Rick's Recent Reads for September

Taking a short break from writing to let you know what I’ve been reading lately. As usual, it’s been quite a mix of fiction and nonfiction, adult and children’s.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. This book has been getting a lot of well-deserved attention for the way it incorporates unusual antique photographs into the narrative. The premise: Jacob grew up on his grandfather’s stories about his own childhood during World War II. Supposedly his grandfather escaped the Holocaust by taking refuge on a Welsh island, at an orphanage that catered to children with strange powers. The grandfather even has photos to prove it. As Jacob grows up, he loses faith in his grandfather, and assumes the stories were fantasies, the photos faked. But when a horrible, inexplicable tragedy occurs, Jacob has to reevaluate. Could those stories have been real? Could this island refuge still exist so many years later?  And is it possible his grandfather’s paranoia about ‘monsters’ wasn’t just paranoia? Even without the photos, this would be a gripping story, but the photos add an irresistible element of mystery. The first-person narration is authentic, funny, and poignant. I’m looking forward to the next volume in the series!

Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadry. Okay, this is NOT a children’s book, just FYI. This is noir urban fantasy, like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, but even grittier. The main character, James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, is betrayed by a group of powerful magicians and dragged bodily into Hell, where he spends eleven years fighting in the gladiator pits of Lucifer. Somehow he survives, and eventually manages to escape back to Los Angeles. Now he’s looking for the people who betrayed him, but to get revenge, he’ll have to navigate a world of angels, demons, vampires, magicians, and plenty of ruthless mortals with lots of secrets to hide. This is a rock ‘em sock ‘em adventure narrated in fresh, crackling hardboiled prose, with plenty of dark humor. I liked it so much I immediately bought the sequel, Kill the Dead. But again, this is very adult stuff. Not a YA fantasy.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. After our trip through the Baltic this summer, Snyder’s historical account of the mass killings in Eastern Europe had a big impact on me. I’ve now seen a lot of the places he talks about: Gdansk, Poland; Tallinn, Estonia; Riga, Latvia; St. Petersburg, Russia. While the atrocities of Stalin and Hitler aren’t exactly news, the sheer numbers involved and the scope of the destruction are truly staggering. I didn’t know much about Stalin’s starvation policies, or the impossibly complicated situation of Poland and the Baltic states in the 1930s as they were trapped between two despots who were so alike, and yet so diametrically opposed. Synder makes a compelling case, comparing and contrasting Hitler and Stalin’s methods. This book is very bleak reading. I had to take long breaks from it to clear my head. But if you’re interested in this period of history, and want a case study of just how absolutely power can corrupt, and just how horrible humans can be to each other, this book is an excellent choice.

Carte Blache, by Jeffery Deaver. This is the newest reincarnation of James Bond, and I was interested in seeing how Deaver would reinvent 007 as a 21st Century British operative. I’ll admit I’m not an avid James Bond fan, though I liked Sean Connery in Dr. No, and I’ve read Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. I was impressed with Deaver’s interpretation. He stayed true to the spirit of Bond, but added his own impeccable plotting, which frankly made a lot more sense than many of the Bond movies. All in all, Deaver successfully transplanted Bond into 2011. The narrative twists are many and suitably surprising. The villains are well drawn, equally creepy, compelling and competent. Bond comes across as very human, admirable and somewhat tragic. While there is no shortage of romance with the usual ‘Bond girls’ with ridiculous names – Felicity Willing, Philly Maidenstone – there is nothing ‘throw away’ or glibly macho about Bond’s emotional life. This is a three-dimensional James Bond whom I would love to follow in further adventures.

And finally, a few recommendations from my sons:

Patrick, 13, gives two thumbs up to Michael Grant’s Gone series. There are four books so far in the series, with the next coming out in the spring of 2012. Patrick says he loves this series because it is both fantasy and realistic. When all the adults in a coastal California town disappear, the young people at first rejoice. They eat all the candy they want, do whatever they want, and basically live a twenty-four/seven party. Then they realize their town is shut off from the rest of the world for reasons they don’t understand. The food starts running out. And their paradise turns into purgatory.

Patrick also recommends Torn, the newest installment in Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Missing series. This is an adventure series about children who are torn out of different periods of time and thrown together to face a common enemy – though the enemy isn’t clear at first. Patrick likes the pacing and says the time travel element is very well done.

Haley, who just turned 17 – yikes, that’s hard to believe! – recommends the latest in the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy. Deathbringer is not out yet in the US (tsk, tsk, US market for lagging behind on such a brilliant series) but we got the UK version and Haley says it’s every bit as good as the previous installments. If you haven’t yet checked these books out, do so. Great fast-paced fantasy with humor and a wisecracking skeleton detective who throws fireballs and drives a Bentley -- what’s not to love?

Haley also loved Bruiser and Everfound by Neal Shusterman, one of his all-time favorite authors. Bruiser is an excellent standalone novel. Everfound is the third book in Shusterman’s Skinjackers series, so be sure to pick up the first, Everlost, if you haven’t yet. It’s a trilogy about children who are stuck between the worlds of the living and the dead. Well, it’s much cooler and more complicated than just that, but you’ll see what I mean when you dive into them.

Happy reading, everyone!