Stack Overflow: Year-End Grab Bag

Stack Overflow: Grab Bag

Well, we’re almost at the end of the year, and the typical December craziness seems to have spread into November this year—at least, that’s my excuse for missing a Stack Overflow a couple weeks ago and then being late last week. This week, rather than one overarching theme, I thought I’d share just a mix of books I’ve read this recently (and maybe not-so-recently) that I haven’t managed to shoehorn into any of my existing columns. I’ve got some comics, a few middle grade novels, and some adult fiction. So grab a mug of something warm, get cozy, and let’s talk about some books!

Hocus Focus

Hocus Focus by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost

From the creators of Adventures in Cartooning, this comic book for young readers continues the adventures of the hapless Knight and her horse Edward. The Knight is tired of peeling turnips for magic lessons and decides to take matters into her own hand. But, as we all know from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, magic wands aren’t to be trifled with. And now the Knight knows as well. Silly and fun!

Animal Crackers

Animal Crackers by Scott Christian Sava and Alison Acton
Animal Crackers: Circus Mayhem by Scott Christian Sava and Mike Holmes

These two comics (both written by Scott Christian Sava and illustrated by different artists) are about magical animal crackers that transform anyone who eats them into the corresponding animals. The first book features two kids, Owen and Zoe (along with their coulrophobic Uncle Doug) as they visit a circus. Zoe is convinced that the animals are unhappy, so the ringmaster kidnaps her to shut her up. But then Owen manages to get a hold of the magical crackers, wreaking havoc on the ringmaster and his henchmen. Animal Crackers has been made into an animated film, expected to release in May 2018.

Circus Mayhem is a prequel to the movie, so the continuity is a little odd. My guess is that the Animal Crackers movie changes up the plot a bit, and so this book isn’t really a prequel to the other book, but sort of an alternate storyline. It takes place at Buffalo Bob’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Animal Circus, known for its amazing collection of performing animals. But when Owen (who doesn’t appear to have a little sister) goes to visit the circus, his uncle and all the animals have gone missing—and the crowds are clamoring for the show to start. Well, it turns out that the performing animals were all in fact transformed humans. Owen manages to find the magical animal crackers, and faces down Contorto, Buffalo Bob’s rival.

Rickety Stitch

Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo: The Road to Epoli by Ben Costa and James Parks

Rickety Stitch is an undead minstrel—for some reason he’s the only living skeleton around who still acts like a person rather than a mindless drudge, and he’s haunted by dreams about a journey that may hold clues to his own past. He’s accompanied by his friend Goo who is, as the title says, a gelatinous goo. Rickety is pretty clueless, and manages to get himself and Goo into one crisis after another, but he’s also pretty lucky (and it helps that he can’t actually be killed because he’s already dead). It’s a really fun story with lots of wacky characters, and the illustrations are fantastic. A second volume is expected in June 2018, and I’ll be watching for that one!

Cosmic Commandos

Cosmic Commandos by Christopher Eliopoulos

Jeremy and Justin are identical twins, but they’re nothing alike: Jeremy loves video games, hates school, and is a bit of a mess. Justin loves to clean his room and looks forward to school, which is endlessly embarrassing to Jeremy. When Jeremy finds a goofy ring in a box of cereal, it turns out that it actually grants wishes, and Jeremy becomes Cosmic Commando, a character from his favorite videogame. Then the enemies from the videogame start showing up in real life, and it’s up to Jeremy to stop them. Justin wants to help—after all, he’s read the strategy guide!—but Jeremy doesn’t care to take advice from somebody who hasn’t even played the game. But he’s never beat the final level, and things in real life are getting pretty grim.

Kids who like videogames will enjoy the idea of the game coming to life, and the various enemies that Jeremy faces are really amusing. I couldn’t help but feel that the book does owe a lot to Calvin & Hobbes, though: Jeremy and Justin bear a pretty strong resemblance to Calvin, and they behave a little like Calvin and his “good” clone. That was a little distracting to me as I read it, but it might not bother kids as much if they’re enjoying the story.

The Ministry of Suits

The Ministry of SUITs and The Monster’s Daughter by Paul Gamble

I included The Ministry of SUITs series in our books holiday gift guide this year, but it’s worth a closer look. Both of my older daughters had read the first book multiple times, and told me I needed to read it, too. I finally got around to them this fall, and I can see why they enjoyed them so much. The Ministry of Strange, Unusual, and Impossible Things is a bit like the Men in Black: they handle all the things that the rest of the world doesn’t want to deal with, keeping things hidden away and under the radar. But Jack is a curious kid, and he encounters and eventually joins the Ministry, hoping it will be a place where he can finally get answers to some of his many pressing questions… though perhaps he ends up with even more questions. He teams up with Trudy, who’s considered the most dangerous girl in school, and together they stop a plot involving pirates, evil gym teachers, and a whole lot of digging.

In The Monster’s Daughter, the story continues and things get fishy. Literally. There’s a lot of aquatic shenanigans, and Northern Ireland is once again in peril. We also find out a little more about Trudy, who starts to open up just a tiny bit to Jack.

The books are filled with ridiculous “logical” explanations for the things around us: for instance, that animals in museums are actually alive, but they’re playing a game where you have to act like a statue when the music stops—which is also why museums don’t play music except after all the guests are gone. The books have a wonderful cast of characters, including Cthulhu (who works in filing, the best way to drive people mad) and the Tooth Fairy (who is a terrifying man who really wants your teeth). We’re all looking forward to the third book!

Greenglass House

Greenglass House and Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford

I really enjoyed Kate Milford’s book The Left-Handed Fate last year (see this Stack Overflow) but I hadn’t read her earlier book Greenglass House until now. The sequel, Ghosts of Greenglass House was released in October 2017, and I decided to catch up on the first book before reading the second. I was hooked right away, and plowed through both books quickly. It turns out they’re set in the same world as The Left-Handed Fate, though you don’t have to have read those to enjoy this middle-grade series.

Greenglass House is a big estate in Nagspeake that is now a hotel—and a lot of its guests are smugglers. The Pines, who run the hotel, don’t really mind, and know a lot of the “runners” well. One winter, just as the Pines are settling in and getting ready for Christmas break, they get an unexpected guest … and then another, and then another, until the house is full of new faces they hadn’t seen before. Things get even more tense when several of the guests discover items have gone missing—somebody in the hotel is a thief, and everyone seems suspicious. The story focuses on 12-year-old Milo Pine, who just wants a quiet Christmas with his parents. With his new friend Meddy, Milo investigates and looks for clues to solve the thefts, which then lead to even more mysteries.

There’s so much that I loved about these books. The writing is wonderful. Meddy teaches Milo to approach the situation like a role-playing game, creating characters for themselves (from her Odd Trails books), finding old items in the attic to be relics and tools, and studying their “exploits” (skills) for their particular character types. Milo is Chinese, adopted by white parents, and some of the story revolves around his discomfort with not fitting in, or the types of assumptions people make about him—Medford was inspired partly by her own family’s process of adopting a child from China, and she treats the topic with a lot of empathy and care.

Milo is inspired by a book he reads, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, which is like a Canterbury Tales sort of situation of people telling stories to pass the time while stuck in an inn. Milo gets the guests telling stories, which then give him clues about the reasons they’re at Greenglass House. But what I loved about it was that it meant Greenglass House was a story about stories. We get snippets of the tales that Milo reads in the book, as well as the stories that are told by the various guests. I love the history that Medford has woven into the folktales and legends in her world.

Ghosts of Greenglass House takes place a year later, at Christmastime again, when a couple of familiar faces show up at the inn, along with some new ones. In particular, the Pines are visited by the Waits, a group of traveling carolers who have a host of traditions associated with them—but then they get stuck at the hotel for various reasons. And then—wouldn’t you know it?—some things go missing again. Milo and Meddy are on the job again, putting together clues and trying to draw out information from the guests.

I really enjoyed both of these books, and highly recommend them to anyone who loves stories about stories, kid detectives, or role-playing games. The way that Medford weaves these seemingly disparate threads together is wonderful, and if Milo and Meddy ever have any more adventures in the future, I’ll definitely be joining them again.

Kill Them All

Kill Them All by Kyle Starks and Luigi Anderson

Okay, one more comic book—this one’s for older teens and up.

Kill Them All is an over-the-top action-comedy massacre, featuring ex-detective Iruka and brainwashed assassin The Tiger’s Daughter. Iruka just wants to be a cop, and to get his job back he’s going to take down the crime lord Requin. The Tiger’s Daughter was set up and now Requin wants her dead. The two of them have to get through 15 floors of killers and archvillains to reach Requin. It reminds me a little of Kill Bill, but because it’s a comic book, the characters can pull off even crazier stunts on their killing spree to the top. It’s a wild ride, but definitely not for the kiddos.

IQ, Righteous

IQ and Righteous by Joe Ide

Now for some adult fiction!

Isaiah Quintabe was a bright kid with a keen eye and photographic memory, but he dropped out of high school and eventually became a private investigator. He’s good at what he does, but his clients can’t always afford to pay him much. In IQ, he reluctantly takes on a job at the urging of Dodson—sort of his sidekick but mostly a pain in the neck. There’s a rapper who’s convinced that somebody is out to kill him and won’t leave the house despite a contract to record his next album. The more IQ looks into it, the crazier things get: there’s a giant attack dog, a lunatic assassin, and somebody isn’t telling the truth.

Righteous is the sequel (released in October 2017), and it digs a little more into IQ’s past. When he was a teen, his older brother Marcus was killed in a hit-and-run in a crosswalk. IQ’s fruitless search for the driver is the reason he dropped out of high school, and he wound up making some big mistakes. Now, some new clues have turned up, and IQ finds himself obsessed again: this time, maybe he’ll have the chance to find his brother’s killer—but he might also learn some things about his brother that he didn’t want to know. Oh, and in the meantime, he’s also trying to protect a DJ and her idiot boyfriend, who are being pursued by multiple parties.

The character of IQ is like a black Sherlock Holmes in Los Angeles—he uses his observation and deduction to figure things out, and he’s a bit of a fish out of water. His pairing with Dodson, a frenemy who’s part of the reason IQ got into hot water as a teen, makes for a great odd couple tale, as the two barely cooperate while they’re on the case. I enjoyed both of the books; they’re a fascinating take on detective stories in a setting I didn’t expect.

Noumenon

Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter

I’ve mentioned before that I love stuck-in-a-spaceship stories. It’s why I was drawn to Losers in Space by John Barnes, as well as Beth Revis’ Across the Universe trilogyNoumenon brings a new twist to the story. It’s the near future, and humanity is ready to explore space again. Reggie Straifer has discovered an anomaly in space—a star that seems to be pulsing or wobbling, as if it is partially encased by something. When destinations are chosen by the Planet United Consortium for exploration, Reggie’s variable star is one of them.

Because of the length of the journey, generations would pass before the massive convoys would reach their destinations. The carefully chosen scientists and crew wouldn’t survive the trip. So the consortium decides to use clones: everyone leaving Earth is just the first in a line of clones, raised to serve a particular function in this enormous undertaking. But, of course, clones aren’t perfect copies, and each generation develops a little bit differently. The society on board the ship undergoes shifts and changes. And what will they find when they finally reach Reggie’s star?

Noumenon leaps and jumps through thousands of years; it’s made up of little stories from the points of view of different characters, as well as the AI that connects the many ships of the convoy. Things go awry, the people change, the AI grows in unexpected ways. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I was really drawn into the story—both the close-up tales of individuals, and the overarching journey to the star and the discoveries that are made once they reach it. I loved the descriptions of how the convoys were made up, and the way that the successive generations of clones evolved. It’s a fantastic, thought-provoking read.

Disclosure: I received review copies or proofs of these books.

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