the edge as he did so.

‘This is a lovely painting to look at while you wait,’ Sandie went on. ‘It’s by Georges Seurat. He often painted using tiny dots instead of brush strokes.’

The twins frowned at her. In unison.

‘We know,’ said Em.

Sandie soldiered on. ‘I appreciate this isn’t what we’d got planned, but I need to take care of some business with—’ She cut herself off mid-sentence and changed tack. ‘How about when I’m finished with this meeting, we go swimming just like the boy in the painting?’ She put her leather messenger bag over her shoulder. ‘What do you say? Deal?’

‘Deal,’ said Em, who, in these situations at least, was always the first to agree.

Matt shrugged. ‘Whatever.’

They watched their mum walk over to the yellow-haired man and settle on a similar bench in the next gallery. The man leaned close to their mother as if about to share a secret with her; in response, Sandie flipped open the sketchbook she always carried, handing the man a sheet of paper she had tucked into one of the pages.

Boring.

Turning her attention back to the painting, Em leaned forward and squinted hard, trying to see all the dots without her bottom leaving the bench, while Matt emptied his backpack into the space between them – the pens, chalk and charcoal he always carried in a bashed biscuit tin, his iPod, headphones, two Captain America comics, assorted sweet wrappers, a pack of bubble gum, an empty Coke can and a sketchpad. Tearing a sheet of paper from the pad, he handed Em a pen.

She shook her head.

‘Swimming would be a lot of fun,’ he said. ‘No one’s paying any attention to us.’

Em accepted the pen, and they began to draw.

The next thing the twins knew, they were in the painting, splashing in the cool, blue water of the River Seine with a boy in a red hat. He said his name was Pierre and spoke to them in French. The twins understood. He said he had only a few minutes to bathe before he had to get back to his work.

‘Is that your dog?’ Matt asked Pierre, worried that the dog would have nowhere to go when Pierre returned to his job. But Pierre didn’t answer the question, so Matt gave up and began splashing water on to the other men lounging on the bank. They ignored him.

Matt floated on his back for a while. He could feel Em splashing next to him. He looked up at the sky, but it wasn’t there, and he thought he knew why – and then they were suddenly both sopping wet and lying in a big puddle on the floor in front of the painting in the National Gallery. Two very angry guards were rushing towards them with Sandie close on their heels. The yellow-haired man was gone.

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Today I Read…The Colossus Rises

The Colossus RisesToday I read The Colossus Rises, the first book in the Seven Wonders series by Peter Lerangis. The website for the series can be found here, and includes a free copy of the prequel novella Seven Wonders Journals: The Select, and some interesting information about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and a teacher’s guide.

Thirteen-year-old Jack McKinley isn’t having the greatest day. He woke up late on the day he has an important math test, the flying toy he was using as an alarm clock hit him in the head, his latest don’t-care au pair quit, part of his hair turned white overnight, he has a run-in with the school bully, and he got hit by a car and kidnapped by crazy scientists to a mysterious island. Oh, and the crazy scientists say he’s going to die, along with the other kids on the island. Definitely not Jack’s greatest day ever.

According to Professor Bhegad, head of the Karai Institute and the person responsible for their kidnapping (but only to help them, he says), Jack, Cass, Marco, and Aly were all born with something called the G7W marker–a gene that lets them tap into unused parts of their brains and gives them special gifts. Except that no one with the G7W marker has lived past the age of fourteen. Jack and the others are on a deadline–literally–to find the Loculi, seven magical orbs from the ancient lost city of Atlantis, in the hopes that they can cure themselves and save their lives. The only people they can trust are each other, as they fight against the duplicitous Karai Institute scientists, the Massarene monks who are trying to stop them, and actual ancient monsters, and travel to each of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, where the Loculi have been hidden away for centuries. First stop, the Colossus of Rhodes…and is that a griffin?

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This was another one of the advanced reading copies that I got at the OLA Super Conference, though it has since been released to the public. The recommended reading level is grade 3-7, or ages 8-12, which I would say is fairly appropriate. The book is on the longer side at 348 pages, but the chapters are short. There are scattered pictures throughout the book to illustrate notes and clues that the children find, such as the note that Jack’s “don’t-care-giver” leaves to say she quits.

While the main character is Jack, at least for this first book, the quartet of children follow fairly familiar archetypes, which Bhegad describes as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor.” Each child has a special gift, thanks to the G7W marker–Marco is brave and physically gifted, Cass can navigate anywhere, Aly is a computer whiz and an inventor, and Jack can put very different things together until they work. They follow the formula of children (or people, since it happens in adult novels too) thrown together by an outside force, with some kind of special bond linking them together, but they still have to find a way to mold their disparate personalities into a solidified group to accomplish their task–in this case, find the Loculi and save their lives and hopefully get them back to their families. Since they’re all close to the same age, thirteen, they also have to deal with growing up and taking on the world on their own terms instead of being protected by their parents. They have to rely on their own talents and brains instead of letting the grown-ups fix everything for them, since inevitably the grown-ups either can’t be trusted or screw it up, often both.It’s been done before, but it’s a formula that works.

Overall, the book was pretty good, but for the first book in a travel adventure series I felt that it dragged a little bit getting the actual travel adventure started. The kids don’t go to Greece to the first Wonder, the Colossus of Rhodes, until chapter 37. Everything that happens to them on the island is probably necessary to build the world, but it just feels a little slow for some reason. The series is called Seven Wonders–I want to get to the Wonders already! Also, Jack’s Ugliosaurus toy is out of place. He describes it as a flying reptile on the first page, and on the second page says that it is “a fanged eagle crossed with a lion, bright-red”–not a reptile. Then later, he figures out that he has been dreaming of the real Ugliosaurus his entire life, and then that it is a real, ancient animal, and then that it is a griffin–it’s just very complicated, like the author wasn’t quite sure what the animal was or how it was going to be used, and then didn’t go back and fix all of the references so they’re compatible. The entire book feels like it needs one more strong edit, just to tighten everything up, which makes sense for an advanced reader’s edition. Still, I’ll be interested to read the rest of the series, if not breathlessly waiting for it to come out.

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ON THE MORNING I was scheduled to die, a large barefoot man with a bushy red beard waddled past my house. The thirty-degree temperature didn’t seem to bother him, but he must have had a lousy breakfast, because he let out a burp as loud as a tuba.

Belching barefoot giants who look like Vikings are not normal in Belleville, Indiana. But I didn’t really get a chance to see the guy closely.

At that moment, I, Jack McKinley, was under attack in my own bedroom. By a flying reptile.

I could have used an alarm clock. But I’d been up late studying for my first-period math test and I’m a deep sleeper. Dad couldn’t wake me because he was in Singapore on business. And Vanessa, the au pair I call my don’t-caregiver, always slept till noon.

I needed a big sound. Something I couldn’t possibly sleep through. That’s when I saw my papier-mâché volcano from last month’s science fair, still on my desk. It was full of baking soda. So I got my dad’s coffeemaker, filled it with vinegar, and rigged it to the volcano with a plastic tube. I set the timer for 6:30 A.M., when the coffeemaker would release the vinegar into the volcano, causing a goop explosion. I put a chute at the base of the volcano to capture that goop. In the chute was a billiard ball, which would roll down toward a spring-loaded catapult on my chair. The catapult would release a big old plastic Ugliosaurus™—a fanged eagle crossed with a lion, bright-red.

Bang—when that baby hit the wall I’d have to be dead not to wake up. Foolproof, right?

Not quite. Around 6:28, I was in the middle of a nightmare. I’d had this dream way too many times: me, running through the jungle in a toga, chased by snarling, drooling, piglike beasts, whose screeches fill the smoky sky. Nice, huh? Usually I awake from this dream when a gap in the earth opens beneath my feet.

But this time, I fell in. Down into the darkness. To my death.

At the moment of contact, the Gaseous Giant burped in real life. The sound woke me up.

The coffeemaker-volcano alarm went off. And the Ugliosaurus whacked me between the eyes.

Which, in a nutshell, is how the worst morning of my life began. The last morning I would awaken in my own bed.