The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

“But a whole sea of monsters–how could you hide something like that?  Wouldn’t the mortals notice weird things happening…like, ships getting eaten and stuff?’

‘Of course they notice.  They don’t understand, but they know something is strange about that part of the ocean.  The Sea of Monsters is just off the east coast of the U.S. now, just northeast of Florida.  The mortals even have a name for it.’

‘The Bermuda Triangle?


I didn’t get to give this book as much attention as I wanted to; it was finals week, the last week before graduation, and I suddenly needed to find a job.  Then, my favorite nine-year-old, who often shares books with me, begged me to finish it, because he was just getting to his last few pages in the first book of the series, The Lightning Thief.  So, thanks to Sam, I had the motivation to get through this exciting book.  I’ll hand it off to him tonight, and then undoubtedly have to climb up the stairs and encourage him to stop reading and turn off the light at least three times before he falls asleep reading it.  That’s the best kind of sharing, I think.

Anyway, back to The Sea of Monsters.  This is the second in the series, and the story picks up at Percy’s new school.  When a routine dodgeball match gets ugly, and Percy and his team is attacked by a mob of cannibals, he’s forced to flee to the safety of Camp Half Blood.  However, things aren’t they way he left them last summer.  Something terrible has happened, and the magic borders that protect the campers are beginning to disintegrate.  Percy suspects a curse, or perhaps poison.  But if someone can’t lift the curse, there will be no safe place on earth left for the demigod campers, those children of mortals and gods.

So, Percy sets out on another dangerous quest.  His satyr friend, Grover, is in mortal peril.  Grover had been searching for Jason’s golden fleece, which has the powers to heal and rejuvenate the land.  In his attempts to grab the fleece and save Camp Half Blood, though, Grover has been taken prisoner by a giant cyclops.  The cyclops may not be bright, but he sure is mean…and hungry!  Percy and his friends must brave the Sirens’ tempting songs, many-headed monsters, giant whirlpools, and risk getting turned into guinea pigs, all in order to save a friend.

Older readers will appreciate the twists that Riordan applies to Greek mythology.  I, for one, loved The Odyssey, and this book covers a lot of the same adventures.  In a way, it’s almost better, because Riordan offers a lot of details, like why Circe wants to turn people into pigs (well, guinea pigs, in this case), and just exactly what the sirens’ song sounds like.  Also, I didn’t find that the book falls into the Middle Book trap.  You know, how the middle book of a trilogy can sometimes feel a little incomplete, because its beginning and end are taken care of in other volumes?  That is definitely not the case here; this is a short, fast-paced, adventure story, complete in its own right.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Riordan, Rick. The Sea of Monsters. New York: Disney-Hyperion, 2006. 279 pp.  Grades 6-8

If you liked this book, be sure to check out the next in the series, calledThe Titan’s Curse.  Or, if you’ve read the entire series and everything else by Rick Riordan and you need something new, I really like Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer.  However, they might be for a slightly older crowd. But if that’s you, go for it!

Trapped by Michael Northrop

“How long could we be stuck here? That was the question now.  How long, like, conceivably? We had no power, no lights, and the heat was already leaking out of the building through a thousand cracks and seams and windows.”

Scotty and a handful of his classmates are the last students left at school when the catastrophic nor’easter blows in and classes are canceled.  No big deal, they think, surely someone will be by to pick them up soon.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case: the students fatally underestimated the storm and end up trapped at school.

What they assume is going to be a single night spent adventure-style in their high school stretches nearly a week, as the snow simply does not let up.  Now they have more to worry about than just being cold:  the weight of the snow threatens to collapse the roof.  One of the boys makes a heroic decision, but I won’t spoil the ending for you.

This is a very fast read, a true escapist book.  I finished it in a few hours, speeding along, caught up in the adventure.  There are some interesting conflicts between the characters, and the state of emergency feel to the book is captivating. Highlights of the story include a character who turns out to be an adept lock-picker, breaking into the school cafeteria for the others, and the students building a fire in one of the classrooms.   It’s a good book to read when you’re nice and warm inside.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Northrop, Michael.  Trapped.  New York: Scholastic Press, 2011. 232 pp.  Ages 13-16.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

” ‘Can I ask a question?’ said Richard.

‘Certainly not,’ said the marquis. ‘You don’t ask any questions. You don’t get any answers. You don’t stray from the path. You don’t even think about what’s happening to you right now. Got it?’


‘Most important of all: no buts,’ said de Carabas. ‘And time is of the essence. Move.’

…Richard moved, clambering down the metal ladder…feeling so far out of his depth that it didn’t even occur to him to question any further.”

Richard is a decent guy,  a mild-mannered fellow with an undistinguished office job.  His life is on track: he is engaged to a beautiful (if somewhat intimidating) woman, enjoys time with his friends, and generally doesn’t make waves.  However, it all changes when he stumbles on the bleeding body of a young woman one night and knows that the only decent thing to do is to stop and help her.

When Richard stops to assist the girl, his whole world shifts and he is tumbled into the underworld of London.  This isn’t just the sewer-underground-metro London, though; it’s a whole new plane of existence.  This strange and threatening tunnel-world is populated with frightening beasts, tricksters, a thriving market economy, and a host of memorable characters, including a huntress who specializes only in the biggest and most dangerous animals, a marquis who barters in favors, and an angel.

Richard has no choice but to go forwards, deep into the underbelly of London.  After he stops to help the injured girl, no one in his former life even recognizes him anymore.  The only way out is in, and so, Richard embarks on a quest leading him through the depths of the underworld, facing a maze of filthy tunnels, nightmarish dark, and chilling characters.

If I had to classify this book, I would say it’s is a dark urban fantasy.  It’s not inaccessible, like sometimes true fantasies can be, though.  Richard is just an ordinary, somewhat bewildered nice guy, and so you learn about this new, Dark London along the way, just like he does in the story.  It’s an intricate plot, but easy enough to follow, and very interesting.  I love the dark, gritty feel of the underworld, especially as observed by Richard, who is quite pitiable.   He actually reminds me of Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of my favorite books.  It’s a similar idea: a nice, ordinary guy gets sucked into an unbelievable adventure and has to cope with all the accompanying unpleasantries.  Come to think of it, that actually encapsulates the plots of a great number of books out there, from The Odyssey to Alice in Wonderland.  And speaking of Alice, there are a number of references to the Lewis Carroll story tucked away in this book, which I thought was a fun surprise.

This book is the current One Book, One Chicago selection. I love Chicago, and its great library system!  I was there recently, and every time I go, I pick up the One Book selection.  I think it’s such a well-done program, and I’d love to implement it in my own library some day.  If you’re interested, here’s the link:

This is an older book, and has been made into a miniseries for British television.  I think I’ll actually check it out; I really enjoyed this book.  Also, if you’re in the area, he will be speaking on Tuesday, April 12.  I would love to see him! Click for the  schedule of library events for One Book, One Chicago:

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: (Check out that amazing hat he’s wearing!)

Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. Harpertorch, New York: 1996. 370 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might want to try John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things or The Gates.  They’re both dark fantasies that still have strong connections to reality, so they are very accessible, even to the non-fantasy-reader.  However, they are really for the 16 and up crowd.  If you’re a little younger than that, you might try The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or The House Eaters by Aaron Polson.


Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

“’Half the crews out here find some cache of oil or copper or whatever and none of them figure out what to do with it.  Crew boss grabs it in the end, and they get bumped off the wrecks…Luck isn’t what you need out here,’ Pima said. ‘Smarts is what you need.’”

Nailer works light crew as a ship breaker in this dystopic novel.  Ravaged by rising sea levels, devastated by the depletion of oil resources, and wracked with storms so violent that they are called “city killers”, Nailer’s world hardly resembles ours.  His job is simple in description, but incredibly dangerous.  Giant magnates of the corporate world pay for salvage materials, stripped from the rusting hulls of gas-fueled boats, now wrecked and obsolete on the shores. Children do this work.   It’s not so much the age that matters, really, it’s the weight:  light crew has to be just that—light.  See, old ducts are narrow, and prone to collapse.  The lighter, smaller, and quicker you are, the higher the chances of survival.

The world of Ship Breaker is all about clan loyalty.  There are no safety nets like health insurance, savings accounts, or even sufficient food.  If you don’t make quota at your job, you don’t have a job anymore.  When it comes to survival, all you have is your crew, your family.  Unfortunately, Nailer’s mother is dead and his father is abusive, long ago lost to the world of drugs, fueling his habit by working as a hit man.  That leaves Pima and her mother, the only people in the world Nailer can rely on.

Everyone dreams of getting lucky: finding a cache of oil, or a swank wreck (the capsized hull of a rich person’s boat) to salvage.  When Nailer discovers the swankest boat he’s ever seen before, caught up on the sunken remains of old New Orleans, he knows it’s his lucky strike.  However, when he finds the daughter of the richest shipping magnate in the world, still alive inside the wreck, he is forced to make a life-changing decision: either kill her, and keep the treasure of the wreck, living a life of guaranteed luxury from the goods he plunders, or save her, and return her (somewhow) to her family.

What follows is a gripping, sometimes gritty adventure, full of frightening half-men hybrids, bred to fight and defend the swanks, train-hopping, pirates, betrayal, and hard choices.  This incredible book will keep you thinking for days.  Both a National Book Award finalist and the recipient of the prestigious Printz award, I have to say both prizes are richly deserved.  Personally, I’m not so much a post-apocalyptic novel person.  I never finished A Brave New World, or even 1984. However, this book kept me in its clutches, and I was sorry to finish it. I’d include it on a list of the top ten books I’ve ever read.  This has cross-crowd appeal, too.  For the readers who love adventures, science fiction, suspense, and thinking about the big what-ifs, this book offers it all, wrapped up with a convincing, well-thought-out narrative.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, New York: 2010. 336 pp.  Ages 15 and up. ISBN: 978-0316056212

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

“If you were a god, how would you like being called a myth, an old story to explain lightning?  What if I told you, Perseus Jackson, that someday people would call you a myth?”

I don’t know why it took me so long to read this incredible book!  Half the world has already finished it, and there’s already a movie version and I just picked up the book for the for the first time this weekend.  But you know what?  It’s so good that reading it was almost all I did today!  I fell asleep reading it last night and then woke up and started right up again.

You probably already all know the story better than I do, but I’ll summarize it quickly, just in case there’s another person out there who hasn’t read it yet.  Let’s see: Percy Jackson has troubles at school.  He’s been diagnosed as dyslexic and as having ADHD, and, well, it seems like the problems just find him.  For example, on a class field trip to the museum, his math teacher transforms into a ferocious, bloodthirsty Fury, like the ones from the Greek myths.  Unfortunately, no one believes Percy, and worse yet, no one even seems to notice anything unusual happening!  It seems like for all of his life these strange occurrences just follow him around.

Percy soon learns that he is a demigod, or the child of a god and a mortal.  In fact, his father is Poseidon, the god of the seas.  So, that’s the good news. There’s even a special camp for kids like him!   But Percy finds out that it’s not easy being only half mortal.  It isn’t long before he receives his first quest:  Zeus’ master lightning bolt has been stolen, and the god is furious.  The camp counselors  thinks that Hades, god of the underworld, has it, but Zeus is convinced that Percy has stolen it.  So, the three major gods are just a few days away from an all-out war with each other, and Percy has to figure out a way to find the master bolt, return it to Zeus, and save the world.  And you thought sixth grade was hard!

I loved the mix of Greek myths and modern setting.  Some of my favorite parts of the book were when the gods and goddesses adapted to life in the 21st century, resulting in places such as Medusa’s snack bar or “Crusty’s” (the god Procrustes) water bed store.  The plot is complicated, but not confusing, the characters are believable, and the action is nonstop. Percy’s relationships with his friends and mother are realistic and really add a lot of depth to a story.  This isn’t just an empty adventure tale that skimps on the characters.  I ordered the next two books in the series, and I can’t wait to read them, though maybe I should hold off on starting them until I get some more homework done.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Riordan, Rick.  The Lightning Thief. New York: Hyperion Books, 2005.  375 pp.  Ages 10 and up.

If you liked this book, check out the rest of the series!  You can start with Sea of Monsters, and then The Titan’s Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth, and The Last Olympian.  And, if you finish with those, I love The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.

The Danger Box by Blue Balliett

“This time, I’d be the questions-starter.” Zoomy.

If you haven’t already been captivated by the intellectual mystery stylings of Ms. Balliett, which feature real-life figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Vermeer, and Charles Darwin, as well as plucky and realistic kids, you are totally missing out!  She centers her adventure-mysteries around real scientists and artists, and includes fantastic codes and puzzles for her readers to solve.  There is always a race to figure out the mystery before the protagonists do!

Blue Balliett certainly deserves her NY Times Bestseller status.  She writes with a compassionate eye towards the anxieties and insecurities of childhood, underscored with a strong belief in the inner talents and inherent worthiness of every child.  Those authorial traits of hers are especially apparent in her latest book, The Danger Box. Like her other novels, the plot centers around a historical mystery: in this case, the eccentric billionaire, Mr. Zip, orders a priceless artifact, to be delivered by a complicated series of transfers and couriers.  However, mayhem ensues when Mr. Zip dies before the final transfer is complete, and the future of the valuable object is in jeopardy.  Does the fourth courier keep it, confident in the fact that no one yet knows that Zip had orchestrated such a heist?   Just as the last carrier decides to hide out and resell the object (a field notebook of Charles Darwin’s, written during his time on The Beagle), his truck (and the notebook) are stolen from the bar where he was lurking.  The world is at risk of losing the artifact forever!

Balliett deftly changes gears after the riveting exposition, introducing readers to the meek and anxious Zoomy, a legally blind boy abandoned on the doorstep of a farmhouse in a tiny Michigan town, soon after his birth.  He keeps daily lists in notebooks, to keep his anxiety at bay, reducing his amount of charmingly-named “worry crumbs”.  However, soon Zoomy’s peaceful life is disrupted as his alcoholic father resurfaces in the small town, threatening the family with secrets too big to contain.

These two stories are linked skillfully, twined together with issues of Zoomy’s self-published Gas Gazette, a newspaper that features profiles of famous scientists and inventors, revealed in a series of clues and anecdotes.  The plot culminates in a fire, family tragedy, and an astonishing discovery, and all the characters involved undergo transformation of one sort or another.

Enjoy solving the codes and piecing together the clues to the mystery, but take time to appreciate Zoomy and his quiet resilience.  I feel that Ms. Balliett has mastered this genre:  she never relies fully on plot at the expense of characterization.  All elements are present and exquisitely and sensitively rendered, resulting in a book that’s meant to share.  If you have an anxious child at home, this is a book to sweep the worry crumbs away and celebrate the diverse talents and skills of every child.

Happy Reading!

Balliett, Blue.  The Danger Box. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010.  322 pp.  Grades 5-8.

Author’s website:


The Billionaire’s Curse by Richard Newsome


“It’s a long story, and I’ve tried to explain it here as best I can.  I’m afraid it has all been a bit of a rush.  But the harsh fact is that if you are reading this, then I am dead.  Murdered dead. ”


When I pick books for blogging, sometimes I go by award lists, but most of the time, I wander through the library and look for a promising plot with likable characters.  The premise of The Billionaire’s Curse sounded fantastic:  a 13 year-old Australian boy, Gerald, suddenly finds himself heir to the mega-billions of his late aunt.  His parents dash off on a Caribbean vacation, leaving him in the care of a stuffy butler.  Included in his inheritance is a handwritten letter from his aunt that changes everything: she leaves him in charge of the mystery of her death.  The letter predicts her murder, and explains that it is related to the theft of the world’s largest diamond from the British Museum.  Gerald outsmarts the British paparazzi and Mr. Fry, the butler, makes it to the museum, and almost immediately finds his life in danger:  a thin man who reeks of bleach holds a knife to his back and demands answers.  Gerald is rescued by Ruby and Sam, twins who distract the thin man and save Gerald from a stab in the back with a stiletto blade.  The kids embark on a race against the diamond thieves, trying to find a mysterious casket rumored to be a thousand times more valuable than the stolen diamond itself.  Their search brings them to the countryside, an abandoned Tube station, an ancient, trap-laden family crypt, and a snobby country club.   In the end, they unravel the mystery, expose the thieves, and everything is set to rights.

I loved the Indiana-Jones-style traps and daring rescues, as well as the author’s playful treatment of the hippies who convene at the ancient pagan site for the full moon at Midsummer’s Eve.   Though I did think that the author relied on too many improbable coincidences as plot devices, and the characters themselves are fairly flat and undeveloped, the action is fast and appealing to younger readers.  I think this would be an excellent choice for reading aloud: the action will captivate listeners and leave them anxious for the next installment.  However, if you’re looking for a good kid-powered mystery with strong character development and you’re easily irritated by unrealistic plot twists, then I’d recommend Blue Balliett’s books, instead.  Reviews to come!

Author’s website:

Happy Reading!

Newsome, Richard.  The Billionaire’s Curse. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.  344 pp.  Grades 5-8.

The Secret of Zoom

“She could act as if she believed it.  She could begin by doing the first thing, and she could go on to the next.  And maybe, if she kept on going, the belief, or the focused thought, or whatever it was she needed, would come to her.  At any rate, she didn’t intend to fail for lack of trying.”

All right, yes.  I know. Another book for the

8-12 crowd..  But hey, I gave you Hunger last post, and I even started this whole blog with The Book of Lost Things. And those are definitely not kid stories! What can I say?  I’m a sucker for the stories you want to read out loud to your kids. Your imaginary kids, in my case. Hmm. Let’s move on, shall we?

I’ll admit it-I judge a book by its cover.  I was charmed by the cute purple plane piloted by children.  This is the story of Christina, the daughter of two scientists.  Her mother is deceased, dead in an unfortunate laboratory explosion (later we learn that she lives, but is kept captive by an evil scientist to do his scienc-y bidding).  Her father, afraid that harm may come to her,  keeps her cloistered, in a mansion riddled with secret passages and tunnels.  She takes her school lessons on the computer, and can only watch the children at the local orphanage play through her telescope.  She’s lonely, and upon hearing a rumor that there is a passageway from her house to the outside, she sets out to discover it.

She finds it, of course, and much more: a conspiracy involving Zoom, a stone with powers activated only by sound, orphans, and the powerful man behind Loompski Labs, where her father is head scientist.   The situation quickly turns treacherous, and Christina must act quickly and bravely to save herself, her mother, and liberate the ill-used orphans at Happy Orphan House.

I think kids will enjoy the book: it has a kid-sized plane powered by a combo of song and thought, mysterious tunnels, and lots of action.  As an adult, I resented the “math is too hard for me” bit that Christina falls into, and I longed for a little more character development. I feel like the plot started out strong and interesting, but just didn’t maintain the momentum-it got bogged down in unrealistic adult characters and plot twists that fell flat.  Try it out-give it a couple chapters with your family, and if it doesn’t get the thumbs-up, read something by Eva Ibbotson (reviews to come) instead.

Jonell, Lynne. The Secret of Zoom. Henry Holt and Company: New York. (2009). 302 pp. Ages 9-12.