The Dungeoneers

posted by: August 18, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Dungeoneers by John David AndersonJohn David Anderson's The Dungeoneers is the story of Colm, a young boy trying to help his family. Unfortunately for Colm, he's a thief. Fortunately for Colm, he's given the chance at riches beyond his wildest dreams. All he has to do is join Thwodin's Legion, the world's premier dungeon raiding guild. Oh, and he has to survive those same dungeons, full of deadly traps, murderous monsters and, of course, a couple hundred other adventurers in training, starting with his own team. Lena is a fighter hoping to become a barbarian, with a phobia of seeing her own blood. Quinn is a mage with a speech impediment under stress and a bottomless pit for a stomach. Selene wants to make friends with all the creatures they meet in the world's most dangerous places, as long as they aren't any bigger than spiders.


Thwodin's Legion is basically Hogwarts for the kids growing up with World of Warcraft and Minecraft. Everyone fits into a fantasy archetype, from the wizards to the rogues, and while they may not move far from their base, these archetypes are classic for a lot of reasons. Everyone gets roles for their place in a dungeon raid. “Stay behind the big one.” “Don't steal from your partners, unless it's okay.” “Never let the big guy do the sneaking.”


Anderson is a master of throwing kids into situations that are so vividly detailed that they feel believable but utterly fantastic at the same time. He has also turned out the superb Sidekicked and Minion, books about kids who grow up in the battle between superheroes and supervillains. No matter how out there the world, it's grounded in day-to-day life. Colm steals because his family is poor. His family doesn't accept this because they are moral people. This book is about how a thief becomes more than just a thief, and figures out how to do the sort of right thing in a complicated world.



The Sculptor

posted by: August 6, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Sculptor by Scott McCloudIn The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, David Smith has made a deal with Death. He is given 200 days to make his mark on the art world — for the things he makes to come out just as he imagines them. But he's David Smith, awkward and angry, and a man of strong opinions and often hard edges, stiff and unbending. With his mortality in short supply, David has just met the love of his life.


The Sculptor is a great many things. It is made up of the countless small moments and memories that make up a life. It is made up of the big ideas that drive those moments. This is a metacommentary on the expression of life through art, and if that sounds intimidating, it shouldn't be because this story comes from the capable hands of Scott McCloud, who literally wrote the book on graphic novels as an art form (Understanding Comics, 1993).


With Understanding Comics, McCloud took apart graphic novels, studying how pieces large and small, overt and subtle, fit together to create tones, ideas, impacts and stories. The book is a masterwork of art criticism, necessary and friendly reading for anyone who wants to understand graphic novels or any other form of narrative art.


In The Sculptor, McCloud has put the parts he explained back together, and the result is nothing less than a masterpiece. This is not a book so much as it is a symphony, with great rising movements, drumming beats, soft counter melodies and a wave of pictures and people living through ordinary lives in extraordinary ways.


This is a big read, with questions about art, integrity, family, love, purpose. But it is also a peaceful read. Everything is colored in a soft, blue-gray that never stresses the eyes. David walks the simple, complex and bittersweet joys of growing into a new love. The images come with the wild energy of an artist pushing their boundaries as hard as they can, living alongside quiet domestic scenes, neither ever drowning each other out.


Which is better, to live a good life or to throw everything into a calling?


Jurassic Park

posted by: June 23, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Jurassic ParkThe theatrical release of Jurassic World brings a chance to go back 65 million years to a bygone age when dinosaurs walked the earth. Ever since Sir Richard Owen discovered the first dinosaur in 1828, humans have wondered what it would be like to live alongside these ancient creatures. As science became more widespread, the scenarios that made this possible became more and more far-fetched, from cavemen to entire worlds at the center of the planet. That all changed 25 years ago when Michael Crichton gave us Jurassic Park, backing dinosaur fantasies with hard science and showing us what living with dinosaurs would really be like — terrifying! The book went on to spawn one of the definitive movies of the ’90s, a thriller with unforgettable and horrifying monsters. Almost all of the science was dropped in favor of one of the great Jeff Goldblum roles. Three more sequels were released in the theaters, and one more in book form. So Jurassic Park was huge, but how was it as a book?


Every book shifts drastically from page to screen, and Jurassic Park more than most. The book was a morality play on the dangers of unexamined science and karmic retribution, with dinosaurs used as metaphor, the sugar to help the medicine go down.. Characters who expressed scientific views Crichton didn't like were eaten by dinosaurs in very messy ways. A quarter of a century on, many of those views have become outdated. At the time, the warm-blooded vs. cold-blooded debate was barely common knowledge, and the idea that many dinosaurs would have feathers was barely crossing paleontologist desks, much less the public consciousness.


Fortunately, the book has dinosaurs, and it has dinosaurs in far greater quantities than any of the movies. In a movie, a Tyrannosaurus Rex costs millions of dollars. In literature, a Tyrannosaurus Rex costs 16 letters. The result is dozens more dinosaur encounters in a wider range of species. Jurassic Park is the definitive adult dinosaur novel.




The Dragons at Crumbling Castle

posted by: May 12, 2015 - 7:00am

The Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry PratchettEarlier this year, we lost one of the greats. Terry Pratchett was a satirist worthy of being commented on in the same breath as Mark Twain. The only British author to outsell him was J.K. Rowling. Pratchett wasn't always huge though, and that's how you arrive full circle at The Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett. It is a collection of the short stories that Sir Terry first published when he was just a starting journalist for the Bucks Free Press.


Most of Pratchett's infamy comes from the Discworld, a world carried on the back of four elephants which naturally stand on the back of a massive turtle. The Discworld gave birth to Rincewind, the least magical wizard ever, an orangutan librarian, a kind but often confused Death, witches, watchmen and dozens upon dozens of novels — and wordplay so brilliant that no one can catch every nuance on the first reading. (Fortunately there's enough in every book to make multiple readings an entirely enjoyable venture.) The Discworld exists as a satire of the world we live in, covering everything from holidays, feminism, religion and a million other sacred cows poked with both anger and understanding. Pratchett came to be known for fantasy that hit close to home. The Dragons of Crumbling Castle is far closer to home.


Meet corrupt small town politicians cooking the local egg dancing competition. There is a pet tortoise that only wants freedom. The book has wacky races and the enduring question of what Santa Claus would do if he wasn't Santa Claus. (Apparently, nothing well.) Two of the stories here went on to lead to Sir Terry's first novel The Carpet People, about tiny, tiny people who live amongst the strands of the carpet fiber and are forced to move when the Fray gets too close. It turns out that even when he was young, Pratchett understood that the world was more than slightly mad. These are light enough stories that I'd recommend them for parents reading to their children, and the entire book has been enthusiastically illustrated by Mark Beech.


We're not done with Pratchett yet. He has at least two more finished books coming out this year.


A Twist That Goes Bump in the Night

posted by: May 6, 2015 - 7:00am

A Plague of BoglesVictorian London was a nasty place to be if you had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the economic divide. It gets worse, however, if you're stuck in a part of town where there's a bogle – nebulous, unpredictable monsters who eat children left alone. Get stuck while sweeping a chimney? There might be a bogle there ready to eat you. Go down to fetch something from the cellar? Better hope that if you're alone, you're really alone. There is only one way to hunt bogles, and that's to bait a trap with a child who must sing with their back to the bogle until the bogle is exposed enough to be killed by a poisoned weapon. As bogles descend upon London, Catherine Jinks has woven a light but effective bit of period horror in A Plague of Bogles.


Jem Barbary has his sights set on the prestigious job, at least by the level of unlucky London, job of bogler's boy. He wants to be the bait for Alfred Bunce, London's only remaining bogler, semi-retired. After the events of How to Catch a Bogle, Jem has decided to give up crime. He used to be a pickpocket in a Fagin ring, but he hasn't given up playing whatever angle he can think of. Unfortunately, that seems to involve a whole lot of lying and leading publicity back to people who'd rather keep their heads down. He's also out for revenge against his former mistress, Sarah Pickles.


Like a good ghost story, A Plague of Bogles is both scary and fun. London is full of colorful characters trying to survive on a few cents a day. Street patter is used so fluidly that there's a large glossary at the end of the book just to make the dialogue clear. Jem Barbary and all the supporting cast are great characters, wildly flawed but determined. The standout passages, though, go to the bogle hunting. Every single time is a slow boil, impending, but certain, doom creeping up until just the last moment when everything snaps like a mousetrap.



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