Friday, September 30, 2011

Review - I Was a Sixth Grade Alien: I Lost My Grandfather's Brain by Bruce Coville

Short review: Someone is feeding stories to the newspapers about Pleskit. Everyone suspects Tim and Pleskit thinks its a good idea to bring his grandfather's disembodied brain to school.

Newspaper stories
Prompt some ill-advised actions
A brain is stolen

Full review: I Lost My Grandfather's Brain is the third book in Bruce Coville's I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series. Like the previous books in the series, the story is told in an alternating viewpoint format with the alien sixth grader Pleskit and his human friend Tim narrating alternate chapters. As usual for a Coville book, there is a certain amount of editorializing about the superior nature of alien society, but it is not too heavy-handed.

Like most of the books in the series, the main plot element is given away by the title of the book, so it should surprise no one that Pleskit loses his grandfather's brain. Those who have read the earlier books in the series know that Pleskit's grandfather, or in alien vernacular "grandfatherly one" is a disembodied brain kept alive in a vat of chemicals. Stories clearly based on inside information obtained from someone at school featuring Pleskit begin turning up in a tabloid, prompting Pleskit to seek the advice of his grandfather. His grandfather, annoyed at being cooped up inside the alien embassy and ignored, helpfully suggests that Pleskit take him to school and let him try to figure out who has been leaking information to the press.

Adding further complications to the story line, circumstances result in suspicion falling upon Tim as the information source for the newspaper articles, driving something of a wedge between Tim and Pleskit. Because of the shifting viewpoint form of storytelling we know that Tim did not actually betray his friend, but we do see Pleskit's more or less understandable doubts come into play. Seeing things from Tim's perspective as well gives us a window into his confusion and frustration as he struggles to find a way to clear his name and reassure his best friend that he didn't sell him out for a quick buck. During their estrangement, Pleskit engages in a somewhat odd quasi-friendship with Jordan, the class bully who had spent the previous two books pushing Pleskit and Tim around. This storyline lets Coville address one of his favored "messages" as Pleskit is able to learn a little bit about the value of true friendship as opposed to phony friendship.

The series of unwelcome newspaper articles featuring Pleskit allows Coville to do his usual moralizing about the superiority of alien society as Meenom (Pleskit's "fatherly one") is outraged to discover that on Earth (or at least in the United States) there is no restriction on printing newspaper articles about children. One might consider such a restriction to be a good idea, but all of the human characters at hand feebly talk about their helplessness to change the law, but no one offers any kind of defense of the idea of freedom of the press. As seems fairly typical, Coville has a bone to pick with modern society and sets up a strawman to attack. I'm not saying Coville's position on this issue is obviously wrong, and I'm not saying he's right either, but one would think Coville would make a better case for his position if he treated the opposing arguments more seriously than he does. On the other hand, this is a book aimed at young readers. That said, I don't really think that is an excuse for doing little more than painting a caricature of the other side and knocking it down.

To solve the mystery of who is sending stories to the newspapers, Pleskit brings his grandfather to school, who proves to be a big hit among his classmates. Unfortunately, during a bomb scare, the container holding Pleskit's grandfather is left in the classroom, and then stolen. Through a series of events the Grandfatherly One's brain is recovered and the newspaper source is uncovered while both the Grandfatherly One and Tim prove to be heroes in their own fashion and everything turns out well. In typical Coville fashion, the story has a lot of action, a little intrigue, and some moral lessons about friendship and the superiority of non-human civilization. In short, any young reader who likes science fiction will probably have a good time if he opens the pages of this book.

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review - I Was a Sixth Grade Alien: The Attack of the Two-Inch Teacher by Bruce Coville

Short review: Class jerk Jordan needs to be taken down a peg. Pleskit and Tim come up with a plan to shrink him to two-inches tall. Nothing could go wrong with this plan, could it?

Jordan is a jerk
Let's shrink him to a small size
Oops! Got the teacher!

Full review: The Attack of the Two-Inch Teacher is the second book in the I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series, following directly on the heels of the events described in the opening book I Was a Sixth Grade Alien. The story picks up with Tim and Pleskit returning to school after foiling the attempt to discredit the freshly established alien embassy on Earth. Of course, having foiled an attempt at interstellar chicanery the boys turn to the much more pressing problem of dealing with the class bully Jordan. As with I Was a Sixth Grade Alien, the story is told from an alternating viewpoint that switches back and forth between Tim and Pleskit.

After visiting with Pleskit and deciding he needs to dress more like an Earth kid in order to get along better in school, Tim seeks the help of his neighbor Linnsy in picking out some "cool" clothes for Pleskit at the local mall. This intention is looked upon rather distastefully by Mrs. Buttsman, the newly hired "protocol officer" who is somewhat horrified to learn that Pleskit would like to fit in with the other kids. (Overall, Mrs. Buttsman's character seems to exist to provide a stupidly fussy human adult who can offer advice that is wholly useless for a sixth grader). Given Pleskit's status as a rather polarizing figure threatened both by xenophobic bigots among the human population and having been a target of an alien conspiracy, this visit requires some rather substantial security precautions. Once at the mall, Pleskit muses on the differences between human commerce and what he is used to, which is the one point in the book where Coville allows a little bit of his usual editorializing to sneak into the story with the relative niceness of alien society being touted by Pleskit, especially when he is confronted by a video game arcade - prompting him to wonder if this is what humans do for fun in public, what are they capable of in private. The trip ends with the purchase of some blue jeans for Pleskit and the alarming news that Jordan is returning to class.

Jordan picks up exactly where he left off, harassing Tim and Pleskit, leading Pleskit to suggest consulting with his Grandfatherly One for advice on how to deal with a bully. Pleskit's Grandfatherly One is somewhat crotchety, which is somewhat understandable given that he is a disembodied head that doesn't get as much attention from his family as he thinks he should. But he dislikes bullies, so he gives some advice after a fashion, which leads Pleskit to conclude that he should abscond with a piece of technology from his father's office and use it to shrink Jordan down to a tiny size to teach him a lesson. As one might guess from the title of the book, this plan goes somewhat awry, and instead of Jordan, Pleskit accidentally shrinks Tim and their teacher Ms. Weintraub.

Pleskit presses his bodyguard McNally into service as an emergency substitute teacher to cover for Ms. Weintraub's absence while Ms. Weintraub and Tim hide in a drawer in Ms. Weintraub's desk. It turns out that while McNally is quite skilled as a bodyguard, as a substitute teacher he's fairly ineffective, resulting in some fairly humorous sequences. One wrinkle to the shrinking process is that while the size of an object is shrunk by the process, it's mass is unchanged, meaning that despite being a mere two-inches tall Ms. Weintraub and Tim still weigh just as much as they do when they are full size, leading to more than a few mishaps. Things come to a head when Mrs. Buttsman accompanies the federal school inspector Mr. Tommakkio, and someone turns out to not be who they say they are. This leads to a hostage situation as Pleskit's life is again threatened, which is only averted by some quick thinking on the part of Tim and Pleskit.

As this is a Coville book, the the heroes save the day and villain is foiled, although the heroes do get in trouble for their shenanigans. However, because their shenanigans resulted in foiling yet another plot against Pleskit and the credibility of the alien embassy, they get off lightly. One question that does spring to mind is exactly how McNally keeps his job, since he was more or less complicit in the boys' plan to shrink Jordan, and that would seem to be wildly inappropriate behavior for a Secret Service agent regardless of the beneficial nature of the outcome. On the other hand, the book is aimed at elementary school aged readers, so this sort of thing can be overlooked (along with the fact that a "protocol officer" as clueless as Ms. Buttsman would never be able to keep her job). Focusing mostly on the adventure, and downplaying the typical Coville editorializing about the superior virtues of alien civilization compared to ours, The Attack of the Two-Inch Teacher is a fun tale of silly grade school hijinks layered with some science fiction that adds up to a good book.

Previous book in the series: I Was a Sixth Grade Alien

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review - I Was a Sixth Grade Alien by Bruce Coville

Short review: Sixth grader Tim Tompkins is getting a new classmate. His name is Pleskin, his skin is purple, and he's an alien. Then things get exciting.

Pleskit is purple
He's also a sixth grader
And Tim Tomkin's friend

Full review: In I Was a Sixth Grade Alien aliens have made contact with humanity and are sending an ambassador to establish communication and trade. The ambassador has a young son that he wants to attend school on Earth, and so Pleskit, purple-skinned with a tentacle on his head, joins Ms. Weintraub’s sixth grade class. While it is scary for some students and parents, Tim Tompkins, a slightly nerdy boy who loves science fiction books, is overjoyed. At least he is until it becomes clear that Pleskit is so swamped with attention that it seems to Tim like he won’t ever be able to talk with his alien classmate.

The story is told from an alternating viewpoint, shifting back and forth between Tim and Pleskit, a technique used quite effectively by Coville to illustrate both character's confusion at the unfamiliar things they confront when dealing with each other and their respective cultures. The shifting viewpoint also allows Coville to convey information to the reader necessary to the story without it being apparent to all the characters, preserving the confusion each character feels for much of the book. For his part, Pleskit can’t seem to figure out humans as his study materials seem to have led him astray and he makes several missteps causing public relations disasters for his father. Tim, on the other hand, has to engage in a devious plot just to realize his dream of talking to his alien classmate. Of course, as this is a Bruce Coville story, both are plagued by a bully (in this book, an overbearing rich kid named Jordan). Eventually the two meet up and the book moves on to the mystery of Pleskit’s misleading study materials.

Of course, it turns out that Pleskit’s troubles have been intentionally caused, and the two boys seek to unravel the mystery of who would do such a thing. This, unfortunately, is the weak part of the book, as the mystery is solved (by accident) almost as soon as it becomes part of the story. The story does stick to what seems to be a recurring theme in Coville’s work, as the civilized, diverse, peace-loving aliens are contrasted with the xenophobic, barbaric and violent humans. In this book, these impulses take the form of the rabble rousing Senator Hargis and the yellow journalist Kitty James. In the end, the villain’s plot is revealed (and the aliens don’t turn out to be a completely honorable bunch), and the forces of xenophobia are discredited to a certain extent. I Was a Sixth Grade Alien is the first book in a multi-book series featuring Pleskit and Tim Tompkins, and it is a decent beginning that should be a fun read for a fifth or sixth grader.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Review - Introduction to Computer Information Systems by Geoffrey Steinberg

Short review: A very introductory textbook about information technology systems.

Computer systems
Explained in one single book

Full review: I used this book as the text of a basic computing class I took to satisfy an admission requirement for graduate school. Because I earned my undergraduate degree almost twenty years ago, I had never taken a formal course in computer information although I have been using computers since I was twelve. Introduction to Computer Information Systems is a basic general text about information technology. It is not a programming guide, and it doesn't give much more than a basic working knowledge of how computers, computer networks, and other technology related issues.

Because I have been using personal computers since I was in sixth grade, I was familiar on an informal basis with most of the concepts presented in the book. But most of what I know I had learned on my own via trial and error. Some of the information provided in this volume is so basic that it will probably only be useful to someone who has never even pressed the "on" switch on a PC. That said, the information is presented in a systemic manner that will probably fill in the gaps that being self-taught leaves for most people who have never studied the subject in an organized manner.

The book starts with the basics - introducing what information systems are, giving a brief explanation of what computers are and then moving on to an overview of the internet and World Wide Web, explaining in very basic terms how they are structured and how they work. The book then moves on to a description of basic computer hardware, software, and computer network structures. Later chapters start to get into applications: systems analysis, the rudimentary basics of programming, database management, and HTML. Most of these sorts of technical aspects of the book are fairly well-done, although the subjects are treated at only the most basic level. Later chapters on topics like e-commerce, security, ethics, and privacy, and the societal impact, are much less useful. In most cases, the basic nature of the information presented coupled with the rapidly changing nature of the subject matter results in a chapter that is not particularly informative and likely to become outdated in short order.

These quibbles aside, Introduction to Computer Information Systems is a serviceable text that will do an able job of informing someone new to computing about the basics of the field. While much of the information contained in the book will likely be material that someone who has bought themselves a PC and ventured out into the internet will already know, having it all presented in a comprehensive manner will probably still be useful for filling in the knowledge gaps of people who know the broad strokes already.

Geoffrey Steinberg     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review - Fundamentals of Statistics, 3rd Edition by Michael Sullivan, III

Short review: What can I say? It's a basic statistics textbook.

Basic statistics
Probability and testing
Of hypotheses

Long review: This book was used as the text for a statistics course I recently took (Statistics 251 for those who are curious), so my thoughts on the book will inevitably be colored by my experiences in that class. To a certain extent, it is impossible to separate the efficacy of the professor from my impressions of the book. Fortunately, the course was quite good and the book was a large part of making it so.

Fundamentals of Statistics covers the basics of statistics starting with sampling methods and ranging through to inferential tests such as tests of independence, homogeneity tests, and least-squares regression models. Each topic is covered in a straightforward step-by-step approach - each concept is broken down into relatively bite-sized chunks, each portion is explained and then followed by a couple of examples illustrating the subject in use. Finally, each segment is followed by a generous helping of exercise problems in which the reader can apply the concepts that had just been taught.

The writing in the book is clear and direct, which is what one should expect from a good textbook. The examples given are varied in subject matter, and often reasonably interesting. This is an improvement on some other statistics textbooks that I have come across in which the bulk of the examples involved drawing different colored marbles from a jar. Like the examples, the exercises are varied and interesting, and are quite effective at illuminating the concepts being discussed. The book also comes with a CD that has a number of preloaded sets of data for use with Minitab that tie to a number of exercises in the book.

Overall, Fundamentals of Statistics is a very good text for a beginning statistics student. It covers the basic mechanics of statistics quite well and presents them in a clear and effective manner. While it is difficult to make a textbook on statistics truly interesting, this book does about as good a job a one could do in that regard.

Mark Sullivan, III     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review - Aliens Stole My Body by Bruce Coville

Short review: Rod Albright has lost his body, and his father goes to track it down while Rod hides the knowledge the evil villain BKR needs to destroy the universe.

His body stolen
Mind in a strange alien
Must stop the villain

Full review: The final book in the series that began with Aliens Ate My Homework (read review), Aliens Stole My Body completes the adventures of Rod Albright, at least for now. As the title of the book says, the evil alien BKR has stolen Rod's body, and Rod's mind has been transferred into the body of the mature chibling Seymour to keep dangerous information contained in Rod's brain away from the villain.

For most of the story, Rod shares a brain with Seymour in Seymour's body: a six legged, one-eyed creature with no mouth or nose that breathes through its skin and "eats" via energy transference with a symbiotic creature. The only other characters Rod can communicate with are Seymour (sharing a brain makes this somewhat inevitable), and the mental master Snout. This has the effect of somewhat limiting the direct interaction the viewpoint character can have with much of the plot, and at times, this causes the book to drag. Rod's inability to speak and resemblance to an animal does come in handy at times, but at others (notably involving a brush with some exotic animal collectors) it has serious drawbacks.

The plot of the book starts up right where The Search for Snout (read review) left off as the crew of the Ferkel and Rod's newly found father decide how to deal with the numerous problems facing them. The group agrees that Rod's father and the Tar will try to hunt down BKR, Grakker and Phil will return to the Galactic Patrol headquarters to answer for turning renegade, while Rod (and Seymour), Elspeth, Madame Pong, and Snout will hide out to keep safe the knowledge locked up in Rod's brain that BKR needs to make his Universe-destroying weapon.

Most of the book takes place on the idyllic mostly uninhabited planet of Kryndamar, where Rod and his companions hide. They have a few adventures: weeping trees try to trap them, Rod runs afoul of some exotic animal traders, the whole group is plagued by an infestation of worms, and eventually, they uncover a spy sent by BKR to eavesdrop on them. Snout and Madam Pong take the opportunity to try to train Rod further in their respective specialties, but most of this portion of the book feels like filler to flesh out the pages before the spy is revealed and the gang sets out to try to protect Rod's mother and siblings from BKR.

After some adventures, Rod's family is reunited (although Rod is still not himself) and then they are captured by BKR using a subterfuge that is fairly transparent (although allowances have to be made given the age level the book is intended for). BKR proves himself to be as nasty as he has been built up to be. After a few abortive escape or rescue attempts, Rod is finally returned to his own body, and using the lessons he had learned from the Tar, Snout, and Madame Pong, overcomes BRK and foils his schemes.

The book is currently the last in the series, with BKR finally defeated and the Albright family reunited on Earth. The final fate of the crew of the Ferkel is left somewhat open-ended, as we are told what they expect is likely to happen as punishment for their going renegade, but the book doesn't actually cover that. The crew of the Ferkel also leave Rod with the capability of contacting them when he is ready to rejoin the Galactic Patrol. However, while Coville has left open the possibility of future installments in the series, since this book was written in 1998, I doubt that we will see one. I think this is something of a pity, as the series is one of Coville's better ones, and it makes for a very good introduction to space opera for a young reader. On the other hand, as this book drags somewhat, and is probably the weakest book in the series, maybe it is best that Coville stopped while the story was still fun and interesting.

Overall, the Rod Albright Alien Adventures series is a fun introductory space opera for kids that soft pedals the life-lessons in the story enough that they are not intrusive. This book, like the rest of the series, is one I would recommend for any younger reader.

Previous book in the series: The Search for Snout

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Follow Friday - Thirty-Two is a Leyland Number Where X = Two and Y = Four

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Pedantic Phooka and Drying Ink.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Have you ever wanted a villain to win at the end of a story?  If so, which one?

I'd say that I want the villains to win in pretty much any Orson Scott Card novel, but that's only mostly true. While his protagonists (especially recently) have a tendency to be insufferable jerks, some of his earlier novels have modestly sympathetic main characters. One that I will single out for some opprobium is Folk of the Fringe (read review), in which the main characters are odiously sanctimonious Mormons living in a post-apocalyptic world. If Card had not exposed himself as an intolerant gay-bashing statist, I'd think that Folk of the Fringe was a parody intended to show how awful rule by Mormons would actually be. Sadly, it seems that he was actually serious. But to get back to answering the question at hand, I just can't think of any "heroic" Mormon character in the book that I don't want to shoot in the head and leave for the vultures.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Thirty-One Is a Happy Prime
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Thirty-Three Was Larry Bird's Number

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review - The Search for Snout by Bruce Coville

Short review: Rod Albright and his cousin Elspeth are back from dimension X, but BKR is still up to no good, and Snout is missing. Naturally, Rod joins the Galactic Patrol and sets out to solve both problems.

Snout has gone missing
Smorkus escapes, must be foiled
Crew turns renegade

Full review: The Search for Snout follows Aliens Ate My Homework (read review) and I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X (read review), covering the ongoing adventures of Rod Albright and the diverse crew of the star ship Ferkel. The story follows directly on the events in I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X as Rod returns home with his cousin Elspeth from his adventures defeating the nefarious BKR and the gargantuan Smorkus Flinders to visit his mother and deliver the unpleasant news that he has joined the Galactic Patrol and is going to leave immediately in search of his missing father and try to figure out what happened to their missing crew mate Snout.

The story that ensues is sort of a junior league space opera. The evil villain BKR escapes from the Patrol ship he is being transported on, and taunts the crew of the Ferkel with his escape. Rod's cousin Elspeth stows away and is caught, Smorkus Flinders escapes from suspended animation and takes over the ship only to be foiled by an unexpected way, and Rod starts receiving mental communications from Snout. The crew is forced to make the tough choice about whether to turn renegade, and Rob discovers a new and completely unanticipated friend (sort of).

Along the way, of course, Rod learns several valuable lessons. But Coville also shows some interesting places and deals with some interesting ideas even though this is a book aimed at younger readers. Despite the fact that BKR is a villain whose evil plan is so insane it could only make sense in a space opera, it does sort of make sense from that perspective. The ending, which clearly is intended to set up further adventures for Rod and the rest of the crew of the Ferkel, has a twist that I didn't anticipate until well into the book, which is pretty sneaky considering the age range the book is intended for.

The only criticism I have of the book is a continuing comment on one of the themes that repeats through much of Coville's work that alien life is almost always portrayed as morally superior to humanity - aliens are nicer, more tolerant, more peaceful, and simply more civilized than the brutish barbaric humans. This book diverts that somewhat by throwing in a twist on humanity's actual place in the galaxy, but it doesn't change the main thrust which is that modern human culture is simply populated with barbarians that the cultured aliens need to hold their noses to deal with.

Coville is a prolific writer of juvenile fiction, and quite skilled. Skilled enough, in fact, that when he avoids falling into some formulas he relies on at times, his best work is at the top of the field. This story is among his best work. Any young reader who is fond of science fiction will probably love The Search for Snout.

Previous book in the series: I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X
Subsequent book in the series: Aliens Stole My Body

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review - I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X by Bruce Coville

Short review: Rod thought his troubles were over when he helped capture BKR. Smorkus Flinders shows he was wrong by capturing him and taking him to Dimension X as bait for the crew of the Ferkel.

Elspeth gets taken
Snorkus Flinders is giant
Rod lost his sneakers

Full review: I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X continues the junior space opera series bridging the events between Aliens Ate My Homework (read review) and The Search for Snout (read review). Following the events in Aliens Ate My Homework, Rod Albright thinks his life will get back to normal, with the only calamity being the introduction of his annoying cousin Elspeth to the family household to ruin his summer. This assumption is, of course, horribly mistaken as he (and Elspeth) are abducted by the mammoth sized Smorkus Flinders and transported as prisoners to Dimension X.

Once in Dimension X, the two are held as bait, as Smorkus (who apparently rules the dimension) wants to lure the crew of the Ferkel to a trap and exact revenge upon them. Smorkus is, apparently a friend of BKR's and Smorkus also seems to have a specific dislike for Grakker. While imprisoned, Rod and Elspeth narrowly avoid being eaten by Smorkus Flinders' slightly less enormous lackey Spar Kellis (who explains that in Dimension X, creatures are accorded authority based upon their size).

In short order the Ferkel arrives to rescue Rod and Elspeth, but is damaged by Smorkus in the process, requiring the crew to abandon ship. Stranded, without a ship in the hostile Dimension X, the crew of the Ferkel tries to search for allies, first having the mental master Snout try to telepathically search for them, an attempt that goes awry causing Snout to vanish (setting up the plot of book three in the series: The Search for Snout). The crew eventually discovers a shape-shifting creature named Galuspa who leads Rod and the rest of the crew to the resistance movement opposed to Smorkus (along the way, Rod stumbles across, and bonds with a creature called a chibling).

While waiting to meet with Ting Wongovia, the leader of the resistance, Tar Gibbons, the Ferkel's master of warrior science, offers to take Rod on as his apprentice, or krevlik, an offer that Rod eventually accepts. This element, along with the other parts of self-discovery and improvement, form the core of the book. The alien adventure is fun, but the meat of the story is Rod growing from an unsure, clumsy child into a more confident, self-assured young adult. Once the crew meets with Ting Wongovia, the only way to convince him that the crew is actually against Smorkus Flinders is for Rod to undergo a somewhat dangerous mental melding with Ting, which he accepts. Along the way, the crew discovers another surprising ally. Later, when Tar is unable to fight Smorkus (after being enlarged by the size changing ray used by the crew to grow and shrink themselves and their ship), it falls to Rod, as his krevlik to take up the fight, and once again, with his newfound confidence and training, Rod rises to the challenge.

Eventually, Rod learns information about the whereabouts of both his father and Snout, setting up the next book in the series. He also loses his sneakers, fulfilling the title of the book. I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X manages to be silly, fun space opera, while also including some nice (and subtle) messages about growing up that are typical of Coville's best books. While the story suffers somewhat due to having a fair amount of the action serve to do little more than set up the next book, there is enough fast-paced action to keep any young reader entertained as Rod navigates his way through the alien and bizarre situations he is confronted with.

Previous book in the series: Aliens Ate My Homework
Subsequent book in the series: The Search for Snout

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review - Aliens Ate My Homework by Bruce Coville

Short review: Rod Albright is a nerdy clumsy kid afflicted by bullies. Then the aliens show up.

Billy bullies Rod
Then aliens eat Rod's homework
Catch a criminal

Full review: Rod Albright is a kid with the typical troubles that afflict a lot of kids. He's overweight and clumsy, leading to his nickname "Rod the Clod". He is bullied by the class bullies Billy Becker and Arnie Markle. His single mother is overstretched in her commitments, meaning that he has the responsibility of watching his younger twin siblings Little Thing One and Little Thing Two. And he has a science project due. And then an alien ship crashes through his bedroom window, destroying his science project and handing him a whole collection of decidedly atypical troubles.

Having a spaceship crash through your bedroom window sounds pretty catastrophic, but in the case of the Ferkel, the ship is only two feet across, so other than a broken window and a crushed paper mache volcano, Rod's bedroom is mostly unscathed. After running afoul of Grakker, the ship's irritable two-inch tall captain, Rod isn't quite so lucky, getting a tiny hole in his ear. Once the Ferkel's diplomatic officer Madame Pong shows up, things get a little less tense. Rod learns that his unexpected guests are members of the Galactic Patrol on the trail of an interstellar criminal. Rod also finds himself involuntarily accorded the status of deputy and ordered to assist the crew of the Ferkel in their efforts to apprehend the fugitive.

After meeting the rest of the ship's crew, breaking regulations, and watching helplessly while the aliens carve up his volcano for fuel and food, Rod carries the Ferkel to a nearby field in order to allow the crew to use their size-altering technology to return the ship (and its crew) to their normal size. But when this doesn't work, Rod finds himself acting as an involuntary depurty again as part of the Ferkel's crew set about repairing the ship while Rod and the rest - Grakker, Madam Pong, and the ship's mental officer Snout, set off for Rod's school to try to get information about the criminal they are pursuing. Why Rod's school? Because in a massive coincidence, it turns out that the BKR, the criminal they are pursuing, is someone Rod knows.

Once at school, Rod runs into trouble with Arnie and Billy again, as Arnie spots the aliens Rod is carrying in his backpack. Mistaking them for toys, Arnie appropriates Grakker as his own. Grakker, being an alien and not a toy, returns to Rod's desk while the class is at lunch, and being hungry himself, eats Rod's math homework - which spawns the title of the book. of course, it also spawns more ire from Arnie directed towards Rod. But when Arnie tries to make Rod pay for the crime of Grakker disappearing from Arnie's desk, Snout comes to Rod's aid and Arnie ends up getting the worse end of the exchange. Through this section of the book, two themes common to Coville's books begin to come through clearly: (a) bullies will keep being bullies unless stood up to, and (b) the human race is cruel and barbaric and alien society is better.

But the story moves on as the crew of the Ferkel close in on their quarry. Well, they don't so much close in on their quarry as go stright to his house, discover who their real target is almost immediately, and then spend the rest of the book trying to apprehend him in zany action scenes. Along the way, Rod gets captured, shrunk to two-inches tall himself, has to deal with the kidnapping of his two siblings, and gets captured again. He also gets a tour of an alien ship, some new friends, and helps save the day. He also gets some help clearing up a few problems that he has had stemming from his interactions with his schoolmates.

In the end, almost every plot thread is wrapped up and everyone is happy (except, of course, for the villains). In fact, there is only one plot thread left hanging, which turns out to be the connection between Aliens Ate My Homework and the rest of the Alien Adventures series - and that plot thread is downplayed by the characters. It almost seems like Aliens Ate My Homework was originally conceived and written as a stand-alone book that was later revamped into the beginning of a series which makes it sort of like The Hobbit. As a result, while the book does kick off a really good series, it also serves up a very strong and enjoyable story on its own.

Subsequent book in the series: I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review - The Dinosaur That Followed Me Home by Bruce Coville

Short review: Summer camp - a time to deal with obnoxious counselors, time travel, thirty foot tall man-eating dinosaurs, and the end of reality as we know it.

Travel to the past
Bring back some dinosaurs
No paradoxes

Full review: The Dinosaur that Followed Me Home is part of Bruce Coville's "Camp Haunted Hills" series featuring a summer camp dedicated to theatre and movie making where strange things seem to happen. The central characters, Stuart and Brenda, are a pair of campers who are the only two people at the camp who can see and hear the camp's resident ghost Roger. Roger is friendly and wants to be helpful, but also not real bright, so his "help" often causes more trouble for Stuart and Brenda.

Oddly, for a Coville book, there is no bully roaming about the make Stuart's life miserable. Instead, there is a jerk camp counselor named Flash who has a personal vendetta against Harry, a camp counselor that is friends with Stuart. (Flash dislikes Harry because Aurora, the most attractive female camp counselor, prefers the gawky but smart and sweet Harry to the handsome and cool but self-centered Flash). The book also introduces Brenda's cousin Winston to fill the position of the physically weak but smarter than everyone else kid.

The story itself is fairly simple, although at the same time enjoyably goofy and absurd. Flash sabotages several of Harry's projects, with Roger being the only one who sees him do so. Although Stuart and Brenda know about the sabotage (because Roger tells them), they can't really do anything about it because no one else knows about Roger. Eventually Roger takes things into his own hands and sends Flash back to the Cretaceous Period. Accidentally, Brenda, Winston, and Stuart all go too. Once there, they are beset with dinosaurs (fortunately, Roger can talk to dinosaurs), and when they find a way home they find they have been accompanied by three of the beasts.

Roger and Winston explain the rest of the group the dangers of creating a time-paradox (Winston using a classic example of doubling pennies on a chessboard to show how little changes can add up to big changes in short order), and the group has to figure out a way to send the dinosaurs home, while Flash decides that the dinosaurs have to stay so he can sell them to the highest bidder and make a pile of money.

The Dinosaur that Followed Me Home is a fast paced adventure story, and the characters are likable. The only trouble with the book is that there is a kind of forced atmosphere about it – it seems as though Coville tried to jam as many things into the story as possible: ghosts (who can talk to dinosaurs), time travel and time travel paradoxes, dinosaurs, a short-sighted teenage villain, and so on. The story still holds together, just barely, despite the weight of elements heaped upon it, but the book does still suffer somewhat. This is still a decent book for young readers, but it is simply too overloaded with disparate elements that don't hang together particularly well to be more than an average one.

Previous book in the series: Some of My Best Friends Are Monsters

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