Jacked by David Kushner

Grand Theft Auto is an video game series that is entirely inappropriate for teens.  That said, c'mon.  Of course they have played it.  And of course they are waiting with baited breath for GTA V, due out sometime next year.  The series is infamous for its violent and sexual content, what with the brazen murder of innocent pedestrians, police officers and just general wreaking of havoc.  On the other hand, it's also a beautifully crafted series, each generation featuring groundbreaking graphics, freedom to travel the city and just cruise around absorbing the atmosphere.

Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto by David Kushner traces the history of the game from its humble beginning as a city simulator to the record shattering sales of the 4th edition that in its first 24 hours of sale made more money than any form of entertainment ever before in the same amount of time.  Grand Theft Auto was and continues to be a major cornerstone of gaming, but before it made it big, it was just a fringe game by a small start-up. 

Parallel to the main story, Jacked also discusses the efforts by moral crusader Jack Thompson to get the game banned in the name of protecting child from the violent contained contained in the series.  This obviously never happened, but it serves to create a pretty scary villain for the story of the game.  (Scary, of course, if you like games and want to keep playing them).

The pace is a bit slow for my taste, and doesn't actually get into that much detail about the process, but this is more than I'd ever heard before about the behind-the-scenes of the series, so this is a good, reasonable-length approach to the subject, one that should be able to hold the attention of gamers who enjoy it.

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Charlie Higson: The Best Kind of Zombie Writing

Charlie Higson, author of the Young Bond and the Enemy series, shares his top five writing tips in crafting a perfect zombie novel in The Guardian.

Thinking back to all the zombie novels you've read, do the good ones have elements Higson talk about?

Here are a couple we've reviewed:
World War Z
Dead of Night

What's your favourite zombie read?

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The Age of Zeus by James Lovegrove

Mark of Athena is due out in just a couple of weeks.  I'm not going to talk about that, though.  It's just a handy lead-in for me to mention this week's book, one good for guys that might have aged a bit beyond the Rick Riordan series.

For those who love Greek gods in the modern world, the Rick Riordan series are great.  The idea of the Pantheon rampaging across familiar places makes the myths that much cooler.  I mean, how many of us really have any experience in Greece, particular the ancient kind?

The Age of Zeus has the Pantheon returning to the world after being away for a couple thousand years.  Through their might, the world has fallen into peace policed by the familiar ancient beasts and gods.  Of course, they still have their ancient urges: the monster rampage and the gods demand tribute, erupting into their famous rage when they aren't satisfied.

Enter a rich arms dealer who seeks to return the Earth to human rule and a small group of people who have lost everything to the gods.  Together, they form a new team of Titans, based on the original god-killers.  And they, unlike all the resistance movements that came before them, find a way to hurt the Olympians.

As familiar as the Greek myths are, and even though The Age of Zeus is very familiar with these myths, this is an action book first and foremost.  If anything, this feels like a pulp novel or a cheesy sci-fi miniseries.  The Titans are on a mission to destroy the Olympians, and that's all this book is about.

This is fine for teens, but for younger kids, it's a no go: there's some language and mild sexual content, though it's relatively mild.

James Lovegrove has written a couple of other books along the same lines, The Age of Ra (Egypt) and The Age of Odin (Norse).
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Tunnels by Roderick Gordon

Will and His father have a strange pastime -- they like to dig. All their lives they have dreamed of uncovering something spectacular and of great archeological significance-- and perhaps even become famous in the process. But Will realizes that their seemingly harmless pastime may be more dangerous than they think when his father suddenly goes mysteriously missing. Will thinks something suspicious is going on -- especially with all the strange pale-faced men in dark coats walking around his neighbourhood. So Will and his friend, Chester, begin where his father is most likely to have gone: underground. It is then that they find a hidden underworld governed by the Styx, a murderous subterranean race who want to extend their rule to the world above. Unfortunately Will and Chester are captured before they can return home. 

The book is slow to start (which might lose some readers), but once Will finds the underground world, the pace picks up and there are plenty of chase scenes, fights and tense moments. I found the tone quite dark and serious, which made things suspenseful and more scary. Gordon does a good job of creating the underworld and the bad guys. I've always felt the antagonist(s) of a story play a large part in making the plot exciting. If they're not evil enough, why would you care if the characters got away or not? In this case, the Styx were terrible enough to keep me rooting for Will...

I wouldn't recommend this to readers looking for immediate action since it takes so long for the excitement to start, but those who don't mind sticking around longer will probably get hooked on the series, as it really does have a good plot and ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. And while it's categorized as children's fiction, the dark storyline would probably make it suitable for young teens too.

This is the first in the series of six books (five have been published so far). Visit the Tunnels website for info on the sequels, plus special documents (e.g. Will's journal) and deleted scenes.

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Preteen Read: The Roar by Emma Clayton

In Mika's world, if you mention the word "animals", everyone will shudder in fear. There has been a horrible plague, and the only way to keep the vicious human-eating animals and the poisonous gas out is to build an enormous wall to surround the remaining humans. The city is now divided into levels, and only the richest and the most powerful get to be on the top in the Golden Turrets. Everyone else is kept down in The Shadows and deprived of the basic human needs. 
Life is tough to say the least, so when the kids were offered a chance to win money and prizes for their families by playing a simulation video game, everyone excitedly enters the competition. Mika is also hoping to win, not just because he wants a better life for his parents, but he also believes that somehow through this contest, he's going to find his twin sister Ellie. Everyone tells Mika that Ellie is dead, but he knows that's not true. He can sense her. She's got to be somewhere...
It's one of those "wake up in the middle of the night and can't get to sleep" nights that I started The Roar, and that was a bad, bad idea, 'cause I couldn't stop reading. The book opens with a breathtaking pod fighter chase scene (Star Wars anyone?) and ends with a chilling cliffhanger (yes it's a series), and it's full of mysteries in between. The plot will satisfy all different kinds of readers: those who like their government conspiracies, those who like dystopian worlds, those who like some good video game action, those who like an evil villain who seems pretty invincible... Even though lots of things you suspect or are told right off are not quite resolved till much later, for this book it really is the journey that counts. It's a 500-pager, probably could stand to be edited a bit so there are fewer details and themes that don't quite fit the main story and kept me wondering, "where did that come from?". Maybe in the sequel. There are a few characters I'd like to see more of for sure. 

Have to get a hold of that sequel The Whisper, which came out in February 2012. 
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The internet is reading, so here's two more sites

School has started, and with it comes all the ads for back-to-school ads claiming that buying a tablet will help your kid in school.  I'm not sure how that's possible, but given how many kids have various devices, it's nice to know some sites that are good for them.  Since it's inevitable that they will not only have those devices but will quite likely prefer them over books, here's stuff they might like.  I've covered this topic before, but here's a couple more.

One of my go-to site for is Wikipedia. I don't have to go into too much detail on what it is; you should all know by now.  That said, there's some neat stuff on there that should pique the interest of many young folk with a taste for the weird.  The best way to get at it? Look no further than the rather thorough List of Unusual Articles.  Here you will find everything from articles about perfectly logical sentences consisting of only the word "Buffalo" to the novels of Saddam Hussein, as well as weird bits of math and science.

Kotaku is good for those who want to keep abreast of the gamer industry.  Kids tend to obsess over stuff, and kids who love games and gaming want to know what's coming.  Kotaku is quite good at keeping up, and though they often discuss the business side of things as much as games themselves.

Neither of these sites are intended for teens, but I don't like to think of them as needing dumbed-down content.  If it fits their field of interest, I'll suggest it.  So the warning comes: the content is not always kid-friendly, particularly the Wikipedia stuff.  They'll cover anything, so be warned.
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The Future We Left Behind (UK title: 1.4) by Mike A. Lancaster

A year ago I discovered Mike A. Lancaster's wonderful gem Human.4. I've booktalked this book countless times at the library and always managed to sell it, all thanks to a killer plot that effortlessly draw readers in (it also helps that the book looks short and not intimidating at all, with a killer cover). Coming in November in North America is the sequel The Future We Left Behind (1.4 is a better title) and it's one of the most satisfying sequels I've read.

Everyone reveres Peter's dad, a notable scientist who has successfully engineered artificial life and saved the honeybees from extinction, which in turn saved the plants and saved the humans.  So when Alpha challenges his work in class, Peter is impressed. And curious. Who is this girl?

Turns out she is a Strakerite. Peter has been taught by his dad all his life that Strakertites are "superstitious primitives", who believe in the story one Kyle Straker has recorded on tapes detailing the upgrade of humans by aliens. Because people with power and status like Peter's dad have been so outspoken against the non-scientific beliefs of the Strakerites, they're ignored and relegated to the fringes of society.

Now Alpha, a Strakerite, is asking Peter for help. It's difficult for Peter not to be skeptical, but when Alpha shows him a picture of a committee that has conducted scientific research into Kyle Straker, Peter is shocked to recognize a man in the photo: his father. What is he doing there?

The Future We Left Behind  is a refreshing sequel because it incorporates and recalls the first book in an ingenious way. The sequel features an entire new set of characters but still advances the story of the first book.  Readers will eagerly peel back the layers of mystery surrounding Peter's family, and while reading Human.4 is like watching an episode of Twilight Zone, this second book has the same degree of intrigue and mystery, but feels more personal and has room for more readers' investment in the characters. I have to admit though the book can be hard to sink your teeth into right away, unlike the first book (well, that's what high expectations will do to you).  At the same time, if you've read and liked the first book, you'll probably keep reading, and you won't regret it.

Do visit the author's website and blog, and thank you Egmont USA for providing this advanced copy via NetGalley.
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