Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book of the Week: BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES by Robert Kent

First Paragraph(s): IN SOME WAYS, SCHOOL IS better than prison. Not many, but some.
     Like prison, school is all about routine. At 5:30 each morning, Ellicott Skullworth’s mother woke him. At 6:30 he rode the school bus. At 7:00 the first bell rang and class began, recess was at 9:30, lunch was at 12:30, second recess was at 1:30, and the final bell rang at 3:00.
     Ellicott rode the bus home and at 5:30 the next morning it began again. Each day the same as the last, the same as the next: an infinite stretch of the same miserable day to be lived over and over again.
     The day Ellicott Skullworth’s life changed forever began just this way.

Esteemed Reader, this week's book is the greatest novel ever written by a man. All literature from Homer to Shakespere to Stephen King has served only as steps toward the creation of this sacred tome that is the absolute finest literary work humanity has ever produced. Upon reading Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees (my, even the title takes my breath), J.K. Rowling will despair and wonder how she ever thought herself a capable writer. I'm sure other authors will publish novels, but now that this book exists, you have to wonder why they'll bother.

That concludes the review portion of this post:) Not sure what the author's opinion of his own book does for you. Though I'm joking (mostly) in the paragraph above, I do love this book. Therefore, my opinion is not to be trusted and we can ignore it.

As I did with my review of humanity's second greatest novel, All Together Now: A Zombie Story, I'm mostly just going to tell you about the book and why the author made some of the choices he did, just as I do every Book of the Week post. Except this week I don't have to guess why the author did what he did because he is me, and unknowable subconscious motivations aside, I remember exactly why the author made most of the choices he did.

On Thursday we'll have Robert Kent here (as we do each and every day) to face the 7 Questions. I was available previously, of course, but I've made myself wait until I was truly a middle grade author. All Together Now is so dark it just barely qualifies as a YA novel. Pizza Delivery and All Right Now are explicitly intended for older readers, and I'm going to eventually write more horror (couldn't stop if I wanted to), but Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is a fun and happy and gloriously middle grade story with no zombies (pity) and it's my favorite. 

It's not that I don't love my other books. They're each a piece of my heart, but Banneker Bones is the biggest piece. I often think of my stories as love affairs Mrs. Ninja is okay with my having. I get swept up in them, they occupy my every thought, and I learn and grow as a result. If All Together Now was a full-fledged relationship, and it was, then Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, the first book in a planned series, is a marriage. This is the story I've brought home to meet my parents and that I'm committing myself to for life. 

In fact, this book is the reason my blog is the Middle Grade Ninja and not the Adult Horror Ninja. Years ago, when I started this blog, I came to a point when I was pressured to choose which type of writer I wanted to be under the traditional publishing system. It was Banneker Bones that convinced me to focus on writing family friendly stories, though later I obviously decided choosing was silly and now I write what I want. But if Esteemed Reader only ever reads one story I've written, to date I would want it to be this story.

Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is the book I wish I'd had to read when I was eleven and it's a book I've written for my son. I talk more about this in The Afterword (link coming next week after you've had a chance to read the book), but I knew from the start Banneker Bones would be the star of multiple novels, so I've infused his world with all my favorite things (lots of robots and monsters and robot monsters) to ensure I never get tired of writing sequels. He's an archetype (always a good idea for sustainability) based heavily on my favorite character in all of literature: Batman (my best characters are based on Batman):


     Banneker walked straight to his lab. He laid his trench coat open on one of the tables, and Ellicott saw for the first time there were four rows of triple pockets on either side of the inner lining, for a total of 24 pockets. 
     Ellicott couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever need so many hidden pockets. But as he watched, Banneker rummaged the lab and found something to put in nearly every pocket.
     “Smoke bombs.” Banneker shoved seven black balls the size of marbles into a coat pocket. “One canister knockout gas, tranquilizer darts, lock pick, evidence bags…”
     “Is that a grappling gun?” Ellicott asked.
     Banneker nodded and put a thing that was part grappling hook, part gun into one of the top pockets.
     “Why would you ever need that? Where is it you think we’re going that the use of a grappling gun will be required?”
     Banneker fastened the last of the inner pockets closed and put on his trench coat. It looked remarkably smooth on the outside considering all the stuff Banneker had packed the inside with. Ellicott couldn’t see a single lump in the coat betraying the bulk beneath it.
     “When it comes to grappling guns, cousin,” Banneker said, “It’s better to have one and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

Banneker is an extremely wealthy inventor (add a dash of Tony Stark), a brilliant intellectual, a skilled fighter, and he's world famous, naturally. He's also eleven years old. Oh, and he's an egomaniacal jerk no one can stand to be around save for his parents, whom I haven't killed despite the fact it would've made plotting easier. Banneker lives at 221 Garrett Street which is absolutely an admission that I'm also borrowing heavily from Sherlock Holmes:

     Banneker sighed the way an adult might when trying to explain an extremely complex issue to a toddler.
     “I don't know exactly what we're searching for. We are simply looking for facts. It's a great mistake to theorize before we have them. We'd run the risk of twisting facts to serve theories rather than theories to serve facts."


Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is a big budget summer movie in a book and I love that about it. The entire last act is devoted to boys flying jet packs through the night sky to chase after robot bees the size of cars. This is a good-time story and if readers should happen to learn anything by its end, I assure you it will be by accident. I'm hoping to make readers laugh or at least smile and that's it.

The trick then has been to take all the fun stuff and shape it around a simple middle grade plot. The protagonist of the story is not actually Banneker Bones, even though he's the star, but his eleven-year-old cousin, Ellicott Skullworth. After all, Sherlock Homes' tales are told to us from Watson's perspective and Banneker is in some ways too grand a character to relate to in the same way readers can relate to his sidekick.

Ellicott is also a genius. The first chapter finds him lonely and bored out of his mind in a public school in a small Indiana town (naturally). Worse, he hides his intelligence to avoid being bullied. Through a series of plot machinations, Ellicott tests into the Archimedes Program at Latimer University in Latimer City where he'll be staying with a cousin he's never met who does not want to share his room:

     Banneker paced back and forth in front of a long steel table. He lifted his black hat with the white band and ran a hand over his head. His hair was kinked so close to his scalp, it didn’t move as his hand passed over it.
     Ellicott cleared his throat. “It’s nice to meet you.”
     Banneker went on pacing as though he hadn’t heard.
     “Cool hat,” Ellicott said.
     “It’s a trilby hat.”
     Ellicott didn't know the difference between a hat and a trilby hat, but he nodded. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
     “Of course you have,” Banneker said. “I’m world-famous.”
     “Well, that’s true.”
     “You’re not, though, are you?” Banneker stopped moving and turned to Ellicott for the first time.
Ellicott Skullworth, inventor of nothing, shook his head.
     “So, the niceness in this meeting is all on your end, wouldn’t you agree?”
     Ellicott swallowed. “I guess so.”
     Banneker nodded as though this were just the answer he'd expected and went back to pacing. “In the future, I’d advise you to stay out of this room. It’s my office and I must be left alone if I’m going to get any work done. There’s a television in the guest room, so you can watch your mindless cartoons and sporting competitions in there.”
     Banneker rubbed his chin.
     “And you should stay out of my workshop as well. There’s lots of dangerous equipment, and a boy with a troglodyte’s mental capacity such as yours would probably only hurt himself. Really, you should just avoid this side of my bedroom entirely. As much for your own benefit as for mine.”
     “What’s a trogioright?” Ellicott asked.
     “It’s a caveman,” Reggie said. “And it’s troglodyte.”
     “I see,” Ellicott said. “And I’m guessing having the mental capacity of a toglio thingee is not a good thing?”
     “No, not at all.”
     Ellicott nodded and turned back to Banneker. “Well, anyway, thanks for letting me stay here.”
     “Not my idea,” Banneker said. “You have my mother to thank for that. But she’s been wrong before. She adopted a stray puppy once and put it in my room to,” he made a face to show his disgust, “keep me company. The puppy survived two days.”
     Banneker looked Ellicott up and down as though he were appraising something for purchase and deciding against it. “And now she’s adopted another stray, hasn’t she? We’ll just see how long you survive.”


Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees has taken me half a decade to polish. I've never worked harder on a book or loved a story more. In some ways, I'm sorry to be done writing and revising it, but I'm so glad it's available for readers and I hope they'll love it as much as I do. You can check out the first five chapters here. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees:

      The man sounded like he recited Shakespeare to adoring crowds of English teachers on the weekends.


     There was a ladder carved into the wall of the pit. Ellicott ran for it, but by the time he reached it, the cover was more than halfway across the pit. If he climbed the ladder, he'd only get far enough out of the pit to be cut in half.
      No, not cut in half—squished in half. Ellicott wondered if the top of him would burst like a mashed ketchup packet.


     The ninjas were fast, but Banneker Bones was faster. He knocked two ninjas down with one spin kick and they stayed down. He chopped a third ninja across the neck as he landed, leaving only two ninjas standing.
     The first ninja charged him with a barrage of kicks and flying fists. Banneker ducked and weaved, dodging each blow with ease. The second ninja charged Banneker from behind.
Banneker appeared not to notice until the last possible second, then he spun and seized the ninja by his black garb. Using the ninja’s own momentum, Banneker slammed him into the other ninja, knocking them both out.
     Banneker began walking away, but just then one of the supposedly unconscious holographic ninjas began to rise. Banneker kicked him in the chest without even stopping to look at him.
     A second ninja lying nearby yelled “Hi-ya!’’ and sat up.
     Banneker leapt on him at once, letting out a guttural scream like the primal cry of an animal. The ninja was slammed back to the ground and Banneker punched him across the face once, twice, three times.
     Banneker screamed again and began striking the ninja with both fists, one after the other, again, and again, and again, the ninja crying out louder and louder and then not at all.
     “Dude,” Ellicott said, watching all from the lab. “You're one seriously messed up kid.”
   
     It was a robot.
     Ellicott knew that at a glance by the way the sun reflected off the thing’s enormous steel body so brightly that at first its shape was impossible to distinguish in the glare.
     It had six thin legs like an insect and beneath them, beneath this great robot the size of a car, a woman in a business suit was pinned to the street and screaming her head off for someone, anyone, to please help.
     Just above the woman’s screams, Ellicott heard something else that sounded like the roar of heavy machinery mixed with the whirr of a weed wacker.
     It was buzzing, Ellicott was sure of it, like the buzzing of a bug if a bug were ever as big as this robot.
     The robot had a body like an insect to match its six legs, and its face was all giant round eyes like a bug’s face. Huge steel wings extended from its back and at the rear of the robot was a sharp steel spire.
     Its metal body was striped dark steel, and lighter reflective steel, so it made sense that it had a stinger, because it was—
     “It’s a giant robot bee,” Banneker said. His breath caught.
     There was no denying it. Ellicott didn’t have any idea where the thing came from or why it was here just now, but whatever the answer to those questions, this was clearly a giant robot bee in the middle of the street attacking a woman.
     That the situation was insane was irrelevant.


STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

1 comment:

Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.