Monday, October 13, 2008

Lighter Than Air – Henry Melton

©2008 Wire Rim Books, Hutto, Texas

Henry Melton has been a busy bee in the publishing department in 2008. So busy in fact, that he’s kept me busy reading young adult science fiction for review. Melton is the Darrel Award winning author of Emperor Dad, and the prolific publisher of his own “Small Towns, Big Ideas” series of YA Fiction. Lighter Than Air is the fourth in the series, the third that has been published in 2008.

Jon Kish is looking for the perfect Halloween prank. Every year the older boys at the Munising, Michigan High School try to out-do one another with the perfect prank. Reigning champion Bud Falco is in Jon’s sights, but Kish doesn’t know yet what he’ll do to upstage Falco’s re-wiring skills. Then he happens upon George Perkins’ work lab filled with an experiment called “buckyfoam.” Jon and neighbor George get reacquainted as the older man explains the process to Jon who soon finds himself in a loose apprenticeship to George.

The story is complicated (or enhanced depending upon one’s point of view) by the family dynamic for both of the scientists. George has moved home to be near his mother whose health is failing, leading eventually to a fatal stroke. Jon and his younger sister are involved in their own sibling squabbles to the disappointment of their weary mother—who discovers that among all the other issues in her life, she has stomach cancer. Jon’s father, Sam, disappeared five years earlier creating overwhelming hardship on his wife and children as they try to cope and keep the home place going.

In Lighter Than Air, Melton weaves a tale of secrets and suspense, science and pranks, emotion and intrigue. One of the drawbacks to the story lies in the same gripe I have with many science fiction stories—detail. While detail is important, some of the necessary detail when dealing with scientific experimentation gets tedious. Even so, the tedium of the scientific jargon is minimalized by Melton’s exquisite ability to tell a story. The CIA story line that follows Cherry Kish’s search for her absent father keeps the attention of any fan of espionage fiction. And the scene where Jon and his friend and co-conspirator, Larry, unleash their UFO on an unsuspecting Halloween Festival crowd is priceless.

The scary part of the story, though, is not how the characters deal with the issue of death, but that of Internet predators. In this case, the predator is a terrorist operative posing as a secret agent who volunteers to help Cherry find her father. We later find out that the on-line friend is just using Cherry to ferry information to his terrorist friends without detection by the US government. I found the possibility all too real, and you might as well.

As always, characterization and plot development are superb. Melton has another winner with Lighter Than Air. I give Lighter Than Air four out of five reading glasses. Look for more “Small Towns, Big Ideas” stories in 2009.

Benjamin Potter, October 13, 2008

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