Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Deadweather and Sunrise

Deadweather and Sunrise
by Geoff Rodkey
Recommended Ages: 12+

Egbert is the youngest child of an ugly fruit farmer named Hock Masterson. I mean he farms ugly fruit, not that the farmer is ugly – though he isn't very nice to his thirdborn child. Also, his rough and tough older siblings, incongruously named Adonis and Venus, hate his guts and treat him accordingly. Here's a hint as to why this may be: on Egg's 13th birthday, which also happens to be the 13th anniversary (need I say more?) they all travel from the sweltering, remote, pirate-infested island of Deadweather where they have lived all Egg's life to the nearby, much richer isle of Sunrise. Hock seems to have made a discovery, about which he feels it necessary to consult a lawyer. Unfortunately, the lawyer betrays him, and the richest and powerfulest man on the island arranges a ridiculous hot air balloon accident to wipe out the whole family, which only Egg survives. Then the rich guy, let's call him Roger Pembroke, tries to adopt Egg, but that doesn't work either. Also, Egg and Pembroke's beautiful daughter fall in love with each other. So, apparently seeing no other solution to his problems, Pembroke orders one of his stooges to throw Egg off a cliff. But that doesn't work either.

Egg, naturally, goes on the run. I mean, people are trying to kill him, right? Also, he's suspected of murder, because the aforementioned stooge plunged off the cliff instead of him. But things could get worse. For example, Egg gets caught stowing away on a luxury liner (tourism has just been invented in his world). The cruise director makes him up to look like a pirate and sentences him to flogging and marooning, just to keep the passengers entertained. Then pirates attack and take over the cruise ship. Suspecting Egg of belonging a pirate, they pit him in fight to the death against a scrawny, feral, one-handed kid named Guts, who could be a great friend if he weren't completely insane. Then the ship blows up and Egg and Guts get marooned after all. Then...

Look. Just trust me. It could get worse, and it does. Egg has many adventures to survive before he can even think about taking back his family's plantation, claiming the mysterious treasure buried on it and reuniting with the lovely but strong-willed Millicent. And then, he just has to survive an assault by a regiment of soldiers, led by Millicent's father, with only the dubious loyalty of a group of maimed and crippled pirates in his favor. Everyone tells him his only chance of survival is killing Roger Pembroke, but if he does that, he'll lose Millicent. It's quite a dilemma for a 13-year-old kid whose only advantages over his dead siblings, besides not being dead so far, is that he has read 137 books and has an admirable character, including a longstanding familiarity with adversity.

This book is the first installment of the Chronicles of Egg, which continue in New Lands and Blue Sea Burning. It's a good, solid book that opens up a remarkable fantasy world, where the map is different but a lot of other things are very much the same as an 18th- or 19th-century version of our world. It provides swashbuckling, cliffhanging entertainment with a generous splash of humor and a pinch of youthful romance. Mixed together, it's like an athletic workout that you can enjoy without leaving your reading nest. Geoff Rodkey, whose bio blurb claims that someone briefly wanted to kill him when he was a teenager, is also the author of four Tapper Twins books and the novels Stuck in the Stone Age and We're Not from Here.

Monday, October 21, 2019

My Interview with Peter de Jonge

Having read several well-written interview pieces in GQ, I would like to say I met novelist and journalist Peter de Jonge at a rooftop bar in Manhattan. I would like to describe the way he sips his beer (dropping the name of a trendy brew), the fit of his crisply tailored trousers and the fashionably random fall of hair over his forehead. But actually, I have no idea what he was wearing when I interviewed him, what his hairstyle was or what he was drinking at the time.

We didn’t meet at a rooftop bar. Next best thing: We “met,” in the social media sense of the word, via messages on Goodreads, where he spotted my review of his second solo novel, Buried on Avenue B, then graciously waited until I had gone back and read its predecessor, Shadows Still Remain. After accepting my honest criticism of his work, he even more graciously let me pelt him with interview questions via a series of emails.

So, for full disclosure, we didn’t have a face-to-face, back-and-forth conversation. After an exchange of Goodreads messages, I emailed him some questions and he emailed me some answers. Nevertheless, I think our exchange opens up an interesting vista on the life of a writer. Any impression, in the story that follows, that we sat down and chatted over cocktails is unintentional, and probably an artifact of my fantasy of doing what Peter de Jonge does.

De Jonge is the author of two “Darlene O’Hara” novels, featuring a hard-living New York City cop who makes Detective First Grade by solving a high-profile murder, and who specializes in doggedly pursuing the truth, going to the mat for the most vulnerable victims, and pushing back against authority including her own department’s chain of command. His other writing credits include articles in Manhattan Inc., Harper’s Bazaar, National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, as well as four novels in which his author credit appears after that of James Patterson: Miracle at Augusta, Beach Road, The Beach House and Miracle on the 17th Green.

I gave Peter the option of skipping over questions he considered boring or impertinent; he took that option in the question I asked him about working with James Patterson. Enquiring minds will have to learn to live with disappointment.

The first I heard from Peter, he had just spotted my review of Buried on Goodreads, in which I quoted a paragraph that I found delightful. “I really appreciate your thoughtful reading of my novel and your enthusiasm for that opening paragraph of the Florida section,” he wrote in the kind of flattery of my critical perceptiveness that really draws me out. “That kind of reaction means a lot,” he said. “The Florida section was the first part of the book I handed in, and because it was late it was crucial that it make a good impression immediately.”

Later, Peter admitted that he probably spent too much time on that paragraph, “but I probably would have done it anyway because, like a lot of writers (I’m guessing here; I have not conducted a survey), I tend to spend a lot more time polishing something that is already OK than addressing the parts that are bad.”

In a later DM, he said, “I think your criticism of the novel is valid and it's something I'm keeping in mind with the book I'm working on now, which has elements of a crime novel.”

That must be a reference to the bit of my review in which I noted that a sense of closure eludes the sleuth in Buried, perhaps due to a lack of the stereotyped crime-thriller ending in which the good guy (or gal) looks the true face of evil in the eye – followed by a cathartic fit of violence. If I was a kiss-ass, I would hasten to say I meant that as a compliment. But with left-handed compliments like that, who needs criticism?

“I don't really think of myself as a crime novelist,” Peter explained, “and have a tendency to shy away from the most dependable satisfactions of the genre. Shadows Still Remain probably does a better job in that regard.”

I asked him to unpack this a bit. In reply, he confessed one of the challenges of his career: an inability to fully embrace whatever he is doing. “In my perverse way of looking at things,” he said, “I’m not so much a professional writer as someone who has proven quite a few times that I’m capable of being one. I’m just trying to make a point that this is something I can do, and having done it, I don’t see a lot of advantage of doing it again and again; and if you’re writing crime novels, publishers don’t have much enthusiasm unless you’re pounding out one a year.”

In college, De Jonge majored in English, writing some short stories for his senior thesis – “none of which prepared me in the slightest way for gainful employment,” he said. He graduated from Princeton University in 1977.

The first piece of writing he sold was a feature on a dart champion who owned a bar in Trenton, N.J. “I just went to his bar and interviewed him and then sold the story,” Peter recalled. “Getting your first writing job can be excruciatingly hard, but you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to go and write a story, and if nothing else, it can help you get that first job.”

He worked a couple of years for a chain of Connecticut weeklies, then a year with the Associated Press, before quitting to look for a job as an advertising copywriter. “The idea,” he said, “was to find a relatively lucrative, cushy job that would enable me to write on the side, and that’s what I did.”

A year or two later, his profile of young, driven director’s rep Stavros Merjos got published in Manhattan Inc. “I spent several months on it and sent it in unsolicited and caused a minor sensation,” he said. “That led to an assignment for The New York Times Magazine and others.”

Any way of writing for a living, he said, is helpful for a novelist – “doing the best you can in a finite amount of time and sending it off.” He noted that magazine stories are more challenging in some ways because, “in addition to being surprising and entertaining and hopefully having something to say, they have to be true – or at least not clearly wrong.”

According to his online biography, de Jonge was working as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson when Patterson, then an executive at the firm who was just establishing himself as a bestselling author, noticed his articles in the NYTM and NatGeo. “Instead of firing Peter for slacking on the job, he hired Peter to be the first of his many co-authors on the golf novel Miracle on the 17th Green,” the bio went on. After a few more collaborations, he struck out on his own.

I asked Peter whether he parks fiction and journalism in different parts of his headspace. “I don’t make a big distinction between my magazine writing and the fiction,” he said. “In both cases, my goals, pretentious as it sounds, were literary. Given a choice of paucities, I’ve always been more interested in a little glory than a little money. What gets more confusing, he added, is when the choice is between a lot of money and very little glory.”

Also, one of his motives for writing two crime novels was the hope that if they were a hit, there would be interest in a collection of his magazine work.

The biggest crossover between fiction and feature writing is the importance of a strong lead. “I have probably given up on reading more books on the first page than I’ve read – many of them highly praised – but then again, I’m kind of a hater,” he said.

By choosing crime fiction for his first solo flight as a novelist, De Jonge was able to approach the project like a reporter. “Before I had any idea of the story,” he said, “I spent several months hanging out and riding around with detectives in the 7th Precinct in lower Manhattan.”

He happened to know someone who was married to a former detective from that precinct, who offered to take Peter in and make introductions. In the process, De Jonge discovered an amusing fact: “There is such an entrenched fictional crime industry that all of these detectives had already spent time with a writer at one point or another. It was kind of embarrassing, and may be one of the reasons I don’t want to think of myself as a crime novelist.”

The starting point for the character development of Darlene O’Hara was an actual NYPD homicide detective. “One thing I was doing, when I was researching the book and hanging out with detectives, was looking for a hero or heroine,” said de Jonge, “and I eventually stumbled upon her.”

By her, he means NYPD Homicide Detective Donna Torres, according to that online bio. “Like Darlene, she had a son when she was a teenager and still managed to end her career as a first-grade homicide detective,” Peter explained. “That indicated just how smart and ambitious she was, while also revealing latent self-destructive tendencies, and I worked with both of those elements.”

Darlene’s colorful, rough-and-tumble background and her issues with authority at times make her a great sleuth, but they come at a cost. Peter commented, “Deep down, Darlene O’Hara knows that she is lucky as hell to have stumbled into one of the few vocations in America where the lack of a college education is not a deal breaker. Darlene is an extremely smart and hardworking detective, and she earned her spot among her overwhelmingly male colleagues. On the other hand, being white and Irish didn’t hurt, and like a lot of New York cops, she would not be quick to concede that point.”

As readers get to know Darlene during the two books, de Jonge said, her distinctive voice emerges naturally from conversations with other characters. “Writing dialogue can almost be fun,” he said, “because it really isn’t planned. One character says something, another responds; and unlike the rest of the book, I have no idea where it might lead.”

I asked Peter about his living situation as compared to Darlene. I’ll admit, it’s a weird question to put to a male author regarding a female character, but he answered it anyway. “I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but when I came to New York after college, I lived in the East Village and it is still the neighborhood I am most attached to, and where I hang out on the rare occasions that I hang out. Unlike Darlene, I’m not much of a drinker, but I’ve been to all the bars she frequents and, for research purposes, I went to Milano’s one morning when it opened.”

Darlene has one adult son. Peter has two. “Like Darlene,” he said, “I have experienced the carefree pleasure of watching them sleep.”

Both crime novels have autobiographical touches, he admitted. “To a large degree, Darlene has been saddled with my personality and issues, etc. My current project is [more] overtly autobiographical.”

He didn’t want to say more than this about the book he’s working on now, except that readers should be able to look for it “hopefully quite soon.” As of now, he said, “there are no O’Hara stories in the pipeline,” but if “there was a groundswell of demand, I would probably write another. Once you have the characters, it can go on indefinitely, and by now the characters are very real to me and hopefully to readers.”

Darlene’s cop partner in the first book, who also helps her in the second, is a guy named Krekorian who, at least on Fantasticfiction.com, shares billing with her in the title of the “O’Hara & Krekorian” series. De Jonge said this is a misnomer, as Krekorian is a secondary character. “Nevertheless,” he added, “I have a great deal of fondness for Krekorian, who is not based on a cop, but an Armenian American friend who died in a plane crash.”

Peter said writing a crime novel is about managing the sequence of revelations. “The intelligent path, which I followed in the first book, is to start at the end and work backwards,” he said. “The much harder road, which I went down in the second, is to come up with an intriguing start and then try to figure out someplace for it to go.” As a result, he considers Shadows “a cleaner, tighter piece of entertainment” but believes that Buried is “hopefully … richer.”

“Writing is hard for me,” he said. “But it’s also a source of pride and satisfaction. From an early age, this is what I’ve wanted to do, and I’m very grateful that I’ve been lucky enough to do it and make my living at it.

“Some of that is really due to luck,” he added in what I would like to describe as a moment of O’Hara-like moodiness. But alas, the distance across the imaginary cocktail table between us was too wide for me to read his face.

PHOTO CREDIT: Peter de Jonge, a selfie shot while on assignment in Moscow(!)

The Candymakers

The Candymakers
by Wendy Mass
Recommended Ages: 12+

Logan, Miles, Daisy and Philip are four of 32 contestants in the Confectionary Association's annual New Candy Contest. This year, the 12-year-olds get to work on their entries in the contest – of which the winning candy will actually go into commercial production – at the Life Is Sweet candy factory, where Logan has lived all his life. But before Logan's three guests can move from being competitors toward real friendship, they'll all have to deal with issues that, in more than one case, actually threaten the existence of Life Is Sweet. Secretly, one of them is a spy working for a rival candymaker; one of them bears a grudge, and is out for revenge; and one of them is just struggling to cope with reality. Logan himself carries scars that are visible to everyone but himself.

Every day, Logan's mother passes him a note with an inspirational quote on it. On Day 2 of the group's three-day candymaking experience, the note says, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about." This could actually serve as a theme for the entire book, in which the same two days play back four times so that we can re-experience them from each of the hero kids' point of view. Every exchange takes on a new meaning when you find out what they're coping with at the time. This part of the story is fascinating and often surprising, but the real fun doesn't begin until all the kids get on the same page and start making things happen together – when they get around the obstacles in their way and begin to act like friends.

It's a delicious book, and not just because of the awesome candy factory it depicts. It's a tale that cries out to be added to my running list of healing books. I took pleasure in getting to know each of these main characters better, and seeing them get to know themselves and each other. Their talents are impressive. Their quirks are entertaining. At bottom, they are simply lovable. The complex weave of action and motive, the clever dialogue and even cleverer plot design, are evidence of a master storyteller at work.

The sequel to this book is titled The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase. Wendy Mass is also the author of four Twice Upon a Time books, five Willow Falls books, six Space Taxi books with co-author Michael Brawer, four Time Jumpers books, several other novels for young readers with such titles as A Mango-shaped Space, Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall and Pi in the Sky, and several nonfiction books that seem to be of the educational persuasion.

The Hero Revealed

The Hero Revealed
by William Boniface
Recommended Ages: 10+

In Superopolis, everyone has a superpower – except Ordinary Boy, known as O Boy or OB to his friends. Some of them use their powers to fight crime, others to commit it. Mostly, they just try to make a living – like the Levitator effortlessly delivering heavy packages, or the Big Bouncer using his human gym ball skills to stock shelves at Mighty Mart. OB’s mom, whose gaze can be chilling when she wants it to be, has a well-paid job at a refrigeration firm called Corpsicle. His dad can cook food with his bare hands. His teacher, Ms. Marble, can turn a rowdy class into stone – for a minute or two. Even the other kids in OB’s class have strange powers.

The trouble is, when everyone is special, nobody is – which is perhaps why Thermo (O Boy’s dad) has so much trouble getting into the League of Ultimate Goodness. He just wants to fight crime, but the Amazing Indestructo (who flies around with the aid of a jet pack) isn’t interested in the help of anybody talented enough to upstage him in the media circus he keeps focused on himself. Besides, he’s pretty busy cashing in on his fame. So, funnily enough, Ordinary Boy’s ordinariness allows him to become the kid everybody depends on. Especially because he has brains, uses common sense and (by necessity) knows how to get things done the hard way, which is sometimes the only way.

In his debut adventure, O Boy joins a group of school kids including Stench (who is super strong in more ways than one), Plasma Girl (who can transform into ooze), Tadpole (who can stick his tongue out, like, 20 feet) and Halogen Boy (who, ironically, isn’t all that bright) to complete their collection of a set of superhero and -villain trading cards. Along the way, they learn lessons about supply and demand and, as a free bonus, discover a plot to destroy Superopolis. In a story that broadly lampoons our generation’s overall obliviousness to the mind tricks the commercial media play on us, they face villains who do not go gently into that good night and a boss hero who isn’t all that he publicizes himself to be. They discover their own strengths, and particularly, the extraordinary qualities of a boy everyone thinks is nothing special.

It’s a goofy book that hits notes I have heard elsewhere, but makes its own unique music. Kids going to schools for junior superheroes are not new, nor is the idea of their grown-up idols being revealed as less than advertised. Also, I’ll admit that it’s a little on the lighter side for my taste, or maybe younger would be a better way to put it. In its favor, it scores some palpable hits on mindless commercialism and junk culture. Its characters form an effective ensemble, sharing a fun patter and a bunch of adventures that are, both at once, off-the-wall silly and embarrassingly close to one’s memories of childhood hijinks. It’s the kind of fantasy concept that fulfills many kids’ wish to live in a comic-book universe and, at the same time, makes them happy they don’t have to.

This is Book 1 of the Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy. Its sequels are The Return of Meteor Boy? and The Great Powers Outage. William Boniface is also the author of a novel titled Studs (there's a horse on the cover) and a couple dozen children's books, including What Do You Want on Your Pizza? and There's a Dinosaur in My Soup. Many of his titles have holiday themes and/or the words "Five Little" in them (Five Little Pumpkins, Five Little Bunny Rabbits, etc.).

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things
by Cynthia Voigt
Recommended Ages: 10+

Max Starling's parents, a couple of flamboyant actors, are so overjoyed to be invited by a certain Maharajah of Kashmir to establish a royal theater in his country, they almost forget to take their son along. Then something mysterious happens and Max gets left behind after all – left to wonder what became of them, since no ship answering the name on their tickets actually docked at the harbor. So, Max is left at home to fend for himself, with a little help from his librarian Grammie who lives next door.

Keen to maintain his independence, Max adopts a variety of disguises based on characters from his parents' stage repertoire and begins a career for which, at first, he can't think of a name. Eventually he settles on "solutioneer," using his talent for going unnoticed and a gift for solving other people's problems to make just enough money to get by. Meanwhile, he and Grammie keep an eye out for news of the ships that departed the town's harbor that day. They try to figure out why a group of suspicious characters with long earlobes are interested in seeing the inside of Max's house. Max takes on a lodger, an unwanted assistant, and a role in some three-act dramas in the theater of life – the Lost Dog and the Lost Spoon, to name a few. He wrestles with ethical issues, an artistic crisis, a family misunderstanding and a romantic dilemma. And from time to time, he receives cryptic messages from his folks. What on earth could they be up to?

This is a smart, charming story featuring a most resourceful young hero. It is fun to appreciate, all at the same time, Max's offbeat talents, his strong personality, and the unusual structure his story takes on, at least in his mind. His independence, for his age, is evidently a product of his upbringing in a theater company. His life is definitely unlike that of most readers in his age group, which makes this adventure like a visit to a remarkable fantasy world. Yet at the same time, he deals with real issues with honesty and sincere concern that may stir serious reflections in those readers' hearts and minds.

This "book of lost things," not to be confused with a book of the same name by John Connolly, is the first installment of the Mister Max trilogy, which continues in The Book of Secrets and The Book of Kings. Cynthia Voigt is also the Newbery Medal-winning author of the Tillerman Cycle (Dicey's Song and six others), six Tales of the Kingdom books (Jackaroo etc.), six Bad Girls books, The Callender Papers, and about a dozen other young adult novels with such titles as Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers; Izzy, Willy-Nilly; The Vandemark Mummy; Tree by Leaf; Glass Mountain; and When She Hollers.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Golem of Paris

The Golem of Paris
by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 15+

At the end of the first Jacob Lev novel, a secret was revealed that was so preposterous – I mean, the fact that Jacob’s father had kept it from him – that it left an unpleasant aftertaste in a book that already asked us to suspend a lot of disbelief. Basically, the story squeezed an emotionally fragile LAPD detective between a hunt for a serial killer and a hush-hush organization’s quest to recapture the golem of Prague. Gradually, it becomes apparent that the victims of the bizarre crimes were themselves perpetrators of horrible deeds, done over a wide range of years and in cities all over the world, crimes no one ever connected together before Jacob. And the golem, who killed them, is sort of an avenging angel – only not an angel; rather, a clay monster who can shape-shift between a rare beetle and a beautiful woman and who, for some reason, has decided to be in an exclusive relationship with Jacob.

So. In this second novel, the surprise twist I had trouble swallowing at the end of Book 1 now rests uncomfortably in the gut. Jacob is still depressed, still drinks too much, still has trouble dealing with his father, and is still in career purgatory. The secretive group he sometimes works for, whether he wants to or not, are at least partly descended from angels, we learn. And the theme of connecting horrible crimes separated by many years and international boundaries continues to play in the background, with Jacob catching the scent of a killer who likes to pose the bodies of a mother-son pair so that they seem to be looking at each other.

Running parallel to Jacob’s present-day story is that of his mother, the former Barbara Reich, who rebelled against her atheist parents to become a religious Jew. Bina’s talent for ceramic arts – not to mention a nudge from some of those half-angel types – leads to her being interrogated by a brutal Russian scientist at a lunatic asylum in communist Czechoslovakia.

A lot of heavy consequences arise from this, affecting Jacob’s investigation in the present day – including the pursuit of a Russian billionaire in Paris. With angels breathing down one side of his neck and devils aiming their darts at the other, he pursues a disturbing line of inquiry through scenery that evokes dread and paranoia – not what one usually associates with France.

This novel conveys a powerful sensory and emotional load – most of it very, very dark. It’s got a good handle on the imagery, not to mention the taste and texture, of unremitting sadness in all its variations. It also bears eloquent witness to the horrors done in the name of Communism in the Brezhnev era. Betrayal and faithful love are presented as having about the same potential to inflict personal damage. And ancient mysteries are depicted in a way that seems to dim the light of modernity as it shines on them. It’s a unique effect – not what one would call fun to read, yet at the same time impossible to put down.

This is the second Jacob Lev novel by the father-son writing team who also co-wrote two (going on three) Clay Edison mysteries. The previous installment was The Golem of Hollywood. At the risk of repeating myself, Jonathan is the author of the long-running Dr. Alex Delaware series, while Jesse has also written the novels Sunstroke, Trouble, The Genius, The Executor and Potboiler.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Doom Machine

The Doom Machine
by Mark Teague
Recommended Ages: 12+

If you’re a mildly delinquent boy with a knack for souping up flying saucers, Vern Hollow, N.Y. circa 1956 is a good place to grow up. Luckily for him, not to mention the world and the galaxy, Jack Creedle is the right boy at the right time and place. They’ve landed, and most of the town has fled in terror, but Jack still pedals his paper route and tinkers with cars at his uncle’s repair shop. Also, his mom goes on running a boarding house where, any given day, the guests might range from a hobo to a prominent Boston scientist and her brainy daughter.

On that particular day, another trainload of guests show up – the army, rarin’ to fight the saucerful of skreeps that have invaded the town. Meanwhile, the skreeps – who resemble giant spiders – are looking for a Special Item that they’re sure is hidden somewhere in town. Actually, the Special Item is a gadget that Jack’s Uncle Bud invented, which is the only thing the skreeps need to add Earth to their galactic empire.

Before you can say “Sputnik,” Jack, Uncle Bud, the scientist and her daughter, the town sheriff and his unpleasant son are all swept away on a space adventure involving shipwreck, spacetime anomalies, people-eating monsters, an arduous trek across an alien landscape, gladiatorial games, pirates, illusions, heaps of smelly garbage and a planetary revolution in the political, rather than astronomical, sense.

Jack gets to show off his flying saucer souping-up skills. Isadora, the smart girl, demonstrates superior aim with her throwing arm. They both pick up special abilities along the way, including the ability to communicate in alien languages (thanks to a carroty kind of thing that otherwise has no nutritional value), to pass invisibly through a crowd and to perform acts of healing. Her mom and his uncle also have roles to play, for the making or breaking of worlds upon worlds. The question becomes whether they can live up to a prophecy, started (apparently) by some slave deep in the mines of Skreepia, that says someone just like them will save the world. From itself, like.

I enjoyed this book so much that I shared this book with my dad. He felt it had a slow start and a weak ending. I couldn’t agree. I was entertained all the way through, but I guess I was somewhere in the middle of the book when it came home to me that I was experiencing something much greater than the apparent sum of its parts. It’s a really far-out adventure, brimming with imaginative detail and vibrant characters. Inwardly, I squirmed with evil pleasure as the skreepish characters acted according to their nature – completely unsavory, even at times a bit horrifying, yet somehow perversely relatable.

I also got a kick out of the way Jack instinctively knows what tools and engine parts do, without having any notion of what they’re named. Lines like “Hand me that squidgy thing with the red handle” (not a direct quote) made me laugh out loud. The way two very different kids came together to solve a galaxy-sized problem actually warmed me inside. Their remarks, at the moment when their doom seemed inevitable, touched me. And Ma Creedle’s line at the very end of the book gave me a satisfying feeling that the story goes on – although there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a sequel, so far.

This 2009 book is, as far as I know, the only novel by a children's book author and illustrator who has provided art for such books as Cynthia Rylant's Poppleton series, Shana Corey's First Graders from Mars series and Jane Yolen's Dinosaurs series. His own self-illustrated books include The Field Beyond the Outfield, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Frog Medicine, and Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Another Book Wish List

Last year, I posted a sort of gift registry for my reading aims in the next, oh, 20 years or so. This past week, a social media friend of mine posted a list of books or series that he and his family enjoyed after finishing the Harry Potter series. There were quite a few titles on the list that I've read, reviewed and enjoyed. But there were also many, many, many books I've not gotten around to reading, or in some cases never heard of before – as well as reminders about series that I've lost touch with and really should get back into.

So, further to my previous Book Wish List (which I still consult from time to time, and try to remember to cross off items that I've acquired), here are my reading goals based on my friend's list. Thanks, Rick!

Note: "etc." means "and the series that follows." Anything in parentheses after "etc." is the title of the series, if it isn't obvious from the initial title. Some of the titles are, I now see, duplicated in my previous list. Oh, well!
  • Lloyd Alexander, The Illyrian Adventure etc. (Vesper Holly)
  • Lesley M.M. Blume, Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, The Rising Star of Rusty Nail, Tennyson, Julia and the Art of Practical Travel
  • William Boniface, The Hero Revealed etc. (Ordinary Boy)
  • Pseudonymous Bosch, This Book Is Not Good for You etc. (Secret)
  • Cinda Williams Chima, The Sorcerer Heir
  • Lisa M. Clark, Discovered, Concealed and Revealed (The Messengers series)
  • Sharon Creech, The Great Unexpected
  • Richard Paul Evans, The Prisoner of Cell 25 etc. (Michael Vey)
  • John Flanagan, The Ruins of Gorland etc. (Ranger's Apprentice); The Outcasts etc. (Brotherband)
  • Mark Frost, The Paladin Prophecy etc.
  • Dan Gemeinhart, Some Kind of Courage, The Honest Truth, Scar Island, Good Dog
  • Adam Gopnik, The Steps Across the Water
  • Lisa Graff, Lost in the Sun, Umbrella Summer, A Tangle of Knots, A Clatter of Jars, Absolutely Almost
  • Margaret Peterson Haddix, Among the Hidden etc. (Shadow Children); Found etc. (Missing)
  • Drew Hayes, The Utterly Uninteresting & Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant etc.; Super Powereds Year 1 etc.; NPCs etc.; Forging Hephaestus
  • Robin Hobb, Assassin's Apprentice etc.
  • Polly Horvath, One Year in Coal Harbor, The Night Garden, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, Very Rich
  • Matthew Jobin, The Nethergrim etc.
  • Curtis Jobling, The Rise of the Wolf etc. (Wereworld)
  • S.J. Kincaid, Insignia etc.; The Empress (sequel to The Diabolic)
  • Matthew J. Kirby, Icefall
  • Ingrid Law, Switch
  • Claire Legrand, The Year of Shadows
  • Wendy Mass, The Candymakers, The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase
  • Lisa McMann, The Unwanteds etc.
  • Kate Milford, The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands
  • Christopher Nuttall, Schooled in Magic etc.; The Royal Sorceress etc.; Bookworm etc.; The Zero Blessing etc.
  • R.J. Palacio, Wonder, Auggie & Me
  • H.G. Parry, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep
  • Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness etc. (Wingfeather Saga)
  • Robert A. Polk, Operation Tree Roper
  • Terry Pratchett, Dodger
  • Geoff Rodkey, Deadweather and Sunrise etc. (Chronicles of Egg)
  • Laura Amy Schlitz, Splendors and Glooms
  • S.D. Smith, The Green Ember etc., Insignia etc.
  • John Stephens, The Fire Chronicle and The Black Reckoning (Books of Beginning)
  • Trenton Lee Stewart, Secret Keepers, Mysterious Benedict Society & the Riddle of Ages, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
  • Cynthia Voigt, The Book of Lost Things etc. (Mister Max)
  • Ben H. Winters, The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, The Mystery of the Missing Everything
  • Dan Wells, Partials etc.

UPDATE: I went on my regional library's online catalog this afternoon (off the clock!) and checked the availability of a bunch of these titles, then I shopped Thriftbooks for the ones I couldn't get through the library system. Three are locally available; I was able to request eight titles from the library system; and seven of them combined in a $33.30 purchase with free shipping. Excuse me if I resemble a pig in @#$%. I'm also going to cross off the titles I got hold of, either by purchase or from the library.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Monstrous Devices

Monstrous Devices
by Damien Love
Recommended Ages: 12+

Life takes a strange turn for Alex, a bullied London schoolboy, when he receives a toy robot in the mail from his grandfather – possibly the original toy based on the early 20th century Czech play that coined the word “robot.” Soon afterward, Alex is attacked in his bedroom by several other toy robots that seem to have come to life. Also, he senses that his own robot has a mind of its own, offering him a power that he secretly covets.

Promptly, Granddad shows up and sweeps Alex off on a perilous adventure across Europe, while a tall man, a nasty little girl, and their henchmen pursue them. Everywhere they turn, the boy and his grandfather are strafed by tiny flying machines, watched if not actively chased by toys on wheels and treads and wobbly legs. Some of the robots are as big as people, but they’re all dangerous, all animated by villains who have learned to bind machines to their will by sacrificing bits of themselves to their whirring cogs. Yet again, Alex is drawn to them, haunted by a sense of familiarity.

Together, Alex and his granddad fight their way through Paris, the French countryside, and finally Prague, racing an enemy armed with killer robots. Eventually, Alex’s new toy proves to contain the clay tablet bearing the 72 Hebrew names of God that animated the original golem of Prague. Once it gets into the wrong hands, it’s only a matter of time until the same clay monster runs amok (amuck?) again. It’s the familiar legend of Rabbi Loew warmed up for the machine age – old terror, new look – with nobody but a scared English schoolboy to stop it.

This book is easy to love. Besides the fact that my recent readings have, just by chance, let me review the Rabbi Loew/golem of Prague legend from another angle, and the obvious combination of eerie mystery, supernatural horror and high-paced action, it’s just super-funny.

For example, Grandfather has this endearing character trait of indulging in bad habits (like smoking, drinking, eating fattening food and walking on ledges outside highrise buildings) while warning his grandson never, ever to do the same. Alex, meanwhile, has a vulnerability that goes straight to the heart – though he, too, is a very imperfect fellow. Maybe his most disturbing flaw is the one that will make the end of this book a hook into Book 2.

This is the debut novel of a Scottish author whose book jacket blurb claims he has the ability to talk to cats, but admits there is no evidence they understand him. A sequel, titled The Shadow Arts, is scheduled for release March 3, 2020.

Downton Abbey, the movie

Downton Abbey – I decided to see this movie even though I hadn't, and still haven't, seen a single episode of the BBC/PBS series it was based on. I'm mostly familiar with it from social media memes featuring Maggie Smith, an actress I always enjoy whether the movie she's in is all that great or not. Deciding whether this movie is all that great is perhaps above my pay grade, since I spent a lot of it not knowing who was who or how it all fit together. So I'll keep my review very brief and extend a "for what it's worth" advisory while doing so.

For what it's worth, I thought this movie tried to do too many things at one time, and didn't have enough time to do all of them very well. I thought the story was basically misshapen, with either a lot of anticlimax or, more charitably, a lot of stories being resolved considerably after the dramatic energy peaked. I'm all for complex characters, but I wasn't really engaged with, and in some cases positively struggled to sympathize with, some of the point-of-view characters; maybe the problem is they needed to be more complex than their screen time allowed.

Finally, as far as the wish-fulfillment aspect of this TV series turned film franchise goes, I'm just not feeling the nostalgia some people apparently do for an age during which household staff couldn't travel anywhere without their employers' permission, felt lucky to get a half-day off every two weeks and were unemployable if they separated from their position without a glowing recommendation. I never pegged myself for the kind of person who would root for organized labor, but the way the Crawleys' lives of luxury stood on the stooped shoulders of a staff who, as individuals, they mostly didn't even notice, didn't do wonders for the feeling in my lower back.

Looking at it one storyline at a time, it was a cute movie. The young butler's side adventure in the (at that time, and we're talking George V era) seedy gay subculture didn't seem relevant to anything else in the film, and I wondered what kind of future he had going for him considering that the old retired butler staged a coup on him and pushed him out ahead of the King and Queen's visit. The merchant-class Irish widowed son-in-law of the Crawleys had a nice little romance with a lady's companion who actually had hopes to inherit quite a fortune - which, as any reader of Austen knows, is just the touch of good luck that ensures a happy ending to any courtship between young people of good breeding and character. Some gent struggles with how to refuse an invitation from the king to accompany his royal son on an international trip, because said gent's wife will be due to give birth around that time; the dilemma works itself out without anyone being beheaded, which is surely a sign that the 1920s was a relatively enlightened period. Also, somebody tries to take a shot at the king, but the Irish republican son-in-law chooses just the right female member of the household to help him foil the plot, in a touching display of his dedication, if not to royalism, at least to the Crawleys. And so forth.

There are a lot of plot lines in this story, and as worked out individually, some of them actually help the structure of the movie keep its shape. But some of them don't. In my opinion, everything after the royal dinner at Downtown Abbey could have, and maybe should have, been cut out just for architectural reasons, and information paid out after that point either kept for the viewer to deduce for him- or herself or pushed up the agenda a bit.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Foiling the assassination plot, which was as close as this movie came to being a thriller. (2) The below-stairs mutiny that cut the royal staff out and allowed the Downton staff to serve their Majesties, culminating in one footman's mortifying "aria" – a breathtaking moment of disaster in which I actually entered into the manners of the time. (3) Pretty much every sarcastic exchange between Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton as, respectively, the spirit of all stuffiness and her more progressively minded relative. (I would probably have to watch the TV series to find out exactly how they're related, so I'll leave it at that.)

The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project
by Graeme Simsion
Recommended Ages: 13+

Don Tillman is a geneticist who teaches evolutionary psychology at a major university in Melbourne. His brain is wired differently from most people’s, so he is socially challenged and has difficulty getting past – not to mention through – his first date with a woman. Encouraged by his colleague and best friend Gene, a chronic philanderer, Don creates a questionnaire to attempt, in a scientifically rigorous way, to filter the female population for Miss Right, who is surely out there somewhere. Then a completely unsuitable candidate walks into his office, and throws everything out of whack.

Although practically every aspect of Rosie contradicts Don’s criteria for the perfect mate, he can’t stop thinking about her. He starts to refer to her, in his private thoughts, as the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. He undertakes an ethically dodgy genetics project solely to identify her biological father, and refuses to give it up, setback after setback, even when Rosie seems ready to throw it in. He learns to mix cocktails, cuts a rug at the faculty ball and travels halfway around the world for her, having the time of his life, even while not admitting to her or to himself that he loves her. The lengths he goes to and the risks he takes are hilarious and emotionally powerful in one go.

Some readers (or listeners, if you fly Audiobook Airways) may be tempted to compare Don Tillman to Sheldon Cooper of TV’s “Big Bang Theory.” There are, to be sure, some superficial similarities. But the differences are greater. For one, Don’s story is steadily, tirelessly funny without relying on cheap laughs. For another, in spite of his awkward personality quirks, he isn’t a terrible person. Take, for example, the decision he makes about the DNA sample he inadvertently harvests from a widow in the end stage of dementia, whose dead son is one of the candidates for the Father Project. Also, his efforts to transform himself and (at least superficially) grow beyond his limitations, to step outside his comfort zone, to make himself worthy of someone entirely different from himself, show a real strength of character beyond – well, let’s just leave it there.

Don and friends have a very naturalistic world view, which in my opinion skews their moral compass and adds to their personal and relationship problems. Still, for who and what he is and the challenges he must overcome to function at a high level in the social and professional world, Don achieves some amazing things, which compensates for anything the evolutionary psychology point-of-view takes away from one's ability to sympathize with him. Getting him and Rosie (back) together ends up mattering, in this book, perhaps even more than it did in the first book – a sequel just as funny as its original, and in my opinion, more dramatically effective.

This review is based on hearing the audiobook read by Dan O'Grady. The first book in the Don Tillman trilogy, it is followed by The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result. Simsion, an Australian novelist, is also the author of The Best of Adam Sharp and co-author, with Anne Buist, of Two Steps Forward.

The Empty Chair

The Empty Chair
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

Quadriplegic forensic scientist Lincoln Rhyme is in North Carolina for an operation that he hopes will give him back a little more sensation and movement. Since an on-the job accident some years ago, he has only been able to move from the shoulders up, plus his left ring finger. He requires the assistance of a live-in caretaker named Thom for most daily functions, and of a beautiful but stubborn redheaded cop named Amelia Sachs to comb crime scenes for evidence. On this trip, Sachs fears that Rhyme is risking too much for what will be, at best, a tiny improvement. But she's the one who rushes into danger when the sheriff of a nearby county requests their help searching for a disturbed teenager who has already killed another boy and kidnapped two young women.

While Rhyme and a grudging volunteer use borrowed equipment to analyze evidence in real time, Sachs hits the trail of the suspect, known locally as Insect Boy, in hopes of catching up to him before the girls come to harm. The search isn't just dangerous because Insect Boy uses his knowledge of bugs to rig a series of fiendish booby traps. There also seems to be a rogue cop, bent on killing the kid to avenge previous deaths for which he went unpunished. And then there are the three local bad boys, all heavily armed and looking for a piece of the action. Even after they catch Insect Boy and save one of his female victims, the other one remains unaccounted for and may be running out of time. But the mentally unbalanced kid isn't talking. According to the evidence, he looks guilty as hell.

Things come to a head when Sachs breaks the kid out of jail and becomes co-target of another search, with Rhyme on the other side, following the evidence. She's convinced there's more to the story than what the evidence reveals. But as the forces of law officers and outlaws converge on the two fugitives, Sachs does the unthinkable – guaranteed to leave the reader shaken and wondering, for the rest of the book, how this can possibly not be the end for the Rhyme-Sachs partnership.

The answer to that – see me doing my best to withhold spoilers – is a particularly over-the-top example, in my opinion, of Jeffery Deaver's penchant for insane plot twists. I won't deny that I found this book thrilling, suspenseful and mentally stimulating, with its fascinating setting and scientific background – not to mention the psychological interviewing technique that gives it its title. But after multiple surprise revelations turned around everything you thought was true in the story, the final surprise that resolves the big question mentioned above – and then the even more final one after it, which is kind of a bonus – left a bad taste in my mouth. I was disturbed by them for days after reading this book, in part because I thought they did a disservice to a couple of characters as they were previously established, and in part because these last couple of twists (or at least the last one) needlessly pulled the story out of shape. They were also of the too convenient to be true persuasion – either desperate moves to write oneself out of a corner, or twists just for twists' sake; I'm not sure which.

This is the third of 14 Lincoln Rhyme novels, a series that started in 1997 with The Bone Collector and most recently added The Cutting Edge in 2018. The next book in sequence is The Stone Monkey. Deaver, sometimes credited as Jeffery Wilds Deaver or William Jefferies, is also the author of the Rune trilogy (Manhattan Is My Beat, etc.), the John Pellam trilogy (Shallow Graves, etc.), four Kathryn Dance novels (The Sleeping Doll, etc.), a couple of Colter Shaw novels (The Never Game, The Goodbye Man) and more than a dozen other novels with such titles as The Blue Nowhere and The Bodies Left Behind.