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Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle by Bob Pflugfelder & Steve Hockensmith

Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle: A Mystery with Spy Cameras, Code Wheels, and Other Gadgets You Can Build YourselfPremise: Twin siblings Nick and Tesla are back in this third installment of the series. They are suspicious of people spying on them because of the secret held by their parents, who are supposedly studying soybean irrigation in Uzbekistan, but with the help of their friends and their clueless but intelligent scientist Uncle Newt they will learn the identity of the spies. It could be anybody: Newt’s unusual new apprentice, the old ladies hired to clean Uncle Newt’s messy house, or the exterminator.

The kids will try to find out the truth about a lot of things, including who is placing spy cameras around their uncle’s house, why all of these different strangers appeared at their house on the same day, but especially more of the truth about their missing parents.

Themes: The love of family is a common theme through all of the Nick and Tesla books, and Secret Agent Battle is no different. Uncle Newt cares for Nick and Tesla, but the twins show us the great love of siblings for each other through protective actions.

Nick and Tesla have learned to be suspicious of everybody, especially since they suspect people wish them harm. Their parents obviously sent them to live with their uncle for a reason, and somebody is spying on them. It’s only a matter of finding out who it is. That’s where the science comes into play.

Pros: Secret Agent Battle tells us a little more about Nick and Tesla’s parents, even hearing from their mother via voicemail confirming the assumptions already made about their soybean irrigation research from the previous two books. With the many suspects available on who is spying on them, the amount of peril is kicked up a notch from the previous two books.

Cons: Everything in the story happens in one day, so while the pacing is fast, the writing felt a bit rushed. The books are a little formulaic with the same structure in each one with a minor mystery followed by a science project as a solution, rinse, then repeat. I also fear the holding back of information about the kids’ parents might drag on if we don’t finally learn much more in the next book.

Recommendations: Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle has the wonderful combination of giving more information about the kids’ family than in the previous two books, with more fun and creative science projects to try with your own kids. This third book begins to reveal some things about the twins’ parents that we already suspect, but I wish it would have given us a little more since we already waded through two other books before getting here. It’s not really necessary to read the first two books to know the background of these kids and their scientist uncle, but it would probably be more fulfilling to at least read the first in the series, if not all of them for the fun stories and science projects. I’ve been enjoying this series and look forward to making some cool gadgets with my own kids.

Nick and Tesla
Bob Pflugfelder’s website
Steve Hockensmith’s website
Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle on Goodreads
Buy Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle on Amazon
Download Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2014 in Childrens, Mystery

 

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Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage by Bob Pflugfelder & Steve Hockensmith

Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build YourselfPremise: In this second book in the series, Twin siblings Nick and Tesla have been sent to live with their Uncle Newt while their parents are in Uzbekistan where they claim to be researching soybean irrigation. In the small town of Half Moon Bay, Nick and Tesla learn about a string of robberies plaguing the sleepy community. Once again putting their scientific knowledge to work, they decide to help one of their friends by attempting to solve the mystery themselves.

Uncle Newt is smitten by Hiroko Sakurai, a former colleague of his from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who also happens to have purchased the Wonder Hut where Nick and Tesla purchase electronics and other scientific doodads for their experiments. She is in the process of cleaning it up when a series of break-ins begin, including at the comic shop, Hero Worship, Incorporated, owned by their friend Silas’ family. A rare comic that could help save Silas’ family from a mound of debt has gone missing.

With the help of some ingenious robots and quick thinking, Nick and Tesla go to task on helping their friends and the town by tracking down the thief. They will just have to watch out for the strange robots that are also popping up around town.

Themes: Robot Army Rampage, as with the previous book, exemplifies the loyalty between siblings and with their friends. As Silas’ shop is in jeopardy, Nick and Tesla do their best to track down the thief of the Stupefying #6 comic book. Nick and Tesla also do their best to protect their uncle, even if it means endangering his relationship with Dr. Sakurai.

Nick and Tesla does a good job of showing that even when it appears that kids are up to no good, they might have more noble reasons for what they do. Even their friend DeMarco, who is always getting into trouble, is loyal to his best friend Silas. And the hijinks that occur because of Nick and Tesla’s investigation are because they care about their friends, family, and the town of Half Moon Bay.

Also: more science!

Pros: Robot Army Rampage has some even cooler projects than High Voltage Danger Lab, especially if you’re into robots. The instructions for building are straightforward for building simple robots, including part numbers that you might need to buy at an electronics store. The dialogue is funny and the tone lighthearted, perfect for kids and fun for adults. With most of the same characters from the previous book, Robot Army Rampage stays consistent by developing each of the characters deeply enough for the reader to care about them and enjoy the story.

Cons: The robot projects will probably require some assembly help from an adult, and will definitely require money to buy parts like batteries, motors, and LED lights. Contains mild peril from exploding robots.

Recommendations: Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage is a load of fun, but kids will probably enjoy it even more than adults. If it weren’t for a little deeper background setting from the first book, anybody could pick this one up and jump right into the action without needing to read High Voltage Danger Lab. As each book contains science projects that correspond to story elements, you probably won’t want to skip it anyway. I think Robot Army Rampage is even better than the first, especially with these projects. They are fun for electronics buffs and for piquing kids’ interest in science, but most of all this is just a fun story.

Nick and Tesla
Bob Pflugfelder’s website
Steve Hockensmith’s website
Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage on Goodreads
Buy Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage on Amazon
Download Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2014 in Childrens, Mystery

 

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The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's BladesPremise: The kingdom of Annur is thrown into chaos when emperor Sanlitun is murdered, but his children will soon discover that it is a much deeper conspiracy than the normal power struggle. Sanlitun’s sons Kaden and Valyn have both been gone for eight years while the princess Adare has been with her father up until the day he is killed.

Valyn has been training with the elite fighting force known as the Kettral, training to fly one of their namesake giant birds to protect the kingdom from the worst of enemies. As several attempts are made on his life during the training, Valyn begins to suspect there is more danger around him than the normal training everyone else is experiencing. Valyn learns of his father’s death and is determined to reach his brother to warn him before it’s too late. Adare has been raised to Minister of Finance by her father’s decree, but with the kingdom in turmoil she is battling a religious sect who might be the ones responsible for Salitun’s death. And Kaden, the heir to the throne, has been secluded with monks dedicated to the Blank God. It is there that Kaden must learn the vaniate, an ancient ritual used to protect the kingdom from ancient enemies.

With the kingdom at stake and the Malkeenian line threatened, Adare, Valyn, and Kaden must uncover the conspiracy against their lives to protect Annur from foes from every side. There could even be a bigger threat thought long extinct that could have greater consequences than just their lives, but also the lives of everyone in Annur and beyond.

Themes: Family and legacy are at stake as Sanlitun is murdered and the lives of his children are threatened. With his children gone, there would be no heir to the throne of Annur and the kingdom could fall into chaos with no apparent leader to take control.

With many gods and religions in this world, there are many angles taken at religions in The Emperor’s Blades. Faith and devotion are seen at different levels between different religions and even between followers of the same religion.

The Emperor’s Blades also manages to examine what it means to inherit wealth and power compared to those who are born outside of it. It shares a glimpse of what it means to hold power responsibly and of those who would be less responsible with it. It also shows the machinations behind the scenes of people in power and others who would attempt to overthrow them.

Pros: The Emperor’s Blades has some incredible characters. When you don’t care about the characters and one of them dies, you won’t care about them dying. But when you care about all the characters, you want the protagonists to win and it is gut-wrenching when they lose. And those terrible characters become that much more insidious when they do those terrible things to the people you care about. All of this is to say: The Emperor’s Blades has great characters. At first I thought the magic system was too slowly revealed, until I realized I hadn’t even begun to learn what magic there really was in this story.

Cons: Because there are some mean people in The Emperor’s Blades, there is some intense stuff in it. There are some scenes that were hard to handle, containing gore and torture that caused me to put the book down a couple times. It has some sexual talk and innuendo you might find in war stories. And The Emperor’s Blades is full of profanity, although much of it is fantastical swearing using made up words or phrases to the gods in this world, such as “‘Kent-kissing” and “‘Shael take it.”

Recommendations: The Emperor’s Blades felt like it started slow, but as it picked up steam and never let up all the way through the end I realized just how big of a story was being told. In fact, I never wanted it to end, and as soon as it did I was ready for the next book to begin. With action, adventure, politics, religion, assassins, and fantasy elements that felt like they could even exist in this world, Brian Staveley is a name to watch in fantasy. With The Emperor’s Blades, he knows just what buttons to push with his characters and when to push them, but he’ll leave you wanting more. If you like fantasy, The Emperor’s Blades is not one to miss.

Brian Staveley’s website
The Emperor’s Blades on Goodreads
Buy The Emperor’s Blades on Amazon
Download The Emperor’s Blades for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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Heartwood by Freya Robertson

Heartwood (Elemental Wars, #1)Premise: As the people of Anguis celebrate the Veriditas, the ceremonies involved around the holy Arbor proceed even though it seems to be withering more than ever. During the Congressus, there is a surprise attack on the city of Heartwood by mysterious water warriors who lay waste to the city and many of Heartwood’s holy knights. They are repelled, but paid with many losses.

After all of this happens, a cache of lost documents reveals more about the religion and about the Arbor than the people have ever known, and it may change everything they believe. With this new information, the knights form groups to search for and activate the nodes of energy scattered throughout the land, while one group must follow the water warriors to retrieve the stolen Pectoris, the heart of the Arbor.

As the leaves begin falling from the damaged holy tree, the very life of the land is tied to the success or failure of these quests. And there are those besides the water warriors who would see their parties fail, including perhaps one of their own.

Themes: Faith is one of the main themes in Heartwood, as people have worshiped the holy Arbor for centuries, until the time when ancient documents are uncovered that negate everything the people of Anguis have believed. These documents put life as they know it into a new frame of reference, including their origins and the origins of the water people. The Arbor is still tied to what they know, just not in the way they have believed.

Unity between people of different backgrounds and geographical origins, but also between the people and the environment, are given a new perspective as they are united on a single quest to save the land. Generalizations about people from certain places are also questioned when members of these parties don’t conform to the stereotypes of their people.

Family loyalty and friendship are put to the test as character origins are uncovered, new abilities are learned, and romances begin. Dolosus learns who his real father is, but how will it effect his loyalties to everything he has known?

Pros: A few of the characters were interesting and conflicted enough to keep me engaged and there was enough stuff going on that I wanted to see how everything wrapped up (if at all). The story begins as a typical epic fantasy and dives right into the quests for the different parties. There is a lot to chew on to keep readers engaged. At least one of the main character deaths felt noble and not pointless, even if it basically adds a deus ex machina element to the story.

Cons: Heartwood has too many characters and I kept losing track of who is who and what they were doing. Because there are so many characters, some of them lack personality and I found myself not caring if some of them succeeded anyway. There were so many story arcs that I had a hard time telling who was supposed to be the real main protagonist until the very end. There was way too much telling instead of showing in Heartwood, with the omniscient narrator telling us what characters think instead of having them act accordingly. On top of everything, I could’ve done without the raping and torture scenes. The idea that questioning faith isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to label those who hold to their faith unswervingly as out of touch or outright ignorant is in itself dismissing faith as an ideal. The entire premise of the book is based on this idea that faith can be trumped by random ancient documents that just happen to appear out of nowhere at the most opportune of times explaining exactly how to save the world.

Recommendations: Too much telling instead of showing for too many characters on too many quests made Heartwood hard to follow, hard to swallow, and lacking in the kind of depth that makes good epic fantasy excellent. Characters are everything and Heartwood relied too much upon archetypes to make me care about these characters. The idea is good and with some major changes this had the potential to be much better. There were also too many instances where things occur that just happen to advance the story in favor of the “good guys”. For a first epic fantasy it is a nice ambitious effort that falls a bit flat, especially to dedicate 566 pages of your life to. And there is nothing wrong with believing in something with only faith as your guide.

Freya Robertson’s website
Heartwood on Goodreads
Buy Heartwood on Amazon
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab by Bob Pflugfelder & Steve Hockensmith

Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build YourselfPremise: Twin siblings Nick and Tesla are sent to live with their Uncle Newt for the summer while their parents study soybean irrigation in Uzbekistan. When they arrive in Half Moon Bay they discover it’s a pretty boring place, but their uncle is far from boring. In his basement is a science lab where he performs various experiments. The incredible thing is that he tells his niece and nephew to have a ball in the lab (with several safety caveats) while he is away. Their time in Half Moon Bay is about to get interesting.

The siblings go outside to test their soda bottle rocket made from materials laying around the lab, but when it rips the necklace from Tesla’s neck as it launches things go awry. This wouldn’t be a problem if the necklace wasn’t one of the special necklaces their parents gave each child right before they were sent to live with Newt. Now they must venture onto the property of the abandoned house next door in order to find the necklace, but there are remodelers there with very large dogs who want them to stay off the property at all costs.

Nick and Tesla craft various devices to attempt to retrieve their rocket and necklace, and in the process uncover a nefarious plot in the quiet town. Along the way the siblings make new friends, learn more about their quirky uncle, and find there is more in the abandoned house than just remodelers. Nick and Tesla are also left questioning if their parents are really studying soy beans in Uzbekistan.

Themes: Nick and Tesla think they have a grasp on who their parents are, but when the siblings are sent away for the summer so their parents can do research they learn there is so much more about their parents that they don’t know. They begin to wonder if their parents really are studying soybeans or if they are even scientists.

Nick and Tesla discover there are mysteries about the house next door, its inhabitants, and its past that fall on them to solve.

Summer vacation takes on a different spin when it is spent at a strange uncle’s house. Nick and Tesla get to learn more about their Uncle Newt and his unusual inventions. With his inexperience in caring for kids and making his lab available for them to use helps to give the siblings insight into the kind of person he is.

Also: science!

Pros: Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab was way more fun than I was expecting. The science experiments not only introduce some cool concepts, but they fit right in with the storyline. The characters are unique and the story has the perfect tone for kids to be reading: lighthearted and fun. I like that Pflugfelder and Hockensmith didn’t try to add too many characters, but each one is well developed within this first book. Nick and Tesla is a complete fast-paced story, but it also leaves the reader wanting more in additional books.

Cons: One of the experiments might be a little dangerous dealing with air pressure that will probably require some adult supervision. Also, the concept of kidnapping might be a difficult concept for younger kids to grasp, especially the threats made against these kids. Contains some mild peril and the riding of small bikes down the middle of city streets in the dark.

Recommendations: Not only is this a fun read for kids and adults, it offers several science experiments kids can do with parents, including instructions and materials needed. I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series to find out more about these kids and their secretive family. I am also excited about having more science experiments to do with my kids when they are old enough to read these books. Pflugfelder and Hockensmith have introduced a neat series combining science concepts and experiments with good, lighthearted fiction. Nick and Tesla is educational and fun.

Nick and Tesla
Bob Pflugfelder’s website
Steve Hockensmith’s website
Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself on Goodreads
Buy Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab on Amazon
Download Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2013 in Childrens, Mystery

 

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Manifesto: UF, edited by Tim Marquitz & Tyson Mauermann

Manifesto UFPremise: Strange creatures lurk in the shadows in shady back alleys and street corners, waiting to ensnare and devour unsuspecting victims. Battles between good and evil are being fought by angels and demons out of sight of humans. What we see every day is far from what is actually happening in this world and beyond.

The dangerous and illicit activities of inhuman things are ripe for these fantastical stories. With vampires, were-creatures, ghosts, angels, demons, dragons, wizards, trolls, goblins, and more, the imagination is free to run wild. These are the things that make up the tales told in Manifesto: UF.

Themes: Redemption plays a huge role in this anthology, since many of the main characters have fallen from grace or are making up for shortcomings from times past. In order to regain balance of power or to redeem their previous mistakes, it means helping others who cannot help themselves.

Many characters are also seeking justice for themselves or for the innocent. With enduring conflicts and forsaken people, making up for this becomes possible by conquering the evil at the root of the turmoil. Even if it means sacrificing a piece of themselves, the tradeoff for is sometimes worth the price.

Pros: Strangely, I felt pretty strongly about most of the stories in this collection on both sides of the spectrum of liking and not liking them. There were a few that make me want to go find more from the author, such as RL Treadway’s “That Old Tree” that gives personality into a tree long past its reasonable age, intertwined with the lives of those around it in order to give it an ultimate purpose. I loved the emotion of “Green Grow the Rashes” by William Meikle brought out by a haunting song and the discovery of the joys of existence. Teresa Frohock manages to impart soul into song through a frantic search for a lost thread from the tapestry of Armageddon. There is something in here for most readers, at least if you are willing to winnow through the broad variety of styles and subjects.

Cons: With a few exceptions, most of the stories contain profanity, gory violence, drug use, or explicit sex, with at least one containing all of the above. A few of the stories have an anti-religion slant that is not just indifference toward religions, but intentionally and relentlessly inflammatory that highlights this view in a way is unnecessary, especially since in at least one case I think it actually takes away from the story itself. There were a couple of stories that also felt incomplete, leaving me questioning what was supposed to happen next.

Recommendations: With so many urban fantasy books being written for a younger audience, this set of short stories especially targets adult readers. Manifesto: UF is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. There are several gems in here, such as Teresa Frohock’s enchanting “Naked the Night Sings” and Nikolas Sharps’ humorous “Toejam and Shrapnel” that help to redefine the sub-genre as more than just young adult. While not as seamlessly compiled and unified in voice as Marquitz’s previous Fading Light anthology, Manifesto UF does a better job than most anthologies in showcasing each author’s writing style and will more likely leave you with the knowledge of whether you will love or hate an author’s work. Rest assured this collection contains work from some talented writers. You’ll just have to read through it to find the ones you like.

Tim Marquitz’s website
Manifesto UF on Goodreads
Buy Manifesto: UF on Amazon
Download Manifesto UF for your Kindle
I received a copy from one of the authors to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2013 in Fantasy, Short Story

 

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Boxers/Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints)Saints (Boxers & Saints)Premise: Little Bao is a Chinese peasant tired of the Western missionaries that are infiltrating their country and corrupting it with their religion and ideals. The Westerners are also converting some of the Chinese people to their religion and gaining protection from the Chinese government. Bao creates a rebellion, energized through the visions of Chinese gods, that turns out to be incredibly successful, storming through the countryside and gaining strength as they fight for Chinese values.

At the same time, a young Chinese girl is taken in by some of the missionaries in a search for identity and acceptance. She is the fourth girl of the family but the only one to live, so instead of giving her a real name, her family names her Four-Girl, four being a Chinese homonym for death. It is with the missionaries that she finds love and a forgiveness she dreams for, including a new life with a real name: Vibiana. She faces the Chinese rebellion with an unexpected decision of faith, one inspired by a great Christian follower from the past.

In this two volume series, we see that there are multiple sides to every conflict. When stories intersect, the greatest of decisions are made, and the smallest influence can make all the difference in the world.

Themes: Religion is all over both Boxers and Saints, especially in the way each perspective comes across to the other. Bao sees the Christian missionaries and the Chinese who convert as devils by their corruption and abuse of villagers, while Vibiana converts to become a “devil”, finding the forgiveness and acceptance she was actually seeking all along. When given both perspectives, we can see that it is the individuals who are corrupt or good, not necessarily the religion itself.

With each protagonist being the hero of their own story, perspective becomes key as both Bao and Vibiana experience the conflict with their own histories. How they see people is colored by their past, and when those beliefs are really challenged they learn what true strength, bravery, and compassion are really about.

Pros: Visually, these two books are stunning, with drab browns and grays highlighting the contrasting stunning colors of the Chinese rebels in Boxers and the illuminated gold of the ghosts in Saints. These stories give some perspective on opposing viewpoints that can cause the reader to consider how they judge others. It also emphasizes the damage of war on a country and the terrible things that can be justified on any side of conflict. I liked the way the character stories intersect and come full circle as you read both books, especially mirroring each other in juxtaposition for mercy and compassion for others in the end.

Cons: Compared to Boxers, Saints is a little short. The missionaries come off as unlikeable and evil, even in their own book. The protagonist in Saints has motives that seem genuinely naive for her interest in the Christian faith, though it is hard to believe the missionaries wouldn’t have made it clearer the truths of their religion earlier on in their studies. The connection between Bao and Vibiana seemed a little too open-ended at the end of Boxers, making up for it a little by the decisions they both make in Saints. Most importantly, it’s hard to imagine reading one of these without the other. I’m not sure why these are even offered for purchase separately.

Recommendations: The Boxers & Saints duology infuses an air of fantasy into an historical account of the Boxer Rebellion as we get both perspectives of the rebels in Boxers and the Chinese Christians in Saints. While both of these volumes are interesting on their own, the most impact is made when they are put together as contrasting stories, giving the reader more to consider about worldview and religious beliefs, especially in the context of war. Boxers and Saints are insightful stories that can expand how we perceive the beliefs of others, including for someone with a strong grounding in their own beliefs. If you are going to consider a purchase, make sure you get both books, perhaps in the boxed set.

Gene Luen Yang’s website
Boxers & Saints Boxed Set on Goodreads
Buy the Boxers & Saints Boxed Set on Amazon
Download Boxers & Saints for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction

 

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