This is a first for me. I decided to pull some of my old book reviews from the blog and put them all in one place, so you can see what I've been reading since I first launched Myth & Mystery. This isn't every book I've reviewed, but it's a fairly good selection dating back seven years! Some are for kids. Some are for adults. Some work for all ages.
It's fun to read what I thought of Twilight, back in 2005 when it was first published, and long before anybody knew who I was. It's interesting to see my first impressions of Hunger Games, before it was even published, or my thoughts on Wimpy Kid.
Some of these books I'd totally forgotten about, like Death and the Penguin or Gentlemen of the Road. Others like Zevin's Elsewhere or Oppel's Skybreaker are so fresh in my mind I feel like I read them yesterday, though it's been years.
Hope you enjoy browsing my virtual bookshelf, and maybe you'll find something that interests you!
Posted Nov. 2005:
Elsewhere, Gabrielle Zevin. Fascinating, a well-imagined,
well-written YA novel. A fifteen-year-old girl dies and finds herself in
Elsewhere, where the deceased age backwards until they become babies and return
to the Earth for their next lives. It's a quick read, but wow -- it made me
appreciate my life, my family, and love. The potentially heavy subject matter
is counterbalanced with some great humor. Highly recommended.
Twilight, Stephenie Meyer. I'm a sucker for a good vampire story, so
I wanted to see what all the buzz was about. The story was a page-turner:
regular teenage girl falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a vampire. I
thought the writing needed some editing. If the girl's heart skipped a beat one
more time or the vampire smiled his "perfect crooked smile" I was
going to fling the book across the room. But hey, I kept reading to see what
would happen next. I'm sure the book will be popular. It would make a good
Mistmantle Chronicles: Urchin of the Riding Stars, M.I. McAllister.
The publisher described this to me as "Shakespeare with squirrels,"
and that's about right. It has elements of Hamlet and MacBeth with the same
kind of fantasy world that made Redwall popular. I enjoyed it very much. The
book worked so well as a standalone it will be interesting to see what the
author does for the next book in the series.
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova. The latest adult novel I've read, a
modern take on the Dracula story. This reminded me of The Da Vinci Code in some
ways. The story was a pageturner with lots of atmosphere and exotic settings,
danger and romance mixed with the secrets of history. But at the end, I found
myself thinking, "What a minute. That plot made no sense." Dracula's
motivation is sketchy at best, and the choices the characters make just don't
ring true, in my opinion. That's all I can say without giving away the plot.
Read it and see what you think. I was willing to suspend belief for the whole length
of the book. Only afterwards did I feel somewhat cheated. My advice: enjoy it,
and don't think about the inconsistencies once you're done.
Posted March 2006:
A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray.
Okay, so I was a little slow discovering this, but since Rebel Angels just
came out, I figured I would read the first in the series first. The novel can
best be described as Gothic fantasy. Lots of Victorian atmosphere and
ruminations about the claustrophic restrictions on women in that time period,
combined with a good portion of magic and mystery. I loved Bray's sense of
humor. It saved the novel from becoming top-heavy or melodramatic. The ending
didn't quite work as well for me as the rest of the book, but perhaps I was
simply reading too fast by that point. I would recommend it to teen girls, say
13+. Be aware, there was a definite erotic edge to the book. No more so than
Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, but it's worth mentioning.
The Skull of Truth, by Bruce Coville.
The Magic Shop books by Coville are some of my son's favorites. (He's
eleven.) This volume was one of the best. Great sense of humor, a good lesson
about lying versus truth-telling, but it wasn't at all preachy. A quick easy
read, great for reluctant boy readers like my son!
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett.
Another author I was slow in finding, Pratchett has a wicked and beautifully
twisted sense of humor. I would call this book a recrafting of the Pied Piper
story, but that really doesn't even begin to describe it. All the characters,
human or otherwise, are wonderfully drawn, and the story is well worth your
time. Sheesh, this guy is prolific, too. I need to get back to work now!
Posted March 2006:
The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall.
I’ll admit I approach award-winning children’s books with some trepidation.
All too often, children’s literature awards denote books that appeal to adult
librarians and book critics rather than to children. The books are like brussel
sprouts on the literary table. We are told to read them because they are
supposedly good for us, not because we will enjoy them.
I was happy to find that National Book Award winner The Penderwicks
was an exception. Four sisters and their father take a three-week summer
vacation to a rented cottage behind Arundel Hall, and become involved in the
fate of the young boy who lives in the mansion. The book is funny, sweet,
gentle and moving. The characters are perfectly drawn. The book is also very
accessible. I read it in a single afternoon, and I’m not a fast reader. Here is
a book driven by character and atmosphere rather than by plot, and yet, unlike
some other books that used to drive my students crazy because “nothing
happens,” this one never loses the reader’s interest. Highly recommended for
girls. It will still be a tough sell for boys, but I would not cringe to see
The Penderwicks taught in the classroom. That’s more than I can say for many
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde.
This has been sitting on the shelf for a while, and I finally got around to
it. I’m glad I did. A wacky alternate reality tale for literature buffs, The
Eyre Affair introduces LiteraTec detective Thursday Next, who must prevent
a madman from kidnapping Jane Eyre out of her novel and destroying Charlotte
Bronte’s work. Dodos for pets, vampire hunters, hot air balloon transports,
time travel, Baconian extremists . . . This book is a wild, eccentric ride. If
you liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I recommend this book.
Posted July 2006:
James Sallis, Drive. This is an adult mystery novel, a perfect example of
noir fiction. It's only about 150 pages long, but Sallis really packs a punch.
His writing is powerful and so well-crafted it should be framed as a work of
art. This book reminded me why I fell in love with noir fiction in the first
place. If you like Hammett, Chandler, Cain and Himes, you will love this book.
Also highly recommended: Cyprus Grove, another new, fine mystery from Jim
Sallis. As the LA Times recently said, Sallis is so good he deserves to be a
national bestseller. That he isn't just proves that quality fiction is not
always popular fiction, and vice versa.
Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin. Another slim book, more or less a
crime novel, this is a translation of a Ukrainian book. The main character, who
has adopted a penguin from the local zoo, gets a job writing obituaries, then
learns that he is writing obituaries for people who are about to die! Great
premise. A quick and refreshing read, and the penguin is a terrific character.
I understand there is a sequel too, though given the ending of the book, I
don't know how Kurkov will pull that off. The book gave a very depressing
glimpse into modern Ukrainian problems. I hope things really aren't as bad as
portrayed, but I have a feeling the author had a lot of real-life material to
Neverwhere, Nail Gaiman. Okay, so people have been telling me to read Neil
Gaiman for ages. They assume I've read American Gods because the premise is
similar to the Percy Jackson series. Well, I still haven't read American Gods,
but I did pick up Neverwhere in the Heathrow airport and read it on the way
back home. I enjoyed it a lot. Great fantasy, wonderful sense of humor. I can
understand why Gaiman is so popular. I'll have to look up his other books.
Posted October 2006:
Ranger’s Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan, by John Flanagan. It’s been
a while since I read a classic sword and sorcery fantasy novel, but I
enjoyed this one a lot. In fact, it had no sorcery at all, which was
kind of refreshing. It was a believable, well-grounded alternate
medieval earth. In Flanagan’s world, young wards of the state have to
choose professions, and Will is reluctantly recruited to become a
ranger. The relationship between Will and his Battleschool rival is
particularly well portrayed, and Will’s training as a ranger makes for
great reading. The novel was a bit long on the explanations for my taste
-- a lot of telling about the characters especially at the beginning
when showing would have sufficed -- but that did not stop me from
enjoying the book. On a purely technical note, this was one of the few
books I’ve read that uses third-person omniscient point-of-view and
actually pulls it off. We know what most of the characters are thinking
all the time, and yet it doesn’t get confusing. I will definitely look
for the rest of this series.
Skybreaker, by Kenneth
Oppell. This is the sequel to Oppell’s Airborn, which I read and loved
last year. If anything, I liked Skybreaker better. Oppell does a great
job capturing the spirit of “classic boy adventures” like Treasure
Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which admittedly I never read
as a boy, but I caught up with later). In Skybreaker, our young hero
Matt Cruse spots a ghost ship of the air, the Hyperion, and
inadvertently launches a frenzied hunt for the massive treasure that is
supposedly on board. The only problem: the Hyperion is hovering above
20,000 feet, which makes it almost impossible to reach with conventional
airships. Lots of adventure, a little romance, and a good sense of
humor made this a quick, exciting read. I’ve tried to “book talk” these
books to my son, so far without success, because it’s difficult for me
to explain the world of airships that Oppell conjures so well. Still,
these books are definitely worth checking out.
Spring, by Matthew Skelton. This book got a lot of buzz before
publication and after, which may have skewed my reading of it. It has a
great setting (Oxford) and an intriguing conceit (a magical dragon-skin
book linked to historical figures such as Faust and Gutenberg). The main
character Blake is dealing with family problems that are compelling and
realistic. And yet . . . I felt very unsatisfied after finishing this
book. I felt like there was a lot of build up that didn’t really go
anywhere, and a lot of potential for a powerful resolution that was
never realized. For example, a major revelation about Blake’s parents
toward the end of the book was covered in one sentence narrated by the
author rather than revealed through the characters, which made it lose
its impact. The final confrontation with the villain just didn’t ring
true to me, and after that confrontation, the book dragged on for two
more chapters that didn’t feel necessary. It was as if the story
unraveled in the second half and didn’t go some of the promising
directions it might have gone. Still, it was an original idea for a
children’s fantasy, and yet similar enough to, say, the Da Vinci Code,
that I can understand why the publisher is pushing it. Give it a read
and see what you think.
Posted December 2006:
My son Haley recently finished Airborn by Kenneth Oppel. Below is his review.
is great book. The book is about a boy named Matt in a world with
blimps instead of planes. Matt works on a luxury ship called the Aurora.
The Aurora is on its way to Sydney when things go horribly wrong. Matt,
the cabin boy, has to save the crew of the ship from certain disaster.
of my favorite parts of the book is when the Aurora is boarded by
pirates. The pirates take all of their valuables and get off into their
airship. But as they are leaving they shred the side of the Aurora with
the propeller. And the Aurora crashes down onto an uncharted island.
are many interesting characters in the book like Kate whose grandfather
was about to uncover a winged creature that spends its whole life in
the air. She goes on the Aurora to see the creatures her grandfather
wrote about in his log. There is also Kate’s chaperone Ms. Simpkins who
absolutely hates Matt. Kate’s grandfather’s journal plays a big part in
the book because it tells Matt about what Kate’s grandfather saw on his
Over all I think this is a pretty
good book. It starts out getting straight to the plot and is a real
page-turner. I did not find anything I didn’t like in this book and I
give it two thumbs up.
Posted Nov. 2007:
God bless Neal Shusterman. A couple of weeks ago I was looking for something
to give my son Haley to read. He starts every day of home schooling with silent
reading time, and it's often difficult to find books he'll enjoy. Though he's
made great strides with his dyslexia, he is still a fairly reluctant reader. I
rummaged through my bookshelves and found a copy of Dark Fusion: Dread Locks,
which Neal had signed for me at NCTE a couple of years ago. I gave it to Haley,
selling it on the Greek mythology angle, and he agreed to give it a try. I came
in thirty minutes later to start him on math, and I couldn't tear him away from
the book. This doesn't happen very often. When he gets engrossed in a story, I
usually let him keep reading. That's one of the advantages of home school -- flexible
schedule. As long as the work gets done, it doesn't matter when you do it. So I
let him read. A few hours later, he was done with the book. One sitting. I was
The next day, I handed him Red Rider's Hood, another Dark Fusion title.
Haley devoured it. The next day, I handed him Downsiders. Haley usually gets a
twenty minute break during his school day. That particular day, he used his
break time to read. That has NEVER happened before.
Well, you get the idea. Haley has become a huge Shusterman fan. His most
recent read was Everlost, which is a much longer book. Still, he finished it in
a day. We have since scoured the local bookshops for all of Neal's titles, and
I'm hoping we can make them last at least another week. What we'll do after that,
I'm not sure. But it is so wonderful to see my reluctant reader son eating up
books. So thanks, Neal! You've got a new devoted reader and made this dad's job
a whole lot easier!
Posted Feb. 2008:
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney. Loved it. I met Jeff before I'd heard
of his books, so I knew he was a nice guy, but now I'm a fan too! I finished
this on the way to Utah. Actually, it was such a quick read I finished it by
the time I got to Dallas, and was left thinking, "Great, now what do I
read?" Jeff has a perfect understanding of the middle school mentality. I
loved The Cheese Touch and the Halloween story at Grandma's house. I can
totally understand why these books are blowing the top off the bestseller
lists. Well-deserved! I heartily recommend them for young readers, reluctant or
The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor. So I'm a little late coming to
this, as it's been out for a while, but I enjoyed his alternate take on the
Alice in Wonderland story. The problem with doing a new treatment of such a classic
tale is that you will have the purists up in arms, but I thought the story had
a lot to recommend it. I found Alyss a believable character and who
wouldn't like Hatter Madigan? I want his backpack.
Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon. An adult selection. I listened to
this one on audio, and it was a perfect companion for a trip from Dallas to San
Antonio. I haven't read everything by Chabon (my mom is still dismayed that I
haven't gotten to Kavalier and Clay yet, since I'm a comic book fan), but I
enjoyed Summerland and I thought Chabon did a good job in Gentleman recapturing
the feel of a Dumas adventure. The language of the narrative was as antique and
exotic as the setting, and I mean that in a good way. It wasn't an easy read,
even in audio. I felt like I was listening to Faulkner -- "I know there
will be a verb in this sentence eventually, if I just keep going." I
probably had a very confused look on my face as I was driving, but about the
time I hit Waco, I started getting into the feel of the narrative. The main
characters -- your typical Jewish Ethiopian and Jewish Frankish swashbucklers
-- were a perfect pair. I can definitely see a sequel to their adventures,
although Chabon never does the same thing twice, so I'm not holding my breath!
Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin. I should have listened to this on audio,
as Martin would've been the perfect narrator, I'm sure. Still, the memoir was
very well done -- not too sentimental, just the right mix of comedy and
poignancy. Martin writes with a light touch, and comes across as a very
centered, reflective, and well-grounded person, anything but wild and crazy. Of
course, I grew up on Saturday Night Live and Steve Martin was my idol in middle
school, so this had a lot of nostalgic value for me. I also liked it for its
reflections about the fleeting nature of fame. A good reminder for anyone --
writer, actor, musician -- who dreams of a "big break." Martin really
worked for his fame, and those hard years helped him deal with fame when it
finally happened. We have lots of examples of those who became famous too young
too soon and self-destructed. The tabloids are full of them. Something to think
about as we push for younger and younger icons in film, music, and even
The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama. I got this on audio and listened to
it during my Charleston trip. To be clear, listening to a politician talk for
six hours is not usually my idea of fun, but I thought I'd give the book a try.
It certainly seemed like a timely choice as we go through primary season. I was
impressed. I can see why Obama got a Grammy. His narrative is down-to-earth and
genuine. He conveys a wry sense of humor and has a very personable style. I can
understand why a lot of commenters on the download site, even those who don't
agree with Obama's politics, complimented the book. I've lived in the reddest
of red cities (San Antonio) and the bluest of blue (San Francisco), and I'm as
cynical about politics as the next guy, but I found it hard not to be stirred
by what Obama has to say, in general terms, about the American character and
what makes this a great country. Okay, that's as far as I'll step onto the
soapbox, but it was a good read.
Posted August, 2008:
finished The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. I feel
like I’m coming late to the party, since a lot of readers have already
discovered this series, but I enjoyed it very much -- great cast of characters,
lots of cool puzzles and mysteries. The book made me feel nostalgic, because it
reminded me of some of the better children’s books I grew up with, like Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory and The Phantom Tollbooth. Stewart’s storytelling has
an old-fashioned elegance to it, and yes, I mean that in the best possible way!
The second book in the series is now out, and I will definitely be picking it
I also got to read an advance copy of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
I’ve been a fan of the Gregor series for years, but The Hunger Games
just blew me away. It’s a high-octane read that my older son Haley ripped
through in two days.
Next on my list: The Magician by Michael Scott, which I’m reading
with my younger son Patrick. We read The Alchemyst, the first book in
the series together last year, and we’re looking forward to seeing what happens
next with the characters. Scott does a great job blending history, myth, and
Patrick is also making his way through Harry Potter and
the Chamber of Secrets, which is a minor miracle. Both my sons have been
highly resistant to Harry Potter for years. They wanted nothing to do with the
series, probably because by the time they were ready to read it, Harry Potter
was so overexposed. There were Harry Potter birthday party decorations, Happy
Meal toys, action figures, video games, movies, etc., etc. Every time they
turned around, they felt like Harry Potter was being shoved down their throats.
As a Harry Potter fan myself, I had trouble convincing them that the books were
really good despite the hype. I’m glad Patrick’s finally giving them a try!
Posted November 2008:
While in Wichita Falls, I finished reading Masterpiece, by Elise Broach.
A really fun read. Boy meets beetle. Beetle turns out to be a gifted
artist. Boy and beetle help foil a major art heist. It's like a
combination of Chasing Vermeer and Cricket in Times Square. Check it
Posted April 2009:
We just received
the third Skulduggery Pleasant book, The Faceless Ones, from the UK, and
we had to buy two copies because Patrick and Haley (and my wife Becky!) all
wanted to start it at the same time. Derek Landy's series is not yet as well
known on this side of the Atlantic, but it's well worth checking out and is
very popular in the Riordan household.
I'm also reading The Recruit, the
first of the Cherub series by Robert Muchamore. This is another series many
British school children have recommended to me during my travels. It isn't
well-known in the US (as far as I can tell) but extremely popular in the UK.
Posted June 2010:
Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld: I really enjoyed Westerfeld’s Uglies,
so I was excited to read this new book, set in an alternate reality.
It’s the dawn of World War I, and war is about to erupt between two
great powers – the Clankers (Germany & Austro-Hungary) and the
Darwinists (England, France, Russia). The Clankers are technologists
with walking tanks (a la Star Wars), zeppelins and airplanes, while the
Darwinists have discovered ways to manipulate DNA and create biological
hybrids like floating whale ships, lizards that relay messages in
English, jellyfish hot air balloons, and elephantine beasts of burden.
Westerfeld’s world is beautifully realized and totally convincing. Lots
of action, and two great main characters who have dangerous secrets. The
whole time I was reading it, I was thinking, ‘This needs to be an
online role-playing game.’ The possibilities are endless. I’ll be
looking forward to the next book in this series. Check it out!
The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi: This was an adult sci fi novel, but like Leviathan,
it presented a completely believable alternate reality. In this
dystopian future, oil is depleted, and the world’s food supply has been
devastated by biological plagues released by rival genetics companies.
The new world currency is calories. Food is power. The action unfolds in
Bangkok, Thailand, where a calorie man from the Midwest tries to gain
access to the Thai seed bank, which might hold new DNA strands to
develop disease-resistance foods. Meanwhile, a New Person (genetically
modified human) Emiko, discarded by her former Japanese master,
discovers that she might have more abilities than she is aware of.
Several different storylines converge in a novel about revolution,
intrigue, greed, and desperate survival. The survivors in Bacigalupi’s
book look back at us, living in the 21st century, and express
disbelief and contempt that we didn’t appreciated the bounty of food
and energy we have, and didn’t do more to preserve our resources. As I
said, this is an adult book with adult content, but if you like sci fi,
check it out.
by Charlie Higson. I got to hear Charlie speak at the Disney-Hyperion
dinner at BEA in New York. He said he tried to make this book as scary
as possible, and would read scenes to his son, ratcheting them up until
his son had trouble sleeping at night. I figured this must be worth
checking out! The best description I can think of: The Enemy is The Lord of the Flies
with zombies. It’s set in London after a mysterious sickness has killed
off most everyone over the age of sixteen, but left some adults alive
as mutated, brainless creatures who want to kill and eat the surviving
children. Gruesome enough for you? Bands of children roam the streets
looking for food and trying to survive. One such group has created a
fortress at a supermarket, but they are out of supplies and the
situation looks grim, until a mysterious messenger arrives with an
invitation: Come to Buckingham Palace, and you’ll be safe. Is it a dream
come true, or a trap? The novel offers tons of nail-biting action. Be
aware: children die in this book, sometimes in nasty ways. The violence
is not graphically portrayed, but Higson presents a dark, scary future.
Different families have different comfort levels about this sort of
thing, which is why I mention it, but is The Enemy a page-turner? Absolutely!
by Ben Macintyre. I love good historical nonfiction, and Macintyre
knows how to write. He tells the story of Eddie Chapman, a charming
English criminal who is jailed in France during World War II, becomes a
spy for the Nazis, is sent back to England and turns himself into MI5 to
become a double agent for the British. The story is better than a spy
novel, because it’s true, and proves the old saying that truth is
stranger than fiction. Chapman goes back and forth between the British
and the Nazis, playing both sides, and no one – possibly not even
Chapman – is sure which side he’s on. Macintyre can pick out the
humorous and the deliciously absurd details in history, and does a
wonderful job bringing historical figures to full, colorful life.
Al Capone Does My Shirts, by
Gennifer Choldenko. I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and I’m
glad I finally got the chance. It tells the story of 12-year-old Moose
Flanagan, whose family moves to Alcatraz in the 1930s when his dad takes
a job as a prison guard. The first-person narration is beautifully
done. I loved the humor and the relationships between the characters. We
assume Al Capone will have a role to play in the book, but it’s not
clear what that role will be until the very end, when we get a Gangster ex Machina resolution. It certainly left me wanting to read the sequel, if only to see if we get more about Capone.
by Jim Butcher. My guilty pleasure reading is the Harry Dresden series,
featuring Chicago’s only professional wizard. Butcher has the
first-person hardboiled narrator voice down pat, and throws out
one-liners and rock ‘em sock ‘em action with equal abandon. Harry
Dresden’s world gets increasingly complicated in this book with new
allies and new enemies, and I’m glad I went back and started at the
beginning of the series. This book, like the rest of the series, offers a
wild ride and lots of fun.
Posted December 2010:
Both boys just finished Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth and loved
it. We had to get an extra copy as neither wanted to wait. Now they are
clamoring for the next in the series. Haley started to complain about
why it takes writers so long to finish a book, then he remembered who he
was talking to. Yeah, I hear that a lot! Sadly, writing always takes a
lot longer than reading.
me, I've been reading a lot of nonfiction -- research and otherwise. I
just finished Stacy Schiff's new biography of Cleopatra, which was
excellent. It's amazing what a rich portrait Schiff created when we have
so few sources to draw from about Cleopatra's life. Now I'm reading a
biography of Augustus Caesar by Anthony Everitt. I've been fascinated by
the early Roman Empire ever since reading Robert Graves's I, Claudius
(and seeing the TV version), so it's fun to revisit that time period.
Posted January 2011:
Blood of Ambrose by James Enge. This is a straightforward fantasy
novel for a grownup audience. It’s set in a well-imagined fictional world where
young Lathmar, the nominal king of the Ontil Empire, is facing a coup d’etat
from his own Lord Protector, who is in league with some truly creepy dark
forces. To the rescue comes Morlock Ambrosius, Lathmar’s great uncle, who is a
centuries-old knight and magician from the Wardlands, accompanied by his faithful
apprentice Wyrth the dwarf. Morlock is a wonderful character – powerful and
noble, tragic and comic -- with more than a small nod to Don Quixote. The plot
weaves from gruesome episode to gruesome episode, but balances the somber and
sometimes downright horrifying action with some fine black humor. The novel is
worth reading just to meet Velox, the flying, flaming, screaming horse. ‘Nuff
recommended: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Again, more of an adult novel, set in
an alternate Civil War America where a horrible accident has turned Seattle
into a quarantined wasteland filled with zombies. Briar, the widow of the mad
scientist who caused the disaster, must enter the city to find her son, who has
gone there determined to find evidence that will clear his father’s name. This
is a highly original pageturner and a must-read for steampunk fans.
most recent read: A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. This debut YA novel is
getting a lot of well-deserved attention. Gidwitz manages to balance the grisly
violence of the original Grimms’ fairy tales with a wonderful sense of humor
and narrative voice, somewhat reminiscent of Lemony Snicket’s take on the penny
dreadful, but also completely fresh and unique. Gidwitz weaves the fairy tales
together into a single narrative featuring Hansel and Gretel, and does it so
well you’ll be wondering if this was the way the stories were meant to be told
back in the old days. Check it out!
finally, a congratulatory shout-out to Helen Grant, whose novel The Vanishing
of Katherine Linden just won the Alex Award. I will confess, I don’t
keep up with the award announcements much. Last week, when Publishers Weekly
tweeted, “All eyes in the publishing world are on San Diego,” my first thought
was, “It’s time for Comic-con again?” Then my wife told me ALA was happening
there. Oh, right, that too! She also let me know about Linden winning the Alex.
At any rate, I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy of Grant’s novel and
it still haunts me. Wonderful, creepy, atmospheric mystery that would fit
perfectly in the darkest collection of Grimms' folktales.
In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larsen: a fascinating story about the American
ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but this
book does a good job recapturing a time when everyone was desperate to believe
that the Nazis actually wanted peace. The book shows how the ambassador's
idealistic young daughter initially bought into Hitler's charisma, but soon
realized the truth. A chilling and riveting story, In the Garden of Beasts
shows how an entire nation of otherwise reasonable people can be seduced by an
evil movement, and kept paralyzed by fear.
The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi. This book makes me wish I could
draw. From the co-creator of Spiderwick Chronicles, The Search for Wondla is a
fabulous cross between sci fi and fantasy. A young girl, raised in an
underground bunker by a motherly robot, is suddenly forced to the surface and
finds that the world is radically changed -- if it's even the planet she
thought it was. The story is fascinating by itself, but the illustrations add a
whole new dimension to the adventure. Highly recommended.
Satori, by Don Winslow. This is a prequel to one of the best-loved thrillers
of all time, Shibumi by Trevanian. Stepping in so many years later to
reincarnate the hero-assassin Nicholai Hel is a massive undertaking. I can only
imagine how daunting this must have been to Don Winslow, but he does a fabulous
job. The character of Nicholai is true-to-form, and the story is rich in
authentic details of the 1950s Cold War. If you like thrillers and
international intrigue, you can't go wrong with this one.
Posted July 2011:
Even in the midst of frantic writing, I have
to read! It recharges my batteries and lets me know what’s happening in
the world of books.
Two novels I recently finished:
Hell is Empty,
by Craig Johnson. The latest in a series about Wyoming sheriff Walt
Longmire, this is the first Johnson novel I’ve read, and the first adult
mystery I’ve read in quite a while. I’m not sure what attracted me to
the book – probably the title, and the premise of following a psychotic
killer into the wilderness. Hey, we’ve all been there, right? Normally
I’d start a series at the beginning, but I had no trouble following the
action. I like Walt Longmire’s character. He’s a widower, a father, an
older man who can’t always chase down the crooks like he used to – and
yet he treks into the freezing Big Horn Mountains alone rather than
waiting for backup to save two hostages who have been abducted by a
fugitive prisoner. Walt’s a good man and a good narrator, and although
most of this book is Walt adventuring on his own, I can tell he’s got a
great cast of supporting characters. Vic, Omar and the Cheyenne Nation
(yes, that’s a character) are my favorites. Even characters that were
created for this volume alone really pop.
knows his territory. He writes vividly and lovingly about Wyoming. I’ve
never been there, but now I can picture it clearly. This is one of
those books that lets you travel in your imagination. There is a fair
amount of mysticism in the story – or ‘woo-woo’ if you wish. The book is
overtly designed to parallel Dante’s Inferno,
right down to the Native American guide Virgil who helps Walt through
the mountains. We’re not always sure what Walt is seeing and what he is
imagining. Are there spirits at work, or is Walt suffering from his head
injuries? These elements didn’t bother me, but it’s not everyone’s cup
of tea, so I thought I’d mention it. As for me, I really enjoyed my time
with Walt and will definitely be buying the earlier books in Craig
Johnson’s series. If you’re a mystery fan, check them out!
This Dark Endeavor,
by Kenneth Oppel. I don’t often request an advance reading copy of a
book. In fact, I’m usually declining ARCs because I’m offered more than I
could possibly read. However, when I heard about Oppel’s latest
project, a prequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I immediately asked if I could read an advance copy, and I was lucky enough to get it.
I’m a big fan of Oppel’s previous series that began with Airborn.
I’m also a fan of the Romantics, like the Shelleys. It’s no coincidence
that Percy Jackson is named Percy. Short for Perseus, yes, but Percy
Shelley, who was enamored with Greek myths and wrote extensively about
them, also liked to fancy that his name was derived from the old Greek
hero. In one letter, his wife calls him “my own Perseus.” But I digress .
many years, I’ve thought the Frankenstein story was ripe for retelling
as a YA novel. It’s one of those ideas that I toyed with but never had
time to pursue. I’m very glad Oppel beat me to it, because he does it
This Dark Endeavour introduces
15-year-old Victor Frankenstein. Oppel has taken the liberty of giving
Victor a twin brother Konrad, and while you may be thinking, ‘oh, lord,
not the old twin brother plot device,’ it works well in this book and
comes across as fresh and perfectly plausible. In fact, it’s vital to
the story. When Konrad falls ill, Victor is driven to find a cure, even
if that means turning to the forbidden secrets of alchemy. And so, from
the best of motives, a dark obsession is born – to unlock the secrets of
life and death.
is much more to the story, though. Victor’s search for ingredients
sends him and his friends on many harrowing adventures. I won’t give any
spoilers, especially since the book isn’t out yet, but I can tell you
this is a true page-turner.
importantly, there is Elizabeth, the distant cousin of the Frankenstein
family – a spirited, fiercely independent young woman, devoutly
Catholic, beautiful, headstrong, and drawn to both Konrad and Victor for
very different reasons. It’s the love triangle between these three
multidimensional characters that really drives the narrative. There are
no easy answers, no true villains and heroes. I found myself cheering
for Victor, and yet hating him at times. Konrad comes across as noble,
and yet insufferably perfect. Elizabeth is mercurial, yet perfectly true
to her convictions. Oppel really brings them to life, which in a
Frankenstein novel has many levels of meaning, I suppose.
book explores faith and science, loyalty and hypocrisy, love and
jealousy – all the things that young readers, and even older readers,
struggle with. In his earlier work Airborn,
Oppel updated the classic Jules Verne/Robert Louis Stevenson adventures
and pioneered what would later be called ‘steampunk.’ In This Dark Endeavor,
Oppel has reinvented the gothic thriller for modern readers. The
narrative crackles with tension, emotions run high, and the atmosphere
is perfectly dark and brooding. The Shelleys would be proud. I
definitely recommend you check out the book when it’s published August
23. I anticipate This Dark Endeavor will get a lot of attention, and rightly so.
Posted September 2011:
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
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
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
Posted November 2011:
I finished Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, which certainly
lived up to its buzz. The prose sparkles, and the story itself is a feat
of magical acrobatics. It's a hard book to summarize, but basically two
ancient magicians set their two best pupils against one another in a
magical contest. Its venue? A mysterious circus that only appears at
night. The only problem: the contestants don't really know the rules, or
how victory is determined. And when the contestants start falling in
love which each other, things get complicated.
I'm reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I'd heard it was a difficult read,
and certainly it is long, at well over 900 pages, but I find that I'm
flying through it. Murakami knows how to keep the pages turning with a
brilliant mix of mystery, fantasy and intrigue. Two characters, Aomame
and Tengu, find themselves slipping into an alternate version of the
world in 1984 -- a world Aomame names 1Q84. What is causing this shift,
and whom can they trust? Those are just some of the questions facing
them. The book reminds me of Orwell, of course, but also Gabriel Marquez
and some early dark urban fantasy like The Land of Laughs by Jonathan
Carroll or Little, Big by John Crowley. (Which you should read, if you
haven't.) Yet Murakami isn't really like anyone else, exactly. He has
that fresh 'something,' just like the fictional editor Komatsu in his
narrative is looking for. Check out the book!
Becky read the latest entry in Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series, I
Am Half-Sick of Shadows. She really enjoyed this entry -- a great
mystery set in 1950s England with an irrepressible, precocious young
is reading the third Sandman Slim novel from Richard Kadrey: Aloha from
Hell. Great urban fantasy noir, but definitely for older teens and
Posted May 2012:
Reamde was the first Neal Stephenson novel I've read. I understand from
Stephenson aficionados that it is somewhat different than his other work, but I
found it a great point of entry to this author's world. It's a long book, over
a thousand pages, and it did take some commitment to get into. Stephenson's
research is incredibly detailed, and his interests are myriad. The amount of
information he presents could easily bog down the plot if his writing wasn't so
compelling and well-crafted. The plot zigzags breathlessly all over the world
-- from urban China to the backwoods of British Columbia -- and the cast of characters
is both quirky and compelling. The plot? Well, like most things in the book,
it's complicated. Basically, it involves an on-line hacking attempt to hold
hostage the computers of gamers in the ultimate MMORPG, T'Rain. When the young
Chinese hackers inadvertently lock down a computer belonging to the Russian
mob's accountant, things get interesting. You can expect gun battles in the
wilderness, terrorist plots aplenty, Russian commandos, a tough heroine from
the Midwest (and Ethiopia), gory deaths, lots of virtual gold, and a couple of
wild animals. And really, that's just scratching the surface. If Tom Clancy and
Carl Hiaasen collaborated on a book, it might look a lot like Reamde. It's a
mix of deep and detailed background information, with a wild plot and even
wilder characters. At the end, I felt like I'd run a marathon, but a marathon
worth running, and I've already purchased more of Stephenson's books.
Another new author for me: John Scalzi. I love this guy! It's been a long
time since I sat down and read some straight-forward science fiction, and
Scalzi seems to have a direct feed to the recorded consciousness of the late
great Robert Heinlein. Old Man's War introduces us to John Perry, a
seventy-something earth man who has nothing to live for after the death of his
wife, so he signs up for the army. You see, in the future, you can either die
when you get old, or you can join the Colonial Defense Forces, get a new body
designed for combat, and explore the galaxy protecting humanity. Only one
problem: it's a hostile universe, and your chances of survival are slim to
none. Scalzi's story is addictively readable. His dialogue crackles and
he balances just the right amount of humor and pathos to keep his characters
real in a very unreal world. After finishing Old Man's War, I went straight out
and bought the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, which is every bit as good. I'm now
starting in on book three, The Last Colony. I'm also very much looking forward
to his forthcoming book in June, Redshirts, which is a send-up of Star Trek.
You know, the guys in the red shirts always die. My older son Haley, 17, is
reading this series along with me, and also loves it. Thanks, Mr. Scalzi, for
some father-son geek bonding!
After reading Scalzi, I went back in time, so to speak, and read a sci fi
classic that I somehow missed in my earlier years: Joe Haldeman's The Forever
War. The main character William Mandella is among the first recruits sent off
to fight an alien species. The only problem? The distances are so vast that
every faster-than-light jump means decades have passed back on earth. With each
campaign that Mandella fights, his home planet changes until it is almost
unrecognizable. As many readers have noted, Haldeman's book is first and
foremost a great novel of war and its effects on society. You can tell it was
written at the close of Vietnam, as it speaks to the soldier's dilemma coming
home from a divisive conflict. Some elements of the novel haven't aged as well
as others. The idea, for instance, that sexual orientation can be determined by
social conditioning is dated and comes across as a bit of a paranoid fantasy.
But for the most part, the novel addresses timeless themes -- isolation,
alienation, patriotism versus skepticism, and the possibility of love in a
violent, unforgiving world. The ending is haunting, and I found myself thinking
about this novel for weeks after reading it.
Talk about a change of pace! For my next book, I switched to nonfiction and
went back to 1892 Chicago for the World's Fair. Erik Larson is an amazing
historical writer -- one of those rare breed who can bring the past to life and
make it seem immediate, fresh, intimate and amazing. The book is based on fact,
but it reads like the best of novels, going back and forth between the team
racing to put together the most important peacetime event in U.S. history, and
a psychopathic murderer who is stalking the city at the same time, preying on
young women with a cold efficiency that makes Jack the Ripper look like (excuse
the pun) a hack. I had no particular interest in the Chicago World's Fair, but
Larson is a teacher who can make you forget you are learning. Anywhere he
chooses to take you, you can be assured the ride is worth the price of
And finally, I was delighted to return to Tudor England with Hilary Mantel's
Bring Up the Bodies. I loved her first novel Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell,
Master Secretary to Henry VIII, and this sequel about the fall of Anne Boleyn
is every bit as good. Her writing is diaphanous -- woven from the lightest bits
of observation and dialogue, told in present tense, both immediate and
translucent. I felt as if I were looking through a lace curtain, straight into
the year 1536. How she does this, I'm not sure, but she brings Thomas Cromwell
to life in full and sympathetic detail. If you enjoy historical fiction,
especially about Tudor England, this is a must-read.
Posted April 2012:
I just finished reading the advanced copy of a great book that’s coming out next month: Deadweather and Sunrise
by Geoff Rodkey. I ripped through it in one day, which is really fast
for me, and if you like adventure novels, I highly recommend you grab a
copy when it is published.
The best way I can describe it is Lemony Snicket meets Pirates of the Caribbean, with a sprinkling of Tom Sawyer
for good measure. That’s not really an accurate description, because
this debut novel isn’t exactly like anything else I’ve read, but it
gives you an idea of what awaits.
our poor hero, thirteen year-old Egg Masterson, who lives on a
miserable island with bad weather, a volcano, and lots of pirates. His
family runs a small plantation where his father grows ugly fruit (“like a
boring orange”). His siblings are named Adonis and Venus, while poor
Egg was dubbed Egbert. His mother died giving birth to him. His brother
and sister hate him. His father is neglectful at best. His tutor is fat,
lazy and stupid. His only entertainment is reading the few books his
tutor owns and climbing trees so he doesn’t get beat up by Adonis.
one day, Egg’s father comes back from the volcano with a piece of
parchment and a baffled look on his face. He packs up the family and
they sail for the nearby island of Sunrise for a mysterious errand.
That’s when things become very interesting for Egg, very quickly.
is a brave, likable and honorable character, and the reader will be
cheering for him all the way. We’ll also meet the beautiful and plucky
Millicent, the ferocious one-handed cabin boy Guts, and a whole cast of
villains and scoundrels, most of whom are not what they appear to be.
You can expect ancient Native treasure (possibly magical), pirate
battles aplenty, wild hogs, jelly bread, fights to the death with biting
and cannonballs, croquet, the very first boatload of obnoxious
tourists, and even a wagonload of grenades. Best of all, Deadweather and
Sunrise is the first of a series, and once you’ve read the first book,
you’ll be dying to find out what happens next for Egg and the gang. I
know I am!
This is a rip-roaring debut. It will be published May 29, so be sure and check it out!
Here are my
latest finds, some for adults, some for kids, some for both!
Imagine a world
where islands of solid ground are surrounded by seas of shifting dirt, sand and
ice, all of it infested with dangerous subterranean predators -- giant moles,
ant lions and of course the dreaded naked mole rats. The only way across this
earthen sea is a labyrinthine network of rails, built and maintained by
mysterious beings called Angels.
In the Railsea,
men travel by train, and brave molers set sail to hunt the giant moldywarpe.
Our hero, Sham ap Soorap, has just signed aboard the moler train Medes as a
medic's assistant. The captain of the train, like so many captains, has her own
'philosophy' -- she is obsessed with finding and killing a giant ivory-colored
mole Mocker-Jack, who took her arm years before. However, when the Medes comes
across a forbidden secret in the ruins of an old train wreck, Sham realizes
there are quests even more important and more dangerous than the search for the
great ivory mole.
Yes, this is a
re-imagining of Moby Dick, with trains and moles instead of ships and whales.
If that sounds ridiculous, that's part of the book's appeal. Only Mièville
could take such an absurd idea, treat it as serious, and run with it to create
a compelling, believable, hilarious story. Railsea is billed as a story 'for
all ages,' and that's an apt description. It's not a book for everyone. You
have to be willing to roll with the concept and plunge yourself into a bizarre
environment, but the more twisted your imagination, the more this story will
appeal to you. The more you read, the harder it is to put down.
Mièville's earlier book for younger readers, Un Lun Dun, and Railsea is even
better. I laughed aloud. I cheered for our brave hero Sham. I was caught up in
the incredible world-building and the central mystery that finally takes us to
the end of the rails, literally, where we find the truth about the Angels. If
you've read Moby Dick, Railsea will be especially enjoyable (much more so, in
my humble opinion, than Moby Dick -- blech). But knowledge of Melville is
not essential to appreciating
is a swashbuckling steampunk adventure with lots of heart and humor.
So many YA
fantasy romances out there these days. You would think it would be hard to put
a fresh spin on the concept, but Leigh Bardugo makes it look easy. Her debut
Shadow and Bone takes Russian folklore and mythology and creates an alternate
tsarist Russia (Ravka) where magic and military might coexist uneasily. Imagine
a cross between Cashore's Graceling and Westerfeld's Leviathan . . . and yet
Shadow and Bone is unique.
characters, Alina and Mal, grow up as orphans at the estate of a kindly duke,
until the time comes for them to serve their country. Both are tested by the
Grisha, an ancient and powerful order of magicians, but neither show aptitude,
so Mal becomes an accomplished military tracker, while Alina studies as an army
cartographer and has nothing to look forward to but a mundane existence. Homely
and scrawny, Alina watches as her dashing, handsome best friend Mal, whom she
secretly loves, gets attention from all the girls.
change when their regiment is ordered across the Shadow Fold, a deadly rift of
darkness that cuts Ravka in two, separating the eastern capital from its ports
in West Ravka. When the caravan is attacked by gargoyle-like monsters called
volcra, Alina discovers powers she didn't know she had. Immediately, she
becomes the most important person in the kingdom, the target of enemy
assassins, and is whisked away to the palace of the Darkling, the head of the
Grisha and right hand of the king, to learn the ways of magic. Alina might hold
the secret to destroying the Shadow Fold and saving Ravka, but only if she
survives her enemies -- some from other countries, some from within the kingdom
Shadow and Bone
works on every level. It's a believable and poignant romance. It's a great
mystery in which the villains and heroes are not at all who they seem. It's a
first-rate adventure. Maybe I was especially drawn to this book because I got
to visit Russia last summer and can easily imagine the Grisha slipping through
the corridors of the Winter Palace, but I suspect this book will appeal to many
readers even if they have no knowledge of Russian history. I'll be anxiously
waiting for the second book in the series!
A new take on
the Iliad, written by a high school classics teacher -- how could I not read
this? The Song of Achilles retells the story of Greece's greatest hero from the
point of view of his best friend Patroclus. The big twist: Madeline Miller
casts the story as a romance between Achilles and Patroclus. While staying true
to Greek legends and the works of Homer, Miller creatively and convincingly fills
in the blanks, giving Patroclus a back story that makes perfect sense, and
tracing the friendship, and eventual romance, between the two young men in a
way that casts a new light on the human side of the Trojan War.
I always found
Achilles to be an unsympathetic character -- a brat, a bully, a big-headed jerk
who knows he's the star player on the team and throws a tantrum if he gets put
on the bench. Miller shows his unattractive qualities, but she also shows that
Achilles is human. He's capable of love. He's deeply conflicted. He has a sense
of humor and a gentle side. We see him through Patroclus's eyes, growing from a
privileged child to a sensitive teen to a young man struggling to balance his
personal feelings with the expectations of an entire country. If you've read
the Iliad, you know that the story will have a tragic end, but it's also
strangely uplifting and hopeful. I'll never be able to read about these
characters the same way again, and that's a good thing. Reading The Song of
Achilles put a new light on this ancient story. It was like watching a really
good interpretation of a Shakespeare play. You think you know the story, but
you're surprised to find how many layers of new meaning can be brought out by a
The book is certainly
appropriate for YA and up. The prose is elegant in its simplicity. Miller gives
Patroclus a Hemmingway-like directness. I read a New York Times review of this
book which I thought patently unfair, complaining that the style made the book
seem like a fast-food version of the Iliad. I think this misses the whole point
of the story. Patroclus's mission in The Song of Achilles is to cut through the
legend of the hero and show us the mortal side of demigod. He doesn't want the
pompous metaphors and flowery hyperbole of a war epic to bury Achilles's other
qualities -- his tenderness, his insecurity, his honesty and lack of guile. The
Song of Achilles can serve as an excellent introduction or counterpoint to the
study of the Iliad. It certainly made the story new and vibrant for me, despite
how many times I've read Homer.
burned in the past with self-published e-books. Some have been touted by Amazon
as great success stories, and turn out to be poorly conceived and poorly
written -- a good argument that writers still need editors, and publishers
serve an important purpose to offer a degree of basic quality control.
WOOL is not
such a book. I'm not sure what attracted me to it at first. The title made me
curious, and I've been on a sci fi kick lately. I decided to give it a shot,
and I'm glad I did. I started with trepidation, waiting for the creak of bad
writing or poor characterization to pull me out of the story, but within a few
pages I relaxed. Clearly, I was in good hands. Hugh Howey is a skilled
storyteller. He knows the craft of writing.
the WOOL OMNIBUS was written in five parts, each published as a Kindle short.
The sections are connected, and each is longer than the last. The point of view
changes. (SPOILER) As in The Game of Thrones, some major characters die just
when you are warming up to them, which gives the reader the impression that no
one is safe. (END OF SPOILER)
premise: mankind has devastated the surface of the world, leaving ruined
cities, endless wasteland and a toxic atmosphere. The only survivors live in an
underground silo, a closed society with a mayor, a sheriff, and a shadowy IT
department that seems to control everything, including the population's
understanding of reality outside the silo. Cameras offer a glimpse of the
outside world on monitors throughout the silo, letting the inhabitants see the
sunrise over the wasteland and allay some of their claustrophobia, but the
cameras often get grimy because of the atmosphere. Hence the silo's ultimate
punishment: cleaning. For many crimes, including the forbidden act of simply
expressing a desire to go outside, the convicted is put in an airtight suit and
sent on a one-way trip to clean the lenses of the cameras. For some reason, the
convicted always does the job, no matter how much they protest in advance.
Within minutes, however, the suit deteriorates and the convict collapses,
becoming another permanent feature of the landscape.
There is much
more going on than the IT department lets on, however. When a new sheriff of
the silo begins to explore some dangerous secrets uncovered by her
predecessor, she makes powerful enemies and stirs up forces that could
lead to civil war.
are well-drawn, and even the villains have a sympathetic side. Secrets unfold
with just the right pacing, and I had to set my e-reader down several times and
say, "Wow," when a major twist was revealed. The structure of the
story, told in five interconnected parts, makes WOOL unlike a conventional
novel, and gives it extra depth, much like the layers of the silo itself. I
loved the feisty heroine Juliette especially, who endures so much tragedy and
shows so much courage. And who can't relate to the notion of an IT department
being run by nefarious villains who deliberately sabotage the exchange of
information? If you're looking for a good post-apocalyptic read, you can't do
much better than WOOL. It's targeted at adults, but is completely appropriate
for YA readers as well.
I've got to
respect a Harvard-educated literary novelist who decides to defy expectations
and write a zombie novel. I think that takes a lot of guts (bad pun, sorry) as
well as brains (okay, I'll stop now.)
Whitehead's Zone One follows the exploits of a protagonist known only by his
nickname, Mark Spitz. To explain why he's called that would be to spoil some of
the fun. In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, the human survivors are
attempting to reclaim the island of Manhattan. Marines have cleared most of the
undead from the borough and set up walls around the first target grid, Zone
One, but Mark Spitz and his fellow sweepers are charged with destroying the
stragglers to make the island safe for resettlement.
We follow Spitz
over the course of one weekend, with frequent flashbacks into his past -- from
Last Night, the beginning of the zombie plague, through his days surviving in
the wilderness, and finally to his connection with other survivors, who are
slowing being herded into guarded camps with names like Happy Acres. A new
American bureaucracy has arisen in Albany and has taken no time at all to
implement ridiculous rules: No more raiding for supplies, unless the supplies
are endorsed by one of the government's official sponsors. No breaking windows
or damaging property while fighting off zombies, as those buildings will need
to be reoccupied. The government's propaganda machine is in full swing,
provided peppy songs for the rebirth of the American Phoenix, a constant stream
of good news about a set of newborn triplets and an Italian model/zombie
fighter, and even government-sponsored notepads from a company that makes
children's merchandise about a cartoon armadillo and his cute friends, perfect
for taking notes on how many zombies you kill each day!
The more time
we spend with Spitz, the more we feel his discomfort at the way society is
reforming. We begin to suspect that things are not as rosy as the folks in
Albany have reported. We begin to ask: Which would we prefer: a return to
'civilization' with corporate sponsors and theme songs, or life in the
The novel is
not a straight-forward, plot-driven narrative. You should not expect 28 Days
Later or The Walking Dead. The story is told over three days, but is mostly
achronological, skipping back and forth from past to present, lingering over
the stories of different characters and revealing Mark Spitz's life in a series
of vignettes. It reads like a cross between Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut,
both writers who would've appreciated the dark humor and poignant absurdities
which infuse Zone One.
It's not an
easy beach read by any means, but it's well worth your time. I found myself
thinking about this book for weeks after I read it, wondering about Mark Spitz
and what I would've done in his place.