Monday, July 30, 2012

Beddor Curley England Englehart Wilson

The Looking Glass Wars
by Frank Beddor
Recommended Ages: 13+

The first time I started to read this book, I didn't get past the prologue. What turned me off wasn't the fact that it built on the fantasy world created by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) in his classic Alice in Wonderland. I'm all for "further tales" of already-established, richly imagined fantasy worlds. I'm not even upset by the fact that the author put a fresh twist on Carroll's Wonderland. I expect some degree of originality, even to the extent of totally reimagining the concept. Where I think Frank Beddor crossed the line was in casting Dodgson as a dissembling fool, if not indeed a creep, who betrayed Alice's confidences, bowdlerized her true reminiscences, and got Wonderland all wrong. It is, after all, his (Dodgson's) creation, and we owe him so much for it. And frankly, I was offended by Beddor's central conceit that Wonderland, as we know and love it, was a deliberate and cynical distortion of something wilder and better.

I doubt I would have taken umbrage at this idea had the wonderland in question been any other than the Wonderland. The idea could have been (and, I later decided after finally finishing the book, really was) most compelling in its way; but by changing it to a fictional author's fantasy classic, Beddor could have avoided cutting the throat of a sacred cow right on Page One. Even a thinly veiled disguise might have sufficed. But borrowing the fruit of another author's imagination, only to attack him personally along with the rightness of what he wrote, is beyond bad manners. It is Not Done.

Nevertheless, I gave this book a second chance when an audiobook edition of it practically fell into my hands. In the daily discomfort of my car, one hour going to work and another coming home, I was a captive audience. And in fairness to Beddor's storytelling, once I got past the prologue (which ticked me off again), I found his take on the tale quite compelling. You see, Alice doesn't really get to Wonderland by falling down a rabbit's hole. She is actually a princess of Wonderland by birth, she has power as limitless as her own fertile imagination, and her name is Alyss. She only ends up in England when her evil Aunt Redd escapes from exile, murders her parents, and turns the happy queendom into a reign of terror.

Traveling through the lake of tears, which bridges the gap between our world and Wonderland, Alyss finds herself in Victorian England. She ekes out a living as a street urchin while her powers of imagination last. Then she goes to an orphanage and, thanks to her beauty, is lucky enough to be adopted by an Oxford don and his prim wife. The Liddell family (sounds like "little") have a hard time of it at first, but after Alyss (now Alice) recovers from the appalling results of Mr. Dodgson's interest in her, they finally manage to iron all the imagination out of her. She becomes such a charming young lady that a bona fide prince asks for her hand in marriage.

But all this time, back in Wonderland, a resistance movement has been fighting, and slowly losing, a civil war with the forces of Her Imperial Viciousness, Queen Redd. Though they don't know their princess survived, they call themselves the Alyssians. And just when Alice/Alyss is on the point of tying the knot with Prince Leopold, she gets pulled back into the conflict and, in a whirlwind of discoveries and reunions, must decide whether she will challenge Redd for the throne. And whether she can.

Space does not permit me to list even a fraction of the strange and exciting people and things Alyss and her Wonderlanders see and do. There's traveling through the network of mirrors. There's the shape-shifting assassin with nine lives. There's the general who, when stressed, splits into two identical people (and sometimes splits again). There's Hatter Madigan, head of an order of spies whimsically known as the Millinery, whose cloak and top-hat conceal whirring blades and razor-sharp boomerangs. There's Bibwitt Hare, an albino with huge sensitive ears. And there's a boy whose friendship represents all that matters to Alyss, and whose anger threatens it.

Far faster-paced and action-oriented than Carroll's original tale, this fantasy entertainment offers attractions for an older set of readers. It has romnace, horror, a bit of gore, a touch of social criticism (or, at least, a more Dickensian view of the 19th century), some technological upgrades to Carroll's card soldiers which make them considerably fiercer, and a story of tragedy and redemption. It invites the reader to contemplate the power of imagination and the responsibility that comes with it. With the reservations I have already stated, it could be the beginning of a new classic fantasy saga. And it already has a sequel: Seeing Redd.

The Dark
by Marianne Curley
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this second book of the "Guardians of Time" trilogy, the villainous Marduke has returned from the dead, even more twisted and deformed than before. The evil immortal Lathenia, goddess of chaos, and her Order (of Disorder) continue to meddle with history in the hope of changing the future into an age of misrule.

In the meantime, the Guard that tirelessly works to frustrate her plans faces frustrations of its own. As Lathenia racks up one timeline-altering victory after another, the prophecy that the Guard will defeat her begins to change in her favor. Ethan, a gifted young guardsman who just earned his wings, is preoccupied by a concern that his troubled mother may attempt suicide. Matt, Ethan's apprentice and supposedly destined leader of the Guard, has yet to come into his powers and grows more frustrated and uncertain each day. And Matt's sister Isabel, whose healing power and psychic visions make her critically important to the Guard, will risk the wrath of an immortal being to search the underworld for her soulmate Arkarian, who has been taken prisoner by the forces of chaos.

More seriously, Isabel will risk her life and the lives of Ethan and Matt, who go with her into a realm of horror from which they might not return. Without them, the Guard will lose more and more ground to the Order in their battle over time. And what do they have working for them? Besides Isabel's healing powers, they have Ethan's ability to create totally convincing illusions, such as a boat you can actually row across a river; the advice of a winged, pig-snouted, implike creature who has offered them his dubious loyalty; the desperation of a ghostly little girl to get in touch with her loved ones; the defection of one of Lathenia's minions, who also turns out to be a surprise traitor to the good guys (though not a very big surprise); and secrets and powers that Matt and Arkarian don't even know they have—while the latter, gravely wounded, is running out of time.

What lifts this series above the ho-hum teen-angst-laden fantasy adventure? To be sure, it offers plenty in the angsty teen department, including a creeping suspicion that a whole bunch of characters will be paired up as "soul mates." But it also has some spectacular images and weird hazards, such as a gigantic eight-sided pyramid of colored glass, a magical tunnel that forces you to face your deepest secret, and a lake of frozen acid that bursts into flame everywhere you step on it. Also there are time-diving expeditions into medieval France and ancient Rome, and a high school history classroom used as a litmus test to measure how the war to protect the timeline is going. (Hint: As the dress code goes, so goes civilization.) It's not high literature. It's not even high fantasy. But it may give teen bookworms a bit more than the average showcase for the words "I would have ruled the world if it hadn't been for you meddling kids!" The other two books in Australian author Curley's popular trilogy are The Named and The Key.

Favorite Operas by Italian and French Composers
by Paul England
Recommended Ages: 12+

This book reproduces a portion of the 1929 book Fifty Favorite Operas, the other part of which was reprinted as Favorite Operas by German and Russian Composers. And although it is no more visually attractive or attuned to contemporary culture than the average facsimile edition of a pre-World-War-II book about opera, I cannot recommended it highly enough. In fact, reading this book filled my head with thrilling ideas about how it could be updated, or at least expanded to include operas that have emerged as popular favorites and revered art-works since 1929. Or maybe a children's edition could be published, featuring pictures from great productions, sound samples of musical highlights, and a more storybook-like synopsis.

But for now, all that is small potatoes. As it stands, this is the book you have always needed in order to understand opera—even if you were afraid to start experiencing it because of all the barriers of technical, historical, and linguistic knowledge you must first surmount. This is the book that makes 29 operatic masterpieces make sense to a musical layman, with just enough non-technical description to help you understand why they are masterpieces, how to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and what to look for in a great performance. This is the book that demystifies a cultural tradition that, for far too many people, has been enshrined in a remote realm of impenetrable mystery; that explains the stories and the characters in dramas and comedies that always used to come across as so much foreign caterwauling; that could make a form of entertainment that is now 400 years old come alive in your imagination as movingly, as romantically, as hilariously, and at times as horrifyingly as what you experience in the film and broadcast media of today—with the added attraction of a piece of musical genius as long as a regulation baseball game. This is the book that could prevent your first night at the opera from being confusing, agonizing, and your last; that could make it, rather, the beginning of a lifetime of pleasure that will fill your heart and stimulate your brain. In short, this is the book you were afraid did not exist (especially if you were in danger of having to go to an opera at some point); or that, if it did exist, would be too hard to read. But it does, and it isn't, and here it is!

Music critic Paul England is not always on target. To start with, some of the synopses aren't even by him. At times (particularly when writing on Bellini and Donizetti), he may seem to judge an opera unfairly, his hindsight colored by the later phenomena of Verdi and Wagner. And his opinion, like anyone's, is open to debate. After more than 80 years, it is very likely that some of the weaknesses he finds in the works of great composers like Verdi and Puccini are now accepted as beauty spots on their own terms. Perhaps some works that England dismisses as being of light interest, unlikely to survive in the repertoire, still remain perennial favorites, while others are staging a comeback. Perhaps England was too optimistic about an opera's chances for remaining a hot item, such the works by Meyerbeer and Charpentier represented in this book. But often, his assessment of an opera's greatness seems to steal the words out of the pen of today's program-notes writers. Or to put it the right way around, maybe they're stealing from him.

I am grateful to Paul England for crystallizing some of my own thoughts, and clarifying others, on such opera favorites as The Barber of Seville (Rossini), Rigoletto (Verdi), Carmen (Bizet), and La bohème (Puccini), among others. Thanks to recordings, I have heard many of the operas discussed in this book, in some cases many times over. Even so, I think I will appreciate them better the next time I hear them; and I plan to keep this book as a handy reference when a night at the theater beckons, or even a night by the hi-fi. I also look forward to reading what England and his contributors have to say about Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner in the volume on German and Russian composers. Bottom line: GET THIS BOOK, and claim your share in the fabulous cultural wealth in which opera is among the brightest jewels.

The Point Man
by Steve Englehart
Recommended Ages: 15+

The cover art of this book may lead one to expect a whimsical, comic-bookish fantasy in which a Vietnam war veteran turned disc jockey discovers a magical talent appropriate to someone who always volunteered to be "point man"—wherever he points his finger, magic happens. This mind trick is aided by the fact that author Englehart also wrote—besides a sequel to this book titled The Long Man—several well-received graphic novels, including the serial that inspired Tim Burton's movie Batman. A reader, like me, may make it all the way through the book before accepting the disappointing reality that the book's hero Max August (or, as he styles himself on the radio, Barnaby Wilde) never actually points his finger and shoots magic. Instead, he merely saves the free world from a Communist shaman's plot to subject it to the powers of Unbeing at the stroke of New Year 1981, San Francisco time.

Max's adventure isn't very lighthearted or whimsical, either. In fact, it is very grown-up, and may call for both an adult and an occult content advisory. Max starts to realize that he is in the middle of something big, hairy, and supernatural when he wakes up after a wild night of passion with his new boss, only to be attacked by an indoor storm cloud filled with eyes. Then a homicidal maniac takes a shot at him through the window of his studio. When he realizes that his boss/lover has also stolen an heirloom sculpture of a lion from his living room, Max starts to get really angry. He takes out some of his anger on a pop diva who has dropped by his studio for an on-air interview. But this proves to be a turning point, for Valerie Drake's mysterious agent is actually a 500-year-old wizard named Cornelius Agrippa.

Corny tries to prepare Max to understand what is going on. But it isn't until lightning fries one of his fans, and an FBI agent reveals that he has been targeted by the K.G.B.'s division of paranormal warfare, and a hitman gives him the fight of his life before killing himself in a freakishly gruesome way, that Max begins to accept that there are powers at work that he cannot explain. More surprisingly, when he tries to infiltrate the island hideout of the dark wizard who wants to end the world as we know it, Max survives capture, torture, and a long-winded, preposterous harangue, escaping with his sanity intact not because of his war experience, but because he, Max August, radio personality, is a wizard.

But it's not all hugs and Hogwarts from there on. The bad guys get Cornelius and turn him into a gibbering wreck. This leaves Max and Valerie with only a day or so to prepare for Armageddon at the Hyatt Regency, for which there is only one way to prepare: Sex Magick. Then it's a simple matter of stopping a ritual that will bring the world under darkness for a thousand years, trigger a force-10 earthquake that will cause California to sink into the Pacific, and turn the tide of the Cold War, at the crack between the years 1980 and '81. Fun times.

While it's always fun to read about people who know nothing about magic having to use it to save the world, I have to be honest about this book. I enjoyed large parts of it. But it did not really live up to my expectations. Some of it struck me as flat-out ludicrous; and given what I read most of the time, that's saying a lot. Other parts of it went in one eye and out the other, without calling up the usual imagery on my mind's movie screen, though I owe much of my love of reading to the fact that I can visualize almost everything I read.

Perhaps I am judging the book too harshly on the grounds that it is dated; perhaps at a later period, I could look back on a Cold War thriller with more sympathy toward the era it depicts. Or perhaps Steve Englehart's strange cocktail of ideological warfare, Vietnam flashbacks, music industry melodrama, and magic is simply a flavor too weird for my palate. Either way, I would recommend this book mainly to fans of Engelhart's comic-book creations and to readers who are game for a somewhat talky, slightly trashy, frankly bizarre take on magic set in the Bay Area in the final weeks of the Carter administration. As for me, I might read the sequel, just to see who wins the Cold War...

The Tomb
by F. Paul Wilson
Recommended Ages: 14+

A dear friend recommended this book to me, the first in the "Repairman Jack" series of horror/fantasy novels set in present-day New York. I dithered for a long time, though. One one hand, it looked like it might be cut out of the same cloth as the Dresden Files, and I wanted to get through as much of that series as possible before starting something new but similar. On the other hand, it looked like little more than the typical paperback thriller, of which I have forgotten nearly as many as I have read. Only one thing about this particular paperback raised an eyebrow: a glowing accolade by Stephen King, quoted on the front cover not as the author of The Stand or Carrie, but as the President of the Repairman Jack fan club. If Stephen King was the president of my fan club, I would have it made. But I guess, before that could happen, I would have to write a story as gripping and scary as this one.

Surprisingly enough, Repairman Jack turns out to be completely different from Harry Dresden. For one thing, he lives in New York (Manhattan to be exact), a city that comes to life in the imagination in a vividly colored (and scented), culturally vibrant, historically and geographically fascinating way that a certain midwestern city mostly known for its windiness just doesn't. Plus, he's not a wizard. He's just a repairman. He doesn't fix appliances, though; he fixes situations. Some of these situations require a rather brutal touch. Jack whatever-his-last-name-is is no stranger to violence. But until now, they haven't been paranormal situations. When magic and mythological monsters get mixed up with his career and his love life, Repairman Jack gets as freaked-out as you or I would be. The difference is his incredible toughness, bravery, and single-minded determination. When he sets his mind on getting something done, he gets it done. If it's impossible, maybe it takes a bit longer.

The first impossible thing Jack does in this book is to recover an heirloom necklace stolen from an old lady from India. By the time the woman's grandson—a one-armed, extremely Hindu character named Kusum—hires Jack to fetch it back, the silvery iron chain set with two yellow stones could be anywhere in the five boroughs. But Jack finds it well enough, and he teaches the mugger a lesson too. What he doesn't notice, however, is the nightmare out of Indian prehistory which climbs the wall of a hospital and snatches the mugger out of his room. This nightmare turns out to be a person-eating demon called a rakosh, which has been hatched for the very purpose of hunting down and destroying some of the most important people in Jack's life, simply because their ancestor did a bad, bad thing.

Karma sucks.

But then, so does getting on Repairman Jack's bad side. And when a cargo hold full of rakoshi target little Vicky, the daughter of the woman Jack loves, you almost feel sorry for them. But then you remember that they're terrifying monsters who, when they decide to kill you, usually manage it no matter how hard you kill them back. And that's where I'll leave you in this review, to decide for yourself whether you're up to a tale combining grisly claws, fiery explosions, sinister potions, and a hero whose strange and absorbing story ensure that his relationship with the strong-willed Gia will always be the most explosive thing in his life. In case you are, and you find this book as mindblowing as you might, wrap your mind around this: The Tomb is both the second book of six in "The Adversary Cycle" (each of which has a different protagonist) and the first of sixteen in the "Repairman Jack" series, both of which end with the same book! Of more immediate concern, most likely, is the fact that the second Repairman Jack book is titled Legacies.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Anderson Barron Curley LeGuin

The Pox Party
by M. T. Anderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

The full title of this 2006 National Book Award winner is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: the Pox Party. And before you ask, there is indeed a Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, published in 2008. Having read only a few of this author's books before this—including the campy Whales on Stilts—I wasn't expecting the emotional depth, the brutal realism, and the 18th-century prose stylings of this book.

It is a work of historical fiction set in the area around Boston in the years leading up to, and the early months of, the American Revolution. It is a hard-hitting indictment of slavery and that institution's role in the founding of our nation. It shows men and women, both black and white, ranging across the entire spectrum of attitudes about color and race, from the idealistic innocence of a continental soldier named Evidence to the reptilian cruelty of Mr. Sharpe. It portrays the period of the birth of the United States as a self-contradictory swirl of scientific discovery, social progress, mob violence, and inhuman cruelty, all driven by the self-interest of one group or another. It presents an eloquent viewpoint upon a struggle for independence driven by the sometimes paradoxical ideals of liberty and property—and the hypocrisy of a war for freedom in which slaves were forced to fight in place of their masters, often without any promise of living free afterward.

At the center of this story is a boy named Octavian, who is raised in luxury and given the finest education by the fellows of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Taught to read the classics in Greek and Latin, to play the violin with exquisite skill, and to consider himself an exiled prince by virtue of his elegant mother, Octavian does not at first realize that he is actually a slave. His African-born mother was already the bonded property of Mr. Josiah Gitney when Octavian was born, and now the boy (as he gradually learns) is the subject of an experiment. This accounts for why his upbringing, though lavish, is often also cruelly cold and lonely. Every detail of his growth and development, from the weight of his excrement to the progress of his studies, is measured and recorded in anticipation of a scholarly essay that will, one day, prove that the black man is just as capable of learning and refinement as the white.

But then the political scene shifts. Discontent with the tax-and-spend policies of the British crown brews and bubbles. A conflict approaches, in which the colonial governor will offer slaves their freedom if they betray their masters. Slave-owners, especially in the south, have a vested interest in proving that slavery is the rightful lot of black people. And for reasons I don't have space here to explain, the Novanglian College of Lucidity needs the support of those slave-owners. And so the nature of Octavian's experiment changes. His education comes under the management of a vile man named Mr. Sharpe. The care that used to be taken to teach the boy now seems devoted to keeping him from learning. Bluntly put, the game is rigged. Octavian is to be held up as proof of the inferiority of his race.

At the same time, as Mr. Gitney grows desperate to insulate his household slaves from the unrest and rumors of rebellion, he holds a "pox party" on the pretext of inoculating his servants and guests against smallpox. The outcome, tragic for Octavian personally, leads the boy to run and join the continental army, where his adventures among the early battles of the war are narrated by a fellow soldier in the form of letters to his sister—a passage of wry satire that spares not even the kindest of well-meaning people. What isn't told in Octavian's words is pieced together from the letters of other characters, and what isn't told at all can be inferred.

Octavian's recapture, extreme punishment, and second escape—this time with the connivance of one of his good-hearted tutors—exercise the reader, especially the youthful reader, in the art of picking a tale of horror, suffering, foreboding, and thrill out of old-fashioned lingo, classical references, enigmatic gaps, subtle ironies, and delicate circumlocutions. At the same time, the story is laced with grotesque surprises, graphic depictions of violence and filth, unexpected vulgarities, unapologetic passages of a very "adult" nature. Where his adventure ultimately takes Octavian, we can only tell by reading The Kingdom on the Waves. But it promises to be a dark and perilous journey, provoking serious thought about some less-than-savory details of American history. And we can also expect it to be a deeply stirring book of great literary value, more in keeping with the author of The Game of Sunken Places than Whales on Stilts.

The Merlin Effect
by T. A. Barron
Recommended Ages: 12+

They're an unlikely research team, messing with sensors and deep-sea submersibles off a treacherous stretch of Mexican coast. First there's teenaged Kate, who seems to have tagged along just for a chance to spend time with her historian father, only to spend most of the time paddling around in a kayak while Dad searches for the wreck of a Spanish treasure ship. What this has to do with his area of expertise (proving that Merlin was a historical person) is not immediately clear, but neither is the connection to a marine biologist studying the strange, evolutionary-throwback fish of the area, or to a geologist whose interest lies in the volcanic activity beneath the ocean floor. All they seem to have in common is an interest in studying what's going on under that particular patch of sea, and growing desperation as their permit from the Mexican government nears its expiration date.

Things start to change soon after Kate encounters a whale and a whirlpool during an almost fatal evening paddle in her kayak. Suddenly the evidence her father has been looking for—an underwater photo of the sunken ship Resurreccion—gives them a reason to take the submersible to the sea bottom, directly below the whirlpool. But due to a freak accident, it is Kate who gets there first, even without any diving gear or vessel. Surprisingly, she finds dry ground at the bottom of the 3,000-foot whirlpool, and on that ground a shipwreck, and in that shipwreck a 500-year-old monk named Geoffrey who has been kept alive by the power of the Horn of Merlin. Geoffrey tells Kate the whole story about the horn, its maker Emrys, the wizard Merlin, and how they are all connected to a kingdom beneath the waves and a power to give some type of immortality. Basically, if they don't recover a group of ancient, powerful artifacts before the sorceress Nimue does so, King Arthur will never be able to return and win the final battle.

And by the way, Nimue has Kate's Dad. The life or death of the entire research team now matters more than Kate ever realized, especially now that Terry (the geologist) turns out to be such a good friend. As for who Geoffrey turns out to be... Well, I can only spoil so many surprises before a book recommendation becomes a book autopsy. And I do recommend this book to readers of all ages who think they might be interested in a tale of danger and magic, of warmth and whimsy, of sea monsters and battles and myths and merpeople. I started this book by the author of The Lost Years of Merlin expecting something Diana-Wynne-Jonesesque, like perhaps The Merlin Conspiracy. Instead I was reminded more of the Merlin lore of T. H. White—or more precisely, Disney's rendition of The Sword in the Stone. I'm disappointed that there hasn't been a sequel to this book. However, it turns out to be the third book in a series of Kate's adventures, which also include Heartlight and The Ancient One.

The Named
by Marianne Curley
Recommended Ages: 14+

Ethan is like most teenaged superheroes. He keeps his true identity secret. He maintains the illusion of being an average high school student, except in history class, which he can't help but excel. No one would suspect that he is anything but a normal boy in the normal town of Angel Falls. But like the town, the boy has something else going on below the surface.

Ethan is, in fact, a Guardian of Time—an member of the Guard—a defender of history. He regularly travels back in time to prevent agents of the Order of Chaos from re-shaping history to the taste of the evil Goddess they serve. While his body sleeps, his mind is transported to a Citadel outside the universe, where he is given gear, knowledge, a complete makeover, and a new identity to fit each mission. And then, armed with the power to create illusions and to move objects with his mind, supported by a 600-year-old sidekick named Arkarian, and trained in the arts of combat, he goes forth to battle the agents of Chaos.

Nor is Angel Falls all it appears to be. It is built over the ruins of a lost city whose walls are inscribed with a prophecy. In Ethan's time, that prophecy achieves a new level of urgency. The council that governs the Guard, and which has the power to make or break Ethan as a Guardian, begins to put unheard-of pressure on the boy. All the while, other members of both the Guard and the Order are revealed, one by one, within the city limits of Angel Falls.

The first new discovery is Isabella, the kid sister of Ethan's former best friend Matt. Though a seductive girl named Rochelle came between the buddies and destroyed their friendship, Isabella still nurses a raging crush on Ethan. Before she quite understands what is going on, Isabella has become Ethan's first Apprentice. And he has only a few weeks to prepare her for her first mission.

As Ethan and Isabella defend history in the time of England's King Richard II, and the childhood of America's second First Lady, and other key pressure-points the Lady Chaos has targeted for troublemaking, more and more people from their everyday lives are drawn into the conflict. The monster who has haunted Ethan's dreams since, at age 4, he witnessed his older sister's brutal murder, has materialized in the real world. A grudge match with evil will awaken the slumbering spirit of Ethan's father. A heroic young man will risk his future as a Guardian to do what his heart tells him to do. A fearless girl will stake her just-discovered powers of healing against the killer who has taken her brother hostage. A pair of soul-mates will find each other. A traitor will make a plea to be trusted. And a small group of heroes will do battle against seemingly impossible odds.

With this book, Australian author Marianne Curley begins a trilogy titled "The Guardians of Time," combining the turbocharged hormones of teen romance with a magical fantasy about a secret society hidden within our everyday world and defending reality as we know it. Teen and older readers who enjoy The Mortal Instruments should also like this trilogy, which continues with The Dark and The Key. The conflict is gripping; the imagery is vivid; the characters are appealing. If there's anything to complain about, it's only that the pace picks up so much towards the climax that I got a little confused; but this might be a symptom of brain cells stiffening with age. And where this book excels is precisely in how it distills the essence of youth into an adventure that could have come straight from the daydreams of a 10th-grade history buff.

The Farthest Shore
by Ursula K. LeGuin
Recommended Ages: 13+

It's a shame that it took me until now to read this book, which is as old as I am. As I write this, my fortieth birthday looms only a few weeks ahead of me, and the third novel of Earthsea rings true for me in its depiction of the wizard Ged, a.k.a. Sparrowhawk, beginning to come down off the crest of his career. After a youth full of mighty deeds and daring quests, Ged has progressed so far as to be elected Archmage of Roke, as it were the Dumbledore of his world. Whether due to this more settled way of life, or the feeling of becoming old, or perhaps the sense of the destined ends for which he has striven finally coming together, this book finds Ged restless to sail out to the limits of the island-studded world of Earthsea. And it is the arrival on Roke of a young prince named Arren, bearing the disturbing news that magic is going out of the world, that gives the Archmage the chance he needs to embark on one last quest.

But this book imbibes more than the spirit of men at the height of their power, beginning to descend toward old age. In Arren, it also drinks of youth gaining experience, of boyhood turning into manhood, of hero-worship ripening into a loving companionship concocted of equal parts compassion, trust, and self-sacrifice. When LeGuin writes of Arren "falling in love" with Ged, she does so in the same sense in which T. H. White wrote of Lancelot falling in love with Arthur. Princeling offers himself to wizard as a servant, follows him as puppy follows master, and seems ready to give up even his own destiny as a ruler of the island of Enlad.

But as the pair sail out toward the bitter end of civilization, facing a succession of horrors that bear witness to an evil will bent on destroying all life, the direction of flow changes. Increasingly it appears that the wizard will use up the last of his wizardry to secure for his companion the throne of all Earthsea. And it is not magic alone, but also the boy's strength of body and spirit to master adversity, to face death, and to fight for life both for himself and his friend—no longer "master"—that will restore the Balance that preserves the magical world of Earthsea.

I read the first two books of this series, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, almost a decade ago. At that time, I think I was discouraged from continuing the series because of the rumor that the books became increasingly tied up in Taoist mysticism and/or feminist ideology. I am glad to say these rumors do no justice to this beautiful book, which concludes what was once considered the "Earthsea Trilogy"—though there are now two more novels (written much later) and an anthology of short stories to go with it. On the other hand, I am sad to think I missed out so long on what really could be the most beautifully written book I have read this year.

In mythopoeic world-building, Ursula LeGuin is easily the equal of J. R. R. Tolkien. In economy of words—this magnificent book being a mere 259 pages long—she has no equal. In a work of fantasy that almost obliterates the boundary between prose and poetry, this book could almost be sung. And when it ends, it leaves one with a wistful feeling, as though one wished to re-enter its strange, wonderful realm and stay there a while longer. To do so, one will have to explore the later books of this series—Tehanu, The Other Wind, and Tales from Earthsea—regardless of the rumor that their author had lost her feel for Earthsea by the time she wrote them. Maybe, when magic does drain out of a world, memory can pour it back in.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Anderson Butcher Hardy Martinez

Standard Hero Behavior
by John David Anderson
Recommended Ages: 12+

Mason Quayle has the bad luck to be a bard in a land without heroes. It has been years since the city of Darlington, formerly known as Highsmith, has needed heroes to defend it against orcs, goblins, trolls, and the like. Or rather, it has only needed one hero: the Duke in whose honor the town was renamed. In return for crippling taxes, Duke Darlinger sallies forth every month or so, and comes back boasting of great deeds done in defense of his people.

The Duke already has a bard. So young Mason, whose father left Highsmith years ago with the last party of heroes, has nothing to do but mooch up and down the street lined with the abandoned mansions of bygone heroes, listen to his mother tell tales of his father's heroism, and compose ditties in honor of paying customers' daring deeds, such as shooing away a chipmunk. Things are even worse for Mason's best friend Cowel, whose blacksmith uncle is no longer needed to make armor and weapons, and whose career as a plume salesman is hampered by a shortage of helmets to stick plumes in. So even with the safety and security the Duke has brought to the town, life has become desperate for Mason and his mother, Cowel and his uncle, and others. They barely earn enough money to pay the Duke's taxes. Starvation approaches.

Finally Mason becomes so desperate that he risks his mother's disgust and decides to beg the Duke for a job. But he arrives at the castle just as the Duke finds out that a certain ogre chieftain, whom he has been paying off to leave Darlington alone, has been killed in a coup. The new chieftain demands more money than the Duke can possibly pay to continue the arrangement which has, without any heroism whatsoever, kept the town safe all these years. Someone needs to go out into the world and bring back as many heroes as possible, and with only three days left before the deadline. It's not going to be the Duke who goes, because he's a quivering wreck. That leaves Mason, mounted on a mild-mannered horse, accompanied by his friend Cowel, and guided by the wisdom of his father's magnum opus: an unfinished book titled Quayle's Guide to Adventure for the Unadventurous.

Mason does find some heroes, but he is disappointed to find how little they live up to his father's description of "Standard Hero Behavior." Some of them seem just plain useless, like the deadly swordsman who can only fight while he is sound asleep, but who cannot control when he sleeps or wakes. Some of them have settled down and sworn off the hero business. And some of the greatest heroes seem to have risked everything on one last, stupendously dangerous quest—and never returned. Mason and Cowel follow in their footsteps, meeting lots of interesting people, getting into numerous scrapes, and making discoveries that, at least in Mason's case, change everything he thought he knew about his father.

This 2007 adventure is, to-date, the only book published by its Indianapolis-based author. Nevertheless, it is an assured piece of writing, with endearing characters, memorably original fantasy concepts, warmth, romance, danger, sorrow, and a hearty helping of humor. The scene in which Mason consults a fortuneteller made me laugh so hard that I felt compelled to share it. (My mother has probably realized that I only call when I want to read aloud to someone.) And while a little sadness tinges the happy ending, there is one way author Anderson can turn some of that sadness into joy: Keep writing!

by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the first sentence of this book, Harry Dresden answers the phone and hears his half-vampire ex-girlfriend Susan say, "They've taken our daughter." Harry could well ask, "What daughter?" But he hardly needs to ask who took her. Susan has spent the past several years harassing the Red Court of vampires as a member of the Fellowship of St. Giles, an organization of half-turned, semi-immortal vigilantes whose super-strength and endless anger make the Irish Republican Army look like a knitting circle. Their energies are focused on Latin America, where the vampires—descended from the false gods of a Mayan blood cult—herd humans like cattle and maintain a reign of terror that puts the drug cartels in the shade. And Harry being Harry—a wizard, a private investigator, and an instinctive protector of women and children besides—he's not going to sit still and let the Reds have their way with his Maggie. Even if he hasn't met her yet.

But to save one girl from a literal army of monsters, including some of the most ancient powers of evil in this world, is going to take more than the power wielded by one wizard—even one as extraordinarily strong, brave, and lucky as Dresden. Harry will need to plead for help from pretty much every muscle he knows. Some of them will turn him down. He will learn who his true friends are. And he will go ahead, knowing that he may lose some of them in an all but hopeless attack on the heart of Red Court power. But once he learns that the vampires mean to sacrifice his daughter in a ritual to unleash deadly power, the odds no longer matter.

True to the book's title, Dresden's lifestyle and career undergo some major changes in this book. Since the beginning of this series, twelve books ago, he has had the same apartment, the same office, the same car. This is the installment in which he loses them all. His staff, his rod, almost everything he owns, even his cat, are no longer with him by the end of this book. He loses almost everything, and risks losing everyone. And above all, he could lose himself: for he can only succeed in his mission to save Maggie by making a Faustian bargain with the Queen of Air and Darkness.

Part of what makes this book especially thrilling, even by the usual standards of The Dresden Files, is the clear and present danger that everything and everyone in the series could change or go away forever. There is no safety net of a winning formula that will be back to normal at the start of the next book. In fact (not that I want to spoil the ending) you could turn the last page of this novel wondering whether there could be a next book. Be not afraid, however: a thirteenth book, Ghost Story, has been released; a fourteenth, Cold Days, is rumored to be in the works; and author Jim Butcher has said he has plans for a total of some twenty books in the series.

Far from the Madding Crowd
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 13+

Published in 1874 as an anonymous serial in a literary magazine, this was not Hardy's first novel, but it was the one whose success enabled him to pursue a full-time writing career. It is also the first book to take place in Hardy's imaginary county of Wessex, somewhere in the southwest of England. Its tale of a five-sided love triangle in a pastoral setting gave English lit some of its most enduring characters, and they apparently served as a template for the celebrated characters in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. It is a novel whose poetic diction and psychological depth qualify it as a great work of literature. Yet at the same time, its vivid depiction of setting and people, its dry humor and eye-moistening melodrama, its hints of classic tragedy and its daringly sympathetic depiction of a strong woman ahead of her time, and the agonizingly delayed fulfillment of the romantic promise hinted at in the first few pages, make it so much fun to read that you won't be put off by its literary merit.

Who are the sides of the love-pentangle I mentioned above? The most important two are Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak. We first meet them when the former is a beautiful, vain, strong-minded maid of 20 years, living with her aunt without a penny to her name; while the latter is a 28-year-old shepherd, just getting started as an independent farmer. After the girl saves the shepherd from being stifled to death, Farmer Oak decides to ask her to marry him. In one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever written, Bathsheba turns him down on the grounds that she is too wild, too independent, and never wants to be subject to a husband if she can help it. Oak accepts this with a good-natured stoicism that will surely go to your heart.

After some further reversals, Oak finds himself working as a shepherd on the farm inherited by Bathsheba. Now she is the independent one, and he is only a hired laborer. A lesser man would be embittered by this, but Oak proves himself one of the strongest, kindest, and most selflessly faithful heroes in ink. And this is in spite of Bathsheba being courted by a taciturn neighboring farmer named Boldwood (side 3), previously a confirmed bachelor whose peaceful existence is upended by a facetious valentine Bathsheba impulsively sends him. Boldwood conceives a passion for Bathsheba, a passion in every sense of the word: tormenting the man, body and soul, until it builds to an obsession and, inevitably, wreaks great destruction.

Side 4 of the love pentagon is a young sergeant in the army named Francis Troy, whose dashing looks and spirits captivate Bathsheba in a way no other man does. He, meanwhile, is so taken by her beauty that he jilts the love of his life (Side 5), a servant girl in Bathsheba's household named Fanny Robin. Actually you don't see a great deal of Fanny in the book, but she comes to the most pathetic end, and her death serves as the trigger for everything that happens in the final act of the book. The Troys' marriage falls apart. Her husband's presumed (but unproven) death leaves Bathsheba in miserable uncertainty. Boldwood's importunity becomes unbearable, forcing Bathsheba into a dilemma from which there seems to be no escape. Jealousy, rage, violence, and insanity complete the tragic tableau. And yet, all along, Gabriel Oak's self-denying faithfulness remains a constant. Or does it? One last test remains before the end.

The drama of all this is so compelling, and the way the people and places are described is so vivid and beautiful, that this does not seem at all like a long book. In fact, the characters—both major and minor—are drawn with such clarity that you may feel you know them personally, and care about them, and miss them when you close the book. It's the stuff that addictions are made of. So if you follow my recommendation and enjoy this book, you may feel a craving for more Hardy. To help you choose what to read next, other popular titles by this author include: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure.

Chasing the Moon
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 14+

Diana thinks she's found the perfect apartment. It's already furnished, exactly to her taste. Whatever she wants to eat magically materializes in the refrigerator. Plus, as long as she lives in it, she will neither age nor die. The part where it's all too good to be true is that she can never leave the apartment unless she opens a closet containing an otherworldly monster named Vom the Hungering, whose appetite is endless. Being eaten by Vom is the only way she can die. And taking that chance is the only way she can get out of the apartment.

It seems obvious at the outset that this is going to be a short novel. And it is rather short, but not for the obvious reason. Quite early in it, Diana does let Vom out—but instead of him eating her then and there, they work out an arrangement for living together as roommates. This turns out to be the first test of Diana's aptitude as a "warden" in an apartment building that bridges the space between realities where things are disturbingly different from back home. And it is the beginning of Diana's struggle to keep her world (and ours) from being torn to shreds by a plague of bizarre visitors from other dimensions, beings who so belong elsewhere that their presence bends our reality to the breaking point.

Some of those threats from beyond end up as additional roommates as Diana's apartment becomes more and more a refuge for misplaced monsters. There's the giant purple hedgehog who constantly spawns clones of himself, all different sizes; when stressed, he can quickly fill a room to the point of mutually assured suffocation. Then there's the giant, floating, tentacle-fringed eyeball who can shoot death rays out of his pupil. They aren't the only strange folks in the building either. The couple in Apartment 3 takes turns appearing in the form of a giant batlike creature. The stud in Apartment 2 lives in terror of the alien puppy-thing that sits guard outside his door. The building super, a hairy number named West, enlists Diana's aid in fixing the boiler to delay a future plague of giant insects who live backward in time. And there's also an apartment in which, from time to time, a bucket of fried chicken needs to be thrown into a bottomless pit in order to keep gravity online.

All this is disturbing enough, but as you learn long before Diana does, there's an even bigger threat to the way things in our world are supposed to work. A huge tentacly creature out of Norse mythology is trying to devour the moon. When it does, it could bring the end of the world. And nobody seems to want that more than a shapechanging cult of six-legged werewolves who worship a mild-mannered fellow named Calvin, who has been trapped on Earth for thousands of years. When Calvin decides it's time to go, the human race's time may be up. It depends on how he decides to go... and that depends, somewhat, on Diana.

When you've been reviewing the kind of books I have for as long as I have, you learn to take a weird opening sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter in stride. But nothing prepared me for the weirdness of the beginning of this book. It was so shockingly, disorientingly weird that I thought twice about continuing to read it. After a couple of chapters, however, I was so immersed in the book's steady procession of insane surprises and surprising insanities that I began to accept them as normal, textural features of a whimsical, chaotic world. Not that I was ever comfortable with them. I reckon this book hasn't done its job if it hasn't disturbed you with its dark, apocalyptic, yet at the same time zany worldview. It almost takes part in the Dadaist aesthetic, portraying our universe as a thin film of reality among an infinitely thick bundle of realities: a reality in which all meaning is essentially illusory, which is always in grave danger of being destroyed, and which only seems to be governed by consistent laws because of its (reality's) elastic way of snapping back to its original shape whenever something from outside stretches it. There are actually people who believe the laws of nature, as we know it, rest on such a flimsy foundation—and if their inner life is haunted by figments like the beings in this novel, I pity them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sinking Feeling

This week the neighborhood Lutheran Shrine to St. Shecky, patron of tackiness on holy ground, says:


Yabbut, this Lifeguard wants to drown you and then pull out of the water a new person. Unlike the kid who made headlines this past week by being fired for rescuing a swimmer who got in trouble outside the protected zone, this One's coverage area includes everybody... But in the process of saving you, He must be rejected and die, and then come to life again through no one's act of resuscitation but his own. Having been saved by Him, your whole life belongs to Him. And when He sends you to catch men, He does so with instructions that go against all your reason and experience—and a warning that no other method will work. Just so you know what comes with the "walking on water" trick...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Butcher, Shan, Shüsterman

Turn Coat
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

The eleventh book of The Dresden Files begins to shake up some of the comfortable formula, if a series of thrillers pitting one smart-aleck wizard detective against a Chicago-load of vampires, zombies, demons, homicidal fairies, and hell-bent necromancers, can be said to fall into a "comfortable formula." In this installment, wizard Donald Morgan—the sword-wielding wizard cop who has had it in for Dresden since the start—shows up on his younger nemesis's doorstep, asking for help.

Morgan is on the run after being caught standing over the dead body of a member of the Senior Council, but he swears he has been framed. Dresden agrees to help, figuring no one will expect him to shelter the wizard who has been looking for an excuse to cut his head off since he was sixteen years old. Plus, solving this latest crime may mean exposing the "Black Council" that has been thwarting the aims of the wizardly White Council. Clearly there is a traitor at Wizard Central in Edinburgh, but before Harry can finger him (or her), he has a lot of things to do. Things like saving his mostly-reformed vampire half-brother from an evil being so powerful that the mere sight of it nearly drives Harry insane. Things like finding out who paid another vampire and an otherworldly-thug summoner to mess with him. Things that will involve his cop friend Murphy, his apprentice Molly, and his Warden Captain girlfriend in ways that take him far beyond the comfort zone.

Some of the threats Dresden faces in this book seem as scary and unbeatable as anything he has crossed wands with before. And some of the tactics he takes to survive them push the limits of what he can do without losing himself. At one point, Dresden lures multiple groups of dangerous customers to the same spooky island and then, while they fight amongst themselves, plugs himself into a vast malevolent power, which he then uses to even the odds against the Shagnasty that has Thomas. And when the dust settles, the whole dust-up turns out to have been a diversion from his real plan. Even then, the danger is far from over.

Turn Coat shows us a Harry Dresden whose youthful brashness is backed up by the wisdom of experience and a wider repertoire of survival skills in a magical world that just keeps getting more dangerous. Call it acquiring more powers; or call it having more friends to back him up. Some of those friends, however, will be lost or out of commission by the end of this book. Harry will pay a big price in heartache. That's the cost of standing up for good in a world full of supernatural crooks and monsters—to say nothing of pragmatic wizards who value the appearance of power more than truth and justice.

Author Butcher knows how to keep you on the hero's side, even when he does not seem awfully heroic. Blending arcane knowledge with pop-culture savvy, the never-say-die soul of a fighter with the wit of a ne'er-do-well, exceptional (though somewhat unfocused) power with the vulnerability of an innocent, Harry Dresden is a hero who makes it easy for the reader to share his loves and hates, joys and aches, dread and terror. His adventures have plenty of action, but the fight scenes are held together by the complex interaction of the plans, rash acts, loves, and hates of many groups, people, and creatures he is involved with. And though the answer to the question "Who done it" may not come as a big surprise, neither will you be surprised when you close the book wanting more. The spell for that is book 12: Changes.

The Vampire's Assistant
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

In Book 2 of Cirque du Freak, newly-minted half-vampire Darren Shan becomes so lonely that his vampire master takes pity on him. Instead of keeping his 14-year-old, unwilling apprentice to himself, Mr. Crepsley takes him back to the traveling freak show where it all started. There Darren becomes intimately acquainted with such remarkable people as Mr. Tall, the boss of the show, who can disappear from one place and reappear instantly somewhere else; Mr. Limbs, who can cut off any part of his body and grow it back again within minutes; and Mr. Tiny, a terrifying man who manages the mysterious, blue-cloaked, and ravenous Little People.

Darren goes to work feeding the wolf man, hunting small game for the Little People, doing odd jobs around the camp, and assisting Mr. Crepsley in his performances with Madam Octa the trained spider. He and Evra Von the snake boy become fast friends. And the two of them also befriend a local boy named Sam, whose gruesome fate is tied to that of an environmental protester who lives in a neighboring camp. What happens one night when the plans of these two outsiders collide outside the wolf man's cage is best learned by reading this book—so long as you don't eat a big meal before reading it.

In the four trilogies of the Cirque du Freak cycle, Irish author Darren Shan seems to be telling the kind of story that would have captivated him when he was a boy who loved vampire movies and spooky comics. Though these books are not illustrated, they are told in such simple and direct language that your mental imagery may seem as vivid as any graphic novel. The narrator's routine illiteracies, such as using the phrase "Evra and me" as the subject of a sentence, might be forgiven as they seem so genuinely "in character" for a fourteen-year-old half-vampire. And Shan really knows how to tell a page-turningly intense, macabre story. He is especially skilled at teasing the nastiness to come, and so keeping the reader in a constant state of dread. With another ten books to go, this series promises plenty of unrelieved dread and macabre twists.

Tunnels of Blood
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

Once again, Irish author Darren Shan chills, shocks, and teases with suspense in an innovative vampire novel for young adults, featuring a teen half-vampire named after himself. This series, generally known as either "Cirque du Freak" or "the Darren Shan Saga," is safe from the current backlash against teen and tween vampire series such as the Twilight Saga (which, after a series of hit films, is now widely recognized as a hideously banal and unconvincing romance) and the True Blood novels (now a cable-TV series which no one watches except for the sex scenes). Young Darren, by contrast, is just a nice boy who has barely started to notice girls, and who realizes that his status as a half-vampire assistant to the full vampire Larten Crepsley pretty much kills any chance of his having a long-term girlfriend. Though he does, in this book, pick up his first short-term girlfriend, the innocence of their relationship and the danger it puts her in guarantees two things: first, that the supernatural horror side of this vampire tale will never take a backseat to romantic ickiness; and second, after the lesson Darren learns in this installment, he will not be in a hurry to play the relationship game again. And so, teen vampire fans who are a little disillusioned with series that turned out to be mostly romance novels, can safely navigate this series without discomfort.

Assuming, of course, that they don't have a problem with exploring "tunnels of blood" beneath an unnamed city, where dwells a species of blood-sucking monster related to, but distinct from, vampires. Here Darren learns about the vampaneze—creatures of the night who drain their victims dry, rather than (like vampires) drinking only enough blood to wet their whistle. It's the difference between beings who eat to live and those who kill to eat. Not realizing that one such vampaneze is the killer Mr. Crepsley is after, Darren almost kills his own master. But the danger gets worse when the vampaneze gets away, abducts Darren's friend Evra the snake boy, and threatens to murder the girlfriend and her parents.

Anyone following this series will have learned by now that author Shan is a master of inventing bizarre character names, reinventing vampire mythology with surprising new details, and keeping readers on the hook by teasing plot twists ahead of time. All these specialties are strongly evident in this book. This adds up to a story well-stocked with creepy suspense, shocking goriness, and a surprisingly winsome humanity, for all that it is told in the grammatically imprecise plainness of speech of a narrator whose education, after age 14, was limited to work experience as a freak-show crew member and a vampire's assistant.

This book concludes the "Vampire Blood Trilogy," which began with Cirque du Freak. If you feel unready to depart from Darren Shan's dark world of bad, worse, and unimaginably awful vampires, that's all right. There are three more trilogies in the series after this, and the next trilogy starts with Vampire Mountain.

Antsy Does Time
by Neal Shüsterman
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this sequel to The Schwa Was Here, Anthony "Antsy" Bonano—a ninth-grade trouble magnet from Brooklyn, New York—decides to do something special for a terminally ill classmate. Typing it up to look official and legal, Antsy hands Gunnar Ümlaut a month of his life, signed and witnessed. This idea comes to our impulsive narrator after a tragicomic incident at a Thanksgiving Parade leads Gunnar to confide that he has six months to live. What started as a symbolic gesture of friendship, however, soon turns into a schoolwide craze as weeks, months, and even years off the end of people's lives are traded like stocks, used as hard currency, and exchanged as gifts between sweethearts.

Meanwhile, as Ansty grows closer to both Gunnar and his beautiful, eleventh-grade sister Kjersten, things start to unravel around the edges of his plan. Something is just a little off about Kjersten's romantic interest in Antsy. Something is more than a little off about Gunnar's parents, who seem to have problems bigger than their son's fatal disease. Meanwhile, Antsy's blind friend (and ex-girlfriend) Lexie is acting jealous, and the feeling is mutual. After a disastrous double-date, a regularly scheduled kidnapping of Lexie's curmudgeonly grandfather, and an incident at his father's restaurant that brings Antsy citywide notoriety, he is no closer to understanding what is going on with the Ümlauts. When it finally comes to him that Gunnar isn't really dying, it's too late: Antsy is already backed into a corner, with notes for his speech at a school rally crumpled in his sweaty fist. And that, naturally, is the moment when something truly awful happens.

Like his first adventure, Antsy's second captures an elusive blend of laugh-out-loud comedy and heart-moving humanity. The laugh I got out of Antsy's description of his first kiss with Kjersten, early in the book, was so satisfying that I had to call my mother afterward and share it with her. Towards the end, I do not lie, my throat was choked up and my cheeks were moist. You have to respect a storyteller who can lead you through that range of emotions. And you have to love a character like Antsy: a boy both keen-witted and naïve, humble and cocky, honest and kind, whose judgment is frequently off but whose heart is in the right place. I look forward to meeting him again.