Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsh

After a world war where the majority of Earth's inhabitants are killed by biological warfare, Stephen, his father and grandfather struggle to stay alive by keeping to themselves and scavenging whatever remains they can find among the destruction. His grandfather has always taught Stephen to be on his guard and lookout only for himself. Others survivors cannot be trusted -- they might be thieves or 'Slavers' who will capture you and force you to work for them or sell you off. His grandfather is a harsh and abusive man, but Stephen knows he's the one who has kept them alive so far.

So when Stephen's grandfather dies from the deadly virus that wiped out the majority of the world's population, Stephen is afraid things will change for the worse. It's only a couple nights later when his father tries to rescue a mother and son from dangerous Slavers when everything goes wrong. His father is injured and falls into a coma and Stephen has no other option than to accept help from a group of strangers who claim they can take his father to a doctor. Stephen soon finds himself in Settler's Landing -- a hidden community where people have houses, food and carry on with things like school and farming as if the world catastrophe had not happened. Stephen is wary of everything, especially since there are some people in the community who obviously do not want him there. He wonders how long the community can hide themselves from other survivors who would kill to have access to Settler's Landing and is intrigued by Jenny, the rebellious adopted daughter of the family he is staying with. Before long he finds himself in the middle of a deadly battle where Settler's Landing is under attack from a group of Slavers and a neighbouring community.

The verdict on this book: a simplistic plot with some good tension and a couple exciting scenes (being chased by Slavers, the big battle at the end) but I found the characters too cliche and needing more development (Stephen falling for the mysterious, rebellious girl was much too predictable). The story just wasn't original enough or powerful enough to make it stand out from other dystopian novels out there. Would I recommend it? Sure, I think someone looking for something straight forward, grounded in our real world (most things are pretty believable and there are no elements of paranormal or fantasy) and not overloaded with romance might like this...
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Tie-In Books

You may have noticed that I've reviews a number of video game tie-in novels, and that I have liked some far more than others.  It got me thinking: are tie-in novels even worth it, whether they are based on games, movies, TV series, or whatever? 

I've found that there are a few different kinds and they vary greatly in quality.  I thought I'd go through them, in order of average quality, starting with the worst kind.


These are the books that a pretty much straight recreations of original property.  The Assassin's Creed novels are an illustrative (I'd say good, but it isn't) example, as are most Hollywood blockbuster tie-ins.  They are usually not particularly good.  Authors are forced to keep to the plot, which can prove difficult since movies are obviously a visual medium, with complete different rules of pacing.  Sometimes there can be a certain pleasure in these if you take them a face value: low budget, quick turnaround, pulp throwaways.  Think of them as the Harlequins of tie-in novels.

Expanded Universe 

I borrow this term from the Star Wars novels, games, comics, and TV series, but it applies perfectly.  These are usually better than the novelizations I mention above.  The authors usually have some degree of freedom to create their own stories and often, their own characters.  They aren't tied directly to onscreen action, so can explore more in depth thoughts and motivations that would otherwise seem to intrude on familiar stories. These include prequels, sequels and other companion pieces. Sometimes the connection to the source material is obvious, but often the connection is slight, where almost nothing of the original works is mentioned. Some series include both Expand Universe material and Novelizations.  The difference in quality is usually pretty big.

Star Wars is the biggest example, but Star Trek, Halo, Mass Effect, and pretty much anything else with a big following.

Books that become films/games

These are books that get made into other media. Obvious examples are the big film releases like Hunger Games, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Fight Club, Slumdog Millionaire, Moneyball, The Lorax, etc.  Need I go on?  Yes, since some books are made into video games, not movies.  Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six, Alice in Wonderland, the Biblical Apocrypha, and even the life of Frederic Chopin (really!).

Heck, even the first two Die Hard movies was based on books.

As with any books, quality is often a matter of opinion, but these ones are usually not terrible.

Are they worth it?

I know it's a sweeping generalization, but boys like movies and video games, and boys who don't like to read very much often don't simply because they don't feel like investing in something unfamiliar.  Tie-ins give that opportunity to look deeper into something they may already know and love.  I don't want to suggest that they will move on to something better, since that's kind of insulting, but it might encourage them to broaden their horizons.

Don't discount these tie-ins as cheapo junk (even if they sometimes are).  If they get someone who wouldn't otherwise reading, it's worth it.

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Mad Science: Experiments you can do at home but probably shouldn't by Theodore Gray

This is one awesome experiment book.

Did you know you could make rocket fuel with a snickers bar? All you need to do it mix it with a concentrated source of oxygen, like potassium percholate, ignite it and -- PHOOM! A huge rushing tower of fire!

Or perhaps you'd like to save some money and make your own homemade matches. Everyone's into the DIY stuff these days. You'll find step by step instructions here in this book -- just watch out that you don't mix the the red phosphorus and potassium chlorate required by the experiment or you may have an unexpected explosion on your hands (or no hands at all). I'd watch out for the cops too, since possession of red phosphorus is a federal crime.

Or get even more practical: make your own salt! Okay, so it involves combining liquid sodium and chlorine which results in fiery explosions and clouds of salty smoke. But if you tie a net full of popcorn above your experiment like Theo, you can salt your popcorn! (just watch out for flaming liquid sodium balls)

In addition to instructions for doing the experiments, the book contains plenty of interesting facts about various elements and chemical reactions. The photos are really spectacular, just like ones in Theodore Gray's Elements book --you can't help but stare at the cool explosions and close ups of chemical reactions happening. I like the "danger alerts", which inform the reader of all the perils of doing these experiments and the introduction which includes a section titled "Real warnings vs. the-lawyer-made-us-do-it warnings". There's plenty of sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humour that makes the whole thing pretty entertaining to read.

Sure, most of the materials required are poisonous, dangerous, hard to get a hold of and possibly illegal, but this is exactly what makes the experiments so fascinating.

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Classic of the Day: From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

If you were to give a boy a book about space travel and a trip to the moon, I'm guessing that a novel written in 1865 wouldn't be the first one you'd come up with.  From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne is the book you may have forgotten, about a gun club trying to build the biggest gun ever, one big enough to shoot the moon!

Seriously.  As in, they are actually trying to get a projectile to the moon.  With a giant gun.

Shortly after the American Civil War, a gun club decides that it would be interesting to see if a cannon could be built that would shoot a projectile to the moon.  Barbicane, the president of the gun club, makes a series of bets with his nemesis that make the construction of the cannon a matter of pride. things get tense, and with money and honour on the line, the consider a radical idea: riding in the projectile and going to the moon themselves.

Mr. Verne goes to great lengths to describe the process of building such a ridiculous thing, from picking the best location and materials to the feasibility of a human traveling in the projectile and surviving, but the book is fairly light, even with all the engineering talk.  The characters are broadly drawn and the situations are reasonably amusing.  Despite all that, the moon landing that seems like a distant memory now (or, my generation and younger, outside of our lifetimes entirely) was over a hundred years away when this book was written, but the proposals and predictions on how to get there are remarkable accurate.  Verne guessed the location, the cost and even the approximate weight of the venture, and even though his solutions to getting to the moon aren't exactly feasible, a lot of it turned out true.

Many of Jules Verne's books are still quite readable, even after 150 years, but it really all depends on the translation (newsflash! He was French).  These are good for all ages, but I think younger teen boys might appreciate these most.  I might have been 12 when I first read it.

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Acceleration by Graham McNamee

It's summer and Duncan is spending all his time at his new job at the subway's lost and found, collecting lost items and returning them to their owners who pick them up. It's not the most exciting job to be sitting around in a windowless concrete hole, so Duncan spends his time inspecting the  lost items and hoping that owners won't pick them up so he can keep them.

All is humdrum until he discovers a small leather booklet -- some kind of journal or collection of personal notes. In it are notes on experiments, not the kind of experiments done in schools or laboratories, but disturbing experiment done on animals, such as the time is takes to drown mice in different liquids like windex and gasoline. Taped into the note book are newspaper clippings about gory animal killings and buildings being burned down. As Duncan reads on, he realizes this notebook belongs to someone who is twisted and dangerous. Further into the book he finds detailed descriptions of several women: what they look like, when they get on and off the subway, where they sit. It appears that the owner of this booklet is stalking these people and Duncan may be the only one who knows it. He finally decides he has to find a way to warn them -- and then a man shows up at the lost and found to claim the notebook.

This is an older title, but I'd thought I'd include it as a post anyway, since it's hard to find a good  mystery these days that follows the more traditional "whodunnit" formula and isn't infiltrated with paranormal creatures or romance (there's only a hint of it in this book). It definitely stands the test of time (especially since there's no brand or celebrity name dropping). I like the build up of suspense as Duncan reads more and more of the notebook and I think his tracking of the potential victims and fear of the killer is portrayed pretty realistically. I'd love to find a couple more mysteries like this one, with the same excitement and tension.
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The Elder Scolls novels by Greg Keyes

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out in November, but I didn't get it until Christmas.  Since then, I've played around 87 hours (as of this morning; the only game I've played longer is Pokemon) and still have a long way to go before I can feel like I finished it.  It's an all-absorbing Tolkieneqsue world, with elves, humans and various other races trying to live together in a medieval world of castles, forts, magic and long lost treasures. Tamriel, a perfect world for a fantasy novel.

So with all this on my mind, I picked up The Elder Scrolls: Lord of Souls.  At first I didn't realize that it was the second of two, so it was a little odd jumping into the middle of the story, but it still worked.  Because the first book set up all the characters already, it pretty much went right into the action, but since this is how the games work, too, it didn't bother me that much.

A weird floating city called Umbriel from the Gods' land of Oblivion has crossed over to Tamriel and is drifting towards the Imperial City with no known purpose.  Umbriel is populated by what appear to be normal people, but are tied to the city somehow and are unable to leave without turning to dust. Wherever the city passes above, dead bodies from to country below are reanimated and form a massive army that hacks its way forward, following the city's path.

The plot follows several pairs of characters, including the crown prince of Tamriel and his bodyguard, an Imperial agent and his friend, and two Tamriel citizens trapped aboard the floating city, as they try to stop Umbriel from destroying their home and world they love.

The story isn't at all related to the events of any of the games.  Only the locations, mythos and races are rooted in the game world.  It helps to have played them to get a good grounding; I'm not sure if it would be quite as successful as a standalone story as Bioshock or Fable.  (Both of which have new games coming out this year.  Perfect time for a tie-in.)
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Classic of the Day: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

I probably don't need to tell you the plot of The Chrysalids, but I'll give a quick overview of it.  David Strorm is born and raised in a village where people with minor abnormalities are considered crimes against nature.  He discovers a friend of his has six toes, and is thus if discovered would be banished or killed.  As the story progresses, we find that this is likely the remnants of our society after what the locals call the 'Tribulation".  Of course, it turns out David, too, has an abnormality: he, along with a few others, are psychic.  The story goes as expected from here.  People find out, a chase ensues, and our heroes pursue freedom, ultimately escaping to a more enlightened society.

This was the first book assigned to me in Grade 10 English class, and was the first book I read in school that I actually enjoyed.  I decided to revisit the book last year to see if it held up, and fortunately it did.  The story was engaging, and the rebuilding of a collapsed society is always a fascinating story to tell, particularly when they don't explain how is collapsed in the first place.  Backstory is overrated (seriously, I mean that. There is something to be said for leaving details to the imagination).  As gamer, the post-apocalyptic world is a familiar one, so that's a plus, and as a Canadian, the setting in remote Labrador is also pretty exciting.

I will say that the writing does seem dated; the language used is a bit formal and certainly full of britishisms.  The edition I read used the classic Courier font printed small and close together (this stuff matters!), so that doesn't help the book.  But the right sell (Mutants! Post-apocalyptia!) should get it in their hands.

Like I said for Lord of the Flies, I know this is often assigned reading.  Get it to them before it gets that far.  Nothing kills the enjoyment of a book more than being forced to write reviews and reports and studies on each and every line.
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X-Isle by Steve Augarde

In the futuristic world where Baz lives, climate change and terrible storms have flooded his continent -- and from what he know -- the entire world. There's hardly any land left that's suitable for living on -- in most areas all you can see are rooftops and towers sticking out of the water. With the waters completely polluted and nowhere to grow food, everyone is scavenging for supplies to keep themselves alive. There is one place though, that is still above the waters and supposedly has plenty of food: X-Isle. It is controlled by Preacher John and his sons who operate a salvaging business, diving for whatever items have survived the waters and trading with people on the mainland. They come regularly to the mainland to recruit young boys to work for them, taking the ones who offer the best items as payment.
Baz can hardly believe it when he is chosen. He doesn't quite know what to expect, but rumours suggest that it's a much better place and he'll at least get three meals a day. However, when he and another boy, Ray, arrive at the island, they discover things aren't as everyone on the mainland had believed. Preacher John's sons run the island like tyrants and everyone is bullied by two older, favoured boys, Steiner and Hutchinson. They have to fight each other for one can of food a day, carry heavy loads of rocks until their hands bleed and clean dangerous, disgusting filth off savaged items. Preacher John is an enormous, intimidating man who only appears on Sundays to preach a cryptic and terrifying sermon that everyone is forced to attend. There are far fewer boys on the island than Baz expected -- they'd been taking many more recruits to the island and Baz doesn't remember seeing them return to the mainland. He wonders if something sinister is going on and realizes that time might be running out for him and the other boys when Preacher John begins to talk about making sacrifices to God so that the waters will recede.

The plot kept me intrigued for pretty much the entire book. Preacher John is presented as a maniacal dictator with warped religious ideas. This gave him an unpredictability and potential for evil that kept the suspense up. (I really did think that he might do something really terrible...)

A lot of the book focused on the dynamics between the boys and their struggle to survive the abuse from Steiner, Hutchinson and Preacher John's sons rather than efforts to deal with the world disaster. I found that the dystopian setting wasn't crucial -- the story could have taken place in our present world, in any dire situation that might make a person willing to leave family and endure even more trouble.

There were a couple predictable plot points in the book that I thought could have been more subtle, but in general I enjoyed this one quite a bit. Characters and their emotions were believable, and only a slight suggestion of romance at the end. It's one I'd definitely recommend.

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