Rick’s Recent Reads

Reading is great for refueling the engines when you’re a writer. My first piece of advice to young writers is always, “Read a lot!” Exploring other styles and genres helps make you a stronger storyteller. Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to read some excellent novels lately. It may seems from these reports that I love every book I read. That’s not true. If I read something I don’t enjoy, I don’t mention it. I figure we have enough bad reviews out there already. But I’m always happy to share the books I’ve enjoyed.

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. 

I loved 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 
Mièville. This 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.

Our main 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.
Their lives 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 itself.
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 smart production.

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.

I’ve been 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.

I understand 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)

The basic 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.

The characters 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.) 
Colson 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 zombie-infested wasteland?
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.

And that’s the latest! Now back to writing. Happy summer reading, everyone!

Rick Riordan