The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Published originally in 1994 in Spain, this is the story of twin siblings Ben and Sheree, separated at birth by their grandmother, Aryami Bose, to protect them from a mysterious stranger, who has already taken the lives of their parents.  Ben was left in the care of Thomas Carter, the head of St. Patrick's Orphanage in Calcutta, where he forms a close allegiance with six other children and forms a secret club called "The Chowbar Society". Meanwhile, Sheree is always on the move with her grandma, hiding out in small villages, not knowing what friendship is. The only companion she has is her father's writings, which she reads and rereads to try to get to know him.

Sixteen years later, Aryami Bose came back to her hometown to pay Thomas Carter a visit in the middle of the night.  She knows the stranger is coming back for the twins, he has promised that at their birth, and she must warn Carter. As they discuss the matter at hand behind closed doors, Sheree patiently waits at the entrance of the orphanage. These two visitors at midnight do not go unnoticed though, and among the curious onlookers was Ben, who decides to walk up to Sheree to offer her lemonade.

It was almost impossible to put this book down. It's very well-written and the scenes plays out in your mind so naturally and effortlessly.  The story is intense and terrifying, as Ben and Sheree try to evade the evil man with flames. But because of the unwavering friendship of the Chowbar Society, it's so much more than just the story of the twins. Readers will relish peeling open the different layers of the story. My only complaint is that when you get to the very last bit, I didn't quite like who the murderer turns out to be. It doesn't quite work for me, but nonetheless, it's a darn good story.

It's interesting to read other reviews of this book. Many say it's good but it's not "their kind of book". It's marketed as YA so they're expecting something else.  Maybe that's why I liked it so much, 'cause it's not a "typical" teen book.  I can see it as an upper elementary read though.
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Epic by Conor Kostick

In Erik's world, everything from resource allocation to conflict resolution is determined and decided by how successful and how skilled you are in the game of Epic.  Everyone participates in this online role-playing game (think World of Warcraft type MMORPG game) so that the society and Central Allocations (CA, the governing body) can enforce the one fundamental rule on this New Earth: absolutely no violence allowed.

Erik, his family and his whole village is not doing well, and many are in danger of being relocated to work in the salt mines. He is frustrated and he is beginning to see the pattern: a family needs something, they go challenge CA in a battle, they lose. No one ever beats CA in the game. They're rich and they can adorn their characters with the most powerful weapons and potions and strengths. Not only that, he is about to graduate but his character keeps dying and he is not gathering enough wealth and resources to move ahead. But worst of all is the fact that his dad refuses to fight and won't tell him why. The only way to catapult to instant success is to find a way to slay the dragon and take his treasure, so Erik spends his time studying the game, and he just might have figured a glitch and a way to defeat the dragon.  Can Erik succeed? And what is CA going to think about all this?

I wasn't 100% sure if I liked the book or not when I was reading it, but it's a pretty well constructed novel. It's got a great conflict, a great diverse cast of characters, both on the good and the "evil" side, and the ending is surprisingly satisfying and provides a genuine resolution, despite the fact that this is book one in a series. No cliffhanger, thank goodness!

I'd like to see the writing tightened up a bit, 'cause it took a bit too long for the catalyst to set off the chain of events that forces Erik and his friends to challenge the Central Allocations, and there are a few things mentioned that could be exploited a bit more (like the Executioner, who is supposed to be this invincible secret weapon of CA, but it doesn't do that much, or that the game itself becomes sentient and aware that it is a game).

The one thing I can't figure out is the vampire.  Yes, there's a vampire, the traditional scary seductive "I'll suck your blood" kind.  I love him as a character and he  became a great villain in the book, and there is this one dramatic scene with him that I felt like I was holding my breath the whole time, but I felt like he took over as a villain and CA kind of faded to the back.

Anyway, it's a good ride. Sequel: Saga and Edda
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F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers by Richard Benson

When you didn't spend the time cramming for your test, and your mind starts humming tweedle dee dee, be creative. That's what all these students featured in this book did.
What type of attractive force or bond holds the sodium ions and chloride ions together in a crystal of sodium chloride?
James Bond.
Name six animals which live specifically in the Arctic.

Two polar bears and four seals.
The book also offers some funny spelling mistakes students made, like
What happens during puberty to a boy?
He says goodbye to his childhood and enters adultery.
Name one measure which can be put into place to avoid river flooding in times of extensive rainfall (e.g. in Mississippi).
...by placing a number of big dames into the river. 
Well, full points to the students for coming up with great answers, but when you look at some of the questions, they're just asking for it.  
Perfect little book for those who are not crazy about traditional reading but need something for silent reading (whether you can remain "silent" when reading this book is another matter).
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Maze Runner by James Dashner

Thomas wakes up in a box. He knows his name is Thomas, he knows what school is and how to feed himself and all the other kinds of thing everyone knows. But he doesn’t remember anything else. He doesn’t know where he came from or how he got where he is; he doesn’t know his family or even his last name. He just knows that something weird is going on.

When he’s pulled out of the box, he finds himself in a walled village full of teenage boys. They seem to run a little culture of their own, farming, feeding, healing and entertaining themselves. He soon discovers, however, that the walls are part of a great maze, and the boys have been there for two years, knowing only that they want to escape, but not how.

The maze is massive, and it changes every night. There are monster that sting poison. And the only cure brings back snippets of memories from the real world. Horrible memories that implicate Thomas in something sinister.

I liked this one. It was pure action and adventure, moving from point to point quickly and without fuss, though it was a little annoying for the first while to have explanations deferred to "I'll tell you later" and "that can wait until we're done this". Not that there is much explanation to be had; that's being saved for the sequels.

Note: Having now read the first sequel, you don't get much more... maybe the third book?
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You Might Be a Zombie and Other Bad News: Shocking but Utterly True Facts

You may over the course of reading this and future posts come to find that I like trivia books. If there is one thing about me that hasn't changed since I was 14, it is that. I've always loved trivia books, games, and just spouting off random facts. I know that this is true for me, obviously, but I know there are a lot of other teenage guys out there who want the same thing, particularly the nerdy and geeky kind.

People ask me where I learn all this nonsense. Trivia books obviously, and this is one of the better ones.

Cracked.com is the rebirth of an old magazine that itself was a knockoff of MAD, but it has vastly improved (though it is, ahem, mature: swears and PG-13 adult content beware). This book compiles a bunch of lists like the ones on the website, all true. For example:

  • Important discoveries made well on drugs: Discoverer of DNA was high on LSD when he though of it
  • Insane weapons planned in WWII: Giant solar beam mirrors in space!
  • Bugs in our food (on purpose no less): Jelly beans are coated with bugs!
This isn't just random trivia; it's hilarious random trivia.
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Darwin Awards by Wendy Northcutt

Stupid people doing stupid things is always fun. Whenever someone does something idiotic to remove themselves from the gene pool, Wendy Northcutt is there to compile their stories.

These are often criminals committing crimes gone wrong, but just as often feature regular Joes trying to ice fish with dynamite, cutting branches they are standing on or doing other mind-boggling dumb things that kill them.

You might feel uncomfortable laughing at the misfortune of others, but rest assured, all of these stories follow one rule. No innocents are harmed, and the events are always self-inflicted. You only qualify for a Darwin Award if you do it to yourself.

Everything in here is true to the best of the author's knowledge, sourced from newspapers around the world. There are several books in the series. If you like Jackass, this is the book for you.
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Lamb by Christopher Moore

Biff was the 13th apostle, the one that we never heard about having been expunged from the Bible as we know it, but he's back (resurrected, in fact) to fill in the gaps. He recounts the 'real' versions of the Greatest Story Ever Told having been witness to everything, being Jesus' best friend from childhood.

This is a comedy, and it's quite funny. We get to see Jesus' spiritual awakening, from his visits to the Three Wise Men, learning how to become invisible and how to do Kung Fu. That said, it is not for the easily offended or the sensitive. While is it sacreligious, it does show a certain level of respect. This whole risque, controversial nature of the books is exactly why it's perfect.

Christopher Moore has written a number of books, many of which are loosely tied together by setting or recurring background characters, but you generally don't need to read them in any particular order. He also (still set in the same world as all the other books) writes some vampire romance, but not the girly kind. His vampires are in fact deadly, and are women.
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The Portable Door by Tom Holt

Paul Carpenter is a dull, boring, lazy guy looking for a regular job, and finds one at what seems to be the respectable London company of J.W. Wells and Co.  At the job interview he meets Sophie, a plain, boring young woman just like him competing for the same job.  They find to their surprise that they are both hired.  The big rule of the company?  Out of the building by 5:30 or else.  Of course, he doesn’t leave on time one day and are therefore assigned thankless tasks like sorting out the basement, and discovers that the company is for more sinister than it appears.  For one the company is owned by goblins.   For two, the basement contains Scarlett O’Hara’s birth certificate and life insurance for one Vlad Dracul.  Written in a very British style, this is very much like a real-world Terry Pratchett novel.   First of a trilogy.
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0.4 by Mike Lancaster

It all began at the annual talent show. Kyle's best friend, Danny, was standing on the stage looking uncomfortable, because he'd just asked for volunteers to be hypnotized in his act and had no response from the audience. Kyle, being the good friend that he was, put up his hand and volunteered. So did his other friend's girlfriend Lilly, and then two other adults. They walked up to the stage, and was told to relax. "Close your eyes, and concentrate on the darkness in front of you. In the middle, there's a very bright light.  Relax your head, and the light dims a little. Relax your arms, and just like that, the light dims a bit more..." Just relax. Relax.
Then the next thing he knew Kyle woke up. As he's adjusting back to reality, he realized that everyone else had been frozen in mid-action. The only people who could move were the four volunteers. They thought perhaps only the audience at the talent show was affected, but as they ran to various places in town, they saw others also stuck like statues. TVs, computers and their cellphones were all not working. What's going on? Maybe, just maybe, they're still hypnotized, or something happened while they're unconscious. Either way, if you think this is scary, wait till the townsfolk wakes up...in an hour.
A quick read, easily devoured in one sitting. Great for readers who enjoy a good Twilight Zone type episode, or a classic sci-fi plot. Eerie and keeps you guessing all the way.
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Top 10 "Unsuitable" Books

Patrick Ness, the author of the Chaos Walking series (the one with the Noise Germ and the Talking Dog), has compiled a list of adult books that are totally not for teens but he thinks are actually better if you read them as a teen. "What a great way to establish reading as exciting and maybe even dangerous, eh?" Check out his list at the Guardian.

What are some of the "inappropriate" books that you've read as a teen?
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Agent 21 by Chris Ryan

Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider is finally coming to an end with Scorpia Rising. You  may want to check out this recently published novel for a readalike. The book follows the typical formula: Zak's parents were murdered, and he's being approached by a mysterious man who wants to recruit Zak into this secret organization. “I work for a government agency,” the man tells him. “You don’t need to know which one. Not yet. All you need  to know is that we’ve had our eye on you. There’s a possibility you could help us in certain… operational situations.”  Zak is then whisked off to a Scottish island for training and immediately given his first mission: to infiltrate Mexico's most infamous drug lord's family. 
That's how Zak became Agent 21.  He wondered what happened to the 20 agents before him, but no one would tell him.
Chris Ryan also writes for adults and is a the author of the teen "Code Red" series.  He was once a British Special Air Service member. 
Other spy novels that may be of interest: The Devil’s Breath by David Gilman, The Lab by Jack Heath, Young Bond series by Charlie Higson,Thieves Like Us by Stephen Cole.
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Thanks for coming to our BCLA session

Thank you everyone for coming to our BCLA session.  We just got back and we'll be posting all the books we talked about here in the next few days.  
Here's the PDF booklist we handed out.
Email us if you want to post to this blog. The more people the better!

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