Rick Riordan: The Trials of Apollo – Review

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The Hidden Oracle, The Trials of Apollo, Rick Riordan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Zeus needed someone to blame, so of course he’d picked the handsomest, most talented, most popular god in the pantheon: me.”

– Apollo 

This might be my favourite Riordan book.

I was actually disappointed with his last one – The Sword of Summer – and I began to question in my review if it was finally time for Mr. R. to take a step back from these books about Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods. The conflicts were similar and the teen “voices” had begun to blend into one.

Magnus Chase could just as easily have been Percy Jackson.

But then RR had to throw Apollo into the mix who stands out because he is not a teenage boy. Well… technically, he is in this book. But he’s actually an age-old immortal who has been cast out of Olympus by Zeus and turned into a regular human teenager. His voice, however, not to mention his snark and humour, are that of a selfish, narcissistic, hilarious asshole.

Truly, this book is so refreshing! Apollo doesn’t even pretend he’s a do-gooder; in fact, it’s clear from the beginning that he’s out for himself and views humans as “meat sacks”. Imagine his horror when he discovers that not only is he human, but he also has acne and flab.

“Is anything sadder than the sound of a god hitting a pile of garbage bags?”

– Apollo

Of course, there’s a whole lot of godly drama going on too. You don’t get to be an old god like Apollo without making a LOT of enemies. But this mostly stood out to me as being the funniest book Riordan has written and that’s really saying something, given that all his books are defined by his trademark snarky humour. Pure entertainment.

Apollo is the Gilderoy Lockhart of this world and it is hilarious. There’s a nice bit of schadenfreude to be had when this self-obsessed god finally gets what he deserves and has to rely on Percy Jackson for help. And yet, there is something undeniably lovable about him too.

On that note, many familiar characters come in and out of this book. You don’t have to have read the other books to understand and enjoy this one, but it does contain spoilers for the main series and the characters.

This, for me, stood out amid a sea of similar stories and characters. I’m still not 100% sure I would want to read any more books that focus on teenage demigods (we’ve kind of been there and done that, in my opinion), but I will definitely see Apollo’s story through to the end.

“It warmed my heart that my children had the right priorities: their skills, their images, their views on YouTube.”

– Apollo

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Naomi Novik: His Majesty’s Dragon – Book Review

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His Majesty’s Dragon, Temeraire Series, Naomi Novik. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t expecting much when I picked up His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik. To tell the truth, if I’d seen it in a bookstore, I wouldn’t have picked it up. But it was recommended to me by a reliable source as a better alternative to Eragon, and it was a historical fantasy set during the Napoleonic Wars. I figured I’d give it a try. I didn’t regret it.

I don’t love this book because Naomi Novik’s writing style is equal to that of Tolkien. I don’t love this book because it’s perfect in every way – indeed, some of the subplots were rather weak, and should have been changed or cut out altogether. Rather, I love this book because Naomi Novik took a boring, cliche idea, and put on a spin on it that’s so brilliant and yet mind-bogglingly obvious I have to wonder why in the world someone hadn’t thought of it before.

In all of the previous dragonrider books I’d read, there was always one rider. One lone human on a dragon the size of a house. And somehow, that was supposed to be special and sensible and realistic. But no – if a dragon is that large, then why is there only one rider? Why can’t there be more? Having one rider on a dragon is like putting one passenger on a plane that could potentially carry fifty.

And that’s where Naomi Novik takes the Temeraire series. Her fight scenes aren’t one-on-one affairs, they’re all-out aerial battles fought with crew members dangling precariously from leather harnesses, forced to make the best of inaccurate rifles. It’s true, the captain has a special relationship with his or her dragon, but there’s the distinct feeling of a team – that the captain would really be nowhere without the support of a crew behind him. What’s more, Novik makes the battles work – they’re clearly planned out and make sense in a historical context.

The main characters are also unusually engaging – Laurence, as a former naval captain who accidentally stumbles upon a dragon egg, is plunged into a branch of the military completely unlike the one in which he’s served, and his confusion and stiffness are only to be expected. While his stubbornness and sense of propriety are on occasion mildly irritating, his reactions to elements of the Aerial Corps are only natural given his character. And Temeraire, the dragon that hatches from the egg Laurence discovers, is more than a mere sentient ship – his naive, inquisitive personality is adorably appealing, and the political views he develops at times contrast sharply with those of Laurence.

And then there’s the matter of the main villain – there is none. There’s no evil overlord to face, no Dark Lord Napoleon who tries to foil Laurence’s and Temeraire’s plans at every turn. In fact, despite the fact that the book is from a strictly British point of view, Novik portrays Napoleon fairly, and his character only grows more sympathetic as the series goes on. Napoleon doesn’t even make an appearance during the first book – it’s just the British Aerial Corps versus the French Armee de l’Air. It’s a lovely change; as the battles grow steadily more climactic, one gets the feeling that they’re in a war against other dragon-crews just like theirs, not fighting some unseen maniac.

Like I said, His Majesty’s Dragon isn’t perfect. The subplot with Choiseul is ultimately disappointing in its resolution, and Laurence’s love interest is perilously close to a Mary-Sue and should have been cut (thankfully, there’s a lot less of her in the following books). Still, it’s a refreshingly original spin on an overused idea, and all in all a very good read.

Patrick Ness: The Ask and the Answer – Book Review

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The Ask and the Answer, Chaos Walking Trilogy, Patrick Ness. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Ask and the Answer is the second book in The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness and it is everything I hoped it would be and a million things more. I feel genuine sorrow for all those individuals who read the first book as it was released and had to wait a whole year until this was published.

Ness is the king of the cliffhanger! Honestly, he is as sublime a writer as he is a cruel a writer and the pain and anxiety and anguish I felt whilst reading this was only offset by the beauty and grace of his writing. I am so glad I had all three books to hand as I waited approximately one nanosecond between finishing the first book and taking a sneak peek at chapter one of the second.

This book is completely and utterly unputdownable and, if possible, I loved it even more than the first. Ness gives the reader everything – every breadth of emotion, beautifully crafted writing, extensive and original world building, corporeal characterization, legions of plot, and action, action, action for days! He is such a brilliant story-teller that I expected nothing less…but was still blown away!

The book opens in the midst of the action of the end of the first book, plunging you straight back into the depths of the plot. Without skipping a beat I was there, living and grieving and loving alongside my beloved main characters, Todd and Viola.

If anything, this book had a more poignant edge to it. I felt heartbreak one hundred times over in The Knife of Never Letting Go but here it was intensified. I could previously isolate Todd and Viola’s stories and remove myself from their plight when I got too involved but, with the addition of the Spackle (the indigenous species to the New World that the humans raged war with and later enslaved) it all just felt too real. The colonization of the planet and the hateful treatment and enslavement of the native Spackles felt so horribly, historically accurate that I couldn’t switch my emotions off. I felt somewhat responsible whilst reading this and almost ashamed to belong to the hate-fueled, discriminatory and domineering human species. It was heartbreaking to read, yet accurate. In short, reading this made my heart hurt. And by that I mean that the writer did a good job.

The explored themes of colonization, war, gender divides, power, coming-of-age and the good/bad binary made this a book where you got to learn whilst you read and where you got to know yourself and your stance on these issues too.

There wasn’t a pain-free moment as the lines between good and bad were continually blurred erased and altered; which made my empathy and the pain I felt equal for all. I am still not sure there even is a definite good and bad side. There are just sides. Both sides have a cause. Both sides have experienced pain and anger and heartbreak. Both sides have inflicted pain and anger and heartbreak. Both side is justified. Yet, neither side is justified. How is the reader supposed to know who to fight for if the characters don’t know their own hearts? I guess I am just going to have to continue with book three and find out.

A Monster Calls: Patrick Ness – Book Review

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A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the dark of night, when the house is still, what fears creep into your heart? For Conor O’Malley, his nightmares take the shape of a very old and very dangerous monster who visits him every night at seven minutes past midnight. He’s half-convinced that these must be dreams of his fevered mind. But how can they be, when the visits are so vivid and when he finds physical evidence of the monster’s existence the next day?

Conor’s nightmares begin shortly after his mother starts her treatments for cancer. He’s also dealing with a father who lives far away and is engrossed with his new family, a brisk and determined grandma who doesn’t understand him, and schoolmates who don’t seem to see him anymore. As readers learn more and more about Conor’s story and the terrible monster who comes to visit, it is impossible not to feel worry and fear and sadness for this boy, whose must shoulder problems that have toppled many adults before him. But even in his anger and pain, Conor’s defiant spirit shows flashes of dry humor and painful hopefulness that are difficult to witness, but make him impossibly endearing.

A Monster Calls is a middle grade children’s book, but it’s a children’s book in the way that Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein wrote children’s books–that is, the surface stories are certainly well-written and compelling, but underneath that are the themes of confusion and loneliness and sadness that elevate them to timeless works of literature. And while A Monster Calls chooses to confront its demons more literally than some other books may, it does so with such fierce intelligence and ease that it never feels didactic or forced.

“…the fire in Conor’s chest suddenly blazed, suddenly burned like it would eat him alive. It was the truth, he knew it was. A moan started in his throat, a moan that rose into a cry and then a loud wordless yell and he opened his mouth and the fire came blazing out to consume everything, bursting over the blackness, over the yew tree, too, setting it ablaze along with the rest of the world…”

– Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

This an incredible book about the enormous burdens of responsibility and grief and loss. I read most of it with anxiety in my heart and as the story intensified, the ache in my throat got worse and worse. By the time I reached the end, hot tears were dripping onto the last two pages, and continued to fall as I immediately read those pages again, and as I read them yet again.

But more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love as I was reading this. Love for Conor, love for his mother, love for his grandmother, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, such an important book, and one that I think so many children and so many adults will appreciate. I cannot imagine that there will be another children’s book written this year that will provide such a moving and emotionally truthful experience, or one that will so easily become an instant classic. In just 215 pages, A Monster Calls shatters your heart and then wraps it up tightly again so that you can go and be present in the world as an infinitely wiser, more loving human being.

About the Illustrations:

The words themselves are powerful and full of terrible beauty and latent emotion. But if you’re able, do try to get your hands on a copy of the hardcover, which is illustrated with wildly expressive artistry that complement the story perfectly and captures exactly the right feel for the book. I’ve included some of the illustrations from the book here in this review, but if you’d like to see more images, please visit Jim Kay’s website to learn more about the process the artist used.

About the Story:

The story behind this book makes it even more poignant. Siobhan Dowd, the award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, conceived this idea and the characters and the beginning–but died of breast cancer at the age of 47 before she could write the novel. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book based on her idea, and he succeeded in achieving a work of fiction that both transcends its genre and painfully wrenches your heart.

Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – Review

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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After you’ve written about nearly everything, what do you do next? If you are Bill Bryson, author of “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” a masterly epitomizing of the entire body of natural science that spent approximately 15,000 weeks on the best-seller list (without the help of Oprah), and that cloned its own glossy illustrated edition with specially commissioned etchings by Warhol, Picasso and Raphael, your gaze turns inward, or rather downward, toward your navel.

Lucky for the reader of the resulting memoir, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” Bryson’s navel, like Whitman (both the poet and the sampler), contains multitudes. From that innie (or outie; oddly for such a revealing chronicle, he never specifies), Bryson has produced a book so outlandishly and improbably entertaining, you begin to doubt its veracity. When he writes, for example, that the worst customer to collect money from on his paper route when he was 11, Mrs. Vandermeister, was

“700 years old, possibly 800, and permanently attached to an aluminum walker,”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

You begin to wonder if we’re entering James Frey territory. Or, even less believably:

“Most things in Des Moines in the 1950’s were the best of their type.”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

At the heart of the manifold exaggerations is a much larger truth, a shocking revelation that few memoirists have been so brave to admit: he had a happy childhood.

Just because his family was happy, pace Tolstoy, doesn’t mean it wasn’t strange — that is, the “normal” strange that only 1950’s America has spawned. We got a glimpse of Bryson’s upbringing in his first book, “The Lost Continent” (1989), in which he nominally retraced family car trips while commenting on contemporary American culture and behavior — a dyspeptic “Blue Highways.” (He subsequently ascended the best-seller lists with other works in the humorous-travelogue vein, assaying the Appalachian Trail in “A Walk in the Woods” and traversing Australia for “In a Sunburned Country,” among others.) His reminiscences of his parsimonious sportswriter father and appealingly loopy mother provided some of the most convulsive sections of that first book. In fact, I remember reading it on the couch and disturbing my wife at her kitchen-table academic studies with my howls. When she asked me what was so funny, I would, in reading the passage aloud to her, inevitably be reduced to body-racking, tear-inducing, de-couching laughter.

“I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive.” – Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

While the pleasures of “Thunderbolt Kid” are less frequently spasmodic, what the book does effect is a continuous wry, nostalgic smile in anyone born during the 50’s. And by “continuous” I don’t mean “continual,” a distinction that Bryson elucidates in “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words,” one of several also improbably entertaining books on language he has written, despite, if his memoir is to be believed, being a marginal student in high school and a onetime college dropout before lighting out for England in the 70’s. His baby-boomer contemporaries will no doubt recognize in “Thunderbolt Kid” the penny-pinching tendencies of parents raised during the Depression, the eroticism of Maidenform bra ads, the mayhem that was the Saturday matinee at a large downtown movie palace, little pleasures like taking the cork out of bottle caps, the “literally intoxicating” power of mimeograph paper and the unsupervised freedom children generally enjoyed:

“I knew kids who were pushed out the door at 8 in the morning and not allowed back in until 5 unless they were on fire or actively bleeding.”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid 

What keeps the memoir from becoming a sentimental trip down Pleasant Street, a real Des Moines lane, is that, unlike in his schoolboy years, here Bryson has done his homework. He generously lards the personal narrative (as our cholesterol-oblivious mothers larded our food) with facts and cutting observations about the grand themes of the day, like the emergence of television and the development of the hydrogen bomb. He notes with wonder and characteristic sarcasm that Edward Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission envisioned using atomic power for vast civil engineering projects — for instance,

“to blow away irksome impediments to commerce and shipping like the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Also militating against potential mawkishness is his sparing use of the device promised by the title: that he has a secret superhero identity, the Thunderbolt Kid, whose powers allow him to vaporize tormentors. Save for one extended passage, it appears almost as an afterthought at the end of some chapters, and that’s just as well.

As a humorist, Bryson falls somewhere between the one-liner genius of Dave Barry and the narrative brilliance of David Sedaris. He’s not above sublime lowbrow fat and feces jokes, but at his best he spools out operatically funny vignettes of sustained absurdity that nevertheless remain grounded in universal experience. These accounts, like the description of the bumper-car ride at a run-down amusement park or the tale of a friend’s father’s descent from the high dive at a local lake, defy excerpting; when taken whole, they will leave many readers de-couched.

Occasionally in the course of his reminiscences, Bryson abandons punch lines and demonstrates a lyrical gift for the tactile and noisome nature of childhood (not “noisy” nature; see “Troublesome Words”) that elevates the work to the level of classics in the genre like Laurie Lee’s “Cider With Rosie”:

“I knew more things in the first 10 years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since…. I knew the cool feel of linoleum on bare skin and what everything smelled like at floor level. I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting — the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.”

– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

He then concludes with an encomium to expelled intestinal gas.

That’s an evocation of childhood that’s movingly true, no exaggeration necessary.