Adventure, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah by Allan Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah is a prehistoric adventure tale of young Zan, a tribal boy and twin brother, who earns his name “Zan-Gah” after fearlessly slaying a dangerous lioness and, in the eyes of the local clans, proves himself a hero and future leader. The book spans more than a year (or more, with flashbacks), in which time Zan goes on a journey to find his lost twin brother, who has been captured by a dangerous clan, more powerful than even the Wasp People, Zan’s clans bitterest and most deadly foes. Zan must survive on his own, fashioning new weapons and tools, and improvising for food and water sources. While the tale is interesting and Zan’s story fascinating to watch, much was packed into this little book, so that no time is spent truly developing the plot or characters, or allowing the story to breathe.

I actually quite enjoyed the different characters in this book. There is an appropriate depth to each, being a novel for young readers. Still, there is some complexity in the characters; descriptions of Dael’s psychological trauma, for instance, and Zan’s devotion to his family and burgeoning leadership skills, are well-done. The author is also careful to create a balance between the serious and the joyful. Chul and his wife, for instance, remind me almost of a prehistoric Lucy and Rickie of I Love Lucy. They balance out Zan’s rather sad parents. Also, the book includes representatives of the wise and the foolish, the brave and the spineless. The greatest achievement in this regard, though, is that each of the characters are simple enough to understand, but complex and independently imagined enough so as to avoid becoming caricatures or grotesques of an idea.

There is a bit of an imbalance, I think, in the reading level versus maturity level of the targeted audience. While the prose and structure are simple and easy to follow, there are varying degrees in vocabulary and thematic difficulty levels. Also, there are instances of rather adult elements and situations, such as the graphic slaying of a rival clan member. For this reason, I felt at times that the story itself would be more suited for the “Independent Reader,” in general, except that I would not encourage a child under the age of 12 to read it (due to some of the more difficult vocabulary and the graphic scenes). Still, for those young teenagers or middle schools who do read this book, it does have a decent balance of difficulty and maturity, with ease of reading, so that the young reader may be challenged without feeling “burnt out,” particularly if he/she is a developing reader.

There are certainly some larger issues at work, here – like the ideas of courage and bravery, and responsibility to duty and family. Physical and emotional pain, too, and their lingering effects on the injured and their loved ones are also presented fairly and with prominent importance. I enjoyed the inclusion of ideas like compromise, teamwork, and resourcefulness, all great elements for a young adult reader to encounter. Still, and unfortunately, due to the rushed pace (three days or a year might pass within one or two sentences), these elements did not have much time to develop or grow, or really implant themselves in the reader’s psyche, before the story moved on. The same could be said for the settings, which change quickly as Zan moves quickly across the landscape. It might be enough for a new reader, wetting the appetite without overwhelming, but adult and experienced readers, I think, would be underwhelmed, though appreciative of the attempt.  All-in-all, I believe young readers, particularly adventurous or historically/culturally-inquisitive young boys and girls, might have a great time with Zan’s adventure, but experienced or adult readers might find it difficult to connect with.

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Adventure, Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Mythology, Rick Riordan, Young Adult

Thoughts: The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

12127810House of Hades by Rick Riordan
Final Verdict: 3.7 out of 4.0

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable

The House of Hades is Book 4 in the Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan.  This series follows the five-book Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, but it incorporates the Roman mythology alongside the Greek.  In this adventure, Percy, hero of the Greeks, and his team must join forces with Jason, hero of the Romans, and his own team in order to stop Gaea and Tartarus from rising and destroying the world.  The awakening of these ancient gods is causing an identity crisis, of sorts, among the “new” gods (like Zeus).  It is essentially blurring the lines between Greek and Roman mytho-worlds, so that at any given moment a god might switch personalities.  Needless to say, these split-personalities leave the gods relatively helpless, so the demi-gods, their half-human/half-god offspring, must take charge. In this fourth installment, Gaea and Tartarus have opened the Doors of Death, which means hundreds upon hundreds of monsters are slipping out of the underworld.  Percy and Annabel are in the underworld, while Jason and the rest of the gang are fighting their way to the Doors of Death, as the team must work together to close the Doors from both sides, or else certain doom awaits the planet and all life as we know it.

Characterization:
3.75 – Characters very well-developed.

One of the criticisms I have for the Riordan series’ (including Percy Jackson, The Kane Chronicles, and this one) is that the character depth is always a bit lacking – although the books typically cover about a year (though sometimes quite a bit less, as has been the case with this particular series), still there is little growth & development for any of the major or minor characters.  This is a “Middle Grade” series, so perhaps character depth isn’t too be expected, but in any series that spans a certain amount of time – a few years or more- I would hope to see some.  Riordan has taken steps in this one, though, and as many have noted, even makes quite a bold decision (one I have been waiting for, for years!) to reveal personal information about one of the cross-over characters from the Percy Jackson series.  In addition, many of the other characters, such as Jason, Leo, and Frank, all face crucial turning points in this book, moments of decision which will help to define them possibly for the rest of their lives.  This attention to characterization and willingness to allow these characters to grow beyond their cookie-cutter “action/adventure hero” roles thrilled me quite a bit and truly makes me feel that this is possibly the best book of all three mythology series’ thus far.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Rick Riordan’s books are so easy to read, partly because they are fun and entertaining, but also because he knows how to construct a fast-paced, logical, episodic storyline.  In The House of Hades, Riordan’s heroes are constantly meeting new friends and foes, mythological deities, monsters, and creatures of all sorts, from the Roman and Greek worlds.  All of this could be confusing and overwhelming, if not for Riordan’s adeptness at giving his readers just enough new information at manageable intervals, while advancing the story and also allowing his primary characters, those who have been with us since Book One, enough page time of their own.  Many have said this book left them breathless because of its pace, and I agree that it is certainly one of the more action-packed installments of his always action-packed series’.  It is hard to stop reading, hard to quit even after finishing a character section (the books are broken up by character perspective, each character getting about 4 chapters from their point of view, before moving on to another main character).  Ultimately, though, despite the whirlwind ride this book can sometimes be, it manages to remain consistent – going just far enough and just fast enough, without falling apart.  There are natural breaks, places where a reader can logically pause and step away, but the problem is – you won’t want to!

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I always love about the Riordan books is how slyly educational they are.  Readers will learn so much about ancient Greek and Roman mythology (or Egyptian, if you’re reading The Kane Chronicles), without noticing they’re learning anything at all.  This is because the mythology, the original stories and the original characters, are re-imagined so brilliantly, revisited so expertly, in this modern setting.  Gods using cell phones?  Demigods eating fast food?   Sure, that’s all current – but the events that take place, the rivalries that exist, the personalities of the heroes, the gods, they remain wonderfully true to the original epic stories of Homer, Ovid, and others.  Believe it or not, I can credit Riordan’s books, this particular one as well as others, with helping me to enjoy James Joyce’s Ulysses.  This is because, though I have read Homer’s Odyssey, revisiting the old tales through this contemporary lens has helped me to keep in mind the original epic and the string of events, the gods helpful to or antagonistic of Odysseus, which are paralleled in Joyce’s Irish epic. In addition, in House of Hades especially, Riordan takes some steps which have been made in young adult and contemporary literature, but which have been left relatively unexplored at the MG level.  J.K. Rowling allowed certain things to happen but which were revealed only through unspoken allusion; here, Riordan allows one of his characters, Nico di Angelo, to develop fully and completely, and exposes the raw nerves that come with it – it is a breath of fresh air for the popular fantasy genre and for this reading level.

Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: MG+
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Young Adult, Action/Adventure.

Notable Quotes:

“Magic is neither good nor evil. It is a tool, like a knife. Is a knife evil? Only if the wielder is evil.”

“I figure the world is basically a machine. I don’t know who made it, if it was the Fates, or the gods, or the capital-G god or whatever. But it chugs along the way it’s supposed to most of the time. Sure, little pieces break off and stuff goes haywire once in a while, but mostly… things happen for a reason.”

“Love is no game! It is no flowery softness! It is hard work- It demands everything from you- especially the truth. Only then does it yield results.”

“I’m not choosing one of your paths. I’m making my own.”

“It’s natural to feel fear.  All great warriors are afraid. Only the stupid and the delusional are not.”

“It is a costly thing, looking on the true face of Love.”

“The dead see what they believe they will see. So do the living. That is the secret.”

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2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Adventure, Arthur Conan Doyle, Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Classics Club, Detective Novel, Fiction, Mystery

Thoughts: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

1065804The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 55

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the third in the Sherlock Holmes series, following two novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) and a collection of short stories (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). It contains eleven stories, in total, which, much like the previous titles in this series, tackle a range of social, political, and ethnic topics, all the while entertaining the reader with witty narrative and engaging, sometimes surprising mysteries and detective work.

My edition is, unfortunately, true to the revised original American edition of the collection, which edited out a story called “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” The story is now printed in American editions of the collection titled “His Last Bow,” which I do have, so I’ll get to it eventually. Of course, I’m a purist, though, so it irks me very much to have to read stories out of the order of original publication or author intention.

That being said, the collection is a good one. I particularly enjoyed “The Yellow Face,” which was a story of ahead of its time, in my opinion. This one tells of a young American woman who meets a young British man, they marry and move to England together. Soon enough, the woman’s secret history is uncovered, and the revelations are (for the time) shocking. As a modern reader, however, there is a certain delight and admiration for the risk Doyle took, here, and for the stance that the narrative takes on issues of equality and human decency. It was a pleasant surprise.

Others in the collection which I rather enjoyed include “The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual,” both of which had interesting elements of darker, Poe-esque mystery; also, “The Reigate Puzzle” and “The Naval Treaty,” both of which had elements of heightened daring, danger, and suspense. Finally, of course, there is “The Final Problem,” which is not only a wonderful short story, but, knowing the history of the series, a moving read. It adds a very deep, personal element to the character of Sherlock Holmes, a human side which his character sometimes (intentionally) lacks. Even knowing that the series continues, it was a difficult read and a sad ending!

All this taken into consideration, I still prefer, over all, the first collection in the Holmes series. I was bothered by the very close similarity of “The Stock-broker’s Clerk” to an earlier Sherlock Holmes story (“The Red-headed League”). The two stories seemed like the reworking of a very similar plot. Of course, Doyle wrote from a standardized formula of sorts, but even still, it felt to me much too similar, in this case. Perhaps to Doyle, too, considering where he tried to go with “The Final Problem.”

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection is an interesting piece to the overall Holmes collection. As in the previous works, this one is narrated by Watson, but many of the stories find Watson specifically trying to point out just how unremarkable Sherlock Holmes is – how lucky he sometimes gets, how even he can be stumped, at times. The purpose of this is probably two-fold; first, to set up readers’ expectations for the last story in the collection and second, to round out and make more realistic the Sherlock Holmes character in general. Perhaps there had been some instance that Doyle make Sherlock Holmes seem less of a superhero – how interesting can a character with no flaws be, after all?

Ultimately, I continue to be pleased with these stories and every time I revisit the next book in the collection, I find myself wondering what took me so long to get back to it. These are always some of the most fun, entertaining, and engaging reading experiences, and it rarely takes me more than a few days to get through the entire book. Doyle’s writing, in Memoirs, remains fresh and accessible, and he continues to push certain boundaries, which adds depth and intrigue to books which might otherwise be simply light, “pleasure” reading.

One final note: I may or may not have known this (though I certainly didn’t remember), but the title from another favorite book of mine, by Mark Haddon, actually seems to have come from one of these stories! In “The Silver Blaze,” Colonel Ross asks Sherlock Holmes, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” and Holmes replies: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Wow!

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Mystery, Detective Stories, 19th Century Britain, Social Justice, Crime, British Fiction, Short Stories, 1,001 Books.

Notable Quotes:

“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” (“The Gloria Scott”)

“Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.” (“The Yellow Face”)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” (“A Case of Identity”)

“It is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you.” (“The Final Problem”)

“I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” (“The Naval Treaty”)

“It’s every man’s business to see justice done.” (“The Crooked Man”)

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Adventure, Book Review, Fiction, Mythology, Rick Riordan, Young Adult

Review: The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 51


Plot/Story:

3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

Percy Jackson and the gang are back again.  Well, Percy is back again – but the gang is a new one.  In this second book of the Heroes of Olympus series, which is a sequel to Riordan’s hit Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, Percy finds himself battling demons that won’t die and suffering from near-total amnesia.  He does not remember who he is, where he is from, or why these crazy un-killable baddies keep attacking him.  Some instinct pulls him strongly toward a camp, where the goddess Juno awaits – but something isn’t quite right.  Percy is a Greek demigod, and this camp is for Romans!  Percy must join forces with the Romans, while rediscovering who he is and, afterwards, bringing the two people, Greek and Roman, together to prepare for battle against the mother of all goddesses, Gaea, who is raising a force of evil to crush the world.  Can the Greeks and the Romans set aside their bitter, centuries-old rivalries to work together?  Will the gods stand by their demigod children or let them face Gaea’s minions alone?  Will Percy every gain all of his memory back?  The Son of Neptune is about new friendships, burgeoning strengths, overcoming self-doubt and setting aside prejudices to fight for the larger good.  It is a fast-paced, exciting, and surprisingly moving modern mythological fantasy – probably Riordan’s best yet.


Characterization:

4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

As a big fan of The Percy Jackson series, I find myself a bit ashamed to admit that I actually enjoyed the new characters and Percy’s semi-reconstruction (due to his memory loss) a bit more appealing than the originals.  The Roman gods, though less is seen of them, seem less severe than the Greeks, which is historically accurate but also makes for a more believable story.  What added to the improved effect here, I think, is that not only did Percy have an interesting journey to embark on, rediscovering himself, his past, and his strengths, but so did the two supporting characters, Frank and Hazel.  These two each come from very interesting backgrounds and have potentially scary, sad futures ahead of them.  The triple-threat, as it were, of the main story (battling Gaea’s army and saving the world) combined with these sub-stories made for a dynamic new friendship and allowed for real growth from all three characters, but particularly Frank – who might have the most to lose, and to gain.  Visits from favorite past characters, like Nico di Angelo and Tyson, are also welcomed and well-incorporated.


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, conducive the Story.

One of my biggest complaints in this area has been that whoever is responsible for editing and proofreading Riordan’s books consistently makes glaring oversights.  The last few Riordan books in particular, including the Kane Chronicles and The Lost Hero were rife with omitted and/or extra words or other grammar errors.  Now, this is not necessarily the author’s fault, so I tried to be lenient, but it was definitely becoming bothersome.  I did see two such instances in The Son of Neptune, but they were minor oversights and, comparatively, nothing to scoff at.  With that improvement, coupled with how well-paced this book was and how suiting the language is to both the story and the audience, I was pleased overall.  Percy’s wit and sarcasm are back, which is possibly one of my favorite things about these books (“typical teenager” – but a funny one!).  The dialogue is done well, as are the descriptions.  I still sometimes hope for more progressive growth, year-to-year, but Riordan is sticking to his IR/MG readership, and that is in a way admirable, if not exactly what I would like to see as an adult reader (but, hey, the books aren’t marketed towards adults so I get it!).


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and enhance the story.

In addition to the main purpose of the book, which I will get to in a minute, this book also has much to say about individual responsibility – responsibility to the self and to others (friends and family, in particular).  Each of the characters has something they must overcome in order to be the hero they were meant to be and, although the book is fantasy, this aspect of the story is highly transferable to the traditional coming-of-age story.  But, once again, the biggest selling-point for the book is what it teaches us.  The Roman mythology is interesting and totally accessible, thanks to the modern setting, the relevant comparisons, and the engaging characters that learn and/or explain the histories as the reader journeys along with them.  The Son of Neptune is particularly fascinating in that it exposes more of the specific differences between Greek and Roman mythology, and why there is such animosity between the two groups.  If you are looking for educational and entertaining books about Greek and Roman mythology, which are accessible to novices, younger readers, and adults already familiar with the original epics – Riordan is your man.


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: IR/MG

Interest: Roman Mythology, Greek Mythology, Ancient Greek-Roman History, Action/Adventure, Modern Day Retellings, Fantasy.


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