West Virginia Book Festival

Catching up with ‘The Lightning Thief’

It seems I cannot walk into Piedmont Elementary School (where I’m a Read Aloud volunteer) without someone shoving a book into my hands and saying, “You just have to read this!” whether it’s the principal, a student or some other visitor coming through the door from the other direction.

So numerous have been the appeals this year to read “Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan, that I broke down. OK. I’ll give it a try.

Of course, “Percy Jackson” came out in 2005. I meant to read it then but never did. The fifth (and final) book in the series was published in 2009.

Readers may recognize some familiar ideas in kid lit — Percy is middle-school age, living with his mom and revolting stepdad. His real dad is gone. Percy changes schools a lot. When the story begins, he is getting a fresh start at a boarding school, where it is hoped they will be able to help him. All sounds like pretty typical troubled kid stuff, right? Then one of his teachers morphs into some kind of monster and attacks him. His friends and protectors had been undercover around him. They spring into action. There are chases and fights and a group of half-god, half-mortal teenagers trying to find their way in life.

I liked this book. It didn’t keep me up at night or send me out in the dark after the sequel, but I enjoyed it.

Since I wasn’t jumping-up-and-down bursting to recommend it, as were the 10-somethings recommending it to me, I asked a couple of students in the class where I read at Piedmont to write a few lines on why they praise these books so enthusiastically.

Here’s what I got from Clare Higgins, fifth grade:

“A story of adventure and awesomeness. If you read it, then put it down for a few months and then reread it, you will notice little things that you didn’t notice before, and it will become more amazing.”

And here is the response from James Kinslow, fourth grade:

“Well, when I first saw the title I thought it would be cool to read, so I asked my sister if I could borrow her book, and I liked it from the first page about the warning and all that. So what I really liked about it was the action and mystery about who stole the master bolt. I still can’t believe how [spoiler deleted]. That really caught me by surprise. You should read the rest of the series. It is awesome.”

When the film version of the first volume appeared last year, plenty of fans complained that there was too much substantive change of characters and plot details.  The film is scheduled for DVD/Blu-Ray release this summer. Work on the second film has commenced.

Here’s the excerpt that James mentioned, from page 1 of “The Lightning Thief”:


Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.

Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.

If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.

But if you recognize yourself in these pages — if you feel something stirring inside — stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it’s only a matter of time before they sense it too, and they’ll come for you.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

My name is Percy Jackson.

I’m twelve years old. Until a few months ago, I was a boarding student at Yancy Academy, a private school for troubled kids in upstate New York.

Am I a troubled kid?

Yeah. You could say that.

‘The poor woman’s Jane Austen’

When you start to read Jane Austen, you quickly discover that she finished only six novels. All too soon, one is bereft.

On such a day some years ago, to fill the void, a friend recommended Georgette Heyer, a British writer who essentially invented the Regency romance.

My friend was thrilled to discover that I had this pleasure ahead of me, dozens of novels of romantic adventure.

I was appalled. Romance novels?

Here was my friend, educated, beautiful, witty and well-read. I couldn’t believe it. I certainly didn’t read silly, old-fashioned women’s books.

She tolerated my ignorant prejudice, pushed two old volumes into my hands and insisted that I at least try them. I carried them home and dropped them on a table. There they lay.

Weeks passed. Then one day, perhaps a restless night, I opened “Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle.” I don’t remember the page  where I stopped reading to check a chore off my list and began to read for pleasure. “Sylvester” is a farcical nod to to late 18th-century authors such as Ann Radcliffe (read by Jane Austen, by the way).

Welcome to the world of Georgette Heyer — the poor woman’s Jane Austen, as my friend called her.

Jane lived during the Regency period, those early years of the 1800s when King George III was no longer able to rule, and his son ruled in his stead. Think of Napoleon, of empire waist dresses. Respectable ladies could  show a little neck and chest, unlike the more repressive Victorian fashions later in the century, but there were still almost no options open to women except for marriage.

Against this rigid society, Heyer chose to sketch her heroines. Some are young, some old. Some are rich, some are poor (but respectable, always.)   Her research and detail paint the era beautifully. She does not coddle the contemporary reader with explanations of the setting. The reader is just expected to know the words reticule or pelisse, or to understand the mores that prevent an unmarried female of 28 from renting a house on her own in the town of Bath after her parents have died and her brother has married and set up his own household in the house where she grew up.

Heyer’s first romance, “The Black Moth,” was published in 1921, and her last, “Lady of Quality,” was published in 1972. I have counted maybe half a dozen distinct plots, but it’s the variation that is fun to explore. Her heroes are smart, innately good, never perfect, often (but not always) good looking. Another strength of her books is the very recognizable horseplay and friendly sport of her male characters. They shoot, drink, play cards, race horses and try to cut each other out. They have mothers, fathers, demanding aunts and irksome cousins. It’s formulaic fiction, but so beautifully executed.

When I was new to Georgette Heyer I scanned every shelf of dingy books in every paperback store and flea market wherever I traveled. I acquired a respectable collection, read them all and passed them on to others. Over the years, I discovered they were good to revisit. I’ve turned to them again and again. They can quiet and divert me when I can’t sleep or when I need a break from more important considerations.

Apparently, others find them worth revisiting, as well. When my friend introduced me to Georgette Heyer, you could find the books only in flea markets, used book stores and estate sales. Now attractive reprints stand on retail bookstore shelves. They make a great Valentine’s gift for a smart, discerning reader.


As I said, my friend started me with “Sylvester,”  followed by “Devil’s Cub.” As good a place as any to start.

Probably the raciest one is “Venetia,” with a truly Byronic hero, and plenty of witty repartee. Even at that, the most scandalous thing that happens (to the heroine)  is a stolen kiss on a garden path. If you’re looking for steamy sex descriptions, don’t bother with these books. Read Diana Gabaldon.

“Bath Tangle,” “A Lady of Quality” and “Sprig Muslin” stand out because the most endearing and desirable ladies are older, more mature, and everyone has given up on their finding love, and husbands.

My favorite is “Frederica.”

Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, a big Heyer fan, has written that his favorite is “A Civil Contract.” That is so perfect, because it is as if Heyer said, “Hey, I can write a real book if I want to.” It does not follow her other patterns. It’s a much more serious book.

Gift books, Dec. 24: Magazines for every taste

It’s Christmas Eve. Not enough time to go out and get a book as a gift? A magazine subscription may be your answer.

As we rush from place to place, we look for something quick to read – like a magazine.  Consider a subscription as a stocking stuffer.  There are magazines out there for almost any interest. Here is a small sample of new and classics.

Does someone in your family live for “Mythbusters”?  Save old bits to turn into something?  Then Make: Techonology on Your Time is the magazine for them.  Build a mini amplifer/ a better toilet plunger/ laser mosquito blasters.  It’s all in here.  And the readers of Make have an active online community as well.

Bookmarks: For Everyone Who Hasn’t Read Everything is the perfect gift for the person for the reader in your life.  Bookmarks reviews a wide variety of books and interviews authors regularly, so there is something for all readers.

BBC Knowledge is an eclectic mix of science, art and so much more.  Perfect for the anglophile in your life.

National Geographic Traveler is for the armchair traveler and world explorers too.   As always the National Geographic photo teams are set to dazzle readers.

Are they an armchair traveller and foodie? Saveur might be a delicious choice.

For lovers of the state, consider subscriptions to Goldenseal or Wonderful West Virginia.

Readers of mysteries and science fiction can always be pleased with a regular selections from  Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Analog.

Nature lovers might enjoy Audubon, which explores much more than the birds John James Audubon made famous.

As people are looking to do more for themselves and looking to live “greener” lives, Mother Earth News is increasingly popular

Still not sure what they might like?  Stop by your local library to help select other titles that you might want to give as gifts.

Gift books, Dec. 23: A few last-minute suggestions

I asked my friend and former Charleston Gazette colleague Bob Schwarz if he had any suggestions for gift books. As usual, he was full of ideas:

Deborah Madison‘s “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone”: The recipes are work, but they’re worth it. She understands how to pump up vegetarian cooking so the meals taste as good as meat meals. I use more recipes from this cookbook than any other cookbook I own. The dessert recipes are fabulous too.

“Yertle the Turtle,” by Dr. Seuss, my favorite children’s book, which teaches children, among other lessons, not to feel they’re more important than everyone else.

“No Star Nights,” by Anna Egan Smucker, my favorite children’s book by a West Virginia author. Smucker tells about growing up in a steel town.

“‘Twas The Day Before Christmas,” by Brenda Seabrooke, illustrated by Delana Bettoli.

This is one sweet, colorful picture book and one of my favorites. From the School Library Journal review:

On December 24, 1822, Papa Clement Moore is charged with a special task by his six-year-old daughter–to write a Christmas surprise for the family. As he ventures out into the snow for a long sleigh ride to the market, the man ponders the story he will tell and how he will write it to bring the joy and wonder of [his] childhood Christmases to his children. The slow measured text leads up to Moore’s classic poem and gently conveys the author’s imagined process while imparting some history of the holiday. Bettoli’s folk-art-style illustrations evoke the period with warmth and charm, and the bright colors and stiff poses are nicely placed with lots of white space and tiny borders to give a vintage feel to the narrative. The gentle story is strangely compelling and involving, especially since readers know just what the special surprise will be. The full text of the poem is included.

Gift books, Dec. 21: The W.Va. Encyclopedia

No one interested in West Virginia’s history should be without a copy of the West Virginia Encyclopedia. Published a few years ago by the West Virginia Humanities Council, the 944-page behemoth has 2,200 entries on everything you ever wanted to know about the Mountain State, from abolitionism to John Zontini. (What, you don’t know who John Zontini is? Clearly, you need this book.)

And yes, the encyclopedia is now online. But don’t you know someone who would rather have it sitting on his or her shelf?

There is probably someone on your Christmas list who is sarcastic, ironic, loves satire and may be between the ages of 13-21.  This is a book for that person, or the person who still embraces that attitude.

It is sad to note, but some day, your kids grow up, and the Christmas traditions of the family change with them.  My husband and I have reared two boys to manhood, and along the way, nurtured the sense of the ironic in them that brought us together years ago (when dinosaurs still walked the earth.)

So, at this stage in our lives, when visits to Santa and trips to feed the West Side nativity sheep are happy memories, Christopher Moore has stepped in to fill the void.

Specifically, The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore.

Author Christopher Moore, who was born in Toledo and grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, writes comedic (some say satirical) fantasy.  His cast of characters is likely to include aliens captaining whale-like submarines through the world’s oceans, a band of Safeway stock boys turned amateur vampire hunters, a lonely yuppie insurance salesman who seeks assistance from ancient Trickster gods to get the girl of his dreams, or a recently widowed new father who seems to have been recruited for the job of the grim reaper (and needs a babysitter!)

The Stupidest Angel is one of those tales that is thick with enough twists to amuse all of us as we travel “over the river and through the woods,” or at least along the local interstates to visit family. It starts with a very public fight between a divorced husband and wife, it continues when the wife accidentally kills her ex (did I mention he was dressed as Santa at the time?) and a feckless angel, who stands in front of a graveyard, to bring Santa back to life to fulfill the Christmas wish of a child.

Instead, we end up with a graveyard full of zombies who have arrived, uninvited, at the Pine Cove community Christmas dinner, where a town full of those amusing characters (some of whom have appeared in Moore’s other novels) are facing their own personal holiday demons in addition to their former neighbors turned zombies.  There is nothing as terrifying as a zombie that knows all your personal secrets.

And there is a fruitbat, named Roberto, who talks.

For us, the audiobook narrated by Tony Roberts, is a vital part of the holiday season.

For the mystery lover and the feminist on your list:

“Finding Nouf,” the first novel of Zoe Ferraris, a former Huntington resident, is a riviting detective novel set in Saudi Arabia. The characters include a well drawn nontraditional detective and his rebellious female cohort. And as a bonus, the complex mystery details the current life and customs in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world.

Gift books, Dec. 17: ‘The Night of the Hunter’

Many of you know about Davis Grubb‘s seminal West Virginia thriller, “The Night of the Hunter.”

Many of you know about the classic Robert Mitchum-Lillian Gish film of the same name, based faithfully on Grubb’s novel.

But did you know about the recent book “The Night of the Hunter,” about the film based on the Grubb novel?

Jeffrey Couchman’s 2009 book, “The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film,” tells the story of a movie that wasn’t well received by many critics, but has since been acknowledged as a Southern noir classic in American cinema.

The film was the only one ever directed by respected actor Charles Laughton. He’d been looking for the right movie to direct, and (according to Couchman’s book) snapped up the film rights to Grubb’s story even before it was published. (The novel was a National Book Award finalist and stayed on The New York Times’ best-seller list for months.)

Couchman’s book would be a great gift for any West Virginia film buff. And if you’ve never read the original novel or seen the movie, do yourself a favor. It’s one of the great ones.

Are there hunters on your gift list? If so, they are likely to enjoy reading the historical fiction of a West Virginian wildlife biologist, Edwin Daryl Michael.  Michael’s latest novel, Shadow of the Alleghenies: The Wilderness Adventures of a Frontiersman and his Wolf Pup, rings with authenticity.

Set in the 1700s in the area now known as West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the story centers on the exploits of a recent young settler from Scotland, Angus McCallander.  To carve out his place in the New World Mc Callander plans to trade pelts and hides to the English, a skill he learned from the Shawnee. But first he must deliver them by a river route through the wilderness. As he sets out in his dugout canoe, he happens upon a tiny orphaned wolf pup and takes it along to train just as he has trained sheep dogs in the past. The two bond and become a formidable team, after many harrowing encounters with animals, hostile Indians and various low-life varmints — not to mention George Washington and his troops.

The story is believable, exciting, and well paced.  I’m not a hunter, and I’m definitely the indoor type, but the authors use of accurate details and local information makes the book stand out.