‘The Book of Three’ by Lloyd Alexander

“Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do. Our capabilities seldom

match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.”

I was at Half Price Books awhile back, a usual hangout for me when I have some time to kill, and I was browsing through the young adult fiction section. As I was glancing around I saw a book, cover facing outward, with a Newbery medal. And for some reason, whenever there is a big golden or silver medallion on a book my brain programs it as: “This one has to be awesome.” Unfortunately for me it was book 5 in a series of 5. Now, enter the dilemma of all readers of young adult fiction: do I really want to start a new series when I am in the thick of about 50 other series that I already enjoy? Let’s be real here, the reason the collection is up to 50 is because we can’t say no to a good (kids) book. So I grabbed the 1st in the series of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain,’ called ‘The Book of Three.’

The book follows an assistant pig keeper (that’s right, an assistant pig keeper) Taran, in the mythical land of Prydain (which bears an incredible resemblance to Wales). Taran is frustrated in carrying out the menial tasks of an assistant pig keeper in Caer Dallben, and longs to be an adventurer like Prince Gwydion. When his oracular pig, Hen Wen, escapes, Taran must chase after her outside the safety of his own home. His quest to find her becomes a wild adventure with classic elements of fairy tales and fantasies that lovers of Narnia, Middle Earth, and Hogwartz will all enjoy. It is a fun and funny coming-of-age tale that satisfies the reader, while creating a sense of excitement to tear through the next installment.

While reading the book I had to set aside my frustrations with similar themes I was finding in Prydain with Tolkein and other works of fantasy literature. But after doing a little research, it was clear that Alexander wrote the Prydain Chronicles in an effort to retell Welsh mythology. And while he does utilize elements from other writers, (most notably a character that could literally be replaced with Gollum) his enchanting book is a gripping collage of what fantasy readers love best.

The Book of Three, written for a younger audience, is packed with intriguing lessons that children and adults alike can benefit from. Told with a magnificent sense of humor intertwined with powerful prose, there is a constant thread throughout the book of how true heroism is not something that can only be accomplished by a king, a bard, or an adventurer, but can be found in the most unlikeliest of places: like an assistant pig keeper. This quote comes from a moment when Taran attempts to sound heroic and noble while talking to Eilonwy, one of his partners on the quest, as they flee a wicked queen and her crumbling palace:

‘Spiral Castle has brought me only grief; I have no wish to see it again.’ ‘What has it brought the rest of us?’ Eilonwy asked. ‘You make it sound as though we were just sitting around having a splendid time while you moan and take on.’

Alexander often has sharp retorts for conventional ‘heroism’ or nobility in a way that makes the reader understand that they are capable of great things even if they aren’t a king. And even if they’re an average man browsing the young adult fiction section in a second hand bookstore.

4 out of 5. I’m excited to read the second book.


Die Hard and Fairies? Artemis Fowl!

A genius. A criminal mastermind. A millionaire. And he is only twelve years old.

Eoin Colfer describes the Artemis Fowl Series as “Die Hard with fairies.” Let’s be real. We love them both. Think of John McClane emptying a couple of clips trying to tag Tinkerbell from Peter Pan, who just happens to be armed to the teeth with firearms as well. Yippee Ki Aye. The first book in the series called ‘Artemis Fowl’ is an intriguing story that merges elements from James Bond, Harry Potter, Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers), Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Percy Jackson, you name it.  It was an absolute blast to read, and if the others are as gripping and hysterical, it is a series I plan on finishing.

Artemis is a 12 year old genius that uses his cunning intellect to succeed in organized crime. That’s right, a 6th grade mafia boss of sorts. In this installment, Artemis is plotting to restore his family fortune that has been nabbed by the fairies (don’t think of cute Disney characters, or cartoons on cereal boxes, these guys are an organized force with progressive agendas). His plan to regain the gold at the end of the rainbow is to capture a fairy as hostage. Unfortunately for Artemis, he kidnaps one tough cookie: Holly Short of the LEPrecon unit. (Coolest name for a military unit EVER). Once the rest of the fairy world catches wind of Artemis’ tactics, the book becomes a wildly fun and funny hostage situation with twists and turns that will keep you flipping pages till the end.

The humor in Artemis Fowl was witty and crisp, from a butler named Butler who happens to be a highly trained killing machine, to the hygiene habits of trolls, to projectile flatulence,  Colfer is relentless in his gags, but thankfully embeds them within a well-written work. Artemis Fowl has kidnapping, blackmail, and magic… all the things that make you glad you’re still a ‘young adult reader.’

4th shelf of 5.

A Wrinkle in My Brain: A Wrinkle in Time

a wrinkle in my brain

I think most of us had to read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time when we were growing up. The only thing that stuck out in my mind from middle school was the terrible cover of an obese woman dressed in ridiculous clothing. And my mind for some reason always associated the ‘wrinkle’ in the title to be a description of the decrepit cover lady’s age.

However, lately I’ve been excited to revisit all of the reading we were assigned as kids, and have been delighted to find out that my English teachers who I thought were bores, who took joy in assigning us books that cured insomnia, really did love and recommend awesome literature. Madeleine L’Engle has composed a beautiful young adult epic that is a mix of the Chronicles of Narnia and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. It undoubtedly fits the category of books we read long ago that deserve another shot. The narration is witty and clever why still maintaining a quirky sense of humor that makes the book more than just tolerable as it was in 7th grade, but something that is truly enjoyable.

I picked up a copy at half price books, and to my dismay it was a beaten-up old copy that was annotated by some punk middle schooler. Usually I don’t care much for other people’s annotations. I want to discover and make connections on my own, but seeing the novel (in a sense) through a middle schooler’s eyes was so much fun. I think a handful of people remember the book as being a novel packed with new vocabulary words that we had to look up. For instance, it HAS to bring a smile to anyone’s face when you start thumbing through the pages and seeing words like these highlighted in different colors: tesseract, propitious, dilapidated, retort, judiciously, and indignant. L’Engle’s writing is more than descriptive, she has a powerful ability to submerge you in her kooky world with lyrical passages that read like poetry:

Silence fell between them, as tangible as the dark tree shadows that fell across their laps and that now seemed to rest upon them as heavily as though they possessed a measurable weight of their own.

Another facet of L’Engle that I had never appreciated was how ‘Christian’ A Wrinkle in Time really is.  There are undeniable overtones pleasantly blended with direct quotations of beloved scriptures all throughout the book that drove me to check her out on wikipedia (a universally recognized credible source). And if any weight can be given to a wikipedia article, it seems that L’Engle loved Jesus and was passionate about communicating (specifically) His love through her work, especially in A Wrinkle in Time.

Her creative writing traces the time and space traveling trio of Meg Murray, her brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin. Together with the help of three enigmatic beings, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, Meg and her gang go galavanting throughout the universe to find the Murray’s lost father who has been missing for over a year. It’s a heartwarming quest that had me laughing and and brimming over with excitement and anticipation.

The captivating writing, intriguing and unique story line, mixed with the overwhelming message of love’s power put this book on shelf 4 1/2 of 5… go read it again. You know you want to… you’ll like it way more the second time around just like I did.

Get a Clue! The Westing Game

Ted Curry Westing GAmeThe sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset towers faced east. Strange!

Did you ever see the movie ‘Clue’ with Tim Curry based off the old board game? If you haven’t, spoiler alert: it’s great- I mean what board game gone movie isn’t? And the film is strikingly similar to the book The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin despite its publication date in 1978. It’s a mystery book drenched in intriguing clues, sneaking suspicions, and mind blowing discoveries that manage to sneak in right under your nose.

Samuel W. Westing is a self-made millionaire who has mysteriously selected 16 of his cooky heirs to live in the Sunset Towers apartments on the shores of Lake Michigan. The heirs are brought together in Westing’s mansion to hear the will of Sam Westing who was recently found dead in his home – not to mention the fact that the heirs have no relation to each other, nor Westing for that matter. The evening becomes more enigmatic when Westing’s will takes the form of a puzzle. He divides the 16 into 8 different pairs, each with unique clues, and a challenge to find the person who took Sam Westing’s life. Each pair is given $10,000 dollars as incentive to play the puzzle called the ‘Westing Game.’ The winner who solves the mystery can rightfully claim to be the true heir of Samuel Westing and inherit his 200 million dollar fortune as well as his prestigious role in society.

The Westing Game was a Newberry award winner, and a fun read for young adults and adults alike, but I found myself struggling to understand the workings of the plot as I was reading though the book. Sixteen heirs and a few side characters in 185 page book make for a constantly moving plot with very little downtime. It was almost like back in grade school when you would try to fit 9 crayons in an 8 crayon box… it works, but it looks goofy. Each page is dense with events that lead to the ultimate conclusion of the book so PAY ATTENTION. You will often find yourself rifling through pages, backwards and forwards, thinking that you have pieced together some clues, or perhaps even come to the conclusion of who killed Westing.

What I loved most about the book, as said above, is the similar feel to the movie ‘Clue.’ It is certainly primarily a mystery, but the humor it uses to create awkward “who-done-it?” moments, enjoyable character development, and outrageous irony, made Raskin’s Westing Game a pleasurable read that satisfied the little kid in me who loved watching Scooby Doo and reading the Hardy Boys.

I’ll put this guy on shelf number 2 1/2 of 5. (It’s a really cool looking bookshelf)

The Magician’s Nephew (Nostalgia, Narnia, and New Worlds)

This Sunday morning before church I woke up slightly earlier than usual with an idea. I was feeling quite nostalgic for some reason- you know that kind of day- a make pancakes and watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Boy Meets World kind of morning. And despite my initial desire to trudge along in my current enjoyable fiction endeavor, I was convinced to put the book down and pick up an old favorite: C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. It is a classic book that I knew would not only be a quick read, but a real joy, and a deeply satisfying adventure to cure those spontaneous nostalgic cravings that sneak up on us from time to time.

Most know the tale of Digory Kirke and Polly who, while exploring the row of terraced houses in London,  stumble upon Digory’s magician uncle who has created rings with the power to transport humans into other worlds. Through Uncle Andrew’s deception, he drives the comical, bickering pair to puddle-hopping into different lands, meeting evil queens, and finally stumbling upon the creation of Narnia. Lewis’ voice in this installment of the Chronicles of Narnia seems so much more playful than it’s companions, and had me laughing aloud thinking about how well Lewis understood the mind of a child. This time around I particularly enjoyed the witty arguments between Digory and Polly:

Narnia Falcor Nostalgia

It’s all rot to say a house would be empty all those years unless there was some mystery.” (Digory)

“Daddy thought it must be the drains,” said Polly.

“Pooh! Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations,” said Digory.

Or how about this one?

And if you want me to come back, hadn’t you better say you’re sorry?” (Polly)

“Sorry?” exclaimed Digory. “Well now, if that isn’t just like a girl! What have I done?”

“Oh nothing of course,” said Polly sarcastically. “Only nearly screwed my wrist off in that room with all the waxworks, like a cowardly bully. Only struck the bell with the hammer, like a silly idiot. Only turned back in the wood so that she had time to catch hold of you before we jumped into our own pool. That’s all.”

The Magician’s Nephew, though traditionally (since the 1980’s) placed 1st in the chronicles of Narnia Series, was actually published 6th, and after another read it is easy to see why. As you’re unraveling the tale you see the origins of different enigmatic elements within the land of Narnia: where does the lamp post come from in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe? How does the wardrobe actually have the ability to bring the Pevensies into Narnia? Why is professor Kirke so willing to believe that the land of Narnia is real?

The riddles presented throughout the books are satisfied in The Magician’s Nephew, and I would argue that it should be read sixth because the reader will experience the excitement of understanding the compelling world of Narnia that so effortlessly draws you in to its adventures.

Lewis (as always) has a power to make you feel the longing of something that I can never quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s adventure, or the simplicity of childhood, or the purity of a Narnia character that I long for, or perhaps the way Lewis communicates theological ideas with such an unmatched emotional force through his creative fiction. Whatever it is, the Magician’s Nephew makes for a great read that will always be on the highest bookshelf I have.

Hungry for a Good Read? Check out ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins

“Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch – this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.”

One of the best ways to kill some time is to walk into a book store. This is undoubtedly one of my favorite past times. The book I pick up to read while I’m killing this ‘time’ is dependent on several variables: How much time do I have? How many books am I reading right now? (Are there so many that I’m starting to mix the plots in my mind… like wondering why that unicorn was in was in George Bush’s biography… etc.) What kind of mood am I in?… you get the idea.

MostHungry for a good read? of the time, I find myself in the position of needing to kill a ‘short’ amount of time, so as a result I’ll pick up a book that I can read a fair chunk of… which usually results in me browsing the ‘children’s/young adult literature’ (something that I proudly declare as NOT a guilty pleasure, but a great pleasure that I often indulge in). I picked up a copy of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” I almost never wind up purchasing a book in situations like this, but I didn’t have a choice. It was a must buy.

“The Hunger Games” is another “children’s” book that drives its plot with dystopian themes and young people ‘sticking it to the man’ by rebelling against the corrupted government. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, lives in district 12, one of the 12 fenced-in colonies in the post-apocalyptic North American Society. The duty of the 12 colonies is to serve the purposes of the elite caste that lives in ‘the capitol’ of this intriguing nation called Panem. The capitol is a brutal place that demands obedience from the untouchables in the colonies and reinforces the idea of the colonies’ inferiority by holding a lottery each year in each colony. The lottery determines the 2 children, one male, one female, who will be coerced to fight to the death in the annual hunger games.

The game itself is held in an enormous arena with unbelievable booby trap and mind-bending elements to lure the contestants into a compelling competition in front of the omnipresent cameras that broadcast every moment of the games to the world.

Through a jaw dropping series of events, Katniss finds herself competing in the games and can only become the winner by killing all of the other contestants. She is a hard but kind hearted 16-year-old who is equipped with remarkable skills, but her confrontations with paralyzing ethical dilemmas and the torturous environment of the games will put her character to the test.

This book really is as awesome as everyone says it is. If you start you will be done within a few days (max). Collins has wonderfully developed characters with layers of motives and feelings that all play effortlessly into her brilliant plot. Despite the book being for young adults, there is a great deal of violence, and yes, death. It is a fine line that Collins walks by masterfully condemning the acts of the capitol and the hunger games, and still inviting the reader to enjoy the intensity of the violence.

The Hunger Games stands out from other works of young adult literature because it is written powerfully, and written well. This book is truly one for all ages, and should only be read if you are willing to invest the $25 dollars in purchasing the 2nd and 3rd book in the trilogy (Collins is no stranger to the cliffhanger).

When you’re done reading it and loaning it to friends who are demanding to give it a go because of your bubbling enthusiasm, put this book on the 4th shelf (out of 5).

Boring Summer Reading as a kid, becomes a blast as an adult. ‘Holes’ by Louis Sachar

I think a great deal of us were assigned ‘Holes,’ by Louis Sachar to read it middle school, only to be drowned in good company in a sea of other great reads like ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘Ender’s Game,’ and ‘The Giver.’ But the obligatory nature of these book that, for me, just became homework, caused them to dissolve into the white noise of writings that didn’t matter. And while some of my friends really did enjoy the book back then, I was to busy reading ‘Hank the Cowdog,’ and pretending to understand the ridiculous plots in ‘Superman’ comic books. I didn’t give near enough attention to the awesome book by Sachar.

Scott YelnatsStanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.” Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before.

’Holes’ is about a cursed kid named Stanley Yelnats; cursed because of the mistakes of his ‘no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.’ (his last name is his first name backwards… too cool… my name would be Scott Ttocs… which sounds eerily close to buttocks… what would your name be?) He is a boy who was wrongfully accused of stealing the shoes of a famous baseball player: Clyde “Sweetfeet” Livingston. When in reality, the shoes fell from the sky onto his head… a story the judge didn’t buy. As a result He finds himself at Camp Green Lake. A name that does nothing to describe the desert waste land where he is supposed to spend the next 18 months of his life. As punishment, he is to dig a whole 5 feet wide and deep everyday- including weekends. The duty is masked as a task that builds character, but something is not as it seems, it doesn’t take the hero long to see that the corrupt leadership of Camp Green Lake is not having Stanley and his peers dig holes for no reason. There is something more than character building happening at camp.

Holes is a spectacular book that went over my head in middle school because I didn’t take time to appreciate the foreshadowing, the allusions, and the heartwarming, and heartbreaking elements that Sachar so brilliantly uses to supplement the core storyline. Allusions to Stanley’s ancestors, camp green lake, sweet feet, and Kissin’ Kate Barlow are all used masterfully as clues to what is really happening in Stanley’s tale.

Killer Lizards, onion juice, Sploosh, gypsies, treasure, curses, and outlaws… Holes is a great book that was OK in adolescence, and wildly entertaining as an adult. It is a book about fate, justice, and the unraveling of an intriguing curse upon the descendent of that ‘no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.’  It goes on shelf 4 1/2 of 5. How do I put in there you ask? You’ll have to see my bookshelf.