'On books for young folks' by James Baldwin (1884)

George_Romney_Child_Reading_(possibly_Mrs_Cumberland_and_her_son)The greatest problem presented to the consideration of parents and teachers now-a-days is how properly to regulate and direct the reading of the children. There is no scarcity of reading-matter. The poorest child may have free access to books and papers, more than he can read. The publication of periodicals and cheap books especially designed to meet the tastes of young people has developed into an enterprise of vast proportions. Every day, millions of pages of reading matter designed for children are printed and scattered broadcast over the land. But unlimited opportunities often prove to be a damage and a detriment; and over-abundance, rather than scarcity, is to be deplored.

As a general rule, the books read by young people are not such as lead to studious habits, or induce correct ideas of right living. They are intended simply to amuse; there are no elements of strength in them, leading up to a noble manhood. I doubt if in the future it can be said of any great statesman or scholar that his tastes had been formed, and his energies directed and sustained, through the influence of his early reading; but rather that he had attained success, and whatever of true nobility there is in him, in spite of such influence.

How then shall we so order the child’s reading as to avoid the formation of desultory and aimless habits?

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The Best and Worst Books of October

Books books books. October was the busiest month so far - NYCC, lots of travel, podcasting, you name it - so let's stop dilly-dallying and get to the action, shall we?

vesperLots and lots of series

My Lloyd Alexander kick continues. I reread Prydain (lovely, but pitched younger than I remembered - probably because I haven't reread it since I was 10), read Westmark for the first time (spectacular) and rereading the Vesper Holly series (so much fun).

Lots and lots and lots and lots of historical romances - more on that here.

Scott Sigler's Galactic Football League. Made it through The Champion (#5), and curious what will happen in the two yet-to-be-published volumes. FOOTBALL VS ALIENS. HOO-RAH!

Kate Brian's Private series - currently through The Legacy (#6). Those wacky rapscallions! 

...and slowly continuing the Edward S. Aarons "Sam Durrell" series, up through Assignment - Stella Marni (#4). So far, the even numbers are weaker and the odd numbers are amazing, with #3 (Assignment Suicide) the best of the lot. That said, there are still 44 books to go in the series, so I'll hold off on drawing too many conclusions.

But enough of that silliness, let's get to the fun stuff.

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Review Round-up: The Twelve, Lazarus, This One Summer & Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

The benefit curse of the One Comic Podcast is that now I'm back into comic book shops on a regular basis, with all the incidental shopping that entails. A few recent encounters of the graphic kind... The Twelve, This One Summer, Lazarus and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong.

The TwelveThe Twelve (2008) by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston begins in a simpler time - World War 2, where up was up and white was white. A dozen of America's finest superheroes, from mechanical men to reporters-with-nerves-of-steel, stumble into a Nazi deathtrap and wind up frozen in stasis. Years later, they wake up: only to face our chaotic modern world.

The series is roughly structured around each of the twelve heroes - following their attempts (successful or not) to blend in to the oh-so-morally-gray contemporary era. Set in the Marvel Universe, The Twelve is cleverly woven as a counterpoint to the drama of Marvel's 'main' storyline. In a world of Civil Wars and distrust and awkwardness, here are a dozen superheroes with a certain purity - superheroes that can be trusted again. Except, of course, they can't. 

Part murder mystery, part moral lesson, The Twelve is unfortunate in that it sits squarely in the shadow of two vastly better comics: The Ultimates and, of course, Watchmen. The former already addresses the awkwardness of generational collide with its reinterpretation of Captain America - 'old-fashioned' values in a new world, with all the hypocrisy and difficulty that come with. And the latter is an infinitely more nuanced and compelling approach to both superheroic murder mysteries and, again, the changing of the generations. Neither of these are, of course, The Twelve's fault - it is a perfectly serviceable comic that, to be blunt - has nothing new to add.

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Review Round-up: Retribution and the Westmark Trilogy

RetributionLast year, in Drakenfeld, Mark Charan Newton introduced us to his Classically-inspired fantasy empire and the shadowy investigative body that kept it held together: the Sun Chamber. Drakenfeld followed one of the Sun Chamber's star (sorry) investigators, the titular Lucan Drakenfeld, as he foiled a series of hideous crimes in the nation of Detrata. In the best tradition of both fantasy and crime novels, Drakenfeld mixed the epic with the deeply personal: Lucan's actions swayed the fate of an empire, but he also wrestled with the demons from his own past.

In Retribution (2014), the second volume, Drakenfeld returns - as does his ruthlessly efficient assistant, Leana. The two leave Detrata for Koton, leaving the old for the new; a metaphor that spans many levels. Whilst Detrata is an ancient, seemingly-established (almost decadent) nation, Koton is a new one - just barely stabilised after years of turmoil. Similarly, whereas Detrata is deeply personally significant to Drakenfeld - a land weighty with his own family's past - Koton is new territory. Not only has Drakenfeld never been there, no Sun Chamber investigator has even been invited before.

Koton is a fascinating place. It has recently been united under the rule of Queen Dokuz, one of the book's most interesting characters. On one hand, she's brought order to a population of warring tribes and is busily trying to modernise her country into a player on the world stage. On the other, she's a ruthless dictator. Through Drakenfeld's eyes, Retribution treats her situation with the respect and moral ambiguity it requires - there are no easy answers to Koton's future, and whether or not Dokuz will be seen as a saviour or a demon will be determined by posterity.

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Lou Morgan on Gossip Girl: Psycho Killer

Psycho KillerHey people!

It's that time of year again, when the temperature drops, the nights draw in and even the brightest lights of the Upper East Side can't keep out the shadows. So wrap up warm and stay safe - because somewhere out there, a psycho killer's on the loose…

Released in October 2011, Gossip Girl: Psycho Killer is a "reimagined and expanded" slasher version of the first in Cecily von Ziegesar's phenomenally successful Gossip Girl series. In many ways it follows the same plot as the original novel, opening with Serena van der Woodsen's sudden return to New York and her friends on the Upper East Side. Most of the characters and locations will be familiar to readers of the series, as will the drinking, the sex and the drugs - but this time, there's one more vice. Murder. And as Serena hacks a bloody swathe through New York society, it isn't long before her BFF Blair starts to follow suit…

One of the most interesting things about GG:PK is that it's a reworking by the original author, whose publishers approached her with the idea of a parody genre mash-up addition to the series (no doubt inspired by the success of books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies shuffling into the bestseller lists in 2009). This means that while it's not exactly canon, it perhaps carries a little more weight than a parody written by someone else would.

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Review Round-up: Bleeding Violet, Sir John Hawkwood and You Don't Know Me

Three books that have extremely little in common (except they're all nifty): Dia Reeves' Bleeding Violet, Marion Polk Angelloti's Sir John Hawkwood and Sophia Bennett's You Don't Know Me. Witches, pop stars and mercenaries - oh my!

Bleeding VioletDia Reeves' Bleeding Violet (2010) has a lot of similarities with Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, in that both these books are about a mysteeerrious small town with an overtly-magical atmosphere and a (slightly odd) female protagonist hanging with a group of Chosen One-type boys. 

The Raven Boys speaks a bit more about class - our protagonist is the literary equivalent of a 'townie' - the working-class daughter of a local family, living in the (ostensible) 'shadow' of some rich kids' school. Bleeding Violet is more about race - the central character, Hanna, is half African-American/half Finnish, and this informs not only her approach to the world around her, but how the world approaches her. Her background also adds a lot of depth to the way the book tackles the (incorrect) assumption that the Special Boy has to be the Chosen One. Hanna is not a sidekick, a 'love interest' or the 'comic relief' - she's the agent of her own narrative and - as it turns out - she's the one the 'meta' story is about.

Bleeding Violet is also a (bless it) self-contained story, and not the start of a series. It wrestles with the mommy issues and the boyfriend issues and the fitting in issues and the crazy portals filled with necromancer issues, and manages to wrap it all up nicely in a single volume.

This is - and prepare your torches, internet - Gaiman-like in its 21st century spin on magical realism, but vastly better written, with an intense, provocative and deeply likable central protagonist. A terrific book, and, like The Raven Boys, another example of how the year's best fantasy books can go completely overseen by the genre 'literati' because they're 'hiding' in YA. (Quotes for exasperation at the whole System of the Genre World, myself very much included.)

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The Best and Worst Books of July

The round-up of the high- and low-lights of the month's reading (also, when I assuage my guilt on being so very far behind on reviews).

A strange month of reading. Stopping and starting one or two books means I'm probably reading some dodgy books. But when the count grows beyond that, I suspect that I'm the one at fault. The cure for being burnt out? Old favourites! So July - the half-year point - was punctuated pretty heavily with Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald and even a KJ Parker.

This also means that the "Oldish" category (1920-2000) of this year's reading challenge did a lot of catching up with 16 books. (Old: 6, New: 7).

All that said and done, there were some very, very good books in July. Also some very, very not good books. So let's get to it...

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Review Round-Up: Trouble OF GOR

I'll get back to longer reviews next week, but for now, a very quick run-down of some recent books and bits (the "What I Read During the DGLA Reviews To Keep From Going Insane" edition):

TroubleNon Pratt's Trouble (2014) is definitely getting a proper review from me next week, but this book was fantastic. Fifteen year old girl gets pregnant, new boy in town does her a favour by pretending he's the father. It feels like a rom-com set-up, and, to her credit, Pratt manages to treat extraordinarily heavy issues with a grace that keeps things from ever being ponderous or worthy. That said, Trouble isn't ever trite or silly - it is filled with powerfully, wonderfully real characters, dealing with stuff. The protagonists are smart and confused, good-hearted but overwhelmed. I wish rom-coms were this good. Great book.

John Norman's Tarnsman of Gor (1967) is... terrible. But I've been shouting "...OF GOR" so often on Twitter recently, I thought I should do some research into the primary sources. It took me about the halfway point until I realised I'd read this a zillion years ago as a kid. This revelation took so long because: a) Tarnsman is nearly identical to Burroughs' John Carter series and b) it is really, really boring. Words can't express it, but by the end, I was actually wishing for scenes of infamous Gorean sex-slavery, if only to break up the monotony. Alas, the prurience is few and far-between - apparently the proper 'fun' doesn't show up until later books. Instead, Tarnsman is the chronicle of a fairly insufferable guy who flies back and forth on a big bird, broken up by monotonous observations about the state of society. Weeeeeee.

William Sutcliffe's The Wall (2013) is another of last year's highly-praised YA books. It takes place in a (fairly heavy-handed) analogue of an Israeli settlement. The protagonist is a thoughtful (and very lonely) kid that finds a secret tunnel to the outside and, upon seeing what's happening out there, starts to question everything going on in here. I think The Wall seems cued for pretty young readers - but, even despite the simplicity of the language, it doesn't reduce the issues. Definitely one that'll be taught in schools: an empathetic protagonist that manages to see all sides of a (vast) problem, plus the compelling parallels with his own family. Not a particularly 'happy' story, but a good one, and oddly inspiring - there are no villains, just... people.

David Ewalt's Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It (2013) was a pretty big disappointment. Ewalt seems like a great guy, but the main thing I took out of this book was: "He likes Dungeons & Dragons". Sub-theme: "He'd be fun to play with." Unfortunately, his story is just that - a story - and merely a superficial look at the origins, rise, decline and... wherever it is now... of one of the world's largest and most intriguing games. Everything is filtered through the lens of David's own experience, so the brief history of wargames is drowned out by his experience trying a game in the mall. Ditto, LARPing is captured by one session. It is a fast read, but a cursory one - made more frustrating by the fact that Ewalt does occasionally brush up against some really interesting points. What's happening to the 4e players that feel 'abandoned' by the company's disavowal of that edition? Are video gamers coming back to pen and paper, or are they still fleeing it? What's going on with the rise of Pathfinder and 'old school' gamers? Why did the company overextend and fail so badly? What did WotC - and then Hasbro - see in it? All of these are very, very lightly addressed, and invariably in a fashion that is somehow laudatory to the game and its creators. But the book spends more time going through Ewalt's personal relationship with the game (as extended metaphor) than, say, a bit of valuable muck-racking. (By contrast, this article in The Believer is fantastic, infinitely more balanced and, despite the shorter word count, a lot more detailed.)