Thursday, February 26, 2009
But I know that fantasy can sometimes be a little... predictable. Diana Wynne Jones (the author behind Howl's Moving Castle) even wrote a Hugo-winning book called the Tough Guide to Fantasyland that skewers the genre's many cliches in literally alphabetical detail. (For example: Why so many cloaks? Why so much stew? And must every caravan really be ambushed?)
So it's a special treat when an accomplished fantasy author upends the genre and plays with our expectations. Heroes of the Valley does just that, and in a very meta fashion. British author Jonathan Stroud already showed his skills in the popular Bartimaeus trilogy, and that smart storytelling is put to work here in a satisfyingly contrarian way.
The story revolves around the runty, pugnacious Halli, a 14-year-old antihero who is coming to grips with the fables that he's heard growing up and learning whether or not those cultural myths actually have any basis in reality--so not only are readers constantly left guessing as to what will happen next, Halli never knows quite what to expect either. For example, he grows up believing that his noble house was founded by the mightiest of 12 heroes. But as soon as he's exposed to the wider world, he learns that every kid in *every* house is taught that their house's founding hero was the greatest.
That's the sort of eye-opening lesson we learn again and again in real life (usually starting in our early teens, no coincidence there), and Stroud uses that relativism to craft a fun, often funny, and cleverly unconventional fantasy story, all without skimping on the genre's requisite pacing and scrapes with danger.
A great read, even if you're not typically a fantasy fan. Check out the trailer to hear Stroud talk more about it:
Paul Volponi has burst onto the young adult literature scene like a thrilling thunderstorm. His books take place in urban America, and involve race and culture, crime, and sports. Black and White is a dazzling book that brings all of these elements together in a great story of friendship, responsibility, basketball, and the social and personal lines between race and class.
Marcus and Eddie are seniors in high school, best friends, and the stars of their basketball team. In fact, they are so good at the game that scholarships to top college basketball programs are a lock. Marcus is black and Eddie is white, and heir friendship, it appears, is beyond race and culture, and in school they are known as "Black" and "White."
Nearing graduation, Marcus and Eddie spend money needed for school on new basketball shoes. To replace the cash they decide to pull a few "parking lot stickups." There’s an old gun in a shoebox in Eddie’s attic ready for use. It’s a simple plan; rob a few people leaving stores, replace the school money, end of story. But then the gun goes off. Eddie didn’t mean to shoot the man, who happens to be a neighborhood bus driver. But here is a key arc to the story: The bus driver sees Marcus but doesn’t see Eddie. Marcus gets arrested. Eddie doesn’t. What should they do?
Their lives spinning out of control, their friendship slowly being torn apart, Marcus and Eddie don’t know what to do. Should Eddie turn himself in? Should Marcus "rat out" his best friend? Where is the line between friendship and responsibility? And to make things even more complex, Marcus is secretly dating Eddie’s sister, Rose. Told in alternating chapters from the voices of Black and White (and with a different font for each character), the story unfolds like a beautifully executed play on the basketball court. You know where they’re going but you’re not sure exactly how they will get there.
The first tests for any novel are the story, the characters, and the writing. Black and White has them all in abundance. But it has more. The book is brimming with vital questions about our criminal justice system. When Marcus arrives in prison at Rikers, he says, "It’s black people wall to wall. There are Spanish inmates, too. But everyone else is black... I saw plenty of white faces in court. I guess they were innocent or made bail. The only white faces I saw on Rikers belonged to the corrections officers."
There is a scene in Black and White that speaks a powerful truth about crime, race, and class in the U.S., as well as the moral complexity of family. After Marcus is arrested two detectives visit Eddie’s house. Marcus hasn’t turned his friend in, but it doesn’t take much investigating for the police to figure out Eddie’s involvement. But they don’t have any evidence. They question the family. Ask if they own a .38 caliber. His father is outraged, and yells, "We don’t own a gun!" and says the police should be out chasing "real criminals." But later that night Eddie is in bed and hears some creeks from attic. Eddie goes up there. His dad is sitting, holding the closed shoebox. They stare. His dad says, "I don’t ever want to open this box, Eddie. Do I?" Eddie has nothing to say. His father tells him to get back to bed. In the morning the shoebox is gone. Two boys commit a crime. They may be the guilty ones, but so many more are complicit.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
You realize that all this stuff about “save the earth” and “stop destroying the planet” is a bunch of bunk, right? We can pollute the air all we want and it won’t hurt the planet one bit. It would hurt US, of course. The human tragedy could be nearly beyond imagining. But the planet will be just fine.
I said “nearly beyond imagining,” because it has been imagined. Check out this news story about the Revelation-style WOE that is going to fall on us if we screw up the global climate. Temperatures rise, millions migrate, world war erupts, warns Lord Nicholas Stern, a British environmental bigwig. I wonder what Stern was reading back in 1962. Perhaps it was The Long Winter by John Christopher.
There are only a few authors that scare me. I’m frightened of them because they’ve proven that they can rattle me and leave me disturbed for life. (Neil Gaiman - see “Sandman: 24 Hours.” Mervyn Peake - see the original “Captain Slaughterboard.” And John Christopher -- see “The Long Winter” among others.)
Christopher was thinking of a temperature drop, not a rise. But the effects are the same. This civilization we’ve built will crumble into chaos if out thermostat gets out of whack.
There’s also an interesting racial overtone in “The Long Winter.” Basically, he asks what if all the white people had to flee Europe and the U.S. for the tropics. How would they be treated when they showed up as huddled masses desperate for food and shelter.
Imagine, if the climate changed and made Mexico the land of plenty and America unlivable -- would you want to be treated the way that illegal Mexican immigrants are currently treated in the U.S.?
I told you it wasn’t going to be pleasant. If you've got the nerve for this book expect a raw look at race -- but from a different angle than we're used to. (You may also encounter some ethnic terms which are long out of use.)
This book has a place next to 1984 and Brave New World. Perhaps it should even replace them. It shows that our civilization is not an omnipotent Big Brother, but a house of cards that cannot stand a global shock, such as a relatively minor temperature fluctuation.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Jenny Davidson linked yesterday to new digitized photos from Robert Scott's tragic Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica in 1910. The photos are now owned by the Scott Polar Research Institute and starting March 4th will be available at Freeze Frame.
There are several books on the Terra Nova trip that I can recommend but a good place to start is Richard Farr's Emperors of the Ice which I reviewed in December for Bookslut:
"While the name Robert Scott might be known to young readers, it is unlikely that they have read about some of the more successful aspects of his fateful 1909 journey to the South Pole. As he explains in the preface to his new book, Emperors of the Ice, author Richard Farr was particularly taken with the “Winter Journey” portion of that expedition. Later recounted by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in his bestselling narrative The Worst Journey in the World, the trip to collect Emperor penguin eggs nearly killed “Cherry,” Dr. Edward Wilson and Lt. Henry Bowers. As it turned out Wilson and Bowers did not survive the race to the Pole with Scott and it was only Cherry who was later able to provide the first person account of Scott’s dedication to science. Unfortunately, Cherry’s book is a bit of a “doorstop” as Farr puts it. A lot of readers might be intimidated by its size (almost 600 pages) or its age. This is most true for teen readers for whom the adventurous aspects of the book would otherwise be very appealing. So Farr wrote about the journey in an easier format. Heavily illustrated with maps and photographs from the expedition, Emperors of the Ice is exactly the sort of book that readers eager for the unknown will adore.
One interesting choice Farr made was to write the book from Cherry’s perspective. Relying primarily on Worst Journey for his text, Farr crafted a book that literally places the reader there with Cherry, Bill Wilson and Birdie Bowers as they struggled against enormous odds (and nearly died) in pursuit of the hidden secrets of bird evolution. While science has proven that Wilson’s thesis about the penguins was incorrect, the larger idea that birds and dinosaurs were related is true. But more amazingly, discovering that polar explorers actually risked their lives in pursuit of ornithological revelations is heartening in the best sort of way. They were brave and superhumanly determined and it was all for science. After so many books about winning it is wonderful to be reminded that Scott was in a race only because it was thrust upon him by circumstance; that his goal was always just to learn more. (Something that Richard Byrd and George Catlin would both understand.) Emperors of the Ice manages then to salute both men of adventure and intellect. There are action movies and video games and then there is what was accomplished at the bottom of the world nearly a century ago. This is thrilling writing and it will hopefully open up a whole world of polar literature to readers looking for something to believe in."
Readers who want to know more about Cherry in particular should then move on to Sara Wheeler's outstanding biography, Cherry. It covers not only the expedition but the difficulty of being one of the men who lived and also lost his two closest friends. (More of my thoughts on that book can be found at a past entry on my site, Chasing Ray.)
[Post pic of geologists Frank Debenham and T Griffith Taylor.]
Monday, February 23, 2009
So many books, so little time.
I have a humongous list of forthcoming YA books that I would like to read. I update it regularly, whenever I hear about a new book with an interesting plotline or a forthcoming release from a favorite author of mine.
Here are a few not-yet-released books that GuysLitWire readers will totally dig, books that I read in advance and want to bring to your attention.
This is What I Want to Tell You by Heather Duffy Stone (March 2009)
Twins - one boy, one girl - share narrative duties in this story of secrets, lies, and shifting loyalties. This is Stone's debut novel.
After the Moment by Garret Freymann-Weyr (May 2009)
After moving in with his father and step-family, a young man falls for a quiet, troubled girl. From the author of Stay With Me.
Legacy by Tom Sniegoski (October 2009)
A high school dropout learns that his estranged, dying father is a superhero - and expects his son to take up his mantle. Sniegoski always does a great job with reluctant heroes.
Which of these books sounds the most up your alley?
Friday, February 20, 2009
James Hoff likes to rant. A lot. His rants are variations on one central theme: America's consumerist culture is the root of all evil. James has a lot to say about the big problems facing the planet, specifically America's role in creating and perpetuating those problems, and he doesn't bother sugar-coating his strong opinions. He'll yell at whoever will listen (and everyone who isn't listening too). He's ready to blame Global Warming on just about everybody from soccer moms to aging hippies to people in their twenties with tattoos. Basically, what it all comes down to for James is the "lameness of people in general," their apathy, and their super-self-absorbed, short-sighted lifestyle choices.
Destroy All Cars follows James as he blasts his point of view all over the place. He is particularly fond of incorporating his worldview into his Junior AP English assignments, which are scattered throughout the novel and make for side-splitting reading. Every paper is followed by a few of his teacher's comments and instructions for revision (too emotional, not supported by facts...) Hilarious. To top everything off, James is kind of distracted by his ex-girlfriend Sadie, a do-gooder type who shares James's philosophy and has a far more measured and practical approach for creating social change. He's not sure how he feels about her these days, which is a bit unsettling for James.
After reading Destroy all Cars, I want to read every single other book Blake Nelson has written. If they're half as clever and entertaining as this one, then I'll be entirely satisfied. James's voice is pitch-perfect. It is utterly convincing, sarcastic and in places, pretty endearing. You might find yourself believing in his point of view, but his approach is so not working because it is way over-the-top. I like how Nelson set that tension up. I thought James's philosophy was right on in places, but I just kept shaking my head at his way-out approach to getting his ideas out there.
This is a book about believing in things, having opinions about big issues, caring a lot but not really knowing how to do anything productive with your ideas. As much as it's hard to take James seriously some of the time, Destroy All Cars should definitely get people talking about the problems James sees with American culture, and maybe inspire readers to care even half as much as James does. You'll laugh, and you'll take a look at your own choices. Oh, and there's a little romance to round it all out too.
Destroy All Cars is the perfect teen guy book - quirky, hilarious, intelligent and just serious enough to make you feel smarter. Read it the second it comes out in May 2009.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Anyways, from there I discovered the Caine Prize for African fiction, and such authors as Ben Okri. It got me thinking about all the fiction all over the world we here in the US have such little exposure to. So I thought it would be cool to pick out my favorite authors and books from each continent-- sort of an "around the world in 7 books" kind of thing. Some may be obvious picks, but other I think may be cool discoveries for you like they were for me.
First up, Africa, since we're there already:
The godfather of the African novel is Amos Tutuola. He shares a few traits with the first author I mentioned above, Uwem Akpan: they're both Nigerian, and they both are Jesuit educated (although that where their education similarities end. Akpan is a Jesuit priest with multiple advanced degrees, while Tutuola's education ended after six years). Tutuola's first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, made a huge splash when it debuted in English back in 1952. But it's his second novel, also written in English, that is my pick for the continent of Africa.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is about a young child who, on the run from a band of mercenaries, hides in the most remote of forests, the one ihabited by a nation of ghosts. This book is a fantasy unlike any I've seen, inhabited by ghosts immenently more vivid, grotesque, and ornate than any in western literature. In addition, the language is gangly and awkward, like the narrator, and owes much to an oral storytelling tradition.
Next, we'll head north, to Europe:
A year ago or so I came across The Pull of the Ocean, by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, a slim, intriguing novel that has been a big hit in Mourlevat's native France. Based on the fable "Tom o' my Thumb" or "Tom Thumb" as written by the king of the French fairy-tale, Charles Perrault, the plot is fairly straightforward: seven brothers, all twins but the youngest, leave their home in fear of their violent past and head for the coast.
What I love about this book is exactly what makes it so European, and, to many here in the States, maddening. Plot is tenuous; the ending is left vague, open to interpretation, and (to an American reader) unresolved; and the characters can seem remote, even at times inaccessible. But it's fascinating nonetheless. The language is great and the world these characters inhabit is at once dreamlike and real.
Even now, a year since I read it, I don't so much remember the book for the characters or what happened, but more for the intense feelings it left me with--longing, melancholy--which, just thinking about the book, brings back.
Melancholy (the word, not the feeling) brings me to the next book and the next continent, Asia.
Originally, when I was first working on this list, I thought about discussing Hong Kong comics, or ancient chinese mysteries. That was before I came across an advanced reader's copy of Japanese light novel The Melancholy of Harumi Suzumiya
by Nagaru Tanigawa.
This is an insanely popular book in Japan, spawning something like eight sequels, a manga adaptation, an anime adaptation, and translations into several languages, including now English. At first glance, it appears to be something closer to shoujo (or girls') manga, the kind of thing that would appear in Shojo Beat magazine here in the States. But it's actually something quite different:
Kyon is a high school guy, who's long ago given up his hopes of living in an interesting world. You know the world he dreams about: one inhabited by superheroes, aliens, demons, or psychics just like in comics and books. But then he ends up behind peculiar classmate Haruhi Suzumiya, mysterious, beautiful, strong, and seemingly crazy. She ropes Kyon into starting the SOS brigade with her, an after school club devoted to the interest in these fantastic things. Naturally, they discover the world is teeming with them.
What's drawn me to this book, though, isn't the wonderful, wacky plot, but it's narrator. He speaks in a world-weary, eternally idealistic voice in the tradition of other great narrators of fiction: Ishmael, for one (we discover that Kyon is a nickname, and despite hating it, he never tells us his actual name)
Continuing eastward, we end up in the West: South America
As I mentioned above, some of my choices may seem obvious, and I think the no author springs immediately to mind when considering South America than Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. But one of my favorite books by him may not be so obvious, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Looking at my entire list, this may be the only realist novel in the whole bunch, which is ironic considering that Garcia-Marquez is practically synonymous with the phrase "magic realism." But there's more to South American literature (and it's pre-eminent nobel laureate) than magic realism.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a mystery, but very different from most mystery tales. Instead of an investigation progressing from dead body to the discovery of the murderer, this book begins with the murder and murderer known, and burrows backward to explore the motivations and purpose behind the murder. It's brief, a novella, and gripping, all wrapped in Garcia-Marquez's wonderful writing.
Up out of Columbia, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's home country, and into North America.
Last July, Steven Wolk wrote a great review of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. But well before he wrote that YA novel, he made his reputation writing short stories. His first book of shorts, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a great collection, exploring issues of Native American identity and culture. He reworked one of the stories into the film Smoke Signals, which is a great movie.
Oh, and this book has possibly the greatest book title of all time. More good news on the Alexie front: True Diary is out in paperback in a little over a week, and he's already working on another YA novel titled Radioactive Love Song.
The last truly inhabited continent is Australia, and there's lots of great writers from there. My first thought was a favorite author I've mentioned before--Margo Lanagan. But then my head began to riccochet with names: Justine Larbeleister and Marcus Zusak and on and on. Finally, I decided, because this trip around the world has a decidedly fantasy/sf bent, that I should go to the #1 source for great Australian science fiction, Jonathan Strahan. An editor for Locus for years, he puts together great collections of short stories, including The Starry Rift, reviewed by Colleen here back in September.
Included in the volume? A story by Margo Lanagan, among others. And, in a "it's a small world" turn, there's also a story by the great Scott Westerfeld, part-time Australian and full-time husband to Ms. Justine Larbeleister.
Okay, so we've almost made it, but there's still that frozen beast of a continent left, Antartica.
And, while there aren't any native Antarctic writers, there is one book that comes might close in my mind. Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica developed out of a fascination with the continent and it's similarities to the planet Mars, which Robinson did extensive research on when he wrote his Mars trilogy. After he learned that there's a grant for artists to come to Antarctica and develop art explicitly grounded in the experience, Robinson went all-in, and what emerged was this book. I enjoyed it, but maybe it's best read as a bookend to the Mars trilogy.
So there you have it: seven continents (and one red planet thrown in for good measure!). Anybody got some good suggestions for lesser-known or new works and writers from other countries?
Mentioned in this post:
Amos Tutuola My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
Jean-Claude Mourlevat The Pull of the Ocean
Nagaru Tanigawa The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Sherman Alexie The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Jonathan Strahan The Starry Rift
Kim Stanley Robinson Antarctica
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The hucksters can be hard to keep track of. One sham company might operate under a dozen different names. Some approach high school creative writing teachers, getting them to get their students to submit writing, and add another layer of legitimacy to their bullshit. But here’s a few of their tricks, so you’ll know what to look out for...
The Anthology Scam
A young poet stumbles on an announcement of a poetry contest. The first prize is huge! He submits his latest masterpiece, Ennis the Emo Unicorn (Oh, to stab myself dead/ With this horn afixed my head.)
A few weeks later he gets a letter and Ohmygod! They loved his poem! While it didn’t win first prize, they’ve decided to print it in their up-coming anthology, Really Deep Poems About Way Important Stuff.
And since our young poet is a contributor, he can get his copy of the anthology for only forty five bucks. In fact, if he buys one copy for forty five, they’ll let him buy additional copes for thirty. After all, won’t Grandma and Grampa and all his aunts and uncles want their very own copies?
Here's the thing: Nobody ever wins first prize, but everybody gets published in the anthology. It doesn’t matter if your poem is good or bad, if words are misspelled, or if it even makes sense; everybody gets in the anthology. They sell the book to contributors at an absurd price, pocket the cash, then move on to the next batch of chumps.
Really Deep Poems About Way Important Stuff will never show up in stores or any legitimate review column. Maya Angelo will never read it the plight of Ennis. (If she ever did, though, I’m sure she’d be moved to tears.)
The Author Mill
Despite being burned by the anthology scam, our young writer struggles on. In fact, he expands Ennis the Emo Unicorn into a novel in verse (My woodland friends dance and sing not/ The hunter came, and they’ve been shot.)
He sends it out to publishers and never even hears back from most. But just when his dreams of literary stardom are starting to fade--Oh, happy day!--somebody wants to publish his work!
This publisher doesn’t offer advances, but hey, it’s a foot in the door, right? That’s more than those other publishers have offered him.
Of course there are editing fees, but the publisher assures him these are perfectly normal. And typesetting fees. And a small fee to get the color cover instead of black and white, but it’s totally worth it.
Then Ennis’s big day finally arrives. Except the final book is riddled with just as many typos as it was when our young author sent it off. And the cover art is ugly. And since they can’t return it, most bookstores won’t order copies.
Our young writer had been had again. If he complains, the publisher will try to convince him to throw good money after bad. He’s already made a big investment, they’ll say. He can’t back out now and see it all his dreams go to ruin. And for a very reasonable fee they’ll place an ad for him in the New York Times. That’ll bring customers running!
Author mills have been around for years. They’ve only gotten more prevalent in the age of the internet. Even after our poet finally untangles himself from these lowlifes (and people have spent ten thousand dollars and more before wising up) there’s no point in threatening to sue. Their contracts are iron-clad. They know exactly what to say and how to say it to keep themselves just this side of legal. (For instance the ad will be in the Times. It’ll just be an inch high and crammed with the names of a dozen or more writers.)
The Scam Agent and the Book Doctor
But the muses sing to our young writer. He cannot let the tale of Ennis to go untold. (I’m a magical creature/ A curly horn above my face/Why won’t Katie let me past second base?)
He decides he needs a literary agent to help him navigate the publishing world. He starts sending his manuscript out to agents. Most send back polite rejections, but there’s one nibble. They say he’s got talent, but his manuscript needs polishing. Why doesn’t he send it to a “book doctor,” an editing service that will fix it up for a fee. And hey, they just happen to know a great book doctor at such-and-such address.
What they mention is the kickback for every client they send the good doctor. (Or that they are the doctor with a different P.O. Box.) But if our budding poet does pay for the editing service, then sends it back to the agent, they’ll be happy to represent him (I bet you know where this is going) for a fee.
And just like the scam publishers, once the scam agent’s got him on the hook, they have a fee for everything. Reading fees, representation fees, fees for copying and postage. They'll keep him going until he wises up or goes broke, whichever comes first.
How to not end up a sad, sad unicorn
First, remember this:
Even if an anthology or magazine can’t pay you for your poem (or short story or butter cookie recipe) you should get a free copy.
Real publishers don’t charge fees. They're supposed to pay you. While some may not offer an advance, all of them take on the publishing costs and financial risks. (And most won't accept submissions until you have an agent to represent you, anyway.)
Real agents don’t charge fees. Not to read your stuff and not to represent your stuff. They make their money by selling books and taking a percentage of the profits.
Second, do your research:
The staff of Writers Beware and the forum dwellers at Absolute Write do an excellent job of keeping track of scam artists.
Wind Publicationshas a list of poetry anthology scams. And every year, Winning Writers hosts the Wergle Flomp contest, which awards “the best humor poem that has been sent to a ‘vanity poetry contest’ as a joke.” (Check out the 2008 winners to truly understand how bad you can be and still get accepted.)
Third, remember this too:
Once you realize something is a scam, move on immediately. Delete the email, throw away the letter. These people will promise the world, play off your insecurities and ignorance of publishing, and try to convince you they are your only friend in the industry. They are experts at dangling those dreams just out of reach, making it seem so tempting that you forget common sense.
I know because they got me once. Luckily, I never got in too deep, since I had more experienced writer friends who told me how they operate. (Actually, they told, You stupid little moron, you couldn’t get any stupider if we cut your stupid head off with a chainsaw. But same difference.)
Just as bad as the money I lost was the realization that I’d been rooked. After all the rejection I’d already dealt with as a writer, to get my hopes built up then suddenly smashed... I wanted to quit writing altogether.
It was a horrible feeling and an expensive lesson, and I hope other young writers won’t have to pay it.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Sebastian Darke needs a job. Since his father passed away, his family is completely broke. The only thing Sebastian can do is travel to Keladon and attempt to continue in the family business by convincing the King to hire him as court jester. Unfortunately, the trip is more treacherous than expected. Sebastian also harbors fears that he will be a terrible jester as his talking, sarcastic buffalope, Max, cringes at all of his owner's jokes. Max is an important part of the story, despite having the personality of Winnie the Pooh's friend Eeyore.
The trio of adventurers is completed when they meet Captain Cornelius Drummel. Though small in stature, Cornelius is a fearsome fighter. The three make quite a team reminding me of a less serious, funnier version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring.
After some bouts with some opportunistic barbarians, Sebastian and his team save Keladon's heir to the throne, Princess Kerin. The princess is a spoiled brat who gets on Sebastian's nerves, but nevertheless earns his allegiance. The plot does descend into standard fare as they strive to protect the princess and some of the characters lack some needed depth. Overall though, the author's wry sense of humor keeps the story moving along quite enjoyably.
I'm excited that more Sebastian Darke books seem to be forthcoming. Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools is a great new fantasy for teens that recalls Derek Landy's fun and exciting Skulduggery Pleasant series.
Friday, February 13, 2009
In direct opposition to DC's heroic interpretation are the earliest adventures of Spider-Man, who typified upstart Marvel’s more approachable, reader-friendly and industry-redefining “human” hero. Marvel’s heroes, exemplified by Peter Parker, were not super-heroes who sometimes pretended to be normal guys; they were normal guys who sometimes got into costumes and fought crime. Reprinted in a welcome trade paperback edition (and considerably cheaper, at that) is Marvel Masterworks: The Spider-Man, Volume 1 (by Lee and Ditko), which encompasses not only the origin of Spider-Man but also the first appearances of some of his most popular villains, including Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard, the Vulture and Electro. This edition also includes some of Ditko's recently uncovered original art. Lee’s writing must have seemed like a blast of fresh air at the time, hip, swinging and packed with charm. Ditko’s art is as off-kilter now as it was then, dark, quirky and at times just downright weird, which kept the art incredibly engaging and made Ditko an amazingly daring choice to illustrate super-hero comics at the time. These are considered by many to be the greatest, most genre-defining comics ever produced. So, maybe they’re, you know, worth a look.
It also, incidentally, has plenty to offer as a statement on its era, not only as an early example of the more free-wheeling 1960's outlook, but also in the details of its fashions, its take on technology, and its evolving depictions of women. If all this sounds appealing, don't hesitate to check out Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 7 (by Lee and Romita), too. It features adventures smack in the middle of Spidey's 1960's high point and also includes the story which reveals the dark secret of Peter Parker's parents. History and excitement -- and they say comics can't teach you anything.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Thomas Marent's Rainforest is one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen. No words can describe it adequately. Seriously: 360 pages of intense, amazing portraits of species found in rainforests throughout the world. The book has sections devoted to panoramas, diversity, survival (subsections: predator, arms and armor, and deception), cycles (subsections: flower to fruit, lifelines, and recyclers), and society.
Some of these pictures will make you gasp. You can't help it. (It happened just now: I opened the book at random to a photo of caterpillars, page 310 - OMG!!)
It's a large, coffee table-sized book. In addition to the gorgeous photographs he gathered over 16 years, Marent includes descriptions that can make you want to explore these organisms (plants, animals, fungi...) more. For example, "Australia's peppermint-stick insect (Megacrania batesii) is so called because it exudes a peppermint-scented liquid." Whoa! I love this kind of stuff!
He also writes about being there, doing the photography - "My guide gave me strict orders to stay at least 8 yards... from the animals, but I made the mistake of getting too close. One of the chimps, alarmed by my presence, started screaming, shaking branches, and thumping the ground. Then the whole group followed. I was petrified. Chimps are fantastically strong, and they can be brutally violent. My guide whispered that I should keep totally still and avoid eye contact. I stared at the ground and waited, my heart pounding so hard I could feel it in my throat. After a minute, the chimps began to quiet down, and I started edging away."
One of the online bookstores claims that the book includes a CD with sounds of the rainforest. Our library copy did not, so you may want to confirm that, if you're interested in buying Rainforest. And if the CD exists, please let me know!
The book alone is enough to inspire us to preserve as much as we can of earth's rainforests. It really is stunning. Check it out!
[Post pic of a panther chameleon - see more interior photos at the DK site.]
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
No lengthy preamble to this one, no long and involved story of my days as a bookseller cleaning up the magazine section after it had been torn apart by high school kids every day during lunch period (well, I guess that's the whole story there), just a simple recommendation for a magazine so cool it makes me honestly wish I were a teen again.
Make: technology on your time is a quarterly offering chock full of all sorts of things one can... make. There's a lot of re-purposed technology here, a lot of recycling, a bit of hacking, a bit of robots and a touch of whimsy, all of it sort of like a 21st century Popular Mechanics but with cooler graphics and more satisfying results.
The current issue centers around the theme Spy Tech and features projects on how to make a chess set with a secret drawer that uses strategically placed (and magnetic) playing pieces to open; how to turn a handful of cheap parts into a listening device placed in a hollowed out book; and how to turn a cell phone camera into a long-range digital spy scope. This beats the heck out of those craft projects in magazines from back in the day that had us carving out boats that were powered by a copper tube heated by a candle!
This is why the magazine makes me wish I was a teen again: because instead of lounging around whining about having nothing to do, I'd like to believe I would have spent all my free time (and a sizable chunk of my homework time) and all my expendable income making stuff. In the process I would have learned about electronics, tools, computers, laws of physics, pranks I would never have dreamed of, and who knows what other doors would have been opened to me.
Water rockets! Electric cars! A million and one uses for Altoids tins, including the Minty Boost battery charger that gives your iPod 10 extra hours of play and will get you flagged as a possible terrorist threat at airport security! It's about all the things I loved doing as a boy (like I don't enjoy these things now?): tearing stuff apart, figuring out how it works, building something new out of the parts your cannot put back together. In fact, one of the Make mantras is "If you can't open it, you don't own it" which is in reference to this idea that you void your warranty on your electronics if you "tamper" with something you paid for. Wanna take a dead cell phone and turn the battery and it's vibrating motor into a robot? Wanna learn how to carve the coolest pumpkins come Halloween? How about a bird feeder with a remote control for taking pictures of the birds that come for a visit? Yup, all inside this little magazine here.
That said, there is something of a spoiler to all this: there's a lot of content available online at their website. Not all of it, but a lot, and it spawned interest in another website called Instructables where people post their own home-brewed projects online, free for the taking.
But in the end, is it reading? Of course it's reading! Magazines are one of the areas never covered in all those surveys of teen reading habits. Or if there is a magazine question, it's usually about Sports Illustrated, Time, People, and the like. I feel like magazines have been given short shrift and, despite wringing of hands and wolf cries over the end of publishing as we know it, I don't think magazines are going to be leaving us anytime soon. Certainly Make seems to be doing well.
I don't remember how I originally discovered Make, but I got tired of never finding copies at the library (because they're always checked out) and begged for a subscription for my birthday. I suspect that if you are or know a teen boy who hasn't encountered Make that they're sure to find at least one project in every issue that makes them want to hustle up the gear and get down to the nitty gritty of following the directions.
Make: technology on your time
published quarterly by O'Reilly
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Veggie Panini is the Answer to Everything
I don't know what makes
two people "just friends" on Thursday
and "more than friends" on Friday.
But today was Friday.
The one-hundredth look
was different from the first ninety-nine.
Today's "Hi" was different
from every "Hi" that came before.
I swear I wasn't smitten,
but then . . . the lunch bell rang.
And there you are:
sitting at our usual lunchroom table
(has she always sat like that?)
and we look at each other
(has she always looked like that?)
and we say "Hi"-
(has she always talked like that?)
eating what looks like
(has she always chewed like that?)
just a sandwich but what you inform me
is actually a "veggie panini."
"A veggie what?" I ask and smile
as wide as a door on well-oiled hinges.
And you smile back the same and answer,
"Paah-NEE-nee. Paah-NEE-nee. A veggie panini."
In English class I even look it up.
"Paah-NEE-nee. Paah-NEE-nee. A veggie panini."
I whisper it into the electric air and picture
your lips, your smile, your look, your lunch, your hair.
I mutter it all the way home:
"Veggie panini. Veggie panini."
I hug my mom (first time in like a year).
"And how was your day?" my mother asks.
"Veggie paah-NEE-nee" is my answer.
Veggie panini is the answer to everything.
They offer opinions on things like Shopping, Underwear, Sex and Music in short poems, and each of them explores their feelings as well.
The book follows the relationship through the giddy feelings of first love, and then issues crop up, like spending so much time together that you don't get time with other friends, not knowing what the other person wants, starting to feel like the other person doesn't like you just the way you are.
I Thought That Things Were Really Going Great
You knew, from jump, that I'm no fashion plate.
Now suddenly you're calling me a slob?
I thought that things were really going great.
You act like I'm applying for a job.
You want a full report when I'm not home.
The slightest misstep triggers your alarm.
While I admit my eyes do sometimes roam,
I look but I don't touch, so what's the harm?
If I appear defensive it's because
my me has been devoured by our we.
I thought that you were into who I was,
not into who I wanted you to be.
I thought we were a grand-slam hit home run,
but now I think we're going, going . . . done.
The two poems I've shared thus far are from the guy's point of view because hey - this is Guys Lit Wire after all. And a lot of guys who've been in relationships probably recognize something familiar in these poems. It may not be an exact fit, of course. But there's something to be said for reading about someone else's experience. Maybe it offers a map of what to do (or what not to do), or maybe it just offers a window into how to wrap your head around a relationship a bit.
And what makes this collection of poems so great is that for every poem written by the guy (Allan Wolf, channeling his inner teen), there's one written by the girl (Sara Holbrook channeling hers). Here's a sample of one of the poems written from a girl's point of view:
You Want Chocolate Chip Cookies With That Order?
So let me get this straight:
it isn't me, it's
us you hate?
I should sweetly stand and wait
and never question why you're late?
I don't remember making a proposal.
You think I was born to be at your disposal?
The interesting thing about this collection is the mix of poems it contains. In addition to free verse, there are tankas (an Asian form), sonnets (that second poem was one), quatrains, terza rima, poem for two voices, villanelle, and even a Vietnamese form known as luc bat, and the book both flags the form and (in the back) gives a brief explanation of what the form consists of.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in poetry, particularly in a variety of forms, and for anyone interested in trying to understand romantic relationships (which is probably everyone, yes?).
Monday, February 9, 2009
This isn’t a political blog, so no opinions will be expressed one way or another, but consider for a moment, if you will, abortion. As a guy, maybe you haven’t thought about it much, think the issue doesn’t really affect you. Maybe you have been very close to the issue or have even helped make a decision involving it. Maybe you know its out there, know that its something people fight, and even die, over, but haven’t formed your full opinion yet. Unwind byNeal Shusterman may or may not help you decide where you stand on the issue of abortion. To you, it may just be a fun, futuristic adventure story of policy taken to extreme. That’s fine—a story can transport you to another time, another place, get you into the heads of other people for a brief period of time, that’s why many of us love stories. But this is a story that can also lead you to some deeper thinking about your beliefs if you want it to.
In the action-packed novel Unwind, The Heartland War was fought over one issue: abortion. Instead of one side winning, there was a compromise: The Bill of Life. This new law states that no unborn children will be aborted, but when a child is between 13 and 17, parents (or the government) can choose to have them “unwound”-- killed, but with all of their limbs and organs donated to others who are sick or injured. This way they are “living on, in a divided state.” The propoganda and doublespeak involved in getting everyone to agree on this compromise must have been amazing! But Unwind doesn't dwell on how the government arrived at this policy, it focuses on the teenagers that the policy affects. The novel follows the stories of three teens who are about to be unwound: Connor runs away when he finds out his parents have signed the unwind order. Sure, he’s acted out some, but he hasn’t done anything bad enough to deserve this, has he? Risa lives in a state home for orphans, which, due to funding issues, cannot keep her there any more, and because (in their estimation) she has the lowest chance of being a productive citizen, she is chosen for unwinding (kind of gives a new meaning to budget cuts, eh?). Lev comes from a strictly religious family, one that believes in tithing—giving 10% of whatever they have back to God. This includes 10% of their children, and they have conceived Lev with the express purpose of tithing him by having him unwound when he turns 13. Lev has grown up knowing the purpose of his life, and believes he is fulfilling God’s will. He had a giant party—a combination of a bar mitzvah, graduation party, and wedding—before he left for the harvest camp, but is he really ready to face his death now? How strong is his faith, really? Connor, Risa, and Lev meet by chance when Connor tries to escape his fate, and now are on the run together, but they soon find that the lives of AWOL unwinds are very dangerous. From the underground railroad (a network of people who try to keep escapee unwinds safe until they turn 18), to a work camp for fugitives, to the harvest camp where the unwinding happens, this is an adventure that is also very scary and thought provoking.
If you like chilling science fiction novels that paint pictures of bleak futures that you secretly think just MIGHT really come to pass, give Unwind a try. Read it for the story, and if it gets you to thinking about what your informed opinion about abortion, well, that’s just a bonus. Shusterman is tough on the people on each side of the issue, really leaving you to make up your own mind. Neal Shusterman is quite the prolific writer, check out his home page for more on his numerous other books, as well as his writing for television, movies, and games.
Friday, February 6, 2009
The catch is this: the five finalists have to spend the night with Mr. Tremblin himself in the supposedly-haunted Daemon Hall. Anyone who leaves before the night is over will be disqualified.
No flashlights, cameras, cell phones or any other electronic devices are allowed. Candles are to be the only source of light.
Wade Reilly and four other students of varying ages are the finalists. When they enter Daemon Hall, they are expecting thrills and chills, but also some amount of scary fun. (Well, most of them think it will at least be kind of fun.) What they aren't expecting is pure terror, madness... and death.Daemon Hall is a fast-paced, action-packed read. The format is actually similar to that old Are You Afraid of the Dark? show -- the characters take turns telling their stories, and occasionally the other characters will interrupt, so the focus flips back and forth frequently. The stories themselves sounded genuine -- like stories that I could certainly imagine teen authors creating -- and most of them suggested the influence of other authors, like Stephen King, R. L. Stine, and Richard Matheson, while the Daemon Hall frame story evoked Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.
I didn't find it a perfect read -- the dialogue, especially, didn't feel right in a lot of places and the characters were sketched in pretty broad strokes -- but it was genuinely creepy and it moved along so quickly that the flaws weren't at all offensive. The strongest story, I thought, was Chelsea's "The Babysitter (Revisited)", partly because the screenplay format allowed me to really imagine this group of people sitting in a room in an huge mansion with only a few candles keeping the dark at bay.
Highly recommended to fans of Darren Shan and other quick creepy reads.
(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)
Thursday, February 5, 2009
The Navigator and City of Time by Eoin McNamee
The Navigator summary: One day the world around Owen shifts oddly: Time flows backwards, and the world and family he knew disappear. Time can only be set right when the Resisters vanquish their ancient enemies, the Harsh. Unless they are stopped, everything Owen knows will vanish as if it has never been....And Owen discovers he has a terrifying role to play in this battle: he is the Navigator.
City of Time summary: Cati, the bold Watcher readers met in The Navigator, returns from the shadows of time to summon Owen and Dr. Diamond, for time is literally running out. The moon is coming closer to the earth, causing havoc with weather, tides, and other natural cycles; people fear the world will end. To discover what’s gone wrong, Cati, Owen, and the Doctor must take an astonishing journey to the City of Time, where time is bought and sold. There, Owen begins to understand his great responsibility and power as the Navigator.
I got the second book in this series (City of Time) in a big package that I got from Random House this past summer. So I had to find the first book and I couldn't find it in any bookstore, and while my local library had it, I didn't have the time to read an extra book. So finally, I went home for Christmas and at my old library, they had the audio books for both Navigator and City of Time. So I listened to both at work.
It's a good futuristic series and had some great suspense to it; I enjoyed the originality of McNamee's storyline. The characters were all really well-written and unique; I particularly enjoyed the characters of Katie and Owen. Kirby Heyborne did a great job reading the two novels and providing all the voices for the characters, which were all different and unique for easy identification. It's a fantastically woven story and I absolutely can't wait to read (or listen to) the third book, which will be out this June.
The third (and final) book is titled The Frost Child and will be released on June 9. You can pre-order a copy of The Frost Child from Amazon.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
One of the benefits to a life of librarianship is access to advance reader copies of upcoming books. Sometimes publishers respond to requests for upcoming books (I got a box of The Dead and the Gone from Harcourt) sometimes they just send copies out to random people (I got The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks in an unmarked envelope). My library system has a shelf of Advance Readers Copies free for the taking and one of the best books I read last year (that just came out) was on it.
Peter Brown is an overworked doctor at the worst hospital in New York. One morning he witnesses a rat fighting a pigeon, is the victim of an attempted mugging, and has to choke down experimental amphetamines to stay awake. But his day only gets worse when he finds he knows one his patients, a New Jersey mobster dying of cancer. How does Peter know this mob boss? Because Peter Brown was once Pietro Brwna, a hit man with ties to organized crime now in the witness protection program. And the mobster thinks Peter is there to kill him.
This is the beginning of a literary drag race featuring mobsters, lost love and assassination by shark. Beat the Reaper is sardonic, clever, and bad-ass all the way through. This is no Sopranos episode about the conflict between family and the Family, it's straight-ahead acceleration driven by betrayal, revenge, and violence.
It reminded me more than a little of The Wheelman another stylish thriller about violence -fueled crime. Definitely recommended for older teens looking for something a little for dangerous and gritty than Theives Like Us.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
I've never been one to get real picky with the plausibility of my science fiction. Fiction is fictional. Whether or not you believe it's really possible to build a light saber, one thing you ought to know for sure is that Darth Vader isn't real. He's made up. So why shouldn't his light saber and his hyperspace-travelling fleet of starships be completely made up as well? Why would they have to be plausible? I mean we don't go around questioning whether Hades' helm of invisibility from the Greek myths is "plausible." My philosophy on this can be best summed up by the immortal words of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song (the one featuring Joel, not that other guy):
If you're wondering how he eats or sleeps
or other science facts
just say to yourself, "It's a TV show,
I should really just relax."
And yet . . . it wouldn't be science fiction without that pesky word "science" in it. Much science fiction does make predictions about the future, especially future technology. And it's both enlightening and fun to question how possible or plausible those predictions might be. Certainly many authors take this aspect of their fiction quite seriously. H.G. Wells predicted dozens of inventions that later became part of our reality, among them the tank and the credit card. Jules Verne's obscure 19th century novel Paris in the Twentieth Century predicts gas-powered automobiles, high-speed trains and the Internet. Many of his critics claimed his vision was ridiculous, impossible.
So, what could our contemporary writers and producers tell us about the future of technology and science? Could there really be a Death Star? Light sabres? Ray guns? An invisibility cloak? Warp drive? Time travel? Could we one day command "Beam me up?" and get teleported across space? Is any of this possible?
The answer to all of these questions, and most of the other ones that Michio Kaku asks in Physics of the Impossible, is "Yes." (It would be a pretty crappy book if it were "No.") None of these acheivements will be easy, and while scientists are close to realizing some of them, the complexities involved in acheiving others may prove to be insurmountable. But what is important to Kaku is that none of them violates the laws of physics as we currently understand them.
Kaku divides the "impossibilities" he discusses into three classes. Class I impossibilities are those which he believes will be achieved sometime in the next 10-300 years. Class II impossibilities are those which may not be acheivable for many thousands of years (if we continue on the technological path we are currently on). And Class III impossibilities are those which are really truly impossible, unless we discover that physics doesn't work the way physicists currently think it does.
It's surprising at times which common science fiction ideas fall into each category. Teleportation, for instance, would seem to be an extremely long way off, and the type that's practiced on Star Trek--transporting large, complex and even living objects like humans--may very well be. But simpler teleportation, the teleportation of individual particles and atoms has already been acheived. And Kaku predicts that the teleportation of molecules will likely be demonstrated sometime in the next several years. Who knows where that could lead?
On the other hand, I would think that handheld ray guns would be nearly acheivable now (we have laser pointers after all). But Kaku predicts that they are still a terribly far away. Today, we could build lasers powerful enough to blast holes in concrete, but the power required to generate that kind of beam equates to a nuclear power plant's worth of energy. Kaku believes that we won't soon see a palm-sized nuclear power plant.
Kaku is a prominent physicist and on issues dealing largely with physics he is at his clearest and most comprehensive. For example, he challenges one of the primary dictates of special relativity: that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. He points out that in quantum theory information travels faster than light all the time. (Unfortunately it seems that only useless information has this capability.) But even for more substantial things like people and spaceships, faster-than-light travel may be possible by creating wormholes in space-time. However, the potential traveller would need to gather or produce the energy of a star in order to even crack a wormhole open.
Likewise, on invisibility Kaku has quite a bit of fascinating information to share. He describes experiments in which small objects have already been made invisible to microwave radiation, by bending the radiation around the object. Kaku thinks scientists will be able to make an object invisible to visible light of at least one color within a decade, but it will be quite some time before anyone will be able to offer Harry Potter a replacement for his prized cloak.
In areas further from his specialty, however, Kaku is sketchier. I was particularly disappointed with the section on telepathy. Kaku clearly relates both the charlatan-infested history of telepathy and the more scientific developments in "mind reading" through monitoring brain activity using MRI machines (these, unlike ray guns, may soon be hand held) and creating a vocabularly to translate thoughts into words. All this is fascinating and well-researched but Kaku movew on to something else before considering the possibility of using brain implants to either broadcast thoughts or receive broadcasts of others thoughts. (Anyone who reads widely in the genre knows such implants are staples of science fiction.)
On the subject of alien visitors Kaku is similarly uninspiring, predicting that an intelligent alien species would probably be much like us, with eyes on the front of its head to provide stereoscopic vision and evolving from a species with predatory tendencies, rather than from herbivores. This all makes sense, but relies on the rather large assumption that life (and more importantly, intelligence) on other planets would evolve similarly to life on Earth. Why for instance, would an alien even have a head or eyes, if something else proved more adpative to its particular other-worldly environment? Would alien species even be so easily divided into plants and animals? Would the classification of herbivores and carnivores even make sense on another planet? Kaku doesn't go there.
Kaku situates each impossibility firmly in both the history of science and contemporary culture, citing past scientific research and discussion as well as myths, legends, psuedo-science, films, novels and television. While his knowledge is broad and ranges from Greek mythology to the Back to the Future series of movies, he does rely prehaps a bit too heavily on Star Trek references. Even more discouraging is that he's one of those Kirk/Spock guys who apparently never moved on from the original series.
Kaku's real agenda though, hidden in plain sight, isn't to talk about what's possible or impossible in science fiction; it's to introduce the reader to both the ideas and people behind the work being done in contemporary physics. And as such he provides a pretty good primer, introducing the reader to the priniciples of special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, the search for a Theory of Everything and strange new worlds of superstring and M theory. Wherever this hidden agenda emerges, Kaku veers off in pursuit of it, often leaving behind the impossible techonology he is discussing. This habit is entirely forgiveable, as he always wanders only into more fascinating territory, following the word "impossible" wherever it may lead.
For an interesting interview with the author see: http://www.hanselman.com/blog/HanselminutesPodcast101DrMichioKakuOnThePhysicsOfTheImpossible.aspx
For a video featuring the author discussing time travel:
Monday, February 2, 2009
"They're disappointed in their progress...their possibilities. But they don't know what to do. They don't know how to get out of this situation."
Lil J has lived through the layers of pain that are so difficult for inner city youngsters to transcend and has been exposed to an astonishing array of drugs. His path from "brokesick" to "dopesick" leads to a drug deal gone bad and a shot undercover cop. Lil J suddenly finds himself in an abandoned crack house with a bullet wound to the arm. He would do anything to change the last 24 hours. That possibility becomes real when he stumbles into Kelly, who is set up in front of a TV set with remote control, about to provide Lil J the opportunity to assess and confront his own existence and ultimately, a chance to change the direction of his life.
You can download the first three chapters for free at the Adolescent Literacy web site and also read an interview with Myers at Public School Insights. Here's a bit of that:
When I see that 50 percent of African-American kids don't finish high school, that's a crisis of tremendous weight to me. These kids are not finishing high school. They're not getting the core knowledge of how to conduct their lives and how to move on. As far as I'm concerned, from a national point of view as an American, we have to rescue these kids. We have to reverse this. We have to go into these communities and turn this around.
The first thing we have to do is change the norm. When these kids go to school, their norm is depressed. It's been dislocated downward. So they have these low expectations of themselves--not of their abilities, but of what's acceptable. So if a kid gets C's and D's, it's fine. It's okay. Because in his community, C's and D's are the norm. There are many schools in the New York area and New Jersey where the norm for the school is not to graduate high school. We have to change that.
I think Obama, because he doesn't have to be as politically correct as a white president, can approach this. And he has to. He has to. Because these kids are coming through schools… The pictures that I see are not even as good as the dismal figures which are being published.
It's a great interview from someone what has been writing about teens and talking to them and working with them for decades. Here's hoping that some of the tragic circumstances he discusses in the interview will finally change for the better.