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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Matt Hill

Matthew Hill has lived his whole life in the Baltimore area, except for all the hours he's spent on other planets, in far off kingdoms, and on top of giant stalks of broccoli. By day he's an Office Assistant in Towson. On weekends he can be found selling beef jerky at the Renaissance Festival or hanging out with sloths and octopuses. He reads science fiction, fantasy, young adult, children's books, and is willing to try most genres at least once.

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The Streetwise Hercules

The Streetwise Hercules

posted by:
December 19, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Blood of Olympus"Seven half-bloods shall answer the call,
To storm or fire the world must fall.
An oath to keep with final breath,
And foes bear arms to the Doors of Death."

 

The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan is the end, the final book in a five year saga, and the fulfillment of prophecy. Roman mythology and Greek mythology have clashed with each other, with Gods, Goddesses, Titans and the very Earth itself. It's been clear since the beginning that someone was going to die. Would it be Jason Grace, son of Jupiter? Piper, daughter of Aphrodite? Maybe it would be one of the five other heroes, including a returning Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase. The action is big, the threats are far out there and the characters are still quipping.

 

In a post-Potter world, any number of contenders have stepped up to provide fantastic sagas for the young. Riordan has become the Dean of Children's Mythology. Every page in his books are full of reimagined Greek and Roman (and sometimes Egyptian, and soon to be Norse) mythology that can be quickly and easily digested by new readers. It's by turns hilarious, horrifying, action-packed and zooming along with all the speed of a thriller. There's a potency to The Blood of Olympus that comes from being built on stories that have lasted for thousands of years.

 

This is not a perfect book. Most of the ensemble cast run through their character arcs and just stick around for lack of anywhere else to be. The humor can be patchy. It doesn't matter, because this is smart, imaginative writing that will inspire the next generation. Some of the kids who read this will go on to be archaeologists, mythographers and authors. The rest will have a good time in a world that's grown bigger since they started reading.

 

Matt

 
 

Her Face Is a Map of the World

Her Face Is a Map of the World

posted by:
November 18, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover of The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill LeporeWas there ever a superhero created to save the day quite like Wonder Woman? Superman and Batman may have been made for pure entertainment, but Wonder Woman was always supposed to help usher in a new age of feminism where women reigned supreme over men and everyone got tied up a lot. This is The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, and it's going to be a wild ride.

 

Wonder Woman had three main creators. Psychologist William Moulton Marston was the grandstanding inventor of the lie detector (though not the polygraph). His wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, was a professional editor and the main breadwinner in a family of three adults and four children. Olive Byrne was the third member of their triad, the niece of Margaret Sanger, and likely the comic's ghost writer. Obviously, this concept wouldn’t have gone over so well in 1940s America.

 

The Margaret Sanger link is important. The Marstons had very close–but hidden–ties with the women’s rights movement. William Marston conducted psycholoy experiments at Harvard. He put himself through college writing movie scripts. His attempts to get people to recognize the value of his lie detector got an innocent man a life sentence, got lie detectors permanently thrown out of court and put him on the FBI's watchlist. Wonder Woman comics contain the history of several eras, as reimagined by a self-important huckster.

 

The Secret History of Wonder Woman brings all the different pieces of history together – of early psychology, education reform, suffrage and feminism from several decades. Everything is illustrated with panels from the Wonder Woman comics. From the Harvard psychology professor who became Wonder Woman's first villain to Wonder Woman's real world run for president after her creator's death. History shaped Wonder Woman, and then Wonder Woman rewrote history.

Matt

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Wooly Bully

Wooly Bully

posted by:
November 5, 2014 - 6:00am

Cover art for Bad Machinery: The Case of the Good Boy by John AllisonThere was a time when child sleuths were all the rage, when Nate the Great, Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift solved crime along with just being kids. John Allison has brought mystery solving-teens back, and they are wittier than ever. Bad Machinery: The Case of the Good Boy is based on a the daily "Bad Machinery webcomic. It's girls vs. boys as babies go missing and any number of large, hairy beasties may or may not be invading the neighborhood.

 

Representing the girls, there's Lottie, all attitude and puff jackets. Shauna is the brains. Mildred has just found an incredibly large, friendly dog who just so happens to drink from a cup.

 

On the boys' side, there is Linton, most notable for a profound lack of tact. Jack is the quiet one who attracts the ladies. Sonny is sort of like a human Golden Retriever.

 

John Allison once described his writing style as word mangling, and it starts with the very first page.

 

"It's perfectly natural for babies to be out in nature, Carol!"
"The babies are getting quite dirty."
"Stop FUSSING and help me make their gruel."

 

It's all sideways from there, as bullies, scouting, stinky younger siblings, and dogless families are navigated. There's a missing magic pencil and a case of arson. Everything is bounced through at a well-measured pace. Allison has been writing comics in this universe for well over a decade now, and he knows exactly what he wants to do with every panel. The art looks intentionally rough and energetic.

 

While the main story is found online, the book ends with six pages of supplemental material that won't be found anywhere else. They're the perfect, silly complement to an already high-quality print.
 

Matt

 
 

A Marvel of Ink

A Marvel of Ink

posted by:
October 7, 2014 - 6:00am

Words for PicturesThis book will make you a better writer. It will also make you a better collaborator. It will probably make you better at just about any endeavor that involves getting people excited about an idea. Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels is a book about becoming a comics industry professional by one of the comics industry’s biggest names. Brian Michael Bendis has written the most popular characters at Marvel in many of their most epic appearances, alongside many touted professionals in the industry.

 

That last point is the most important. This may be Bendis' project, but it's rarely Bendis' voice alone. The first chapter may be Writing 101 advice, but that stops quickly. Most of the book consists of Bendis interviewing other writers he's worked with on how to put books together, generate ideas and then act on them. From there, he launches into working with artists, from how he tries to bring out their best work to how to get the best collaborative results. What really sells this is that Bendis got 14 artists from the industry to give their side of the collaboration. What gets an artist excited? What's the right level of direction? When does the writer need to back off and let the artist do their job?

 

The end result is that it becomes clear that there are any number of ways to successfully work together. A springboard is set up for aspiring artists and writers to find their own methods. Bendis pulls a hat trick twice. He doesn't stop with artists. There's an entire section devoted to working with editors. The most valuable section may be Bendis' interview of his wife, who handles the business side of his art. This book could make a successful artist out of a starving one and that's priceless.

Matt

categories:

 
 

There We Weren't All in One Place

The Long MarsThirty years ago, mankind gained access to virtually unlimited space. By means of a small box containing a potato, people could step "West" or "East" into an unknown number of alternate Earths where humankind had never evolved. Given open spaces, mankind did what mankind has always done, and colonized millions of other worlds. They weren't nearly enough.

Willis Linsay disappeared 30 years ago after releasing humanity into the Long Earth. No one knows where he's been, or what he's been looking for all that time, but now he's back and dragging his daughter along to Mars. For Mars, it turns out, also has an infinite number of alternate worlds, and one of them might just hold a whole new gateway to the universe. Back on the Long Earth, Captain Maggie Kauffman has been sent on an entirely new exploration, all the way out to Earth 200 million. Joshua Valiente, the Long Earth's oldest explorer, has set out to find a new kind of people who may be humanity's future.

 

The third book in the Terry Pratchett Long Earth series, The Long Mars' weakness is its plot, which feels like the set up for a bigger story. While there may be a functional double climax, most of the story is exploratory ramble, but that exploratory ramble remains absolutely stunning. Every world in the Long Earth and a few in the Long Mars developed in radically different ways. The alternate world premise may be fantasy, but every world of the Long Earth has real science behind it. Here, an entirely different evolutionary pathway, there a different sociological slant on civilization. It's possible to learn more about climate science in in a single passage of The Long Mars than an entire high school science course, and be entertained besides by Terry Pratchett's arch commentary.

Matt

 
 

A Cold Day in Hades

Skin GameEverything changed for Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, when he sold his services to Mab, Queen of the Fairies, to save his daughter. He's been not quite dead, trapped in Fairy politics and sent on a wide variety of suicide missions. That was the easy part. Nicodemus, Knight of the Blackened Denarius and one of the cruelest enemies Dresden has ever faced is back in town, planning a major heist. And Harry's stuck working for him.

 

By turns Skin Game by Jim Butcher is a ripping heist novel, a hilariously goofy urban fantasy, with enough touching moments to give real weight. Butcher has won the ability to write gripping, fun and magical crime novels, and he's fought for that ability in this very series. It's not recommended to start with Skin Game if you're going to read the Dresden Files series because too much of the book is dependent on things that have come before. I don't recommend beginning at the first book either, because Butcher didn't really find his footing until the third. Start with the third book, Grave Peril, because the Dresden Files are a journey. Characters grow, wrestle with themselves, face up to things they don't want to deal with. There's a whole lot Dresden doesn't want to deal with, from dragging his friends into danger to stronger and stronger deals with dangerous and inhuman powers. Life has a tendency to get a whole lot bigger than the people living in the Dresdenverse.

 

If this were a movie, it would be a summer tent pole, a certified blockbuster. It has huge, explosive action, romance, comedy, true love, and cute animals. There are double and triple crosses and rivalries that zoom along. It would be better than anything you're going to see in the theater this year. But it gets even better if you haven't read the rest of the Dresden Files, because now you have an entire book series that's better than anything you're going to see in the theater, and it's still building up to even bigger things.

Matt

 
 

Everybody Do the Locomotion

Everybody Do the Locomotion

posted by:
August 21, 2014 - 6:00am

Cover art for Raising SteamWhen Richard Simnel invents the locomotive, it's Steam Engine Time in Ankh-Morpork, the greatest city of the Discworld! With financial backing from Harry King, King of the Golden River and Moist von Lipwig, the Disc's wiliest civil servant, everyone and everything is on the move. A bid to get seafood that's still fresh spawns the tourist industry. But where there's change, there's people who don't want to change, and the budding rail has to fend off attacks of Deep Dwarves.
 

As a story alone, this is solid material, but Terry Pratchett remains one of the greatest living satirists. (He's also better than quite a few who are dead.) With Raising Steam, he looks at societal change driven by technology bringing people together. At the same time, it's an homage to rail culture, engineers and all the people who make the transportation industry go. It's also a blistering indictment of people who try to burn the world down rather than letting their neighbors move on with the times. "Tak does not require that we think of him, but he does require that we think."
 

At the same time, Raising Steam is also clearly the book of a man struggling with Alzheimer's. It remains a wonder that Pratchett can still write at all, much less as well as this. His earlier books may have been stronger (a few plot threads appear and vanish in Steam, never to be seen again), but it's still a gem. Written with the understanding that any book he turns out could be his last, he gives us a chance to check in with old friends throughout. The Discworld may be a long-running series, but every book stands alone while providing bonuses for the fans who have read the books that came before.

 

Raising Steam is a reminder that big things often start with little things. Here they start with a load of octopus on a midsummer's day.

Matt

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Growing Up with WondLa

Growing Up with WondLa

posted by:
August 5, 2014 - 7:00am

The Battle for WondLaWhat is WondLa? When Eva Nine left home in the first book of the WondLa trilogy by Tony DiTerlizzi, all she had was her robotic Muthr and a picture of a place called WondLa, a land that seemed to offer everything she ever wanted out of life. A lot has changed since then. She's made friends, she's made a few enemies and she's discovered that the world has changed from what she was trained to face. The entire Earth had gone dormant until a life generator tried to make the planet livable again for alien colonists. Eva Nine has discovered that she's not the last human in the world, but what's left of humanity is being pushed into a war that doesn't need to be fought. The time has come for The Battle for WondLa.

 

This is a great series to grow up with. There's action, adventure, even a little romance, but there's also some pretty hefty philosophical concepts so the book is not age-locked. Alien — and not-so-alien but still bizarre — beasts live and die and figure out what they stand for. Tony DiTerlizzi was also one of the writers and illustrators for the Spiderwick Chronicles, and just as he did with those books, the WondLa trilogy overflows with inventive and monochrome character-filled illustrations. It's possible to get a sense of who the characters are and what they'll do just by looking at them.

 

This might not be an appropriate read for very young children. Violence abounds and terrifying situations are common, but that's part of growing up. Scary story elements are right next to affirmations of friendship, fascinating world building and the essential idea that all people see things differently. This may be a children's book, but readers of any age should be able to enjoy this one.

Matt

 
 

Magic Doesn't Solve Problems

Magic Doesn't Solve Problems

posted by:
July 11, 2014 - 6:00am

Cover art for The Islands of ChaldeaAileen was supposed to become a wise woman like her Aunt Beck, but then she messed up her initiation and spends the following morning in one of those depressions that sucks the joy right out of eating. So maybe it's just as well that she and her aunt are summoned to the castle and sent off on a quest to reopen the sealed land of Logre, which vanished behind a wall not long after Aileen was born. Things go wrong. When Aunt Beck gets herself cursed out of her own stubbornness, it's up to Aileen to take over and deal with all the problems — both large and small — that crop up.

 

When Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011, we lost one of the great fantasy and children's writers of the past century. There's a sense, not just of magic and quests, but of people who actually have to live in a world where curses might mean that every meal has to be spoon-fed, and where the horse isn't a gallant steed but a donkey that gets the cart stuck in the mud sometimes. There's true love, the refutation of childhood crushes and a gentle understanding that people sometimes make the wrong choices when they're alone. It doesn't take center stage, but there's a lot that an older reader will get that a child won't.

 

What makes a Diana Wynne Jones story is the understanding that as wonderful as magic is, it doesn't solve problems. Magic is merely an extension of the personality of the people who use it. Character, not power, decides the fate of Aileen and her companions.

 

The Islands of Chaldea was completed by Diana Wynne Jones's sister, Ursula Jones, an acclaimed novelist and actress.

Matt