Rick’s Reads: A Collection from the Blog

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 movie.

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 Penderwickswas 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 Newbery picks.

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 draw from.

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.

Endymion 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.

Airborn 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.

One 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.

There 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 voyage.

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 amazed.

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 otherwise. 

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 literature. 

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:

I just 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 up. 

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 Gamesjust 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 modern-day action. 

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 out.

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. 

The Enemy, 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!

Agent Zigzag, 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.

Blood Rites, 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.

As for 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 said. 

Also 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.

My 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!

And 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. 

Posted June 2011:

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.

Johnson 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 . . .

For 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 beautifully.

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.

There 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.

Most 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.

The 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 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 21stCentury 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.

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.

Now 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!

Meanwhile, 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 narrator.

Haley is reading the third Sandman Slim novel from Richard Kadrey: Aloha from Hell. Great urban fantasy noir, but definitely for older teens and adults.

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 admission.

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.

Pity 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.

Then 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.

Egg 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!

Posted June 2012:

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.

Rick Riordan