The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart - Cover ArtEarlier this year, I snagged a copy of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], a middle-grade fantasy by the delightful Stephanie Burgis. I wasn’t able to read it right away, because I wanted to read it with my twelve-year-old son Jackson, who’s a big fan of all things draconic. So once we finished the series we’d been reading together, we started in on this one.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Aventurine is a brave young dragon ready to explore the world outside of her family’s mountain cave … if only they’d let her leave it. Her family thinks she’s too young to fly on her own, but she’s determined to prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she’s transformed into a puny human without any sharp teeth, fire breath, or claws. Still, she’s the fiercest creature in these mountains — and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time … won’t she?

I asked Jackson a few questions, starting with, What did you think of the book?

“I give it five thumbs up — no, wait — four talons up, because it’s a dragon!”

What was your favorite part?

“I liked the ending, when the dragons were [spoiler] and [spoiler] and everything.”

What did you think of Aventurine?

“I liked her. She was cool. I liked that she tried to go out of her cage even though her parents said she wasn’t ready, and I liked that she tried to [spoiler] at the end even though everyone told her not to.”

Sounds like you like that she made her own choices, and didn’t let anyone else tell her what to do.What did you think of the other characters, like Silke and Marina and the rest?

“I thought Marina was kind of like what Aventurine might be like if she was older, and Silke was pretty cool and pretty nice.”

Did this book ever make you hungry, too?

“Yes! I wanted to eat a chocolate dragon. (Like a chocolate bunny, only a dragon.) I don’t think I’d like the chili chocolate, though.”

There was one part of the book you were upset about. Could you talk about that a little?

“I didn’t like the part when Aventurine had given up, because it made me feel depressed and angry and scared, and all the negative emotions.”

How did you feel when we read the chapter after that?

[Jackson bounced and waved his arms in excitement to answer this one.]

Who would you recommend this book to?

“Everyone! Especially people who like dragons, chocolate, or very exciting and good stories!”


I tend to agree with Jackson. This was a lot of fun, though perhaps a bit dangerous to my blood sugar. I loved Aventurine’s struggles as a dragon-in-a-human-body, trying to understand and adapt to all of the weirdness that is humanity. I loved her relationships with Silke and Marina.

I saw a twist coming pretty early on, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying. And I suspect it wouldn’t jump out as much to younger readers (or readers who aren’t also authors).

If I had to pick just one word to summarize the book, I’d go with “charming.”

You can read the first chapter on Burgis’ website.

Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, by Patrick Samphire

Dragon Tomb - CoverNormally, I try not to gloat too much about the perks of being an author, but I’m gonna make an exception in this case. Because not only do I have an advance review copy of Patrick Samphire‘s first novel, Secrets of the Dragon Tomb [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], I have the very first copy the author ever autographed. So I’m really hoping Samphire becomes the next J. K. Rowling, because when he does, I can auction this book on eBay and buy myself a nice mansion.

And you know, also because Samphire is a nice guy, and it’s a good book, and all that.

The official publisher’s description is:

Mars in 1816 is a world of high society, deadly danger, and strange clockwork machines. Pterodactyls glide through the sky, automatic servants hand out sandwiches at elegant garden parties, and in the north, the great dragon tombs hide marvels of Ancient Martian technology.

Twelve-year-old Edward Sullivan has always dreamed of becoming a spy like the ones he reads of in his favorite sci-fi magazine, Thrilling Martian Tales. Instead, he spends his days keeping his eccentric family from complete disaster … that is, until the villainous archaeologist Sir Titus Dane kidnaps Edward’s parents as part of a scheme to loot an undiscovered dragon tomb. Edward sets out on a perilous journey to save his parents and protect the dragon tombs in the process. Turns out spywork is a bit more challenging than he had imagined….

I read this one to my 10-year-old son, who goes by Jackson on the internet. So I invited him to help me review it. My questions are in bold, followed by his responses.

In your words, what is this book about?

The book is about the family, and the father is an inventor. At the beginning of the book, they run into their cousin Freddie who stole a map to a secret dragon tomb which is a tomb of the ancient Martian emperors. By the way, this is all on Mars, and it’s set in an alternate past, not an alternate future. He stole it from Sir Titus Dane, who had discovered multiple dragon tombs before, but it was proven that he stole the locations, and he actually didn’t find them. Sir Titus Dane wants to use their father’s invention, the water abacus, to decode the dragon map and find the tomb and get rich. He kidnaps their father, mother, and sister Jane. So the brother, sister, and other sister, and cousin Freddie, have to find Sir Titus and stop him. Also, Freddie is [SPOILER], and that’s pretty cool!

What did you like best about it?

I liked the funny bits, and a lot of stuff in it, like the adventure.

Who was your favorite character, and why?

Either Edward or Freddie. They’re both really cool. And Putty is pretty cool too, because she just knows absolutely everything about technology and she’s just a little kid.

What do you think about a twelve-year-old (Edward) setting out to save his family?

It was kind of like Harry Potter, but with robots instead of magic. [Note from Jim: Jackson just finished reading the Harry Potter books, so they’re on his mind a lot these days.]

Were there any parts you didn’t like?

Not really, except for the ancient Martian empire killing dragons when their owners died. I didn’t really like that, because that’s mean to the dragons.

What would be the coolest thing about visiting this Mars?

Seeing the dragons in the museums.

Who should read this book?

I think anyone who likes science fiction books should read it. Probably a lot of my friends would like it.

Do you want to read the next book in the series?


The book is aimed at younger readers like Jackson, but I enjoyed it too. Like Jackson said, there’s plenty of action, and a cast of young, smart, determined protagonists. It’s not a book that takes itself too seriously — one of the characters is named Doctor Blood. It’s more of an old-fashioned pulp-style adventure, but without the old-fashioned sexism and racism that often went with them.

Everything wraps up rather well at the end, but with plenty of possibility for the next books. I have a few guesses about what might happen next, but we’ll wait and see when book two comes out.

Secrets of the Dragon Tomb hits bookshelves, both real and virtual, on January 12, 2016. You can read an excerpt on the publisher’s website.

Home and Cosplay Pics

Got home from ICON late on Sunday. We lost power at the house a few hours later. Yesterday was blackout day. Around bedtime, we got the animals to heated homes, loaded the kids into the van, and headed over to my father-in-laws’ house for the night. Approximately 30 seconds after we settled in there, we discovered that the power was back on at our house.

So I’m behind on pretty much everything.

I will say I had a blast at ICON. Thank you to everyone who worked to make the con happen, and to the delightful guests of honor – it was a pleasure getting to hang out with you all!

Also, check out the pics from Windycon, including my Charlie Brown: Monster Hunter costume 🙂 Huge thanks to Ken Beach and Bruce Medic, the two photographers who worked the con. They also took a few shots of me and Jackson together, which was awesome.

I’ve posted three of their pictures below, or you can see everything at http://www.squirrelsnest.org/windycon/.


A. C. Crispin’s STARBRIDGE, Reviewed by Jackson

The eight-year-old and I just finished A. C. Crispin‘s book Starbridge [Amazon | B&N | Kobo]. I read this series a long time ago and remembered enjoying them a lot. We’ve read some fantasy to Jackson, including my goblin books, but this was the first science fiction novel I read to him. I wasn’t sure he’d like it, but I was hoping…

I admit to skimming over a few of the romance/smooching scenes, because eight-year-old interests and attention span. And I’m sure I mangled some of the alien names, but fortunately, Jackson didn’t know.

The best thing I can say about the experience is that when we got done, Jackson immediately asked if we could read book two next.

What follows is his review, prompted by my questions.

What is this book about?

It’s about a girl named Mahree and a boy named Rob and an alien named Dhurrrkk’ who go out to save a bunch of different alien species, including the humans.  It also has Simiu (dog species) and Mizari and Chhhh-kk-tu, and those are only the ones I can remember right now. I think there are 12 kinds of species in that book. And one is so easily frightened that seeing a different species can make it die!

What were the most exciting parts of the story?

I think the most exciting part was when Dhurrrkk’ challenged that other Simiu to a death-challenge.

Who was your favorite character, and why?

I liked Dhurrrkk’ because, well, I can’t really describe it. I liked how he acted. Like at the beginning when Mahree was telling him about human cultures, and when she made a joke, and he was like huh? I don’t understand. What is a joke? And then he tried to make a joke later.

Do you think it would be cool to meet other aliens? What would you like about it?

Yes! Because I’d be able to meet new species and then I’d probably be able to get a super high-tech sword or something like that.

A lot of the characters talk about how important communication is. Do you think they’re right?

Yes, I think they’re right. If you can’t communicate, then pretty much everyone will get into a bunch of fights. Jackson then demonstrated various fight moves, including fake-punching himself in the face.

Mahree made a dangerous decision to try to communicate better, partly because she wanted to be special. Do you think she made the right decision? Would you do something like that?

No, because it almost killed her.

Did you like the ending?


Who should read this book?


My Son Reviews Goblin War

My wife has been reading the goblin books to my eight-year-old son. Earlier this week, they finished the final book in the trilogy, Goblin War [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. I admit, I’m a little sad. This has been an amazing thing to watch. Toward the end, I found myself sneaking over to the couch to listen to my wife read and watch Jackson’s reactions. When I tucked him in at night, we’d talk about the latest chapter and what he thought might happen next.

But then I realized it’s not quite over! I’ve got five goblin short stories they can read, too! We started in on “Goblin Lullaby,” which has already led to some diaper-related laughter 🙂

In the meantime, here are Jackson’s thoughts on Goblin War, as transcribed by me.

What is Goblin War about?

It’s about Jig and how he and Shadowstar have to defeat Billa and her god Issa. Relka, who was stabbed in the belly by Jig in Goblin Hero, became obsessed with Jig and Shadowstar. And Darnak comes back, because Theodore got the Rod of Creation. He used it to [SPOILER]!

Who are your favorite characters, and why?

Jig, because he’s the main character. And Tymalous Shadowstar, the other main character. I like them.

What about the other characters?

Yeah, I liked them too. I really liked how you made Noc and Issa.

What was the best part of the story?

I can’t decide. It’s too good!

Okay, what were some of the best parts?

I liked when it showed about Jig as a baby.

Let’s see… Don’t type that. Daddy!

I liked when Jig, Relka, and Trok had to clean the wolf pen. Smelly (one of the wolves) rolled around in the poop!

Were there any parts you didn’t like?


What’s the best book, Goblin Quest, Goblin Hero, or Goblin War?

Goblin War.

Who should read this book?


I always say that, because I really like them.

What do you think will happen to Jig and the goblins next?

I think that more characters will come back, either Veka or Riana.

Goblin Hero, as Reviewed by Jackson

About a month ago, I posted my son’s review of Goblin Quest [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] here.

He and my wife finished reading Goblin Hero [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] last night, so I asked him to share his thoughts again. I was nervous, because he had said the first chapter was kind of slow. I also introduced a second point of view character in this book, and he didn’t really like Veka’s chapters, at least in the beginning. But by the end, he seemed to be really enjoying the story. Even the gross bits. (Glowing pee!!!)

Jackson would like everyone to know that there are SPOILERS in his review.

What is Goblin Hero about?

It’s about Jig, who has to kill the pixie queen, and Veka, who wants to be a hero, but she can’t really. None of the things that she did were in her book* except [SPOILER ALERT!] slaying a dragon, and that wasn’t really direct, but I guess a giant flying snake is kind of like a dragon.

*The Path of the Hero, Wizard’s Ed., by Josca. It’s a book Veka carries around that supposedly tells her how to become a hero. Naturally, shenanigans ensue.

Who is your favorite character?

I like Braf, but he’s not my favorite. He’s funny, and I like what he did to avoid getting killed by the other goblins. He just plays dumb. Jig is my favorite. He was in the last book. Of course, in the last book, most of the people were bad guys, and they were treating Jig like a slave. The only two good guys in Goblin Quest were Jig and Riana.

What about the other characters?

I liked them. Veka, well, I liked her, but what she was doing to try to help the pixies, I didn’t like that. I think you made more Veka chapters than there were Jig chapters. Jig chapters were my favorite.

What was the best part of the story?

The best part was when Jig found out [SPOILER ALERT!] that he couldn’t get affected by the pixie queen because he would be looking at her through two steel circles*, and steel is what the pixies call death metal. It’s the only thing powerful enough to kill a pixie!

*Jig’s spectacles.

Were there any parts you didn’t like?

There were some chapters I didn’t really like, but I don’t really remember them.

Which is better, Goblin Quest or Goblin Hero?

I can’t pick.

Who should read this book?


What do you think is going to happen in Goblin War?

I do not know. I’d like to see Riana coming back in her [SPOILER ALERT!] dragonchild form.

My Son Reviews Goblin Quest

A week or so back, my wife sat down and started reading Goblin Quest [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] to my son Jackson. To be honest, this made me nervous. I wrote this book more than a decade ago, and while some people have loved it, no book works for everyone. What if he didn’t like it? What if he didn’t get the humor? What if it was just too old for him?

Basically, I was more worried about what my seven-year-old boy thought of my book than I was about what my editor thought of the Codex Born draft.

I’m happy to say he loved it. Night after night when I put him to bed, he’d ask me questions about the goblins and the hobgoblins and the dragon, and told me what he thought would happen next. He even guessed where the Rod of Creation would be found. The first time the forgotten god Tymalous Shadowstar spoke to Jig the goblin, Jackson literally gasped. He giggled when Smudge set various people and things on fire. He worried about Riana and Jig, and got mad at the adventurers for how they treated Jig.

I’ve gotten some great reviews for this book. Wil Wheaton called it “too f***ing cool for words.” Ed Greenwood loved it. Fans have made crocheted goblins and gotten tattoos of Jig or Smudge.

But this review is at the top of my list. Watching and listening to his reactions as my wife read the story has been one of the best experiences in almost 20 years of writing.

With that said, let’s find out what he thought of the book.

What is Goblin Quest about?

You should know that. You wrote it!

Okay, fine. What do you think Goblin Quest is about?

I think it’s about the first goblin that goes on an adventure. Jig was on muck duty, and then Porak and the rest of his patrol took him out and sent him ahead so they could play games and not technically abandon their duties. But they really did abandon their duties, but Jig didn’t. He did their duties for them, and he got captured by a group of adventurers that were on a quest to find the Rod of Creation.

Who was your favorite character?

Jig, because he’s he main character, and I think he’s pretty cool.

What did you think of the other characters?

I liked it when Jig was talking to the adventurers in English, but then he talked to the other goblins in Goblin, except that he forgot that Darnak could speak Goblin. Uh oh…

What was the best part of the story?

For me, it was when they found out that [SPOILER ABOUT THE ROD OF CREATION].

Were there any parts you didn’t like, or that you thought were too scary?

I didn’t like when Riana was picking one of the Necromancer’s locks and it started to turn her into one of the walking corpses, a zombie, basically. It was scary.

Who do you think should read this book?


What are you and Mama going to read next?

Goblin Hero!

Harry Potter, Reviewed by Jackson (Age 7)

For months, we’ve been reading the Harry Potter books to our kids every night before bed. They get through a book, and then they watch the movie. (And then they talk about all the things that got left out or changed.)

My son Jackson is particularly into Harry Potter right now. He dressed up as Harry Potter for Halloween, had a Harry Potter themed birthday party, and recently created a book poster about Harry Potter for a school project. He also routinely casts spells around the house. (We’ve learned to use this to our advantage when we want him to come here. “Accio Jackson” works great.”)

They’ve finished the first six books/movies and are starting number seven, and I figured I’d ask him about his thoughts so far. What follows is all his words, with any comments from me in parentheses.

What are the Harry Potter books about?

It’s about Harry, Ron and Hermione trying to kill Voldemort. Voldemort is the bad guy. But Harry does need some help from Ron and Hermione.

What’s your favorite Harry Potter book?

The Sorcerer’s Stone, because it’s the very first one. That’s the most exciting book. And because the only part that’s scary is the last part.

You don’t like the scary parts?

Well, I kind of do and I kind of don’t. In most of the scary parts, Harry’s battling Voldemort or one of the Death-Eaters. It’s scary and exciting. But sometimes some of the good guys die, and I don’t like that.

What was your least favorite book?

I think it was the fourth book, because the editor didn’t do much! (This answer makes me laugh, but it’s possible he might have picked up this particular opinion from me and my wife…)

Who is your favorite character?

Harry Potter! (To truly appreciate this answer, you’d have to imagine the “Duh, Dad!” tone and expression.)

What do you think about the romance, like Ron and Hermione, or Harry and Ginny?

::Laughs:: I like them. Just because.

Which is better, the books or the movies?

The books. Because they got the idea for the movies from the books. Plus, in the movies, sometimes they fast forwarded through a bunch of parts, like in the third movie they fast forwarded through almost all of it! Like one minute you’re watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione and then poof! They find out that Serious, Pettigrew, and James are animaguses!

(I love this answer!)

What do you think about Snape?

I don’t like him! He killed Dumbledore! (I’m very interested to see what the kids think by the end of book seven.)

Who’s your favorite character who isn’t Harry Potter?

Ron, because he was Harry’s first friend.

What would you do if you were a wizard?

I’d probably decide to be an auror and fight Death-Eaters!

Who do you think should read these books?


What is it about these books that everyone likes so much?

Because there’s a bunch of magic. Even if something is a mile away, just point your wand in the right direction and say Accio, and it comes to you. Unless it’s protected.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Reviewed by my Son

My six-year-old and I just finished reading the fourth Oz book: Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. He’s still enjoying the series, and we did our review together about ten minutes after we closed the book.

As with his previous reviews, I asked Jackson some questions, but everything that follows is his own words (except for my italicized comments, which will be in parentheses).


First Dorothy was at Hugson’s Ranch, but then the earthquake brought them inside of the world. It’s a good thing that they didn’t fall to the core! Then they would die. So they fell a little , and while they were there they were trapped in a mountain and it had glass rocks because everything was glass there. And they have a bunch of colored suns. And there’s a trick that the Wizard performed to make two suns that they’d never seen before, with lanterns!

Then they went to a higher layer because they were climbing the mountain, where everything but them was invisible, and the wizard killed an invisible bear! And then they got into the buggy and rowed up the river away from the bears to where the wooden gargoyles lived, and everything was wooden! And then when they were locked up they saw another rock so they went in there and met some dragonettes. They should be called dragons, but they say that they’re too young. And then they went the wrong way, but Dorothy made the signal, and then they were in Oz. And a couple of chapters later, everybody went home. (Plotwise, the ending of this one did not impress me. -Jim)

But when Zeb was home, his uncle asked where in the world he’s been, and Zeb said he was in the world!  That was funny, wasn’t it?

The best part was when they saw the dragonettes. I thought it was funny when the eyes were flashing yellow. I think it was silly.

I didn’t like the part when they were saying that Eureka (Dorothy’s kitten) ate the piggy. Well, she tried to actually, but she couldn’t because it fell into a vase. And then the Tin Woodman had to open the vase. I didn’t like it because they said Eureka was going to die. I don’t like it when people say other people are going to die.

I think my favorite character was the piggies. They were the ones who were safe from the bears. They were invisible, so the bears couldn’t see them! When I pictured them in my head with my mind’s eye, they looked cute! Teeny tiny pigs.

I think the best Oz book is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And by the way, how many of you read that book from my first interview? I want to know!

Words Matter (on “Disability”)

My son’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting was last week. This was his second IEP, and I wasn’t able to make it to the meeting. So I came home and read through the paperwork, reviewing the plans and ideas for next year, when he’ll be in first grade.

Overall, his school has been wonderful. They confirmed our gut feeling about his autism last year. They tested and found that he was “high-functioning,” but definitely on the ASD scale. They’ve been more than willing to work with us and with him. I’m very happy with everything they’ve done and continue to do for my son.

But as I was reading through the IEP paperwork, I came to the end where it said, “J will have full involvment [sic] and progress in the general education curriculum with non-disabled students…”

With non-disabled students. That line hit me hard, and it pissed me off.

I don’t think of my son as disabled, but the state of Michigan does. I work at an education department. We collect student data for the state, including disability information. Autism Spectrum Disorder is code 15 in the Primary Disability Field of the Special Education Component in the Michigan Student Data System.

It’s not the school’s fault. They’re using standard terminology. And I’m left wondering whether my angry reaction is my own problem, a kind of denial over wanting my son to be “normal,” whatever that means.

I don’t think so … I just don’t think he’s disabled. Dis- is a prefix implying negation or lack, and believe me, this boy has no lack of ability. Strengths and weaknesses, definitely. But he’s not unable to function.

Differently able, maybe. Which I’m sure makes some readers roll their eyes at the “political correctness” of the phrase. But words matter to me, both as J’s father and as a writer, and “disabled” feels like the wrong word.

And yet … there are things he’s unable to do. Nothing that interferes with his day-to-day functioning, but you should see him when I’m reading him the Oz books. The boy cannot hold still. It’s a stimulation issue. The other night, he wiggled so much he fell off the couch. (There was much giggling after this.)

But this doesn’t prevent us from reading the books. It doesn’t stop him from going to school, playing with his friends, or roughhousing with Daddy. Are there challenges? Sometimes, yes. Is he “disabled?” Not by my definition.

I meant what I said about how great the school has been. I know this wasn’t intended as any sort of slight against my son. Just like I know my coworker doesn’t mean anything by it when she dismisses things as “retarded.”

But words matter. They shape how we think about things. How we think about people. I don’t think “disabled” is a bad word.

It’s just the wrong word.

Jim C. Hines