Saturday, May 23, 2015

Some Good Reads for Summer

I've been reading a lot the past few months -- as usual an assortment of adult and children's books, fiction and nonfiction. If you're looking for some reading suggestions for kids this summer, here are a few great ones I've come across:

The Iron Trial, by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black. Middle grade fantasy.

Callum Hunt does not want to be a magician. All his life, his father has warned him about the dangers of magic, and the sinister ways of the mages who teach youngsters to use their powers in the underground world of the Magisterium. When Callum comes of age and must take his entrance exam for the Magisterium, he tries his hardest to fail. But he fails to fail. He is chosen to train with Master Rufus, the most prestigious mage in the Magisterium. Callum (Call) is ripped away from his normal life in Carolina, separated from his father, and plunged into a subterranean world his father has said would be worse than death.

The Iron Trial is a hugely fun, inventive spin on the middle grade fantasy novel. Yes, the parallels to Harry Potter are obvious, but as I see it that’s sort of the point. Clare and Black take those patterns and expectations and deliberately turn them upside-down. Callum doesn’t want to be a magician. He wants to fail at magic. His experience is not like Hogwarts. It’s alternately boring (sorting piles of sand, anyone?) and terrifying (the elementals are awesome creations), and Call can’t be sure who to trust – even his parents. His mother’s dying words: Kill the Child, apparently meaning her own infant son. And his father . . . has he been protecting Call all these years, or lying to him? Is Master Rufus a friend or enemy? Will Callum ever be allowed to leave his new home?

I liked Call a lot. His leg was badly broken when he was a baby, and his trouble walking informs his character. It’s especially poignant when he wonders if he can learn to fly as a magician, thus making him more mobile. He is mistrustful but empathetic, capable and yet deeply flawed. I also liked the cast of supporting characters. His fellow apprentices are great, especially Tamara. The magic system is inventive and logical. The world-building is fantastic. The Iron Trial sets up the game board for the rest of the series, which promises to be great – and after that huge, massive twist at the end (no spoilers, but oh boy!) how can you not want to read on?

The Copper Gauntlet, by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black. Middle grade fantasy.

Okay, this is cheating, since the book doesn't actually come out until September 1, but I was lucky enough to get an early copy, and I can assure you this sequel is even stronger than The Iron Trial. It’s hard to review without giving spoilers for the first book, but let’s just say Callum Hunt has a lot to think about. Some of the things he’s found out about himself, his family and the Magisterium have left him reeling. Even the companionship of his new “pet” wolf Havoc (a fabulous character) can’t console him as he prepares for his second year at the Magisterium. Call’s relationship with his father is strained to say the least. His friends at the Magisterium seem to accept him, but can they really? Call is afraid he is a danger to himself and anyone who gets close to him. Once back at the Magisterium, Callum and his friends face a new dilemma – the theft of a copper gauntlet called the Alkhahest, which in the wrong hands could destroy the Magisterium’s power. The Copper Gauntlet is full of twists and turns, surprises and wonders. Callum comes closer to learning to truth about himself, and makes powerful enemies along the way. If you liked The Iron Trial, you will love The Copper Gauntlet. I can’t wait to read more of this series.

Masterminds, by Gordon Korman. Middle grade adventure. As usual, Gordon Korman delivers a fast-paced, well-crafted adventure full of creative twists and surprises. Eli lives in Serenity, New Mexico, which is so perfect it seems too good to be true. Everybody has a nice house. The schools are great. There is zero crime and zero unemployment. Eli has never left his hometown, but one day he discovers something that shakes his world. Serenity is not what it seems. He and his friends can’t trust anyone – not their neighbors, definitely not their parents. This perfect little world hides a dark secret linked to some of the world’s most infamous criminal masterminds. Hooked yet? You should be! This is a perfect summer read for mystery and adventure lovers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Lightning Thief 10th Anniversary Edition

I can't believe it's been ten years since The Lightning Thief was first published! In celebration, Barnes & Noble is offering a special exclusive hardcover edition of the book. I just got my copy, and here's a little tour of what's inside:

The cover features John Rocco's new series artwork and a title bar in shiny silver. Artemis approves of this color choice.

The endpapers of the book, front and back, feature all the different international cover art for The Lightning Thief, including some I'd never seen before!

You get two maps inside -- one of Camp Half-Blood, one of the Underworld.

The book is filled with words! Really cool words! Also, at the end are a bunch of exclusive behind-the-scenes tidbits from my personal archives, including my original outline for the book and a cover letter I used when I submitted the manuscript to agents for publication. (Using a pseudonym.)

John Rocco tells how he illustrated The Lightning Thief cover, which is a fascinating story in itself! You'll get to see an early black and white version of the cover art (on the following page) which I myself had never seen before!

All this and more in the 10th anniversary Lightning Thief, available only from Barnes & Noble. And thank you to my readers for ten wonderful years of sharing stories with you. It's been a blast, and I'm not done yet!

Percy Jackson's Greek Heroes arrives August 18. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Book One: The Sword of Summer arrives in October!

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Crown of Ptolemy

The House of Hades U.S. paperback edition is available as of Tuesday, March 30, and it includes the new Percy Jackson/Kane Chronicles short story "The Crown of Ptolemy," narrated from Percy's point of view. If you are waiting for the e-edition, that will be released later in the spring. Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Rick's Recent Reads for February

A quick break from shoveling snow (and writing) to tell you what I've been reading. It's quite a mix of titles.

Adult historical fiction. (Very adult) After enjoying Faber's most recent novel, The Book of Strange New Things, I decided to try this -- his earlier novel set in 1870s England. I have to admire someone who can evoke science fiction worlds and Victorian London with equal aplomb. The surety with which Faber resurrects the world of the 1870s is astounding. You will feel like you are there -- gritty streets, coal-blackened slums, high society balls and all. This is basically the story of a young prostitute Sugar and how an encounter with the young heir of a perfume empire changes both their lives in unexpected ways. The story is Dickensian in its scope and its deft juggling of many colorful characters, but its narrative sensibility is modern. The unnamed narrator speaks directly to the reader in second person at the beginning, and at the end . . . well, the ending is infuriatingly open-ended (Something I have been accused of myself) but after reflection, I've come to appreciate why the author chose to end the story as he did. It's definitely a tale that will stay with you long after you finish.

Adult urban fantasy/cyberpunk. I picked this up because I loved the Ms. Marvel comics written by G. Willow Wilson, and while this is very, very different stuff, it was a fabulous read. Somehow I went into this thinking it was a middle grade or young adult novel. It's not. The content is quite dark and adult. It's the story of a twenty-something hacker living in an Arabic city state simply called The City. Alif is secretly in love with the daughter of a high-ranking family, and (SPOILER) when she becomes engaged to a government official -- an official who is in charge of finding hackers like Alif, things become very complicated. (END SPOILER.) That in itself would be an intriguing story, but Wilson also blends in the world of the fire spirit jinn, mixing computer magic with ancient magic. Alif finds himself in possession of an ancient book that may be the secret to reprogramming the entire world. His enemies, both human and jinn, will do anything to obtain it. It's rare to find a novel set in the Middle East that is both accessible to a Western audience and sympathetically well-informed. The City is beautifully evoked. The descriptions of life in a dictatorial society are grimly and unflinchingly portrayed. You see both the beauty of Islamic society and folklore, and the desperate, fearful, and claustrophobic conditions in which the citizens of The City live. If you're looking for an adventure unlike anything you've probably read, give this a try!

Adult contemporary fiction. The Goldfinch was the book to read last year, so I didn't read it. Happily I corrected that over the last few weeks! It's the story of young Theo whose mother dies in a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the ensuing chaos, Theo escapes with his mother's favorite painting, The Goldfinch, a priceless Dutch masterpiece that becomes Theo's secret treasure and also the albatross around his neck. The story follows Theo into adulthood, through a series of tragedies and misadventures, until at last, he must face the music in regards to the missing painting. The novel is part coming-of-age story, part mystery, part rumination on the value of a human life versus the value of art. The writing is evocative yet accessible. The characters are wonderfully evoked. Tartt knows how to keep readers engaged with a compelling plot, yet the story is about much more than what happens to Theo and the painting. It's about loss and grief and loyalty. It's a remarkable read. I almost had to stop reading the book when Theo's ne'er-do-well father came on the scene because he was such an ass I wanted to strangle him, but later in the book, Tartt made even that character seem understandable, if not sympathetic. And Boris . . . what a creation! If nothing else, read this book to meet Boris.

Middle grade/young adult graphic novel. In comic book form, Cece Bell tells the story of a young girl (rabbit?) growing up with a severe hearing impairment. She does a great job tackling the subject with humor and pathos, letting us see the world through the narrator's eyes (and hear through her super Phonic Ear). Along the way, we meet pushy friends, clueless peers, helpful teachers, not-so-helpful siblings, and a whole cast of other characters that any kid can relate to. A great novel for raising awareness and promoting understanding, because not everyone hears the world the same way, whether we have a super-powerful Phonic Ear or not!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Throwback Tuesday: A Post from 2006

Once in a while, I like to visit the blog archive and bring back a post from years ago. Here's one from 2006 when my son Patrick was in second grade and was just becoming aware of the Newbery Award and what it meant for his reading assignments. He was . . . less than impressed. Re-reading the article now, I don't think I'd change much. Certainly my approach to writing hasn't change, and it's worked out pretty well for me. Having said that, in the past eight years I have noticed an uptick in the number of Newbery titles I would actually recommend to young readers. Maybe that's a sea change. Maybe it's an anomaly. Either way, I consider it good news!

Originally posted Friday, August 18, 2006
Patrick’s Summer Reading Blues 

My younger son Patrick went back to school this week. He was not exactly thrilled, but he’s a good student and does well once he gets back into the classroom. His one big gripe: the summer reading assignment.

I’m sure many parents are familiar with the dreaded summer reading assignment. This year, Patrick was asked to read six free choice books (This part was easy; He likes the Magic Treehouse series) and one required book, Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. Ginger Pye was . . . problematic.

Patrick found the book extremely slow and hard to relate to. After many nights of struggling, we finally special ordered the audio version and used that to supplement his reading. This was better, but still the book was not a great experience for him. Patrick is eight years old, and he has already started forming opinions about school and reading: School is boring. They make you do things that don’t matter. Reading is boring. The books aren’t fun and they don’t mean anything to him.

As a teacher and writer, I have a lot of trouble hearing him talk this way. Unfortunately, after struggling through Ginger Pye with him, I am hard-pressed not to think the kid has a point. I tried reminding him that some books are great. I write books, after all, so he should love reading. Books pay for his tuition! But Patrick just shrugged. He bases his opinion on what he is required to do: read Ginger Pye.

The day before school started, we lost the book. Perhaps Patrick threw it away, as he had been threatening to do all summer. I don’t know. At any rate, we had to drive to the bookstore to buy another. I called in advance to make sure the store had copies. They did. They always keep Newbery titles in stock. As we were checking out, the clerk raised her eyebrows and said, “That’s an old one, isn’t it?” True, the book was published in 1952. But hey: It’s a Newbery title, so here it is, still being read fifty-four years later.

On the way home, Patrick took the book out of the bag and looked at it. He grumbled for a while about how much he wished he could burn it. Then he said, “What’s this thing on the cover?”

I glanced back. “That’s the Newbery Award medal.”

“What’s it mean?”

“Well, it means a group of librarians voted it the best book for children the year it came out.”

Patrick looked stunned, then appalled. Then he rolled his eyes dramatically, and with as much eight-year-old contempt as he could muster, he said, “Librarians!”

I tried to explain that the Newbery is supposed to honor quality literature, books that really make kids think, not necessarily the books that are the most fun to read. I told him Ginger Pye might have been more accessible back when it was published. Patrick was having none of it.

“Adults may like it,” he said firmly. “Kids don’t.”

And I think Patrick put his finger on a problem that still troubles the world of children’s literature. What kids read is dictated by adults – from the writers and editors to the booksellers and librarians. We are all well-intentioned. We do our best to decide what will be good reading for children, but sometimes we pick what we think kids should like, not what they do like. And when we don’t promote books children actually want to read, what happens? We produce generation after generation of nonreaders.

Now I’m not blaming the Newbery Award for our barely literate society. Some Newbery books are absolutely stunning. But you’ll excuse me if I say, having taught English for fifteen years, that very few Newbery titles are . . . er . . . crowd-pleasers. Try as I might, my students quickly learned to steer away from Newbery titles when they were given a reading list to choose from. Why? That little gold sticker, in their minds, had come to mean “BORING.” Those were the required books, the ones you only read if you had to.

I sometimes wonder what the Newbery committee envisions when they choose their books. I imagine they picture a solitary book-loving child, curled up in a library chair by a window on a rainy day, happily absorbed in a thought-provoking novel. I doubt they picture a classroom full of twenty to thirty reluctant readers, forced to study the novel because it’s “on the list,” even if the novel was published twenty, thirty, or fifty-four years ago. Unfortunately, in promoting quality children’s literature, the Newbery too often forgets the word “children.” We use these books as our canon of must-read titles. These are recommended. They must be safe. They must be quality. The parents certainly cannot complain if a book has that little golden sticker. And in using these books over and over for decades, we end up convincing kids of what they already suspected: Reading is boring. Reading is hard, and it doesn’t apply to their lives. I doubt this is what any librarian would want, but all too often that’s exactly what happens. Ask the parents in Patrick’s class who were grumbling about Ginger Pye at the pool party. Ask Patrick. And please God, grant me the wisdom to remember that I am writing for children, not golden stickers. If children don’t enjoy my books, I haven’t done my job.

Follow-up, originally posted Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Newbery Post 

I’ve gotten more emails about my previous post, Patrick’s Summer Reading Blues, than any post I’ve ever done. It seems I touched a nerve! The responses ranged from “You’re being too harsh on Newbery books” to “I can’t believe you had the courage to say something about the Newbery. Thank you!” Several simply said, “Amen!”

I try not to rant too much. Honest! Doubtless the post was fueled by my frustration as a parent who wants his child to love reading. This was compounded by my years in the classroom and my experience with some (not all) Newbery titles.

When it comes to children’s literature, I tend to be a populist. My primary concern is youth literacy. What will appeal to the most children? What will get them reading? What will inspire them to pick up more books? A book that can do this is, to me, a “best book” for children. If the book has levels of meaning, beautiful writing, great characters, a haunting story – that’s all wonderful and important. But will children enjoy it? Will they stick with it long enough to recognize those literary merits adults care so much about? If the answer to these questions is no, then I have a problem with that book.

I remember reading some decidedly mixed on-line reviews of a recent Newbery winner. Many of the book’s most ardent supporters said something like this, “This book has great literary merit. While it’s true children may not like it, older teens and adults will love it, and –” At which point I thought: Whoa, wait a minute. Children won’t like it, but you’re arguing that it deserved to win a children’s book award? What is wrong with this picture? Hopefully, the book’s supporters were as off-base as the book’s detractors. Hopefully some children will like it. But perhaps this particular Newbery title is not the sort of book that should be made required reading for all students. Unfortunately, since the Newbery is the “gold standard” of children’s literature, this is often what happens. Perhaps, you may say, the problem then is not the award books, but how we use the award books in the classroom. I would not disagree with that. But how do we change this? How do we change the conception that the only books worth reading, the only ones worthy of prestigious attention, are the hard ones very few children like? To paraphrase Mark Twain, “literature is the books everyone agrees are great, but no one has read.”

Since I left the classroom, I’ve been a volunteer reading tutor at a local elementary school, working one-on-one with at-risk second graders who are struggling with reading. In a way, this has brought me full-circle, since I began my teaching career working in public schools in the poorer districts of San Antonio. I’ve spent about half my career in public schools, half my career in private. I’ve seen a huge range of student ability. As I do school author visits, I go everywhere in the country. I do presentations for Title I schools struggling with teen parents and gangs and extreme poverty. I do presentations for the most elite private schools in the country. When I think of children’s literature, I see the thousands of faces of all those children. I see my eight-year-old reading buddy at Cable Elementary. And of course, I see my own sons, both of them reluctant readers, despite what their dad does for a living. I care about books that will get them excited about reading – that will light up their faces and make them think, “Wow, reading can be fun after all!” To me, that’s a “best” book!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Rick's Reads in 2014

Okay, so I mentioned on Twitter that I'd read about thirty good books this year. The actual number is probably higher, but I went back and found some of the ones that really stood out. In case you're looking for a book to check out, these I can heartily recommend! Be aware, however, that I read a wide mix of books. Some are middle grade, some YA, some adult, some fiction and some nonfiction. All these books may not appeal to every reader. I'm sure I'm forgetting some . . . The ones at the beginning were posted on my blog with longer reviews. The ones at the bottom were every bit as good -- I just didn't have time to do lengthy reviews on them.

Also, be aware that this isn't every book I read. I make a point not to review books that I didn't like, couldn't finish, or simply found 'meh.' If you can't say anything nice . . . well, pick another book!

It's been a long time since a book has made me teary-eyed, but Gracefully Grayson had me sniffling at the end. The story is beautiful and authentic. To say it is the tale of a young transgender person coming of age and finding his (her) identity misses the larger picture. This is a book about how we treat each other as human beings -- whether we choose compassion or mistrust, kindness or ostracism. Most of all, it's a story of courage. Grayson is a sixth grader who has always felt different and alone. His parents died when he was young. He hasn't eaten in the lunchroom with his peers since second grade. When he looks in the mirror, his reflection does not match what he feels inside. Secretly, he imagines his over-sized shirts are dresses and his workout pants are long skirts. He wishes more than anything that he could be who he really is on the outside as well as the inside. When the school play comes around, The Myth of Persephone, Grayson tries out for the lead female role of Persephone, causing a storm of reaction that will affect everyone in his life. I know the character of Grayson. I have taught Grayson in my own classroom. His struggle and his bravery are portrayed with great love and insight. I'm grateful this book exists -- not just for transgender youth, but for all young readers who are searching for their own identity and their own voice in the face of societal pressures.

Caleana Sardothien, young woman assassin, is betrayed and sentenced to the salt mines of Endovier. After a year, however, she is given an opportunity: If she wins a contest to become the king's champion, she will be granted a four-year contract, working as an assassin for the empire she hates, at the end of which time she will be freed. After reading the premise of the book, I thought, "Sign me up!" After the first chapter, I knew I was in good hands. This book has plenty of mystery, magic, humor and romance -- a perfect brew for fans of good YA fantasy. If you liked Graceling, Grave Mercy, Shadow and Bone or other fantasies featuring strong female protagonists with scary good skills, I think you'll enjoy this quite a lot. And it's the first of a series!

An adult sci fi novel with an intriguing premise: Mankind has reached its first extraterrestrial world, Oasis, and the giant corporation USIC is working hard to build a colony there while economic and climatic conditions on earth continue to deteriorate. There's one hitch to their plans: the natives of Oasis want a preacher. They've had a limited introduction to the Christian faith, but after their first human pastor mysteriously goes missing, they refuse to provide food to the human settlers until a new preacher arrives to replace him. Peter Leigh steps up to take the job, leaving behind his wife Bea in England to become an interstellar missionary. When Peter gets to Oasis, we know something is not right. Why have two colonists disappeared? Why are the natives so intent on learning about the Christian gospel? And why is USIC censoring news and correspondence between Earth and Oasis? As Peter and Bea write back and forth to one another, sharing what is happening on the two planets, the story becomes both painful and compelling. And when you find out the answers to some of the novel's central mysteries . . . Well, I won't give anything away, but the answers pack a punch.

An awesome comic book debut -- Ms. Marvel introduces Kamala Khan, your typical 16-year-old Muslim Pakistani-American girl from Jersey City, who is endowed with the power to change her form and size. The writing in this series is so good -- punchy, funny, believable and fresh, and Kamala's daily-life struggles dovetail wonderfully (and sometimes hilariously) with the exploits of her secret alter ego. If you like the Marvel universe and are looking to check out some original new superheroes, I highly recommend Ms. Marvel.

King of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence
I think this is my favorite book in an excellent trilogy, because the odds are so severely against our anti-hero Jorg. The stakes are high and the plot twists are perfect. Having killed his uncle and secured a small kingdom in the mountains, young Jorg now faces a powerful, charismatic enemy – the Prince of Arrow – who seems destined to unite the Broken Empire. The action jumps back in forth in time, from the siege of Jorg’s capital to several years before, showing us how Jorg traveled the empire and gathered his resources to fight a seemingly impossible battle. We also see part of the story from the viewpoint of Katherine, the woman Jorg wants more than anyone, and the woman he is destined not to have. Though Jorg continues to be the most Machiavellian of protagonists, not hesitating to kill, maim or destroy if it serves his goals, we come to understand him more in this book, and it is impossible not to cheer for him. He is a refreshing, brutal wind, blowing away all the romantic trappings of high fantasy – chivalry, honor, good versus evil, and faith in a higher cause. Sometimes, when you see that white knight riding by with his armor gleaming and his smile flashing, you just want to pull him off his horse and punch him in the face for being too perfect. If you’ve ever had that feeling, Jorg is your man.
Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence.

A wonderful, surprising, and worthy ending to the Thorns trilogy. If you’ve followed Jorg Ancrath through the first two books, it shouldn’t shock you that Jorg does not give you the ending you might expect, but it’s an ending that makes perfect sense. As with the past two volumes, this book jumps around in time, from Jorg’s journey to the seat of the empire to vote for a new emperor, back to his earlier journeys through Hispania and Afrique in search of power and answers. Looming on the horizon is the Dead King, a mysterious force who has raised armies of the dead and bent powerful necromancers to his will. Eventually, Jorg will have to face both the Dead King and the other players in the internal struggle for the throne of the empire. How he manages this . . . well, let’s say he employs his typical Jorgian style and panache. There will be blood. It was hard to say goodbye to Jorg and his story, but I’m anxious to read Lawrence’s future books set in the Broken Empire. Highly recommended.
The Twelve, by Justin Cronin.
Cronin’s first book in this trilogy, The Passage, received a lot of buzz. The Twelve is the second. The trilogy tells the story of an engineered virus that creates a race of vampires – “Virals” – which almost wipe out humanity. The writing is strong, the characters are sympathetic, the post-apocalyptic world Cronin describes is terrifying and believable. The reader does have to have some patience, as Cronin tells the story in several parts that at first seem only loosely connected. Just when you are completely riveted in the story of the outbreak, he flashes forward seventy-nine years, where you have to learn to care about a whole new set of characters in an entirely different situation. If you can stick with it, though, the parts do create a satisfying coherent whole. I had a little trouble getting into the rhythm with The Passage, but found The Twelve a quick, compelling read, since I was now accustomed to Cronin’s narrative structure. I will certainly be anxious to see how he wraps up his trilogy in the third volume, due out later this year. If you like Stephen King’s The Stand, check out this series.
The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare. 
Okay, so I’m far behind the curve on reading this, but I very much enjoyed my introduction to the world of nephilim, Shadowhunters and demons. Clare constructed a vivid, believable parallel world with great characters, punchy dialogue, and a winning mix of humor, pathos and action. I like her take on warlocks, vampires, and werewolves, and of course I’m a big fan or urban fantasy, where these fantastic elements mix into the regular gritty city life of New York. Clary Fray is a sympathetic protagonist, though I was equally drawn to the supporting cast. I especially like that the villains are believably three-dimensional. Even when you do not support them, you understand what motivates them. There is no easy black and white, good and evil dichotomy. I’ll be interested in seeing where the series goes from here, and what Clare does with her Victorian prequel series The Infernal Devices.
Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie. 
I’m a big fan of Abercrombie's stark gritty fantasy books for grown-ups. His fiction pulls no punches and takes no prisoners (unless those prisoners are later tortured and executed). So I was curious to see how he would approach the world of young adult fiction in Half a King. The answer: brilliantly. Abercrombie creates a fantasy world that is somewhat neo-Viking, set around the Shattered Sea (the Baltic and North Atlantic?) ages after the elves (21st Century man?) shattered god (Blew everything up?) and disappeared. Our protagonist, Yarvi the youngest son of the king of Gettland, was born with a deformed hand in a world that values only able-bodied warriors. He is prepared to spend his life in the Ministry, as a sort of combination priest/physician/royal advisor, but his plans are upended when his father and older brother are both killed in an ambush. Suddenly Yarvi must be king and avenge his family, but very few Gettlanders are prepared to have ‘half a king’ – a weakling with only one good hand. Without giving any spoilers, I can tell you that Yarvi will have to endure many hardships and many adventures before he can find his true destiny. As in all Abercrombie’s books, friends turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be friends; the line between good and evil is murky indeed; and nothing goes quite as we expect. Abercrombie also throws in his trademark dark humor and got me to laugh even during some grim scenes. With eye-popping plot twists and rollicking good action, Half a King is definitely a full adventure. I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy of the book. When it’s published in July, be sure to check it out!
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. 
Another great fantasy, this novel follows a talented rogue and conman, Locke Lamora, through his adventures in Camorr, a city loosely patterned after Venice, but set in a world where humans have built their society over the ruins of a much older race called the Eldren. Locke rises from an orphaned beggar to become one of the most wanted thieves in the city, and along the way makes some enemies in very high places – the Duke’s head of secret police, ‘the Spider,’ the capa of the city’s underworld (who doesn’t approve of targeting the city’s nobles) and a new player in town, the Gray King, who has his own deadly agenda, along with some unbeatable magic backup. Lynch’s world is so vivid and fully formed that the reader feels as if he’s been dropped into the crowded bazaar in an exotic city and left to find his way out. At first, this can be overwhelming. Everything is different: the days of the week, the gods, the geography, the slang. On top of this, Lynch jumps back and forth in time from Locke Lamora’s past to his present. I confess I got bogged down at the beginning and had to come back to this book several months later. But if you keep going, the payoff is well worth the effort. Give it a hundred pages, and you’ll be hooked. If you like intelligent funny dialogue, clever protagonists facing equally clever antagonists, and vivid original world building, Scott Lynch is your guy. When I got to the end, I immediately ordered the next two books in this series. 

Looking for a good middle-grade adventure this summer for you and your kids? LOOT by Jude Watson should be at the top of your list. Jude knows this territory well. Not only does she write beautiful prose worthy of the National Book Award (which she won, writing as Judy Blundell). She also understand what kids want in a fast-paced action story. She has written numerous novels set in the Star Wars universe, and is also a veteran of the 39 Clues, which I was lucky enough to be part of.

Still, none of that prepared me for the fantastic thrill ride of LOOT.

Imagine your dad is the world's most notorious jewel thief, Alfie McQuin. You live on the run, traveling from heist to heist, never attending school but learning all sorts of other skills -- how to bluff at poker, how to blend into crowds, how to con someone out of their money, how to pick any lock. Sound fun?

That's life for twelve-year-old March McQuin, until one night in Amsterdam when his dad falls from a roof (or was he pushed?) and lies dying on the cobblestones at March's feet. Alfie's last words seem to be a riddle: "Wait one month. Find jewels. Follow falls to day. No!"

Soon March is plunged into a dangerous search to find out what his dad was up to, and who might have killed him. He is reunited with a twin sister -- Jules, not jewels! -- whom he never knew he had. Together they race to find the secrets of Alfie McQuin's biggest, unfinished heist, but they're pursued by a crooked cop, a sinister old heiress, and many others who will do anything to stop them. Who can they trust? Can they even trust each other? The stakes are clear: If they succeed, they'll be set for life. If they fail, they'll be dead.

So many things I love about this book: the ultra-short chapters that keep you turning pages, the pitch-perfect dialogue, the supporting characters Darius and Izzy, the humor, the action, the twists and turns. Cursed jewels, a dangerous prophecy, a crash course in the history of thievery, acrobatics and grift . . . this is LOOT you can take to the bank. It's the perfect summer read for kids (or adults who like kids' books!).
Also read and loved in 2014:  Abaddon's Gate, by James S.A. Corey. Third volume in a great space opera sci fi series. The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson. Jack the Ripper has returned to modern London, or has he? YA supernatural sci fi with a wonderful cast of characters. Sisters' Brothers, by Patrick de Witt, a Western, which I don't read very often, but this is the best one I've encountered since True Grit. Eoin Colfer recommended this one to me, and he was right on the money. Two assassins make their way through the Wild West on a job that goes horribly and hilariously wrong. Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer. I remember this book being on my grandfather's bookshelf. It's the first real blockbuster attempt to tell the story of Hitler's Germany by an American author who lived in Germany at the time and watched the rise of Nazism. Some elements of the narrative seem dated now, but the firsthand account is compelling and terrifying. Not an easy read or a short read, but definitely a book I had on my bucket list, now checked off!'s Attic, by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman. Top notch middle grade fantasy adventure with a whacky sense of humor -- a definite pageturner. Fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Heather. I wouldn't recommend this for the casual reader looking for an easy introduction. The information is dense and the canvas is huge, but it presents a wonderful picture of how Rome fell, the story woven from all the available sources from an age where documentation is scanty. Blood We Live, by Glen Duncan. The third volume in a knockout amazing series about werewolves and vampires. This is a definite *adult* fantasy, tons of violence and sex, but written in beautiful prose. The first volume is The Last Werewolf. I went on a Nesbo kick during 2014 and read The Bat, The Redbreast, Nemesis and The Leopard. This is bleak stuff, Norwegian police thrillers, but I found them strangely addicting. The School of Good and Evil, Soman Chainani, A middle grade/YA fantasy that re-imagines the world of fairy tales and will make you question who is the good princess and who is the evil witch. Loved it! Young Elites, by Marie Lu. YA fantasy. The X-Men meet the Spanish Inquisition is the best way I can describe this book. After a plague sweeps through the world (which resembles Renaissance Europe but with different gods and cultures) some surviving children develop strange and amazing powers, but these children are quickly ostracized and hunted down. A fascinating, highly original premise. Be warned: some pretty dark stuff happens to the characters, but the narrative is compelling.

And of course I re-read the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and many other books on Norse mythology getting ready for Magnus Chase . . .

Friday, December 05, 2014

A Night at the Museum (Hey, That Sounds Familiar)

We got to go to the tree lightning ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum last night. Ironically, I took no pictures of the tree, but we did have fun exploring the place at night, when it is almost empty.

The Greek and Roman collection at night -- creepy and cool! I can imagine the conversations these statues have when no one is around.

Apollo: My arm is so tired. Why am I pointing? Two thousand years and I don't even know what I'm pointing at.
Daphne: Stop complaining! At least you've still got arms!
Apollo: Arms to hug you with, baby.
Daphne: OMG. Can I please be moved to another room?

A super-sized McShizzle of a Greek vase. The bottom row of figures shows the Greeks fighting the Amazons. The middle row shows the gods, who are apparently body-surfing over the battle. Those Olympians have a strange idea of fun.

This vase appears to show a servant bringing her mistress an early model of laptop computer. Judging from its size and clunky appearance, I'm guessing it is a first-generation Microsoft Surface. (Okay, no, Actually, it's a jewelry box.) Note the lions at their feet. Because domestic house lions were totally a thing back then.

This is me with a column from the temple of Artemis. That's just one column. It's as big as a redwood trunk. I would hate to see the front door.

Heracles looking dapper in his Nemean lion hood. See, he wasn't always going for the lumberjack look. Sometimes he actually shaved.

This is from Renaissance France. Somebody had extra time on their hands, so they figured, "Oh, I will just paint all twelve labors of Hercules . . . on a CANDLESTICK." Done by hand, in super-miniature, this must have taken forever.

Candlestick Hercules fighting the Candlestick Hydra. On the right, he appears to be riding the Nemean lion piggyback style, naked, of course, because that is the correct way to fight dangerous monsters.

Hercules wrestles the Candlestick Ceryneian Hind. Again, fighting a monster with long pointy antlers while wearing no clothes. What could possibly go wrong?

Found this creepy dude carved on the side of a medieval chest. What the Hades? Those medieval guys had a twisted imagination. I like it!

A medieval saint, Margaret of Antioch. I'd never heard this story, but those saints were basically the demigods/mythological heroes of the Middle Ages. This lady was swallowed whole by a dragon, but she made the sign of the cross with some serious Jedi light saber moves and burst out of the dragon's body unharmed. She then became the patron saint of pregnant women and all characters from the Alien movie franchise.

A centaur on a medieval column. See? Those guys stuck around for centuries. This pony looks like he might have been partying too much. "I will shoot you with this bow . . . *hick* . . . just hold still."

Another medieval column, showing Samson wrestling a lion, which does not at all resemble Hercules wrestling a lion.

All in all, a good trip! Every time I go, I find more cool stuff. If you get a chance to visit the Met, you should! See if you can find some of the stuff I saw. :D