Friday, October 30, 2009
Tim O'Brien is one of my all time favorite writers and an absolute must-read for all lovers of literature. (Go forth right now and read the following: The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato, If I Die In a Combat Zone and In the Lake in the Woods.) He has an essay in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine that is partly about his hometown, Worthington, Minnesota but mostly about his father. O'Brien fans will know some of what to expect here (thoughtful consideration of a place and people as well as himself and his family) but if you're new to the author then here's a bit behind the cut:
For my father, still a relatively young man, it had to be bewildering to find himself in a landscape of grain elevators, silos, farm implement dealerships, feed stores and livestock sales barns. I don't mean to be deterministic about it. Human suffering can rarely be reduced to a single cause, and my dad may well have ended up with similar problems no matter where he lived. Yet unlike Chicago or New York, small-town Minnesota did not allow a man's failings to disappear beneath a veil of numbers. People talked. Secrets did not stay secret. And for me, already full of shame and embarrassment at my dad's drinking, the humiliating glare of public scrutiny began eating away at my stomach and at my self-esteem. I overheard things in school. There was teasing and innuendo. I felt pitied at times. Other times I felt judged. Some of this was imagined, no doubt, but some was as real as a toothache. One summer afternoon in the late '50s, I heard myself explaining to my teammates that my dad would no longer be coaching Little League, that he was in a state hospital, that he might or might not be back home that summer. I did not utter the word "alcohol"—nothing of the sort—but the mortification of that day still opens a trapdoor in my heart.
His father, he explains, was from Brooklyn and perhaps it was the move to Minnesota that made everything so hard. Honestly he does not know, but he thinks about his dad and his hometown and what it made of both of them. His life was not tragedy but it wasn't all daisies either. In fact, it was probably like a lot of lives but most of us just don't have O'Brien's talent when it comes to reflection - let alone writing. Kris had a great post earlier this year on The Things They Carried which gives you a taste of O'Brien's talent. Read the Smithsonian essay, read Kris's post and then go get some of Tim O'Brien's books. I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Since the Halloween season is upon us, let's talk about one of my favorite horror novels: Stinger by Robert McCammon. Oh, how I love the rough and tumble, dry dust, cinematic pleasures in this book.
How many books' beginnings do you remember after a year? Now think back five years? How about twenty? Stinger is one that I will never forget. It gives readers a glimpse into the book's scary center, not a foreshadow, but a scene lifted from the action-packed middle. A disreputable teen on his bike, the Hispanic girl he has fallen for clinging for life behind him, and a bridge that needs to be crossed or else. And part of that or else is crawling and clawing at the bridge making the jump seem impossible. Cool, right?
Then turn the page and the book returns to the beginning. We're in a dying Texas town. The remaining residents are there because they have no where else to go. Then a couple of aliens crash-land. Sounds a lot like Tremors? Trust me, it's a thousand times more awesome (and I think the original Tremors flick to be one of the great horror-comedies).
One of the aliens is good-natured and on the run from the second, a bad ass bounty hunter, the Stinger of the title, who cruelly transforms the unwilling local fauna (included poor humans) into his mobile claws.
Pity the town residents are caught between the aliens. No, pity's the wrong word--empathize, sympathize, those are much better terms because McCammon is not only terrific with the fast-paced and thrilling plot but also with creating characters both familiar to lovers of horror films and stories and original in their charm.
The book, which released back in 1988, won a Bram Stoker Award. You can find paperbacks at any decent used bookstore or online.
Guys, trust me... forget paying nearly twenty bucks to watch a scary movie that's just gore and poor special effects masquerading as a story. This book will sink its claws in you and not let go. In fact, once I'm done typing this up, I'm going to open my tattered copy and return to that bridge. I just hope that kid makes the jump.
1) A guest blog from the author himself
2) My review of Legacy
3) An easy way to get the book for free!
First up, some words from Tom:
Comic Book Junkie
Hello, I'm Tom.
I'm Tom, and I'm a comic book junkie.
As long as I can remember, comic books . . . or superheroes have been a major part of my life.
Before I even got my hands on my first comic book, I had been exposed to television shows featuring strangely costumed heroes with amazing powers that helped save the world from evil.
These heroes inspired me. I can remember running around the house wearing a bath towel pinned around my neck, a large S or the symbol of a bat drawn crudely by my mom on the back of the towel. And this was all before I even knew the terms "superhero" or "comic book."
But it wouldn't be long before I did.
I think my first exposure to comic books, and the wonders found within their colorful pages came as a result of my brother winning a stack of them at some local street carnival. Between the pages of these wonderful books - these comic books - that he'd brought into the house I found things that made my eyes bug out, and to this day, still fill me with excitement.
Oh, how I pitied my friends who didn't understand the glory of The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Batman, or The Amazing Spider-man. If only they knew what they were missing. I tried to tell them . . . to show them, but that just helped to label me as that weird kid who liked the weird things.
Yep, that was me; the weird kid.
And I still am to this day.
So you can just imagine my absolute joy when finally given the chance to work in the comic book industry, getting the chance to write stories featuring characters that I had idolized since childhood. It's hokey as all get out, but it was a dream come true.
Which leads me to my latest novel, Legacy.
Legacy asks the question, what if the deadbeat father that you never knew, suddenly came into your life and so happened to be one of the worlds most powerful superheroes . . . and oh yeah, he wants you to carry on the family tradition because he's dying.
Legacy is me taking my fixation of comic book lore, my love of heroes and villains, of good vs. evil, and shades of grey, and mixing all these concepts and ideas that have filled my head since childhood into something nostalgically familiar, and yet different.
Think of Legacy as my attempt again to show people how cool superheroes can be. That weird kid again who likes the weird stuff is at it again.
And loving every minute of it.
-- Tom Sniegoski
Little Willow's Review
Legacy explores good and evil and that murky gray area in-between. At the age of 18, Lucas, a high school dropout learns that his estranged, dying father is a superhero - and expects his son to take up his mantle. Lucas is understandably reluctant to do so, not only because the world of superheroes (and villains) is so different from his own, but because he doesn't want to connect with his deadbeat dad. He's never been there for Lucas before -- why should Lucas be there for him now? Meanwhile, Lucas is content with his life as an auto mechanic, and while he's not lazy or ignorant, he doesn't really have any aspirations to do more or less than what he's already doing. These universal themes transcend the sci-fi aspect of the story and will pull in readers who like stories about family struggles and characters who feel lost after high school, while the superhero storyline will attract those after action and adventure, good guys versus bad guys, and climatic showdowns.
Tom Sniegoski always does a great job with reluctant heroes, especially those who are teenaged. There's a lot of shaky ground you have to navigate when you're stuck in that limbo period when you're not a kid any more but you don't feel like an adult yet. In Legacy, Sniegoski uses that to his advantage, contrasting Lucas' admittedly dead-end but comfortable life and lack of motivation with that of his father, an ailing billionaire who is secretly acting as a vigilante superhero known as the Raptor. If you enjoyed Sniegoski's previous books, especially The Fallen books, you should definitely check out Legacy.
Free Book Alert!
How would you react if you discovered your parent was a superhero? The first five people to leave their answers (with their email addresses and mailing addresses!) at this matching post at my blog, Bildungsroman, will get free copies of Legacy.
It's as simple as that - and that's way simpler than learning how to fly.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
A young man is out walking late at night. The next day he's starting a new job in a new town and he's too restless to go to bed. Turning down a deserted street he is startled to feel a hand on his arm. He turns and sees a young woman in a white dress.
She's scared. Someone -- some man -- has mistreated her, she says. She can't bring herself to say what he has done to her. She begs that the young man won't ask her questions, only that he will help her get to a part of town where she might get a cab.
He's a good natured fellow and he does help her. They talk a little and he discovers that she has a history in the very same town where he'll go the next day for his new job. She even mentions the name of his employer. But she refuses to divulge her story. They find a cab and the man reluctantly lets her go without ever discovering her secret. The cab is barely out of sight when another vehicle arrives. A man has urgent questions..."Have you seen a young woman? Dressed all in white? She's just escaped from the asylum..."
That last line -- or some variant on it -- would be the end of the urban legend. But it is just the beginning of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
Now, I'll be honest with you The Woman in White is a big book. And it's not going filled with two-fisted action. It's a Victorian novel, after all.
But if you don't quite have the gumption to pick up such a heavy thing, why not download the whole thing as a FREE audio book from Librivox.org.
The story is, rather famously, told by different narrators. Wikipedia calls it "a complex web in which readers are unsure which narrator can, and cannot, be trusted."
The Librivox.org folks made a wise choice in having different readers perform the parts of the different narrators.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Beginning with vampire bats, Schutt explores the world of sanguivores, which also includes leeches, ticks, chiggers, bed bugs, and candiru. Among the many things I learned from reading Dark Banquet are that there are three species of vampire bats, the leech Hirudo medicinalis actually received FDA approval as a medical device (not to mention probably much more than I ever wanted to know about the historical uses of leeches), and there is a species of candiru known as Vendellia wieneri. More seriously, these sanguivores evolved for a reason. In describing how each feeds, reproduces, and interacts with their ecosystem, Schutt also explains why they are so important. Many people think the various sanguivores are scary and/or dangerous, but Schutt elucidates why this should not be the case.
Schutt does assume some degree of scientific literacy among readers. Not as much as I thought, say, Carl Zimmer's Microcosm requires, but definitely more than something like Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. (Which is not a knock on Bryson, since I enjoyed his book.) While passionate about his subject, Schutt does not take himself too seriously, writing with ease and humor. (Schutt also uses parenthetical asides even more often than I do, she adds parenthetically.) The illustrations by Patricia Wynne illuminate Schutt's text as well as often providing additional humor.
Dark Banquet has a mostly a North American and European focus, but then, the narrative begins with a discussion of vampire bats, which are only found in Mexico, Central America, South America, and two Caribbean islands. Still, I can't help but wish there was more information about medicine and beliefs about blood in other parts of the world, particularly in Part Two, which takes a closer look at blood itself.
Overall, though, this is a sometimes disgusting (okay, so this is a personal judgment coming from someone who admittedly doesn't like the sight of blood, but how else to describe some parts, like p. 163?), always fascinating glimpse at a few species who don't receive the appreciation Schutt demonstrates they deserve.
If any of this sounds interesting, in addition to reading Dark Banquet, I highly recommend visiting Schutt's website. There you'll find basic information about and color pictures of the creatures described in the book, as well as extras, including a section on blood recipes. Bon appétit.
Book source: public library.
Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Who are you? What defines you? How do others see you and label you? Look in a mirror and who do you see? A boy? A woman? A mom? A son? An activist? An American? A soldier? A teacher? We have so many parts that make up who we are, and who we are is so much more than merely the sum of our parts. Take all of our ingredients, a cup of this, a pinch of that, a splash of the other, mix it up and out comes a unique individual, a distinctive self, a being identical to no one; a body and mind of cells and genes and DNA and synapses, all tossed into a sociocultural context that makes us who we are. But who I am is not solely defined by me; who I am is also how others see me. And how others see me may not be the way I see myself; or maybe it complicates how I see me, so I can’t figure out who I am or who I should be. It turns out being me can be a lot tougher than it seems.
That’s a problem in Danny’s life in Matt de la Pena’s beautiful novel, Mexican Whiteboy. Danny’s dad is Mexican and his mom is white, so what does that make Danny? That depends, in part, on where Danny is. When he’s home in a suburb, attending a private school, he’s more a white kid. When he spends the summer – as he does in this book – visiting his father’s Mexican family in San Diego, he’s a “half-Mexican brown” kid who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. Hanging out with his cousins, they can’t figure how a kid with a Mexican father dresses like one of the Brady Bunch. Danny can’t make sense of it either, and unfortunately he can’t ask his dad. His parents have split and his father’s in Mexico. Danny's desperate for some cash to find his dad.
There is more to Danny. Baseball. More specifically pitching. He has a golden arm, with the speed of a locomotive but the control of broken shopping cart. He can throw a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball that struggles to find the plate. He can’t figure out the problem; he’s desperate to play ball, to get on his high school team. But first he needs to find out who he is.
Sometimes we can find help in the most unlikely place. Early in the story Danny’s playing ball. His cousins have introduced him to the other kids from the neighborhood and it does not take long for fireworks to fly. Another boy, Uno, whose parents have also split-up, punches him and draws blood. But that punch turns into a friendship and Danny and Uno spend the summer trying to raise some cash – so Danny can find his dad and Uno can move in with his dad – by betting kids on the ball field that they can’t hit a pitch from Danny. And popping up from time to time is Danny’s cousin Sofia, a wonderful, street smart, wise-talking, tough-as-nails kid, who cares for her cuz. She plays matchmaker by trying to hook Danny up with a new girl. But alas, she only speaks Spanish, so Danny even can’t talk to her – one of the few people he really would like to talk to.
There is a point in this story when Uno takes Danny down to the bottom of a train bridge. A train is coming and Uno tells Danny to wrap his arms around a pillar. “Grab a post,” Uno shouts over the oncoming train, “Hold tight, man. Trust me.” With the train roaring above them, the pillars vibrating like an earthquake, it is a glorious image. Two boys who met over blood and baseball, finding common bonds, struggling to figure out their lives together and who they are, wrapping their arms around those thick pillars to feel the pulse of life, to suck the energy of the train into their bodies. As the last car of the train passes by up above, Uno shouts, “Hell yeah, boy! That’s some power!” I’ll say. Grab Mexican Whiteboy. It’s a grand slam.
There was some skepticism at first about whether DC Comic's online imprint Zuda would have anything worth reading, but with people voting on the titles that they like the best, a few really exceptional ones keep floating to the top. In fact, the highest vote-getter--High Moon, from writer David Gallaher and artist Steve Ellis--also just won this year's prestigious Harvey Award for Best Online Comics Work.
High Moon is a perfect read for the week before Halloween, a sort of werewolf Western. With a supernatural-horror aesthetic that's much closer to the Deadlands roleplaying game than the Will Smith-ian vision of the "Weird Wild West," High Moon livens up a lot of old Western tropes. The Pinkerton Detective Agency, damsels (at least seemingly) in distress, and Man With No Name-type heroes are balanced out with steampunk gadgetry, intriguing hoodoo, and a legion of slavering beasts, demons, and other associated villains.
The series has some dramatic reveals, both major and minor, and I don't want to spoil any of its secrets--but rest assured that you'll want to go back and re-read each installment for the story to fully sink in. There are three parts on the site now, which you can get through in about an hour using Zuda's enjoyable in-browser reader (with a full-screen mode and the ability to zoom in and out of the art). Or if you're feeling flush, you can also now buy the first part of High Moon in print! (Watch for a bound graphic novel version of all three parts in December.)
If Western horror isn't your thing (or you just loved High Moon and want more), make sure you also check out Zuda's Night Owls, I Rule the Night, and Bayou.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Mike Mignola has been telling Hellboy's story bit by bit--through irregular miniseries and one-shots--since 1994. (The Hellboy universe also includes an ever-expanding number of spin-off characters, including vigilante Lobster Johnson, who Jesse wrote about back in July.) Like in the movies, Hellboy is a demon brought to Earth during a Nazi experiment. He was adopted by an American professor and joined the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, protecting the world against various supernatural threats.
One of the things that set the Hellboy comics apart, not only from the movies but from other comics, is Mignola's flat, contrast-heavy artwork. Mignola was originally inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, and Alan Moore once called his style, "German Expressionism meets Jack Kirby." It seems like people either love it or hate it, and I'll admit the strange art made me avoid the Hellboy for years. Once I finally read it, though, I started to understand. Mignola's style reminds me of stained glass windows or Medieval icons. It wouldn't work for most superheroes, say Captain America or Spider-Man, but for the types of stories Mignola tells, about hoary evils, about demons and dragons and destiny, it fits perfectly.
Many of those stories reflect Mignola's deep love of folklore. Besides stories revolving around mythological creatures like homunculi, changlings, and Baba Yaga, he's also written stories directly modeled on the legends of Teig O'Kane and the Corpse, The Flying Huntsman, and "an Irish legend about St. Patrick cursing a group of pagans so that every seven years they would turn into wolves." (That story, "The Wolves of St. August,"remains one of my favorites.) Mignola has an incredible talent for breathing new life into these half-forgotten tales.
But the biggest difference between the movies and the comics lies in the over-reaching story arc of Hellboy and how the character has developed over the years. Where the movies were fast-paced bust 'em ups, Mignola's comics are set in a lower gear, moving slower but also providing more emotional torque. The pull between fate and choice is a major theme. Other demons recognize Hellboy as Anung un Rama, the Beast of the Apocalypse, destined--or doomed--to start Armageddon and bring the legions of Hell to Earth. Hellboy has sworn he'll never let that happen, but even while he continues fighting the good fight (and remains a proud white hat in this age of morally gray superheroes), gears are turning and things are constantly happening on the edge of the stories that neither Hellboy nor the reader ever quite see clearly. If Hellboy has a tragic flaw, it's that his disgust for his origins have kept him from examining his past or future too closely. At one point he says, "I like not knowing. I've gotten by for fifty-two years without knowing. I sleep good not knowing." But as more and more of his history is revealed, it's becoming clear that Hellboy will have to confront his destiny head on if he ever wants to break free of it.
The movies were great, but they never captured the sense of all-encompassing dread that Mignola weaves so skillfully through the original.
(Cross-posted on my blog)
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
If, upon reading the prologue of Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow, a new fantasy adventure from James Rollins, which follows Dr. Henry Bethel, Oxford University archaeologist, as he is being pursued through a jungle by grave robbers after the package he holds tightly to his chest (the package contains clues to a dark secret and priceless treasures) you were to think "Haven't I seen this movie? A few times?" you would be forgiven. And, if, when, the Dr., sinking into quicksand, relinquishes the package to the bad guy who thanks him with the diabolical line "Thank you Dr. Bethel. You've proven most resourceful," you were to audibly groan, no one would hold it against you.
Still, the book ultimately is not about Dr. Bethel, but about Jake Ransom, the son of two of Dr. Bethel's lost colleagues, Richard and Penelope Ransom. Jake is a somewhat nerdy and brilliant high school student, obsessed with the circumstances of his parents' disappearance. He studies archaeology and, more specifically Mayan culture, incessantly hoping to uncover clues to their fate. He trains in Tae Kwan Do in order to be prepared for some future dangerous expedition. His sister, Kady, reacts in diametric opposition to Jake, throwing herself into cheerleading and high school popularity in order to bury the pain of missing her mom and dad. In their parents' honor, they each wear Mayan amulets on their necks from a mysterious package sent to them after Richard and Penelope vanished.
When Jake and Kady are invited to a museum opening of a show (sponsored by an Evil Corporation) of the Mayan artifacts discovered by Richard and Penelope Ransom, their adventure begins. They are thrown into an alternative world, populated with humans from various periods and places in history as well as with dinosaurs and other prehistoric and fantastic creatures. This strange world is somehow connected to the corporation which originally sponsored the Ransom parents expedition and has sponsored the show which lured the younger Ransoms to the museum.
Jake and the Skull King's Shadow is plagued by a tendency toward cliché. The first thing that happens to Jake and Kady in the alternative world? They are attacked by--what else?--a T. Rex. (With so many newly discovered dinosaurs each year, many of them immensely cool and ferocious, one is forced to cry out with arms thrust heavenward, "WHY? WHY?") When, later in the tale, a traitor is revealed, the scene reads suspiciously like the mask-removing wrap-up from a Scooby Doo episode. "Why it’s you! How can this be? The character we would have least suspected!" This is followed by paragraphs of dialog, justifying the "surprise" in a spray of as-yet-unrevealed exposition.
In an afterward, Rollins explains that the references to Mayan technologies are based on factual archaeological research, and the dinosaurs he mentioned are all actual creatures form the fossil record. I can’t argue with the Mayan research, but I do take issue with some of Rollins’ paleontology. For one, he uses the term brontosaurus to describe a massive long necked dinosaur, but the designation “brontosaurus” hasn’t been recognized by paleontology for more than twenty years and the brontosaurus should be properly called an Apatosaurus. The book also makes the claim that pterosaurs lacked teeth, though in fact several species did have teeth.
Putting aside these flaws, the book's fast pacing, and collage of borrowed fantasy elements combined with archaeological fact-dropping are all expertly woven into an oddly original world, making this adventure an engaging read despite itself. Both Jake and Kady show dimension and depth, overcoming the lack of promise of their early scenes. Many of the supporting characters have real life to them as well. There are enough surprises thrown at Jake as he fights to get home with his sister that it's worth wincing through a few questionable “facts” and painfully cliché moments.
James Rollins promises more Jake Ransom titles to come.
Jake and the Skull King's Shadow is a Cybil Award Nominee.
Cross-posted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp.
Monday, October 19, 2009
The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim
Gene Luen Yang, author of the amazing American Born Chinese, and Derek Kirk Kim, author of the award winning Same Difference and Other Stories, combine forces to create a graphic novel about our desires. The three stories employ more twists and turns than any suspense novel.
In Duncan's Kingdom, Duncan must prove is worth to the princess by avenging her father's death, but he is haunted by the presence of a bottle of soda. Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile is about a greedy frog who finds a floating smile in the sky. Greenbax wants to make as much money as he can from his discovery so he founds the Church of the Eternal Smile. In Urgent Request, Janet, a lonely secretary, responds to an email request from a Nigerian prince who needs Janet and her bank account’s help in securing his family's fortune.
In these stories, Duncan wants love, Gran'pa Greenbax wants more money and Janet wants significance, but they all come realize what they really need. Like in American Born Chinese, the three stories are all told in their own unique style. The Eternal Smile does not quite have the same impact as American Born Chinese, but it is still a must-read and a significant graphic novel.
Applegeeks Volume 1: Freshman Year by Mohammad F. Haque and Ananth Panagariya
This volume collects the amusing web comic series from 2003 and 2004. Jayce and Hawk are entering their first year of college. We see them deal with the important aspects of college including videogames, girls, arguing about comic book characters and building the perfect robot girlfriend. Haque and Panagariya do a nice job mixing social commentary and pop culture references. Some of the Applegeek comics are indeed clumsy and contain convoluted storylines, but ultimately this is an enjoyable collection. The volume also throws in a lot of extras including editorial comments by the series creators.
Orange by Benjamin
Orange is a high school student ready to commit suicide when she meets a strange figure who changes everything. Orange's world becomes twisted and it is quite uncertain as to what is real at all. Orange is a generous helping of angst coupled with stunning images. I'm also grateful for a large selection of Benjamin’s vivid artwork included in the volume.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Now, for fans of the novel, there's quite a bit that isn't in the graphic version in terms of plot. That's understandable of course, since given the length of the original, a whole lot of exposition and dialogue had to be cut out. I like exposition and dialogue. That's the kind of reader I am. I wonder if I had not read the novel beforehand, would I still have felt that the graphic version moved a bit too rapidly, without quite enough time spent on each of the various plot threads and character development? Perhaps not. But that's how I felt. I found myself rounding the characters out, filling them in in my mind based on my memory of the novel. There's an interesting interview with Higson, in which he comments on the challenges of converting his text to the new format, and he notes that it wasn't easy to do, that ideally, more length would have been nice. Still, it works quite well, and most definitely the pages keep on turning. The brisk pacing and excitement is still there in full force.
The art work by Kev Walker and the layout design pack a real the visual punch. I loved the way the colour palette shifted as the story moved from one place to another, signaling a new sequence and setting. The opening section at the loch, all red and black, is super creepy and matches the horror of the events to perfection. The Eton sections are pale, quite muted, as if you're watching an old film - just right in spirit for the classy and legendary school. When James comes face to face with the true evil secret of Hellebore's Castle, everything suddenly turns deep shades of bright green, you know the "scientist gone bad" green colour (think Hulk). The colouring supported the text the same way music might in a film, changing as the mood changed, but not in a way that was heavy-handed.
My overall assessment? Well worth reading. Good fun for those who are already fans of the novels, who can fill things in a little along the way. You might be wondering about the first chapter? I know I was. The first chapter of Silverfin has to be one of the spookiest, most suspenseful openings I've ever read, period. Let's just say the graphic version of the opening was good enough to inspire an immediate second reading. If you're not shuddering by page 5, you should have your head examined.
Silverfin - the Graphic Novel by Charlie Higson & Kev Walker is published by Puffin.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
So, at least six months ago, the publicist (or agent—some publishing beast or other) got in touch with us about reviewing Royce Buckingham’s novel Goblins! I immediately jumped at the chance because, here at Little Shop of Stories, the bookstore where I work in Decatur, GA, we love Demonkeeper, his other book. Demonkeeper is both scary and funny, and I figured, between Demonkeeper and Goblins!, I could get a good October-scary entry for Guys Lit Wire.
I thought I might try and interview Buckingham, or track levels of kidslit scary writing from James Howe (Bunnicula) to John Bellairs (The House with a Clock in its Walls), to Darren Shan’s series (Cirque du Freak and The Demonata) and on and on. But then I lent Goblins! to a cousin of mine, and I discovered what this is really all about…
See, I took the book with me last summer on a visit to our family cabin in western Kentucky—in a town called Fair Dealing, which is near Benton, which is near Paducah. Have I hit a place you’ve heard of yet? Anyways, we had dinner with cousins, and I discovered that my second cousin, Joseph Price, is an avid reader. Loves to read, actually. So I couldn’t resist; I wanted to put a book in his hand. I grabbed the only thing I had with me—Buckingham’s Goblins!
Brief aside: here’s what Joseph thought of the book, according to his mother (who sent me the email before I even got home from Kentucky):
Joseph has finished Goblins! by Royce Buckingham. In a nutshell, he really liked it! He particularly liked the mystery at the end of the book. He read the book quickly -- finished it in 2 days so it must be a page-turner. He says the characters were always interesting, the 5 main characters being the most interesting. There was a "whole lot of" action, which he liked. He wishes the author wrote more about the mystery at the end and more about the great goblin. He hopes there's a sequel or perhaps a series based on this book. He says it's just a "plain good book." Nothing bad to say, really.
I don’t want to delve much more into the plot of the book, because I like to think an enthusiastic review beats a synopsis any day. However, as a quick context, the book involves a world of goblins living underground, who begin to escape out to the world above, our world—and it’s up to some kids from the wrong side of the tracks to help prevent a horde of goblins from swarming into our everyday aboveground world.
But, as I said, I discovered that this is not really about one great book. What I discovered by talking to my young cousin is how great the community of books is. I live in a city outside Atlanta, I’m a father of a daughter not too much younger than Joseph, and yet he and I, two guys from very different worlds, were able to connect over great books. He told me what he had read recently, and I talked about those books and other books he might like. And then I gave him the Goblins! book, and he read it and thought about it, and talked to his friends about it, and they told him other books they like, and on and on. I like to think of our collective love of books like a big fall bonfire, with flames going ever higher, and everybody dancing around it and having a grand old time. Corny, yes, but then I have a soft spot for book mania.
Anyways, I guess this is really about a big public thank you to my cousin Joseph Price. Thank you for a fantastic evening of talking books, and thanks for being a fellow book lover!
(kind of cross posted here)
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
For years, whenever people would ask for a good teenage introduction to Stephen King I would suggest Different Seasons without hesitation. The collection of four novellas includes "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," "Apt Pupil," "The Body," and "Breathing Lessons" which is a great way to experience the breadth of King's ability to tell a story. Or it used to be until I read his recent collection of short stories entitled Just After Sunset.
For many, King is one of the modern masters of horror and suspense, but beneath the genre is solid storytelling that rests heavily on explorations of The Big What If. Every Stephen King story is built on one idea and explored down the avenues he chooses to travel.
In Just After Sunset The Big What If could be what goes through the mind of a recent graduate in the moments leading up to a major American city being engulfed in a mushroom cloud. Or What If, at a roadside rest stop, you heard a domestic dispute nearby and had an alter ego that could possibly intervene, what would you do? And What If miscellaneous items appeared in your home and seemed to be transmitting images of their former owners in their final moments? Would you keep those items or try to find a way to return them?
In the introduction, Stephen King talks about how he'd been writing fewer and fewer short stories in the 80s and 90s. When asked to edit The Best American Short Stories a few years back King suddenly got the bug to write stories again and this collection is the result. Some of these stories are shorter than others – a few pages versus dozens of pages – all of them packed enough with solid storytelling to be a book in themselves.
As a warning, these stories do carry with them some adult themes, occasional language, and violence. Nothing any teen whose seen his share of movies would find too shocking, and certainly nothing they should be kept from reading, but I sometimes find people want to know these things in advance. What Stephen King does well is get under a reader's skin and he does this by understanding what and how things get under our skins. As a chronicler of our modern psyche he sometimes unearths some pretty dark aspects of humanity, but he wraps it up in some sturdy writing that gives readers a chance to really think about and feel these things.
I still like the Different Seasons collection, but I think Just After Sunset is my new go-to introduction for teens looking for an entry into the world of Stephen King.
Just After Sunset
by Stephen King
by Stephen King
Monday, October 12, 2009
I put Love is the Higher Law on hold at the library because I love David Levithan. I didn’t know what it was about, just knew that I’ve enjoyed all of this guy’s books, so of course I want to see what he’s giving us next. The book arrived at my library on September 10, and I saw from the cover that it was a novel about September 11, 2001. Three teenagers in New York City, their experiences on that day and in the following months and years. Where they were and what they did. How everything changed that day, and kept changing in the days following. Connections that may not have happened otherwise. It’s a story of the power of love—love between friends, love we have for places, moments of grace, and hope for our best selves.
Yes, I was totally absorbed in the book, and the voices of Jasper, Peter, and Claire. Told in alternating chapters from each of their points of view, it was easy for me to keep track of who was narrating, I think Levithan did a good job at giving each of them a distinct voice. Jasper slept through the morning of 9/11, enjoying his freedom before returning to college while his parents are in Korea visiting his grandmother. He awakes to a frantic phone call from his mother and then wanders the streets of Brooklyn, picking up pieces of paper that he realizes are files from the Trade Center that have blown over the river in the explosions. Peter is waiting for Tower Records to open to buy the new Bob Dylan CD. In an instant, the music that he defines his life by is gone—he can’t imagine wanting to hear a song that would later make him remember this day. Claire is at school, indulging in worry about her mother, when something she’d never even thought to worry about comes to pass. She immediately thinks of her 2nd grader brother, and goes to his classroom to help keep the kids calm and to help try to make order in the chaos as the entire school is moved to a safer location. Claire knows Peter from school. Peter and Jasper had met at a recent party, and made a date to go out this evening. Their lives intersect in the days and weeks following 9/11, and they ultimately help each other start to deal with something that, at the core, each one of them experiences uniquely and alone.
I wasn’t in NYC during 9/11. David Levithan was. From what I’ve heard, he has captured the moods of the city during this time wonderfully. (I would love hear what someone who was there thinks of this book). Claire can’t sleep, gathers with other New Yorkers at memorials and tries to process what is fundamentally not understandable. She throws herself into volunteering. After being rejected as a blood donor because he’s gay, Jasper withdraws. He tries to keep his date with Peter a few days later, but neither of them quite know how to act, and their time together ends awkwardly and uncertainly. Peter returns to music, and finds new meanings in songs and lyrics, in the unique energy that people gathering for a live music performance can have. They connect and reconnect with one another. Claire in particular tries to keep believing that something good will have to last from the way people were with one another—kinder, more patient, more understanding—in the days following 9/11. She says to Japser "I think that if you were somehow able to measure the weight of human kindness, it would have weighed more on 9/11 than it ever had. On 9/11, all the hatred and murder could not compare with the weight of love, of bravery, of caring. I think we saw the way humanity works on that day, and while some of it was horrifying, so much of it was good." (p. 106). Jasper wants to believe her. He really wants to.
Levithan writes in a note at the end of the book that, while he wrote things down as they were happening on 9/11, he never thought he’d write a novel about it, but he realized he wanted to capture the immediacy of that time as well as he could. He wanted readers who were very young at this period in history, or who weren’t even born yet, to know what it was like. That there was terror and fear and panic, but also that there were people giving away shoes and bottled water. That 9/11 wasn’t just a day that tore people apart, it had the possibility of bringing people together and bringing out humanity's better selves.
Also posted at Dwelling in Possibility.
Friday, October 9, 2009
It's been nearly a year since I talked about the first Hatter M book here, and when I received the second I guess I’d forgotten just how much fun it was. The second one, Mad with Wonder (by Beddor, Cavalier and Makkonen), has actually ratcheted up the fun factor and has an even more wicked sense of humor. Royal Bodyguard Madigan is still on a quest through 19th Century Earth for the lost Princess Alyss, but this time he’s splitting his time between Europe and Civil War America, has acquired an enjoyably nefarious archenemy, and winds up with an assorted array of the truly mad in an insane asylum (though the true lunatics appear to be the doctors). Meanwhile, that hat of his has gotten even cooler – whirling its blades, deflecting bullets and managing to escape on its own from capture – and seems to be developing a rudimentary consciousness of its own. What’s this got to do with scary, exactly? Well, the heart of this baby is the weirdness of its profoundly strange art. The atmosphere, especially in the asylum, and the figural work are so beautifully stylized that they scratche the malleable surface of the surreal at times, making for a deep and at times deeply disturbing experience that feels like actually being shanghaied into a different world. There’s an uneasiness at the periphery of every panel, madness beneath the smiles of every figure, a sense of true darkness lingering at the edge of every action and motive.
Okay, before I scare myself too much, let’s move on. One that seems to have come in beneath the radar is Marquis (by Davis). The tale of a masked and cloaked avenger during the hideous era of the Inquisition, we follow the Marquis through the fear-oozing streets of Paris as he hunts the demons who’ve taken the over the bodies of normal people. The Marquis is armed with the instruments of a greater power: a pair of massive pistols, a holy sword and a mask that allows him to see the demons beneath the surface. Things get even more intense, however, as the Marquis begins to see that the world he lives in is not the world he thought it was and the power he holds faith in may be something very, very different than he believed. And if a screaming world of chaos just beneath the world you know isn’t scary enough, have some monsters to go along with it. Though the sub-title is Inferno, this book owes its visions of Hell less to the works of Dante than to Bosch’s surreal nightmares and Francis Bacon’s visions of distorted flesh. These demons are the foulest thing this side of John Carpenter’s The Thing, all twisted human forms and huge, toothy orifices.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Jean Craighead George has written a lot of good books, including the Newbery Medal winner, Julie of the Wolves. Another of her books, My Side of the Mountain, is a Newbery Honor book.
I especially like her nonfiction. In (What a great title!) The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets she tells about raising crows (one of which learned to speak), ducks, geese, skunks, snakes, a raccoon, and, yes, a tarantula, among others.
Her daughter's favorite pet was a screech owl named Yammer. Yammer loved the shower. "He would fly into the bathroom... sit on the top of the shower-curtain rod... then drop into the puddles at our feet. Eyes half-closed, he would joyfully flip the water up and into his wings and dunk his breast until he was soaked... Having bathed, Yammer couldn't climb out of the tub. We would... pick him up and put him on a towel by the hot-air vent to dry.
"This was a perfectly satisfactory arrangement until we failed to tell a visitor about Yammer's passion... unaware of his presence, she showered, stepped out of the tub, and left him there...
"Craig (her son) promptly put up a sign, 'Please remove the owl after showering.' It hung over the shower faucets for as long as Yammer lived with us."
Jean Craighead George shares her love of, and knowledge of the ways of, all sorts of animals in this book. She hatched and raised seven bobwhites. "...they let me into their secret of survival. Bobwhites form coveys. At night these coveys sit in circles with their tails in and their heads out so that they may see or hear the enemy in all directions."
Her daughter complained about Crowbar. "I'm not going to play with that crow anymore," she said. "He takes all my toys."
"Why don't you slide down the slide?" I suggested. "Crows can't slide down slides. Their feet have pads that hold them fast to perches."... Crowbar watched, then "stepped on the steeply slanted board -- and was stuck... We had outwitted a crow, which we both knew was a very hard thing to do.
"...Crowbar flew to the sandbox. He picked up a coffee-can lid, carried it to the top of the slide, stepped on it, and -- zoom -- we had a sliding crow."
So I enthusiastically recommend this book. Ms. George knows animals. If you like this one, you might also try her How to Talk to Your Dog, and How to Talk to Your Cat. They're aimed at a young audience, but the dog information, especially, was new to me (I know cats.).
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Confusion. That was my first reaction after reading David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp. Normally, an experience like that would be endlessly frustrating. I mean, who wants to finish reading a book only to be left dazed and confused by the process? This time, however, I found the perplexity exhilarating, like a well-designed puzzle that must be savored and relished before it is solved.
Intrigued yet? You should be.
Like many comic book fans, I first encountered David Mazzucchelli through his work on Marvel's Daredevil, first with writer Denny O'Neil and then with Frank Miller. To be honest, the work with O'Neil was interesting, but ultimately forgettable - pretty standard comic book fare for the time. It was Mazzucchelli's collaboration with Miller on Daredevil: Born Again that really made me aware of what untapped talent he had. Many were initially upset that Miller himself was not pencilling his triumphant return to the character that made him famous. After reading the first issue with Mazzucchelli, all fears and doubts were put away. Mazzucchelli's work on Daredevil was quickly followed by another collaboration with Miller - the oft-mentioned (and inspiration for the film Batman Begins) Batman: Year One.
None of this work, as great and spectacular as it is, can possibly prepare you for the monumental evolution of Mazzucchelli's work that is represented by Asterios Polyp. Gone are the pulp heroes, the realistic character depictions and the melodramatic storytelling techniques. These are replaced by philosophical musings wrapped in the tale of one man's undoing and redemption, conveyed by a loose-lined, cartoonish art style. If it sounds heavy and depressing, it is surprisingly not. In fact, it is both ebullient and contemplative, a delicate balance that is deftly handled throughout the work.
The title character of Asterios Polyp is a college professor and architect of some renown, though he is a "paper architect" - his designs are theoretical and thus are never actually built. The story begins at what we think is the end of a rather pathetic and paltry existence (and through a series of flashbacks we learn just how much goodness Polyp has thrown away or wasted in his life), but turns out to be the beginning of self-revelation for this intensely inward-looking man. Along the way, the graphic novel covers territory as diverse as: love, duality, rivalry, design, aesthetics, religion, auto mechanics and (perhaps most importantly) the illusion of male power.
If it sounds as though I completely understand this work, well, remember that confusion I mentioned at the start of this review? Yeah. I'm in the dark still about much of what Mazzucchelli is trying to say. But I'm ok with that. Even if I grapple with one-tenth of the subject matter of Asterios Polyp I think I'm doing pretty well. If this graphic novel teaches nothing else, it's that the the experience of life is more important than the knowledge gained, catalogued and hoarded. Confusion is just another part of the ride.
Cross-posted at PastePotPete.
Monday, October 5, 2009
I'm such a big fan of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series that my youngest son's middle name is Spenser. But I'm less certain about Chasing the Bear, Parker's first "Young Spenser" novel. On one hand it gives longtime readers their first glimpse of something new: the character as a child, in this case age fourteen. But as a YA novel, it's that familiarity with the character that presents the biggest problem.
The book begins with the adult Spenser (a Boston private eye as adept at quoting literature and cooking gourmet dinners as he is at busting heads) telling his long-time girlfriend Susan about his childhood, and these interludes frequently interrupt the main story. Since Susan is a psychiatrist, this lets her discuss motives and explanations for the younger Spenser's behavior, as well as pointing out how those adolescent patterns manifest in his adulthood. And this is the first of the book's issues for YA readers. While longtime fans understand the dynamic between Spenser and Susan, the intended audience might feel talked-down-to by these sections. And yet in the larger sense of the Spenser series, these sections are indespinsible. So this creates a conflict between the two intended audiences that the book never satisfactorily resolves.
The second, larger issue is the character of Spenser himself. Before this, the most we'd ever learned about his childhood was in the 1991 novel Pastime: he was raised in Wyoming by his father and his mother's bachelor brothers, his mother having died in childbirth. Chasing the Bear shows that masculine dynamic at work, filtered through a kind of benign male righteousness that Spenser himself would one day embody. His father and uncles treat him as an equal, take their cooperative parenting very seriously, and spend a great deal of time teaching him both how to fight, and how to know when to fight.
The problem for YA readers is that the teenage Spenser is essentially no different than the adult one. He has doubts, but he seldom errs, and he's never overcome by fear. The adult Spenser has years of experience to explain this; the teen Spenser has only his instincts. To present him as perfectly formed, even at age fourteen, makes it awfully hard for other doubt-filled adolescents to sympathize with him.
Still, Parker can surely tell a rip-snorting story, and the book moves like a shot; I finished it in an afternoon. In the main plot, one of young Spenser's friends, a girl named Jeannie, is kidnapped by her abusive father, and Spenser has to improvise a rescue and escape. To Parker's credit, Spenser's tactics are entirely reasonable and not beyond the capabilities of a teen. This adventure gives Spenser a reputation in his small town, which becomes an issue as racial tension between Latinos and whites come to a boil.
The book has the Spenser formula: plenty of action, a few funny lines and a string of moral dilemmas. As an adult fan, I welcomed this as insight into one of my favorite literary characters; but I had a hard time imagining myself at fourteen, reading this book and identifying with the self-assured, mistake-proof teen Spenser.
I'll tell my son about his namesake, of course. And when he's older, I'll recommend some of the best in the series (Ceremony, Pale Kings and Princes, Cold Service). In between those times, will I recommend Chasing the Bear? I don't know yet. It's a good book, but maybe not for its intended audience, and that presents a dilemma worthy of Spenser at his best.
Friday, October 2, 2009
The world is grey and cold and boring and predictable. Secretly, he dreams of magic. He daydreams about Fillory, wishes it was real.
Fillory is a Narnia-ish (very, very Narnia-ish) fantasy world described in a series of children's books originally published in the 1930s. Most people Quentin's age left them behind years and years ago, but he didn't. He still returns to them -- when he's bored (which is often), when he's upset (ditto), when he wants to escape (again, ditto).
Then, after a death at his Princeton interview leads to an encounter with a strange paramedic leads to an invitation to apply to Brakebills, a school in upstate New York that specializes in, you guessed, magic:
This was everything he'd always wanted, the break he'd given up on years ago. It was right in front of him. He was finally on the other side, down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass. He was going to sign the papers and he was going to be a motherfucking magician. Or what the hell else was he going to do with his life?
There was much chatter about The Magicians when it came out this summer. It was touted as "fantasy for grown-ups", Harry Potter in the real world, Harry Potter in college. It was described as original and epic and ground-breaking.
That's a whole lot of hype to live up to.
Is the hype accurate? Well, as always, it depends on who you talk to. The people doing the hyping, obviously, would say yes. The people giving it one-star reviews at Amazon, obviously, would say no.
My opinion lands somewhere in the middle. It was, for sure, a book that kept me reading -- I happily read all 400 pages in an afternoon. As in any other fantasy novel set in a secret corner of our world, I enjoyed discovering it with Quentin:
Quentin was pretty sure that if he stood very still for a few seconds everything would snap back to normal. He wondered if he was undergoing some dire neurological event.
I enjoyed most of the nods to previous works -- I didn't, as some readers have, see it as derivative -- because Quentin is such a fan, much of the book read like a tribute to fantasy-that-came-before. And I loved the fact that the students took ideas for their offensive spells from D&D.
My major personal difficulty with the book boiled down to this: Quentin Coldwater is not very likable. He's selfish and apathetic, never happy with what he has, even when what he has is exactly what he originally thought he wanted. He's the personification of the-grass-is-always-greener. I never doubted him as a character -- he seemed very real to me -- but I didn't like him. But I'm not sure if I was supposedto like him. If this was a book about Magic in the Real World, it stands to reason that the hero wouldn't just not be heroic -- he wouldn't be a hero. And, ultimately, I didn't see him as one. He was just a protagonist. Which, really, made sense.
Oddly, I seem to have talked myself into liking it more than I did originally. Actually, maybe appreciating it is a better description.
I think that many readers who pick this one up expecting a Grown-Up Version of Harry Potter will be disappointed. The similarities pretty much begin and end with: Unhappy kid gets accepted into School of Magic. The Magiciansisn't about the plotting (which, especially towards the end, was pretty weak) or about the world-building. It's a coming-of-age story (though I don't know if I really believe that Quentin has actually come of age by the end) about a self-absorbed, not-very-impressive, extremely angsty young man.
Book source: An ARC given to me by a library patron.
Cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Discordia: The Eleventh Dimension by Dena K. Salmon
"For Lance (level 19 zombie sorcerer), and his friend, MrsKeller (level 23 hobgoblin brigand), life's a battle, and then you die. And then you rez. And then you battle again. At least that's how it is in Discordia, the addictive online game that makes real life seem dreary in comparison. At his new school, Lance feels weird and out of place, but in beautiful and complex Discordia, his zombie sorcerer is doing great: leveling fast, learning new skills, and making friends. He's even met a level 60 toon, TheGreatOne, who has recruited him and MrsKeller into his guild: Awoken Myths. Lance wishes he could spend all his time in the game - until TheGreatOne transports Lance and MrsKeller to the real Discordia, the perilous world in the eleventh dimension which inspired the game. Before they're allowed to leave, they must complete a high-level quest that may determine Discordia's survival - and Lance's, too. If they don't get out soon, Lance could permanently mutate into the character he plays in the game: a zombie. The friends accept TheGreatOne's quest and meet Rayva, a runaway who may have been lured into Discordia against her will. The three make their way through a country on the brink of war, fighting monsters, traitors and spies - yet their greatest danger may be Lance himself."- summary from Amazon
While I am not an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) player, I still really enjoyed this novel. It can be a bit difficult to get into since it starts off with Lance playing the game and if it's not something you're used to, the plot can drag a bit, which it did for me. But once Lance has been pulled in, it becomes like a regular fantasy novel dealing with adventures and quests. The concept is really intriguing, especially in this age of WoW and other MMORPGs, and I loved how Salmon built the game world and the world that Lance gets pulled into (there are differences between the two).
The story is told in third person and it really feels that way- there's a distance between the reader and the characters and so I didn't feel like there was much depth in the characters; it's definitely more of a plot-driven novel than character-driven, which can be very good for reluctant readers, but not necessarily for avid readers (unless of course it's your preference).
I thought the ending was pretty rushed and everything came to an abrupt end in the last 15-20 pages. The story ends on a big cliffhanger, which definitely leaves me wanting more. Overall, I'd say it's an above average novel but nothing to write home about. If you're into fantasy and/or MMOs, this is the book for you. For people new to MMOs though, there is an introduction and user manual plus glossary in the front and back of the book, respectively.