Before I dive into today’s Stack Overflow, a clarification about the meme above. The original meme (which says “books” instead of “bookcases”) was made by Rev. Jeremy Smith, with the punchline that clergy everywhere were responding “You mean per subject, right?” I’ve since seen it altered with the punchline “You mean on my nightstand?” and I personally liked the idea of having 30 bookcases because I’m still technically below that number.
There’s been a lot written already about the fact that Kondo doesn’t actually say that you should have fewer than 30 books—just that she does say she personally keeps her own collection to about 30—and, although I haven’t actually watched the Netflix show or read her book, I generally agree with the idea that we accumulate too much stuff and her method seems to be one helpful way of paring things down. I myself have been culling books and board games in an attempt to get my stack overflows down to a more manageable amount. (Spoiler alert: I’ll probably never get all my books to fit onto bookshelves.)
At any rate, regardless of whether you keep more than 30 books or not, I think we can all agree on at least one thing: you can and should read a lot of books. I hope there are more than 30 books that “spark joy” in your life, whether they’re from the library or borrowed from friends or read digitally or listened to in audiobook form. Heck, I’ve got more than 30 books sitting here in my box of books that I’ve read that haven’t gotten the Stack Overflow treatment yet.
As I said in my reading resolutions for this year, I hope that trying to compile thematic stacks doesn’t discourage me from reading more broadly this year. So while I do hope to make themed Stack Overflows (because they’re fun!), I do have a lot of orphaned books in my “finished reading” stack that haven’t fallen into a particular group yet, and I’m going to take some time to wrap those up. This week, since my pile includes a lot of books that are parts of a series, I’ll dig into those. Some are continuations of series I’ve written about before, and some are new to me. There are kids’ books and adult books here. Let’s dig in!
Sophie and Stu love playing Camelot’s Honor, an online videogame set in the world of King Arthur. So when Arthur himself is accidentally transported into their world (it turns out that Merlin has been tapping into the 21st century’s wi-fi), Sophie and Stu have to figure out how to get him back to his proper place. But it turns out that Arthur isn’t too keen on the way that his story ends—with betrayal and death—and figures he’ll just stick around in the future. After all, it turns out he’s pretty good at football.
The book plays around a bit with time travel in a sort of weird way—the one where time passing in the past for some reason syncs up with time passing in the future—but it’s still a pretty entertaining story. It takes Arthurian legend and blends it together with modern videogames and middle school. Mancusi’s version of Merlin is entertaining (I mean, when isn’t he?), and I like the way that Sophie and Stu work well as a team. (Despite the cover illustration, though, they do not attempt to pull the sword from the stone together—and definitely not in T-shirts and jeans!)
This is the first book in a planned series, so I’ll be curious to see where Sophie and Stu go next!
Mac B., Kid Spy: Mac Undercover and The Impossible Crime by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Mike Lowery
I mentioned this series briefly in my post about the Portland Book Festival, where author Mac Barnett was interviewed about being a secret agent when he was a kid. That’s what this series of kids’ books is about: when Mac was a kid, the Queen of England called him up and gave him a secret mission: somebody had stolen the Crown Jewels, and it was up to Mac to find the thief!
Now, as you may guess, Mac Barnett was not actually a secret agent when he was a kid, and this story, despite his assurances that it actually happened, did not actually happen. (My 5-year-old read it and explained to me that it was true, because of the author’s note to that effect. Thanks a lot, Mac.) But they are truly funny. The Queen is fantastic: she doesn’t take any nonsense from Mac, and is constantly accompanied by twelve corgis. You do get to learn some true facts, like the Crown Jewels aren’t all jewels and include a spoon. Mac does manage to save the day, of course, but I’ll let you read the book to find out how.
In the second book, the Queen calls upon Mac again, because the Crown Jewels are in danger yet again: this time, the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Colonel Blood has threatened to complete what his ancestor started, and Mac is charged with standing guard. In the morning, though, the jewels are gone even though the door was locked. How did the thief do it? Once again, it will take Mac’s excellent puzzle-solving skills (and the help of Freddie the corgi) to figure it out.
This is the fourth and final book in the Terrible Two series, which started off with the meeting of two competing pranksters (Miles and Niles), and then went to some surprisingly heartfelt places. The Terrible Two love pulling pranks—on other kids, on their teachers, on each other, but especially on the well-meaning but mostly clueless Principal Barkin. One of the key principles of their pranks, though, is “to disrupt, but not destroy,” and the idea is that their pranks are to humble those who are full of themselves, not just to be mean-spirited. This idea is developed over the course of the series, and the two even become friends with Principal Barkin himself, who tries really hard to become a prankster but, alas, just doesn’t quite get it.
In this volume, Miles and Niles are set to graduate from Yawnee Valley Science and Letters Academy, and they’re plotting an epic prank—one that will seal their legacy in the school’s history. (They’ve politely turned down Principal Barkin’s offer to hold them back so they can keep on pulling pranks at the middle school forever.) Barkin’s father, Former Principal Barkin (there’s a long line of principals in the Barkin family), has become superintendent, and he’s made it his mission to get revenge on the Terrible Two.
Although there’s a lot of humor in the book (and the pranks they come up with are pretty clever), I also liked the way that this final chapter tackles what it’s like to be nearing the end of an era. Miles and Niles and even Principal Barkin realize that their relationships won’t be quite the same after this year, and each of them reacts differently. The characters grew and changed and matured a little over the course of the four books (except for Former Principal Barkin, who remains cruel and overbearing all the way through).
My daughters and I continue to be greatly entertained by the Cucumber Quest comic book series, which follows a rabbit brother and sister on their quest to visit each of the seven kingdoms, getting the Dream Sword autographed by each of the princesses, so they can defeat the Nightmare Knight. The books take a lot of fantasy tropes like the Chosen One and prophecies and turns them on their head: Cucumber doesn’t want to be a hero; his sister Almond wants to take his place. The Nightmare Knight might not be the bad guy we’ve been led to believe…
When our band of heroes arrives in the Flower Kingdom, they’re surprised to discover there’s no royalty—just a king of fashion, who’s looking for his next style princess, and has established a contest. What’s going on? How will they get their fourth autograph? It’s another funny, action-packed episode, and be sure to stay tuned for the silly Q&A section at the end of the book, too.
This comic book series is a story that also teaches coding concepts using a Logo-inspired language, gradually building up from simple commands to parameters to modules. The reader learns these concepts along with the kids in the story, who are using programs to control special turtles that can open portals to another dimension. There are various sections of the book in which the characters break the fourth wall to challenge the reader to figure out how to write their own code to solve a problem, as well as sequences that show how a program play out line by line.
This book is the final chapter of the series, and the kids have a showdown with Dr. One-Zero, who has nefarious plans to brainwash humanity. I don’t want to give away too much (particularly since this is the last book in the series), but I liked the way that programming is incorporated into the story, plus there are some fun ties to Flatland (one of my favorite books). I hope this book sparks an interest in coding with young readers!
Hilo is a robot from another dimension who happens to look like a little kid. When he arrives on Earth, he befriends D.J. and Gina, who help him pretend to be human (despite some alarming quirks). Throughout the series, Hilo and his new friends battle giant robot monsters that keep appearing from underground, as Hilo gradually starts to remember more about his own past. Hilo’s sister Izzy has also arrived on Earth, and she has a talent for building things. She remembers what happened on their home planet, but is worried about Hilo remembering everything too quickly.
In the latest volume, everything goes wrong. As Hilo regains his memory, it starts to become a little less clear what his role was then. Razorwark, the big bad robot who turned against the humans, maybe wasn’t so bad after all. Or was he? And now that the government has picked up on Hilo’s strange abilities, they’re eager to track him down—what will happen if they catch him? Things are looking grim, and the book ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger… which we’ll have to wait until next January to resolve! If you’re new to the series, GeekDad Jim Kelly introduced the first book here.
Our favorite precocious girl with her best friend unicorn are back, this time in another graphic novel (rather than the usual collections of comic strips). Dana Simpson does a great job with the longer format, freed from the need to have a punchline every fourth panel (though I really enjoy those too). Phoebe and Marigold go to drama camp, where they’ll put on an original play—but Marigold has invited her sister to the camp, and Phoebe experiences a bit of jealousy. (Spoiler alert: they do manage to work things out, so there will be more Phoebe and Her Unicorn books in the future. Whew!)
The Ministry of SUITs series has become a household favorite (my kids have read them multiple times), and it’s easy to see why: they’re really clever and also totally ridiculous. (I mentioned the first two books here.) The Ministry of Strange, Unusual and Impossible Things deals with all the weird situations that the world would rather not think about. Jack and Trudy are two kids who happened to be agents in the Ministry, and they just keep stumbling into one evil plot after another. (It’s only the third week that Jack’s been an agent, and he’s on his third adventure already.)
This one involves weird food allergies paired with a company that is marketing health foods, ostensibly so that kids will be super buff so that they can appear in a medieval film made by said company. But something’s really fishy about the whole thing—especially the part where Jack keeps getting almost killed. One of the things we love about this series is the “logical” explanations of the world, like the way Ministry learn to manipulate time by being miserable (because time flies when you’re having fun, and drags when you’re sad). Just wait until you see how they become invisible.
The chapters are interspersed with excerpts from the Ministry of SUITs handbook, which includes segments on things like imperial measurements: a foot was originally based on the size of the king’s foot, which is why people wanted their kings to have big feet (in case you wanted to buy several feet of something), which is also why kings are called “rulers.” See? It all makes sense now. I’d highly recommend this series for kids (and adults) who like some silliness with their adventures.
This book introduces a new kids’ series about a group of kids—a pair of sisters who are best friends with a pair of brothers—who come across a lost codex of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches and drawings. While Jack and Tom want to sell it and get rich, Sophie and Lisa want to figure out what it’s about, particularly when they find a secret room with a machine that looks just like one of the drawings.
Okay, minor spoiler alert (which you’d know if you read the cover or watch the cinematic book trailer): it’s a time machine, and the kids end up meeting a young Leonardo. I did enjoy the way that the story weaves in historical facts, including da Vinci’s mysterious disappearance for a couple years, an “invisible” angel in one of his paintings, and another painting that may have been covered up by another wall. But I was also a little frustrated by the writing—it’s a little uneven, with conversations that veer off into tangents (maybe a realistic portrayal of the kids, but it doesn’t move the story along). There are also portions of the time travel that were particularly far-fetched, like the ability of the kids to blend into 15th century Italy. Still, it was a fun romp through the world of da Vinci, and I liked the way things tied together in the end.
This is the second book in the Walker Bean series, which is about an adventuring young man who finds out that a lot of old legends have some truth to them. The first book was actually published in 2010, so it’s been a long wait for the second volume, though it’s easy to see why. These are large graphic novels, with elaborate drawings filled with lots of tiny details. The story in this one starts with Walker shipwrecked in the Mango Islands, as the crew tries to build a new submersible ship according to Walker’s designs. Weird shadow creatures have been spotted in the jungle, and they discover legends of a fallen civilization that once existed on the island. In the meantime, there are some strange connections between Genoa, one of Walker’s friends, and a powerful royal family that’s been making a stir back home.
The adventure reminds me a little bit of Tintin—not quite as slapstick, but just in terms of a kid of somewhat indeterminate age who manages to have a wealth of different skills. (Plus a faithful dog!) The illustrations are lovely, particularly the way that the color palette shifts when we’re reading about a legend or a dream sequence, and there’s a whole lot going on. It can be a little bit on the creepy side so it’s not for really young readers, but probably middle grades and up should be fine. I don’t know if Renier will be making more Walker Bean stories, but if he does, I’ll be along for the ride (even if it takes another 8 years!).
This one’s a little embarrassing, because it was actually published in 2016, and I really don’t have a good excuse for why it took me so long to get to it other than that it got lost in my stacks and I forgot. It’s the sequel to Undertow, which I wrote about back in 2015. The story involves the arrival of the Alphas—people from the sea, ranging from human-looking merpeople to ones that are much more aquatic and fish-like—on the shores of New York, who end up in a makeshift refugee camp. Lyric Walker, the main character, discovers that she has an important connection to them—but that’s before a huge battle that ends in disaster in the first book. At the beginning of Raging Sea, Lyric and her friends (one human, one Alpha) are on the run from the government, who have branded her as a terrorist and think she’s responsible for the disaster.
As I mentioned in my review of Undertow, there are definitely parallels between what happens in this story and the real-world stories of immigrants and refugees. The Alphas aren’t trusted, but now even people from the east coast are fleeing west, they’re finding that they’re almost as unwanted as the Alphas themselves. Lyric is searching for her parents, who have been captured by a shady military corporation.
I have to admit that since it had been a while since I’d read the first book, there was a lot I’d forgotten, though I got a few reminders as I read this one. It was a fun read with lots of action sequences, but I did get a little tired of the many reversals: oh, it turns out this character isn’t dead! But, oh no, they’re evil! No, they were just pretending to be evil to do something good! Well, maybe that good wasn’t so great! Maybe I’m finally getting too old for YA books? At any rate, the third book in the trilogy, Heart of the Storm, was published back in 2017, so I might need to look that one up so I can see how the story finally ends.
I mentioned Trail of Lightning as one of my favorite books of 2018, and Jamie Greene interviewed Rebecca Roanhorse for his podcast. It kicks off the Sixth World series, in which climate change has drowned a lot of the world and changed the shape of nations. Gods and monsters have reappeared. In the middle of this is Maggie Hoskie, a Dinétah monster hunter, hired to track down a beast that has been terrorizing a village. Her supernatural abilities are aided by Kai Arviso, a medicine man who looks too much like a city slicker at first, and the two of them dive into a strange world where ancient legends are alive and well. The downside is that her powers also make her something of a monster herself, and she has just as many demons to fight on the inside.
By now it’s probably a cliche to compare Maggie to Buffy (the vampire slayer), but there are some similarities: a female with monster-hunting abilities, and a supernatural world that remains largely unknown to the general population. I love that Maggie is a Native American heroine written by a Native American writer, and I like the blend of traditional lore with a dystopian future. I’ll admit that the love triangle portion of the plot annoyed me (come on, Maggie! Your ex is terrible.), but the rest of the book is exciting and engaging, and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Storm of Locusts (due out in April!).
The Burning World and The Living by Isaac Marion
Way back in 2011, I interviewed Isaac Marion about his zombie novel Warm Bodies, which by then had already gone through a few iterations. Marion had printed copies himself to sell, and then edited it and printed more, and by the time I got my hands on it, it was from Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster. The next two books in the series, The New Hunger (a prequel) and The Burning World (a sequel), were also published by divisions of Simon and Schuster. Now, the story concludes in The Living, which is published as an ebook exclusively by Zola Books, or you can get a hardcover directly from Marion’s website. The upshot of that is that my Warm Bodies collection is completely mismatched, with a paperback, an ebook, a hardcover, and an advance reader paperback—but I guess that’s sort of fitting.
In case you’re not familiar with Warm Bodies (which was also made into a movie), it’s a zombie romance novel. R, who serves as the book’s narrator, is a zombie who discovers that he really wants to live again, particularly when he falls in love with Julie, a living girl. Of course, some of that is due to the fact that R killed Julie’s boyfriend and ate his brain, absorbing his memories… so the relationship has a bit of an awkward beginning. What happens, though, is a zombie story in which some of the zombies are returning to life, and the big question is what’s causing the change, and whether it’s going to last.
Over the winter, I caught up on both The Burning World and The Living in one blast. In The Burning World, the Axiom Group, a mysterious army, shows up in the Pacific Northwest where our heroes live in a converted stadium, offering to restore order and stability. There’s definitely something off about the whole operation, though, and R and Julie end up on the run, trying to figure out what’s going on. In the meantime, R is slowly remembering his life before zombiehood, and it’s not pleasant. He’d rather be the guy with no past, and isn’t sure how Julie and his other friends will react when they discover the truth.
In The Living, we find out more about the Fire Church, a cult that believes God wants them to give up their ties to earthly concerns… and are helping the rest of the living population along by burning down cities. When they clash with the Axiom Group, it’s not entirely clear who you should root for, which is the lesser of the two evils. And R’s past has links to both groups.
I think a lot of the time, zombie stories dig into the fear of your loved ones becoming monsters: what will you do if your friends or family turn into zombies? Would you have it in you to kill them? Could you save them? The Warm Bodies series explores those same themes, but it also flips it over: what happens if a monster becomes a loved one? As zombies come back to life and form friendships and relationships, what do you do with the horrific things they did while they were undead? And what about horrific things they did in their first life?
This is a zombie series that is as equal parts philosophical reflections and brain-eating monsters, so if you want a traditional horror story, this probably isn’t for you. But if you like your zombies to have a metaphysical bite to them, you might like this series as much as I did.
I wrote about Noumenon at the end of 2017: it’s a story about a long-term mission to explore a strange, pulsating star. The convoy of ships was designed to be multigenerational, supported by clones of the original crew chosen for their expertise. What is it like to be assigned a particular role for your life simply because your predecessor filled that position?
In Noumenon Infinity, the convoy has returned to LQ Pyx, the star that turned out to have a giant mechanical structure built around it. Their goal is to repair the Web and see what it does—the convoy splits because some want to build on the existing structures, and some want to follow some clues about its alien origins.
Although much of the story is a sequel to the original, there are also some portions that overlap with the original: a different convoy that launches the same time as the Noumenon convoy but gets flung into another dimension, only to reappear much later. Everyone will have to work together to figure out the secrets of the Web, but political and cultural differences make it a challenge.
I found this series absolutely fascinating. There’s a huge cast of characters spanning a vast breadth of time and space, and the technologies (both human and alien) are described in ways that make them seem real and compelling. But it’s not just about the tech and the science—the characters and their relationships are also well-written and engaging, and I found myself deeply invested in what would happen to them. If you like space exploration sci-fi, add these to your list!
My Current Stack
I did a bit of stress-reading over winter break and the first couple weeks of this year, including a couple of graphic novels that I picked up at the bookstore. I finally started the Monstress series by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, which I’d heard good things about. It’s a world with humans and Arcanics, who are a cross between humans and the immortal Ancients. Maika is an Arcanic who happens to look human—but there’s a monster inside her that she can’t entirely control. The book is creepy (and definitely not for kids!) but I’m really intrigued by the world and the story, so I’ve picked up the second volume as well.
I also read Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan, Adrian Alphona, and Takeshi Miyazawa. I didn’t know anything about the series until seeing trailers for the TV show back in 2017—and even then I didn’t get to it right away. Well, I picked up the “Complete Collection Volume One” (how can something be complete if it’s only the first part?) and blasted through it. The story is about a group of kids whose parents get together once a year for some boring charity fundraiser… except it turns out that it’s actually some sort of ritual sacrifice and their parents are some sort of criminal society. The kids decide they need to take down their parents, and begin to discover their own gifts.
It’s a fun take on the stereotypical teenage “my parents are evil” attitude, and I like the way that the team comes together—and also trying to figure out which one of them is actually a mole, working for the parents. It looks like this volume completed the first story arc, but then after the “last” issue was published, they started another story arc, so I may be looking for that next.
Finally, the last book for today is I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, the only one that isn’t part of a series. (Though now that it was made into a film, you never know…) Barbara Thorson is a quirky kid who talks about hunting giants and works on elaborate traps at the water’s edge. The real world and Barbara’s fantasy life intermingle in the story: what is it that she really fears? What is the monster living upstairs in her house? The story reminded me a bit of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which also deals with a kid dealing with major real-world struggles who sees the world through a fantastical lens. With the magic of fiction, maybe both worlds can exist at the same time.
One irony about the trade paperback I picked up is that the foreword by filmmaker Chris Columbus is about the way comic books often disappoint because the interior art doesn’t actually match the cover, unlike the original issues of I Kill Giants… but then this copy has the movie poster on the cover, which means that it doesn’t match the interior artwork. Oh, well. Having read the book, I might go look up the movie later on.
Well, that’s it for this extra-large helping of books! I hope you found something here you might enjoy.
Disclosure: I received review copies of the titles in this column except where otherwise noted.