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I was so pleased to be able to read Riverkeep by Martin Stewart this week. The book is due out in April of this year in the UK and July in the US. The story is refreshingly imaginative while still delivering a classic Wizard of Oz-style adventure.

Official blurb
The DanĂ©k is a wild, treacherous river, and the Fobisher family has tended it for generations—clearing it of ice and weed, making sure boats can get through, and fishing corpses from its bleak depths. Wulliam’s father, the current Riverkeep, is proud of this work. Wull dreads it. And in one week, when he comes of age, he will have to take over.
Then the unthinkable happens. While recovering a drowned man, Wull’s father is pulled under—and when he emerges, he is no longer himself. A dark spirit possesses him, devouring him from the inside. In an instant, Wull is Riverkeep. And he must care for his father, too.
When he hears that a cure for his father lurks in the belly of a great sea-dwelling beast known as the mormorach, he embarks on an epic journey down the river that his family has so long protected—but never explored. Along the way, he faces death in any number of ways, meets people and creatures touched by magic and madness and alchemy, and finds courage he never knew he possessed.
Martin Stewart's debut novel is an astonishing blend of the literary, the comedic, and the emotionally resonant. In a sentence, it's The Wizard of Oz as told by Patrick Ness. It marks the beginning of a remarkable career.
I'm almost not sure what to say after that blurb, other than that it's very true.

My thoughts in a few words: Evocative, humorous in the right places, memorable characters, solid world-building.

Nothing in this book struck me so much as the wonderful descriptions that manage to capture individual moments in detail without being tedious. Martin Stewart has a beautifully strong grasp of how to describe a scene so that the reader truly feels as if they are there. At times the icy grasp of the river seemed to flow right out of the book. 

Humorous in the right places.
I really appreciate when books have characters that can be funny and still have depth. It's easy to slip in a one-dimensional comedic foil who is just there to make wisecracks and lighten the mood while the main character gets on with the Real Work. This book doesn't have that. Though there are a few ridiculous funny moments in there which I think were added solely to lighten the mood, the humor was well balanced. Tillinghast is definitely a new favorite character for me and I loved his innuendos and wisecracks as well as his deeper realizations about what it means to be human.

Memorable characters.
From the witch trying to bring her wooden baby back to life, to the homunculus who has stolen a mandrake for his own inscrutable purposes, to a mostly-mad one-legged whaler, each character has their own story which interweaves with Wulliam's and is just as interesting. (Just reading about the types of characters in the book makes you want to read it, doesn't it?) 

Solid world-building.
Riverkeep is set in a fictional world, but it contained just enough echoes of our world that it felt solid and real...and old. The clippings and excerpts from songs and history books at the beginning of each chapter helped flesh out a larger history and let the reader in on knowledge that everyone in the world of Riverkeep would already have known. I'd love to see more stories set in this world. 
Martin also managed to create some genuinely creepy creatures--not just the mormorach, but also other creatures Wulliam ends up having to deal with. I would not want to have a run-in with a faelkon.

Overall, definitely one to pre-order. I recommend this to anyone who likes a good quest with a bit of magic mixed in.

I would like to thank Heidi Schulz for once more giving me the opportunity to use my "pirates" tag on this blog.

The Pirate Code is the second book to feature young Jocelyn Hook, daughter of the famous Captain James Hook. As with the first book, Schulz continues to delight readers with not only a fantastic story, but lots of humor, and a view of the Neverland that is quite different to our childhood imaginings.

Official blurb:
Fresh off a fearsome encounter with the Neverland crocodile, Jocelyn Hook decides the most practical plan is to hunt down her father's famous fortune. After all, she'll need the gold to fund her adventuring in the future. (And luckily, Hook left her the map.)
But the map proves to be a bit harder to crack than Jocelyn had hoped, and she's convinced that the horrible Peter Pan might be the only one with the answers. Of course, he doesn't really feel like helping her, so Jocelyn takes the only reasonable course of action left to her: she kidnaps his mother. Evie, though, is absolutely thrilled to be taken prisoner, so Jocelyn's daring ploy doesn't have quite the effect she'd planned for.
Along with the problem of her all-too-willing captive, Jocelyn must also contend with Captain Krueger, whose general policy is that no deed is too dastardly when it comes to stealing Hook's treasure. And with the ever-shifting Whens of the Neverland working against her as well, Jocelyn, Evie, Roger, and the rest of the Hook's Revenge crew have their work cut out for them.
In this rambunctious showdown between characters new and old, Jocelyn puts her own brand of pirating to the test in a quest to save her future and those she loves.

My thoughts in a few words: Funny and clever, unpredictable, beautifully imaginative.

Funny and clever.
The grumpy pirate narrator returns (never letting us forget that he really can't stand children and we are being quite a bother to him) and tells the story, interrupting every once in a while for a well-timed aside that's sure to make you smile.

While there are serious elements to the plot and character development as Jocelyn must overcome complications and re-evaluate how she views her friendships, there is a general lightheartedness about the book that makes it very easy to read and balances the serious bits very well.

I really appreciate that despite this being a novel aimed at younger readers, Schulz doesn't go the route of creating the invincible protagonist--Jocelyn is, in the end, still a child and of course cannot single-handedly defeat adult pirates. Because of that, she must come up with alternative ways of overcoming her enemies. There are plenty of twists, unexpected defeats, and even the plot's resolution might come as a surprise to many readers.

Illustrations by John Hendrix
Beautifully imaginative.
There were a few scenes in the book that really stuck with me and which I thought were really brilliant. One is the forest that is fed by things children have left behind. What a fantastic concept. I love the concept of a tree that survives on a child's abandoned belief in magic, or fear of toads, or other things children at some point give up as they grow.

The other image I loved was the Jolly Roger sitting atop a mountain. I love abandoned things, so the idea of a lonely ship that once was a terror of Neverland's seas sitting on a mountain covered in snow was very evocative.

Definitely recommended for all ages of folk who like a rollicking adventure.

For more about Heidi Schulz, visit her piratey website. To buy The Pirate Code from your local independent bookstore, visit IndieBound.

I love Mark Twain. Not just because I love grumpy men (Dylan Moran is my spirit animal) and not just because I love sarcastic humor. I love Twain's ability to poke fun at all of humanity while still acknowledging that we are a splendid, if ridiculous, race. He makes fun of everyone indiscriminately, not excluding himself.

Map taken from The University of Virginia
The Innocents Abroad is Twain's account of his six month trip on a steamer on an "excursion to the Holy Land, Egypt, the Crimea, Greece, and intermediate points of interest." The program of the excursion sounds terribly exciting, even today when travel of this sort is less exotic. As he says, "Who could read the programme of the excursion without longing to make one of the party?"
Starting in New York, the cruise traveled across the Atlantic by way of the Azores and into the Mediterranean--including a trip up the Bosphorus and into the Black Sea. The travelers stopped in ports and traveled by land in most of the countries around that sea, taking a lot of time along the way to visit landmarks and take in the sights (including a meeting with Tsar Alexander II). Twain's blisteringly honest and irreverent observations and accounts of these many countries and famous places as they were in the mid-1800s makes for utterly fascinating and often hilarious reading.

It's not always an easy book to read since there isn't a continuous thread of story. I did find that once put down, I could easily not come back to this book for weeks at a time. Each time I picked it back up though, I fell back in love with Twain.

It is important to read this book with a grain of salt. Twain's views are indicative of the prejudices of the day, and he doesn't hesitate to make offensive observations about the "backwardness" of certain people groups and in fact whole countries and compare them to countries considered more civilized (mainly America and England). But in a way I find it refreshing to know they are his honest views, even if some are ones I disagree with. His honesty means that sometimes he drastically changes his view of a place or people group within the same chapter as he gets to learn more about it and he readily admits to this change of view.
"I set down these first thoughts because they are natural--not because they are just or because it is right to set them down. It is easy for book-makers to say 'I thought so and so as I looked upon such and such a scene'--when the truth is, they thought all those fine things afterwards. One's first thought is not likely to be strictly accurate yet it is no crime to think it and none to write it down, subject to modification by later experience."
But what makes this so very Twain is that amongst all his complaining about and poking fun at other people and cultures he's not above making fun of himself  as well.
I am reminded, now, of one of these complaints of the cookery made by a passenger. The coffee had been steadily growing more and more execrable for the space of three weeks, till at last it had ceased to be coffee altogether and had assumed the nature of mere discolored water — so this person said. He said it was so weak that it was transparent an inch in depth around the edge of the cup. As he approached the table one morning he saw the transparent edge — by means of his extraordinary vision long before he got to his seat. He went back and complained in a high-handed way to Capt. Duncan. He said the coffee was disgraceful. The Captain showed his. It seemed tolerably good. The incipient mutineer was more outraged than ever, then, at what he denounced as the partiality shown the captain’s table over the other tables in the ship. He flourished back and got his cup and set it down triumphantly, and said:
“Just try that mixture once, Captain Duncan.”
He smelt it — tasted it — smiled benignantly — then said:
“It is inferior — for coffee — but it is pretty fair tea.”
The humbled mutineer smelt it, tasted it, and returned to his seat. He had made an egregious ass of himself before the whole ship. He did it no more. After that he took things as they came. That was me.
The Innocents Abroad is quite a wonderful adventure and the reader gets to see Gibraltar, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Israel, Syria, Egypt, and more as they were 150 years ago. Ships, tropical islands, famous cities, exotic cuisine, art, sculpture, architecture, mountains, rivers, lakes, camels, camping, "the orient," the Holy Land, deserts, mummies, pyramids, really what more could you want?

I read half of this book, and listened to the other half when it became clear that I'd never end up finishing it if I read it in the traditional way. I listened to it on Librivox, and John Greenman reads it very well indeed.

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