Monday, December 31, 2012

Riordan Stroud Wodehouse

The Lost Hero
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Ages: 13+

The "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series is over, but the adventures of the young demigods at Camp Halfblood continue in a series called "Heroes of Olympus," which begins with this book. When Jason wakes up on the bus during a school field trip to the Grand Canyon, he has no memory of who he is or how he got there. This is disturbing news to his best friend Leo and his girlfriend Piper, who both have months worth of memories of their relationship with Jason—but before they can cope with the truth that these memories are false, the three friends must survive an attack by wind spirits sent to destroy them.

You see, all three of these youngsters happen to be demigods—children with a human parent on one side and a Greek or Roman god on the other. I add the words "or Roman" because, for some reason, Jason speaks Latin rather than Greek, and keeps blurting out the names of Roman deities such as Jupiter and Juno, rather than their Greek counterparts Zeus and Hera. It is Hera who has taken Jason's memory; Hera who sends a vision to Annabeth, a veteran halfblood camper, telling her that Jason will be the key to discovering where her boyfriend Percy disappeared to; Hera who sends the campers a terrifying prophecy of what will happen if she, Hera, is not rescued from a new enemy who holds her captive and who will sacrifice her, Hera, in four days' time. Unless the halfblood kids put a stop to it, Hera's sacrifice will be the beginning of a conflict even bigger than the recent Titan War II, threatening the health and well-being of everybody on Earth. And though Hera has heretofore been the least demigod-friendly of the Olympian gods—especially where the kid's divine parent is her husband—she has personally sponsored Jason son-of-Jupiter at Camp Halfblood, claiming that he is the key to bringing together the seven heroes who must save the world.

To start with, however, three heroes must go on a quest to save Hera. Jason, naturally, is to lead the quest. He is joined by Leo, a son of Hephaestus with a knack for building gadgets, fixing things, and—his big secret—handling fire. A rare and dangerous talent, that. Piper, meanwhile, learns that she is a daughter of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty—ironic qualities for a girl who is secretly under orders to betray her friends to the death, if she wants her kidnapped movie-star father to survive. Together with a flying mechanical dragon, a gung-ho satyr (a dude with the horns, hooves, and appetite of a goat), and an occasional leg-up from somebody or other's newfound mom or dad, the three kids make their way across the continental U.S., while each of them separately struggles with a painful secret or a personal mystery. Jason discovers more about who he is and where he's been. Leo begins to get over his mother's fiery death and grows more confident as a monster-slaying hero. And Piper learns to face the danger to her father and to her friends with honor.

The threat they will face, however, is more deadly than any of them could have anticipated. No longer must monsters wait in line to be returned to the world after being destroyed by a demigod; no sooner are they turned into gold dust than they start to re-form again. Mortal villains from the most savage chapters of history are returning to life—fiends like witchy Medea, gold-crazy Midas, and a swordsman who styles himself the Reaper of Men. Clearly, someone has opened the door that separates the world of the living from that of the dead. And that someone is awakening, gathering a terrible army, and recruiting minor deities to betray the gods and sabotage the campers' quest. As their chances of survival shrink to ludicrous littleness, the realization grows that if the kids fail in their quest, the result will be really, really bad.

Cheer up, though! You can't seriously think they fail. There are at least two more books in the series! But nor is the crisis over. Saving Hera may be the easy part. Getting the gods and demigods to work together will be even tougher, now that Zeus (or Jupiter) has closed Olympus. And perhaps even more dangerous is the threat of civil war among the demigods who... Well, let's not give too much away. If you really want to find out what could tear the halfbloods apart, read this book. And then watch this hilarious, action-packed, and surprisingly educational series continue in The Son of Neptune and The Mark of Athena.

The Golem's Eye
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 13+

If a boxed set of Harry Potter were to fall through the looking-glass, what came out the other side might be a lot like the "Bartimaeus Trilogy," of which this is Book 2. The fantasy world in this series is somewhat of a bizarro, backward-land version of Harry's wizarding world, which forms a secret enclave within the present-day world of us ordinary muggles. In Bartimaeus' world, the British empire is openly run by magicians, while the majority of the population—dismissively called "commoners"—toils in a condition not far above slavery. The press and the schools feed them a steady diet of pro-magician propaganda. The scales of justice are rigged in favor of the magicians. The security and police forces keep the people too frightened to rise up, including an elite squad of werewolves known as the Night Police—without even the ironic touch of a silent K. Ever since the magician William Gladstone took over the government in the 1860s and led a wave of conquest across Europe as far as Prague, the world has trembled beneath the jack-boot of British magic. Even the American colonies remain under British power.

But their grip is starting to slip. While the most powerful magicians in the land are busy stepping on each other, climbing the ladder of government service by means of knives stuck in one another's backs, discontent is beginning to stir. And not just discontent: resistance. Kitty Jones, for example, has a resilience to many forms of magical attack. Her resistance cell, led by an elderly art-supply merchant named Pennyfeather, is full of people who are either resilient to magic, or able to see auras of magical power, or gifted in some similar way. Kitty joined up after a magician put the hurt on her best friend Jakob because of an accident with a cricket ball. Now she is starting to worry that the group is taking big risks but achieving nothing. Instead of gathering discontented commoners into their movement, their resistance group carries out small acts of sabotage and burglary that hurt ordinary people more than magicians. They are being hunted as traitors and picked off one by one.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the social divide, who do we find working his ambitious way to the top but a fourteen-year-old magician named John Mandrake—Nathaniel to his friends—which is to say, nobody. Nathaniel's only fear is that the djinni Bartimaeus, who helped him get started in his government career, will come back and reveal his secret birth-name to all. Nevertheless, he finds himself with no choice but to summon Bartimaeus again, since his career as Assistant to the Minister of Internal Affairs will soon end, probably along with his life, unless he gets to the bottom of a series of terrorist attacks. At first Nathaniel confuses the high jinks of Kitty's resistance group with the more serious attacks of a golem, a giant remotely controlled mud-man who has been spreading chaos, death, and (for the beleaguered government) political embarrassment all over London. Without reliable support from anyone in his department—with growing suspicions that a high-level traitor is involved—and with political rivals sabotaging his investigation at every turn, young Mr. Mandrake follows a thread of clues to Prague and back. And though the forces spread against him are more numerous, better armed, and highly organized, he holds his own with the aid of one Bartimaeus, fourth-level djinni.

What Nathaniel/John Mandrake lacks in personal appeal, Bartimaeus makes up. The portions of the story told from his first-person point of view are effervescent with irreverent humor. A natural leader among demons (ranking from afrits and marids down to lowly imps and foliots), Bartimaeus brings a steady flow of smart-mouthed banter to every scene he is in. The entertainment value of his patter is often enhanced by the way it makes Nathaniel squirm, especially in the presence of people he wants to impress. The frequent footnotes, in which the djinni confides further details of his sorcerous background, are comedic highlights. In one of them, Bartimaeus explains the seven levels of reality, of which most humans can only perceive the first and lowest level. He then adds: "For example, there's probably something invisible with lots of tentacles hovering behind your back right NOW."

Eventually, inevitably, the career paths of Kitty and Nathaniel intersect. He suspects her of being one of only two survivors when her resistance cell makes the hideous mistake of plundering Gladstone's tomb. Thanks to this mostly thwarted break-in, a deadly afrit runs amok across London, clothed in Gladstone's skeleton. A magician's staff that once brought Europe to its knees is now at large. Using Jakob as a hostage, Nathaniel must bring Kitty in and recover the staff or his life and career are over. Meanwhile, his every move is being watched by the highest level of government ministers, including the very traitor who controls the golem that nobody but Nathaniel believes in. And when young magician, golem, afrit, hostage, and staff come together in one blind alley at the climax of the tale, Nathaniel's only hope for survival lies in the hands of a mutinous djinni and a resistance fighter who has everything to gain from his death. In Harry Potter's world, the most likely person to save an enemy's bacon would be Harry Potter. But in this instance, the nearest thing to Harry Potter is the one whose bacon needs to be saved—and he is, if you'll pardon my Sanskrit, a son of a bitch.

Will Kitty's human decency overcome her dislike? Will they live to fight another day? Will Robbie spoil everything by answering these questions? Well, if you need a clue, let it be the fact that the trilogy continues with Book 3, Ptolemy's Gate. Plus, just to throw a whiff of irony across the word "trilogy" on the front cover of the book, there's now a fourth book in the sequence: The Ring of Solomon, though this is reportedly a prequel. Other magical tales by the same author include Buried Fire, The Leap, The Last Siege, and Heroes of the Valley. Plus, coming in September 2013 is the first book of his new "Lockwood & Co" series, Screaming Staircase.

by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

This collection of ten short stories, also published under the title He Rather Enjoyed It, is devoted to the escapades of one Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, who also features in 13 other shorts (collected elsewhere) and the novel Love Among the Chickens. Because the stories in this book share a number of characters in common—besides the S.F.U. himself and his oft-exasperated biographer James "Corky" Corcoran—and thanks to other interrelated details, it almost holds together as a novel. That it doesn't quite manage to do so is due mostly to the chaotic nature of its central character and the side-splittingly funny episodes into which his life seems fated to divide itself.

Ukridge and Corky were old public-school chums, before the former got himself expelled. Even well into adulthood, he hasn't lost the knack for getting into trouble—most of the time, dragging one or more of his friends along with him. Big, loud, and full of mesmerizing charisma, he dresses like a slob when he isn't borrowing one of his friends' best clothes. He is always mooching off his more solvent pals, and frequently enlists their aid (willing or not) in a series of daft schemes that he believes certain to make him ludicrously rich—but which usually leave him as broke as ever. The only thing more hilarious than Ukridge's money-making schemes are the disasters that upset them. But apart from a harrumph of, "Upon my sam, it's a bit hard," he takes it all in good spirit and is never knocked down for long.

Observe and laugh as Ukridge tries his hand at managing a boxer, training dogs, making political campaign speeches, and brokering a real estate deal. Grin at his missteps as he kidnaps a parrot, outruns his creditors, and pretends to own a limousine driven by a drinking buddy. Ukridge gets arrested over a misunderstanding, gets engaged to be married without meaning to, scalps tickets to a private dance, and tries to dine out on his aunt's fame as a novelist even after she disowns him. Plus, he sends Corky onto a fair number of dodgy missions, such as impersonating a journalist on assignment—which proves doubly awkward when, after the ruse is detected, he actually does get sent on assignment.

The outcome is ten pieces of light, springy humor and shining wit, lampooning the more disreputable side of the British upper class. It mixes in a bit of romance, some sporting fun (especially boxing), a sepia-printed cameo of life as a down-and-out student in the early 1900s, a touch of crime, a kiss of politics, and a passing breeze of satire on the evangelical revivals of the Billy Sunday era. My favorite bits involved boxing, a sport whose humorous possibilities have not been sufficiently explored. Reading these rib-ticklers, or hearing them read by a comic actor such as Jonathan Cecil, will certainly foster what Ukridge calls a "big, broad, flexible outlook." Or, to put it another way, it will make you laugh as you realize that a flair for failure—failing with style—can more than compensate for a lack of success.

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