Monday, November 30, 2009
Bond movies were the first place I encountered the idea of a story starting with an action sequence that was unrelated (or tangentially at best) to the rest of the story. The idea was to get the blood pumping with Bond in some perilous chase, have him come out victorious, slide into the title sequence, then into the story at hand.
It's an effective "hook" but what if you took it further. What if you opened with an action prologue set in 1990's Iraq, with British special forces getting ready to blow up a secret nuclear facility. Then jump ahead to today where one of the people from that mission shows up on the doorstep of his former team leader begging to be saved from unknown enemies, which sets off a chase that doesn't let up until the end... with a double assassination threat against two heads of state.
This is set-up for Sharp Shot, the third book in the Jack Higgins series featuring the teenage Chance twins, chips-off-the-block of their Bond-like father, John Chance.
As established in the previous books, Rich and Jade are more than up to the task of international intrigue and quick-witted action. If the plot gets stretched too the edges of credulity the pages burn at a frantic rate
Normally, if you asked me, I'd say I don't generally like these political espionage thrillers. At least not as books – I love this sort of thing as a movie. But I've read all three of the books in this series and I have to say, these things read like relentless action movies. No one is going to confuse these books with literature, but that's not the point; where's the fun of reading if every once in a while you can't just go with the fun?
all three by Jack Higgins
with Justin Richards
Penguin / Speak
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Dropping in with Andy Mac: The Life of a Pro Skateboarder
This is one of those books you semi-reluctantly pick up thinking, “This can’t possibly be very interesting.” But it IS interesting. In fact, I find myself continuing to think about it.
I was already a fan of Andy MacDonald, but that didn’t necessarily mean I needed to know his life story. For one thing, he’s younger than me. How much life story can he have?
Plenty, as it turns out.
When you see Andy on TV, he seems like this nice guy who just happens to be able to dial in insane tricks -- so much so that they no longer look insane. The real story is that the tricks took lots of work, getting a chance to work on them took work and that, yes, the tricks are insane and Andy probably is, too:
“I do admit that from the earliest age, I’ve had a fascination with anything that can result in bodily harm…”
As with most books about a world-class athlete, a big chunk of it is about determination. This insane desire to “make it” “against all odds.”
The odds against Andy Mac are an interesting assortment, many specific to the sport of skateboarding. Any kid with a basketball can follow that dream down at the playground. But a kid who wants to be a Skateboard Vert champ is going to need a Vert ramp and back in the day those were hard to come by. I was stunned to find out the lengths MacDonald was willing to go to. (I.e. midnight missions in black clothes and blackened face to steal plywood.)
Even when he hit the big leagues, money was still a problem. Another shocker: he skated conservatively -- aiming at placing, rather than winning -- because he needed the prize money to get to the next competition. He literally couldn’t afford to take big risks.
Risking his life, however, didn’t seem to bother him. The story and picture of his world-record-setting jump from an preposterously dangerous 4-story ramp make me wish someone had stopped him. It was just plain crazy.
The book’s not perfect. One glaring omission is “the letter.” Early in his career, Andy wrote an outrageous letter which leaked out and made him the laughing stock of the skating world. It took him years to overcome it and it’s one of the most interesting things in the book. Except that the letter itself isn’t in the book.
Obviously, I think this book would be a great read for young skateboarders. But I’m not a skateboarder -- nor young -- and I got something out of it, too.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Early 20th century India, when it was still a colony.
Gods. Demons. Magical bloodstones. Talking tigers.
Sure, there are humans. A girl who is telling stories to save her life. A boy thief promised a better life.
And one hell of a story.
Let's talk about Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis. I love books about people telling stories. Yeah, yeah, I'm a writer, so I'm biased. But everyone tells stories. Some of us do it with texting, and some do it with tigers.
Raka has definitely more problems than any girl in any high school you know. For one, she's betrothed to a vile old man. Not so good. She's not even to be the first, or the second of his wives, but his eighth. Oh so not good. And when he discovers that Raka is not a virgin [*gasp*], well no self-respecting man in early 19th century India could marry a woman, let alone his eighth woman, who has already parted her sari... so when her future husband discovers this she's be condemned to death. Ask any cheerleader is she has such problems!
To escape some of the fear, Raka tells a story to her only friend in the household, a eunuch named Lalit. Okay, guys, relax over the eunuch thing. Trust me.
Her story involves one of the fresher of the boy thieves that are so often found in YA books (don't they all owe Peter Pan a debt?). His name is Farhad, who is not having such a good time also because the Hindu god Krishna has decided that poor Farhad is just the guy to rescue Krishna's daughter from an evil demon. And yes, the evil demon plans on marrying Krishna's daughter. Farhad is not only a thief but a damn good trickster. If you don't know what a trickster is, well you better Wiki it, cause it's a world of fun. But I figure you're smart since you read this blog, so I won't say more.
Farhad is promised a better reincarnation if he succeeds. That's pretty cool - wouldn't we all want to come back as rock stars or rich son's with sports cars? Of course, I think having a best friend who is a talking white tiger is much better than a white Porsche (though if it could talk like K.I.T.T. I'm good with that).
So the book goes back and forth from Raka to Farhad. Things get more and more dire.
Meanwhile we get a tour (maybe even a tour d'force) of India in a distant time when it was a British colony. So there is a lot on the culture and traditions of India, as well as the bitterness of being occupied by foreigners, but learning is part of reading, didn't your teachers drone on and on about that? It's true. True and with tigers!
Monday, November 23, 2009
I grew up in Hawaii distrusting the weatherpeople on the news because it seemed like they were wrong more often than they were right. All their talk about low pressure systems and fronts and other things I knew nothing about didn't seem to improve the accuracy of their predictions. I went to college in Ohio, where I was initially impressed by the weather forecasts (it rained when it was supposed to! And stopped when they said it would!), before deciding the weatherpeople on television news, at least, really were idiots, it didn't matter where you were, because they'd say things along the lines of "Stay indoors if you can because of the windchill" while reporting from...outdoors. Watching other weatherpeople broadcasting live on location from the outdoors in the midst of some hurricanes a few years later did not improve my opinion of them. (Meteorologists who didn't forecast weather on the news, though, they were okay.)
In other words, my meteorological literacy was next to nil and I was therefore the perfect audience for Dennis DiClaudio's Man vs. Weather: How to Be Your Own Weatherman.
DiClaudio is a comedian, not a meteorologist. He's the kind of guy who writes things like "Do you know how many different gases make up our atmosphere? Do you have any idea? I personally do not. But I have a feeling it's a whole, whole lot. Anyway, we're going to focus mainly on the important ones that people care about. The other ones can suck it." (p. 14-15) Acting as a sort of tour guide, and anthropomorphizing things like water molecules, he begins by leading readers through the water cycle and atmosphere, knowledge you need to understand, well, weather. Or, Weather, as DiClaudio writes it. Because you need to know about the water cycle and how wind impacts it, and how the atmosphere affects the wind, and therefore the water cycle, before you can move on to things like fronts and hurricanes and so on. And although DiClaudio's chart of the Fujita Scale for measuring tornadoes claims that, in addition to "devastating damage," during an F4 tornado, you can expect "cows turned into deadly projectiles; portal to Oz beginning to open," there is a lot of actual scientific knowledge to be found in the pages of Man vs. Weather.
Weather turns out to be just as complicated as it seemed before I read Man vs. Weather, and, yes, it only makes sense that weather forecasts sometimes are not accurate. It operates on different scales (in an air circulation kind of way, though I suppose the phrase does apply to things like the metric system), does weird things, and there are still weather events scientists don't fully understand. The humor occasionally wore thin, especially in the latter chapters, but DiClaudio does a good job explaining things, and doing so in a logical order. He acknowledges that Weather is complicated and confusing, so certain sections may require multiple readings before things really start to make sense.
The one disappointing thing about the book is that it lacks both a glossary and an index. Seriously, for a book that comes across as a slightly demented version of the Magic School Bus for older readers, with a sarcastic Mr. Frizzle teaching the class without a bus—and I mean this as a compliment because the Magic School Bus rocks—a glossary and index would come in handy.
Book source: public library.
Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.
Friday, November 20, 2009
I thought right.
I imagine a plot teaser isn't really necessary for this one, because Marsden sticks very close to the events as they happen in the play, just one reason why high school students everywhere will be cheering. Certainly, this retelling of the play will be the saving grace for many an English student who needs a little 21st century language to really get the Dane, in all of his half-crazed glory. I confess that it's been a while since I've read Hamlet, but I couldn't identify any grand departures from the original plot in Marsden's book. You get into the minds of the characters differently, of course, compared to the insights you get through the bard's poetry. I felt this especially with Horatio and Ophelia. I had greater understanding of their motivations and character though Marsden's book, though they were true to the way I remembered the characters in the play. He also succeeds in capturing the intense moodiness and sense of foreboding from the play. Even though most readers will know what's coming, you will feel tension from the first chapter.
Marsden's style seems made for telling this kind of intensely dramatic and bleak tale. His description is outstanding. Take this passage that comes just after Hamlet has climbed down after looking out over the land from the castle tower:
Against the rich green grass and the close horizon, the lowering clouds, pregnant with storm and snow, against the white windmill and the stone tower, Hamlet was all that moved. His white hair and white shirt held the eye; a line could be drawn between him and the windmill and the dark tower, the last two heavy and immovable, the other too light, too bright: nothing to hold it down to the earth. He slipped in the mud and rolled down the hill but was up again as he spun, flitting, flying. He was alive and hopeless.
There are many passages as good as that. The writing feels charged and direct, just the right fit for the story being told. Another impressive accomplishment is the way that Marsden weaves in lines from the play in such a convincingly seamless way that they feel a natural part of the dialogue. You'll recognize some of the more famous lines scattered throughout the text. There's a strong erotic element to the novel as well. It's pretty sexy, which might not work for everyone, but in my view, it didn't feel out of place in the novel.
I feel compelled to mention that the US cover is nothing to the cover on my copy, purchased in Canada, which is called Hamlet & Ophelia. Take a look:
That just says dark and brooding and rotten to me. Don't you think? I vote for this one rather than good ol' Yorrick. Either way, definitely read this book. Your English teacher might even ask you if she can borrow it.
Published in Canada by Harper Collins, and in the U.S. by Candlewick
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Okay, I have to brag. Little Shop of Stories, the bookstore where I work in Decatur, Georgia (it's a town right next to downtown Atlanta),has won a visit from Neil Gaiman. Yes, THE Neil Gaiman.
Here's the deal: Neil wanted to offer independent bookstores a chance to get a visit from him. As I understand it, his line of reasoning was this: giant chains like Barnes & Nobles or Borders have every opportunity to have an author signing from an author of his stature, but for independent books that is an impossibility.
So he had a contest. The best Graveyard Book-themed Halloween party thrown by an independent, community bookstore would win a store visit. And guess what? We (along with McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Manitoba) won!
We're excited, and thrilled, but there are some dark clouds on the horizon. What follows after the jump is a meditation on the awesomeness of your local bookstore, and the dark vagaries of the book business...
Here's a little history about me and Little Shop of Stories. Several years ago, after my son was born, my wife got a job here in Decatur. I was a stay-at-home dad for that first year, taking care of him and our daughter, and I tried to get the kids out and about as much as possible. Somehow (was it the Decatur Book Festival? Was it storytimes?) I discovered the store, and it was awesome! The bookstore is focused on kidslit, and has fantastic sections of picture books, chapter books, board books, YA, etc etc. But it also has adult books, and the adult book section is unlike any I'd seen before: rather than having the NYT bestsellers, or shelves devoted to every subcategory of book you can think of (half a shelf for philosophy, two shelves for history, three for self-help, another for mysteries, and on and on)--instead of that, it was just divided up into nonfiction and fiction, and it felt like the most awesome personal library I'd ever seen. Little Shop's "grown-up" section is one of the clearest indicators that the bookstore only carries books that somebody in the store loves.
So I started to find excuses to take the kids to the bookstore--any chance I could get we would visit. You know, "for the children's sake." Then I'd find excuses to go without the kids. Then, Diane, one of the owners, asked me if I wanted to work there, and I jumped at the chance.
I had worked in bookstores and libraries before, so I know what to look for when I go into an independent--Does the store have a clear idea of what they're about, who their customer is, do they know their identity? Does the store have a vibrant, strong connection to the community? Do the employees love introducing books to customers, or are they book snobs? When I discovered Little Shop of Stories, I discovered a bookstore that has this in spades.
I've worked for the store going on three years now, and the store has only grown better over that time. This despite the downturn in the economy, downturns in the book business, the end of Harry Potter, a move to a bigger location that stretched our budget, the opening and closing of another bookstore two blocks away...
In that time, we've been able to get some really cook authors and illustrators to come to the store: Doreen Cronin, Robert Sabuda, Rick Riordan, Mo Willems, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jeff Kinney. And this is a great thing, because we're not able to offer the kinds of discounts that you can find on Amazon, or that's offered at B&N or Borders. What we have to offer that draws our customers to us is the fact that they know they can come in looking for a good book, and we will help them find one. We make suggestions, we go on hunts, we provide service that isn't necessarily out there. We bring authors to the store and to the local schools so that kids get to meet great writers.
And this isn't something that Little Shop of Stories is alone in providing. After all, we share the prize with McNally Robinson. I've been to awesome shops all over, in every city or community I've lived in or visited, I've tried to find a good local bookstore. My wife and I did it on our honeymoon in Bermuda. There's several great local bookstores within a few miles of us (hey Eagle Eye! Hey Books Again! Hey Blue Elephant!) that each have their own special ways of serving this great bookloving community.
I have a friend who loves Amazon. He doesn't have time to go find books in a bookstore. But he still asks me for recommendations for books for his kids. He still looks to me for book news. And the big guys look for ways to horn in local bookstore awesomeness: At the signing we had for Mo Willems two years ago, a B&N employee showed up with 50+ books from their stock to have signed and sell at their store. When we brought in Kate DiCamillo for the Decatur Book Festival this past September, Amazon had her sign books for them so they could sell them for an extra $10 on their website.
What then, at the end of this, is the take-away? Your local bookstore is awesome, but they can't be awesome without your help. Shop there, talk to the employees and owners, let them know what you want to see from an independent, help them know about opportunities to engage the community where they are, where you live. If they don't listen, if they don't engage, then they deserve to fail. But if you love your local bookstore and show up at a signing with a book you bought on Amazon or at B&N because it was cheaper, then you're killing them. Really. If you go to the store find out about a book that sounds great, but go home and order it online because it's cheaper, then you're driving that local shop, that great resource, that wonderful thing that gives your community life, right out of business.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Owen was the oldest of four children. He grew up a quiet, intelligent kid, often taking care of his younger siblings. After graduating college, he was unsure what to do. He worked as a English and French tutor and dreamed of being a poet, but doubted if he could earn a living from it. The few poems he had published were heavily influenced by the Romantics and John Keats in particular. While they were proficient, they were fairly unremarkable. In a letter to his mother, Owen wrote, "My heart is ready, but my brain unprepared, and my hand untrained. I quite envisage possibility of non-success."
Then when he was 22, he enlisted and went to war. At first he was eager, caught up in the pageantry and pride of the military. After awhile on the front lines, though, he grew disillusioned, sickened by the grinding slaughter of trench warfare.
"For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep," he wrote in another letter. "For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B. Coy., 2nd Lt. G., lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest be a 9-days-Rest."
Soon after, Owen's mental state deteriorated rapidly. He was admitted to a hospital for post-traumatic stress syndrome, then known as "shell shock." While recovering, he returned to poetry. Stripping away the Romanticism and melancholy that had influenced his earlier stuff, these new poems were full of brutal scenes from the front lines, anger toward the old men who send young men to war, and a naked desperation to make people understand.
"Anthem for Doomed Youth"
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -- -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
This poem mirrors Owen's own experience with shell-shock, but viewed from a much different perspective.
He dropped, - more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;
- Didn't appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.
"I'll do 'em in," he whined, "If this hand's spared,
I'll murder them, I will."
A low voice said,
"It's Blighty, p'raps, he sees; his pluck's all gone,
Dreaming of all the valiant, that aren't dead:
Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;
Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun
In some new home, improved materially.
It's not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun."
We sent him down at last, out of the way.
Unwounded; - stout lad, too, before that strafe.
Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, "Not half!"
Next day I heard the Doc's well-whiskied laugh:
"That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!"
After about a year of recuperation, first at the army hospital and then in Scotland, Owen returned to service. His hatred of the war and the people who glorified it didn't negate the sense duty he had toward his men.
Owen died on November 4th, 1918, one week before Armastice Day and the end of the war. The message telling his mother about his death was delayed, and apocryphally, she learned he had died while the church bells were ringing to celebrate the new peace.
In 1919, Owen was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. The citation describes his final hours during an attack on an entrenched German position: "On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly."
But a greater honor came later that year when Sigfried Sassoon, Owen's friend and fellow soldier-poet, put together a small volume of Owen's poetry. While his body of work is tiny--only about forty poems and a few fragments, most written during his recovery from shell shock--he's come to be seen as a great war poet whose images still have the power to jolt ninety years later.
"All the poet can do to-day is to warn," Owen once wrote. "That is why the true Poets must be truthful." And we who've never been to war--who can barely imagine what is like--will always have a duty to listen and remember.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,—still warm,—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
(Cross-posted on my blog.)
Monday, November 16, 2009
Looking at the cover and even the blurb is quite misleading. The marketing of teen books has been discussed a lot (including on this blog) so I will not rehash that here. Still, making a novel about a teen guy and his roles models look like a romance was a strange move.
As the novel opens, Leigh seems defined by those around him. Following a family tragedy, he moves to Washington D.C. to comfort Millie, his step-sister. While there, he meets and begins falling for the infamous Maia. He decides to spend his senior year there leaving his girlfriend, Astra, behind.
Leigh thinks a lot about his future and about being a man. In his new surroundings he basically acts as the head of the household because his own father is so incredibly aloof. Back home, his mother is getting more serious with a successful, soft-spoken man that Leigh greatly respects. Leigh studies the two men often just acting the opposite of how his father would act. Leigh feels like he is successfully taking care of his family and friends but is baffled that he can't figure out his future even though it seems easy for his peers.
Maia is someone that alters Leigh's path in life. In some ways she seems fragile and in other ways she seems perfect. Leigh desperately wants to give her anything she needs, but when things get rough can he still put her first?
It is incredibly intriguing to follow Leigh make his decisions to try to become the person he wants to be. Ultimately, however, it takes a long time for the book to get anywhere. Also by time the "moment" takes place, it is kind of a letdown.
Freymann-Weyr has crafted a challenging yet accessible novel. She writes guys very well and captures the never ending questioning of what it means to be a man in the modern world. Readers who enjoyed Funny How Things Change by Melissa Wyatt will also want to read After the Moment.
Friday, November 13, 2009
On the opposite end of the tonal spectrum is Spider-Man: Noir (by Hine, Sapolsky and Di Giandomenico), which places the webslinger in the darkest days of the Great Depression and onto the violent, morally compromised streets. Donning a darker appearance to go with his grim motives, Spider-Man contends with a ghastly array of re-imagined foes including the Vulture, Kraven and, of course, the Green Goblin (are you even allowed to re-imagine Spider-Man without the Green Goblin in tow?). At the same time, much of the supporting cast shows up here too, in slightly tweaked characterizations that feel both fresh and surprisingly deep for a fairly short book (check out the crusading and principled J. Jonah Jameson, for example). Spring for the full-sized Premiere Hardcover version over the digest-sized version if you can, as it shows off Di Giandomenico's super-detailed and expressive art to best effect.
So you caught me going on about pulp-inspired tales once again. Their influence still runs strongly through comics today. These two pull off the homage with real intelligence and style.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Maybe he's just crazy. I mean, that would explain it, wouldn't it? "The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod" is the subtitle of Gary Paulsen's Winderdance. I don't know about "fine," but yeah, I'd agree to the madness part. Racing with a team of dogs for 1180 miles across the Alaskan snow and ice. Gary! What are you, nuts???
But he did it. He finished the race, and went back to do it a second time. A committed dude, that Paulsen. And if he isn't, he ought to be committed -- to an asylum. I know, that's an old joke. Sorry.
He trained the dogs, and the dogs saved his life. This is that kind of story. And Paulsen is such a story teller.
"Without thinking I jerked at the skunk to pull it away from Devil. This was risky in itself. Devil considered the skunk to be food, was in fact trying to swallow the skunk whole, or so it seemed, and grabbing Devil's food amounted to suicide.
But worse, I grabbed the tail, which had the effect of swinging the rear end of the skunk around to aim the potent business end at me, at my face.
Whereupon the skunk let go.
His firepower was somewhat diminished, as he'd dumped some of it on the dogs, but there was still a hefty load and it blew, like the winds of death, directly into my face.
It was exactly that sound. I have never heard it duplicated by another person, and it was accompanied by projectile vomiting, walking in circles in the ditch, trying to rub it out of my eyes, and a sudden and sincere wish to become an investment banker, or any other job that would never put me close to a skunk's ass again.
It took a half hour to get some vision and ability to breathe right, and another half hour to sort the team and untangle them and get them ready to continue on.
It was bad, it was vile, it was in some way green and bilious, but we had overcome it and, I thought, could now finish the run -- stinking, perhaps, still queasy and sick, but none the worse for wear in other ways.
We hit the second skunk within a mile.
The results were almost exactly the same except that this time the skunk somehow got away from the dogs on his own and I tried to help it by kicking it down into the ditch, out of the way, so it could escape.
Rule one: don't grab a skunk by the tail and pull.
Rule two: Don't kick a skunk."
You know, I wanted to give you a little of the flavor of the book, so I opened it at random to that part. The whole story is that engaging. Think you might want to race the Iditarod someday? Even if you don't (You're not crazy, right?), Winterdance is great fun.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
If you're looking for a page-turning graphic novel that is both educational and kid-friendly, look no further than The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan. This riveting story of one family's struggle during The Dust Bowl is not to be missed.
Kansas circa 1937 is shown through the eyes of an eleven year old boy named Jack Clark. While a bunch of bullies swings at him with their fists and their harsh words, a dust storm blows through town, and Jack runs off. Soon, we meet his family: Pa is gruff, Ma is sad, his sister Dorothy is sick, and his littlest sister, Mabel, has never seen rain. Jack overhears the doctor telling his father that Dorothy's condition is called "dust pneumonia," and that a new trend, "dust dementia," has started to spread. After seeing an odd face in the abandoned Talbot farm, Jack begins to worry that he too has been made ill by the storm.
Using pencil, ink, and watercolor, Phelan has created stark, dusty images of distinct, proud characters that will certainly stay with the reader. As Jack's level of courage goes up and down, so does his posture: sometimes he is slouched, and he often hides his eyes under the brim of his hat, but when push comes to shove, he stares, he shouts, and he stands straight up. There are wordless panels which express a great deal, such as the two panels on one of my favorite pages (199, which comes towards the very end, so don't you dare skip ahead!)
With her songs and and her smile, little sister Mabel steals every single scene - rather, panel - that she's in. Whenever she was shown skipping around with her umbrella, I thought of the Morton Salt Girl. Her natural curiosity and happiness nicely countered the sadness expressed by other, older characters.
Phelan also weaves in the power of storytelling: While bed-ridden Dorothy reads Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Ernie down at the General Supply tells young Jack tall tales which always star a courageous boy named Jack.
I'm certainly not the only GLW blogger who loves this book. Kelly Fineman praised it as well. Click here to read her post.
To learn more about the origin of this book, read my recent interview with Matt Phelan.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
The book follows the history of a guy – let's call him William, since that's his name – who is turned into a vampire by a lovely lady vampire named Katherine whilst aboard a ship to the New World (to be specific, The Mayflower – in case you were wondering about those onboard deaths, all is now revealed – also, this makes the book perfect for November, what with Thanksgiving just around the corner):
One the deck at night
as thousands of stars shine down,
I see her, alone.
A married woman,
likes to flirt with me.
Like a siren song,
each night she calls me to her
and I am in love.
In the glassy sea,
she, I, and the moon reflect.
Hers is a bit . . . off.
Katherine bites William, he bites back, and there are many haiku about his lust for blood, as well as Katherine's explanation of the "rules", which include "tanning is bad". Also included? This tidbit:
She explains to me
that wood through my heart will kill.
I don't think that's new.
A quick review of what haiku is - a short Japanese form, usually interpreted in English as a three-line poem with the first and third lines having 5 syllables and the second as having 7 (5-7-5, in other words). Ryan Mecum writes hundreds of them, then arranges them in such a way as to tell a story, move us through history in a linear manner, and provide details about vampire life along the way.
In the process of learning to kill (and yes, I'm still talking about the early blood-spattered pages of the book), Ryan – er, make that "William" – favors us with this description:
Blood tastes like cherries
mixed with a lot of copper
and way too much salt.
Gross. And awesome. And a might bit thought-provoking, if I'm being honest. Early on, Katherine skedaddles, leaving William hoping to find her, a yearning he returns to throughout the book (with occasional sightings of his lady love).
History begins to roll, as it does: the Salem Witch Trial turns out to be vampire-related. In 1774, we learn that William was around for the Boston Tea Party and that he is relieved "the Intolerable Acts/are not about me". William remembers the Alamo fondly as a massive feast:
Some people wonder,
How did Davy Crockett die?
The answer: Screaming.
William recounts horrifying Civil War stories, which indicate how violent and bloody the war was, and brings home the body count – over 600,000 – in a way that catches your attention. He moves on to mess with Emily Dickinson: "She would always say/that she couldn't stop for death,/so I stopped for her." (How much do I love this paraphrase of Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop for Death? SO much! Additional famous people mentioned (directly or by implication) include P.T. Barnum, General Custer, Amelia Earheart, James Dean, the Son of Sam killer; other events include the Chicago fire, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and State-side Peace Protests, Woodstock, a Kentucky coal mine collapse, the Bicentennial, the Branch Davidian cult standoff in Waco, Texas, and more. There are haiku about the practical realities of vampire life - finding and killing victims, efforts to avoid sunlight, whether one needs airholes in coffins, and more.
Some haiku I especially liked along the way? These, which speak volumes about religious faith, as one might expect when the author was a youth pastor:
A cross is a cross
if that is its intention.
Crossing beams don't count.
A cross only works
if the person holding it
believes it will work.
And how could I not adore the pop culture references about The Count from Sesame Street (happy anniversary, Sesame Street!), Count Chocula, Count Dracula ("On each Halloween/I dress as Count Dracula./I've heard he does, too."), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Lost Boys, Nosferatu, Near Dark, Interview With a Vampire and to Twilight. Oh, what the heck – here are two of the four Twilight haiku, what with New Moon coming out next week and all:
Those were not vampires.
If sunlight makes you sparkle,
you're a unicorn.
. . .
If this were real life,
Ed would have looked at her neck –
bite, dead, burp, credits.
Throughout the book, William searches for Katherine. Will he find her? Is she right to think she's been tracked by a vampire hunter? If so, who might it be?
You can read more about Ryan Mecum and his work at his brand-new website. You can purchase Vampire Haiku at Barnes & Noble and Borders stores (in the humor section, near Zombie Haiku), and at some independent book stores - including the marvelous Powell's Books (who will, like all indies, always happily order you whatever you'd like, btw), as well as from on-line sources.
Recommended for readers who like humor, history, vampires (or zombies, depending on which book we're speaking of) and, oh yeah – fans of poetry (especially haiku).
Monday, November 9, 2009
Twenty-Nine Palms high school seems like a pretty typical place, with social divisions that might be expected at any American high school. Its location near a military base and a top-secret research facility mean that a lot of the kids are army brats or the children of scientists. The fact that some of the kids from the math club are keeping an alien in their basement isn’t surprising—of course they’d want to study it. And they wouldn’t get much of a chance if they turned it over to the authorities! And its also not surprising that the alien is kidnapped by some jocks who are looking to make a quick buck by charging admission to stare at it.
Sky Horizon was brought to my attention by a friend who was trolling David Brin’s web site. While it is billed as “book 1 in the Colony High series,” and was published in 2007, I haven’t been able to find information about further volumes. Though the ending of this story does leave a big “what happens next,” I thought it was an interesting take on aliens and teenagers.
From the flap copy, which describes student Mark Bamford hearing the alien rumors and deciding to investigate, I expected a teenagers & alien vs. evil government story (I was thinking E.T., actually), but it actually turned out to be an exploration of first contact, and what that would mean for the Earth as a whole, particularly if teens were involved.
Even if Brin doesn’t move forward with the series, Sky Horizon will give you a lot to think about, and maybe you’ll even create some of your own stories about what happens next to Mark, his friends, and Twenty-Nine Palms high school. The possibilities are there, and one of the greatest things a book can do is spark your imagination. If you like this one, you might want to try out some of Brin’s other fiction, his web site details his Uplift series and has some short stories that you can read for free. Sky Horizon isn't for sale in many places at the moment, but check for it in your local library!
Cross posted at Dwelling in Possibility.
Friday, November 6, 2009
From the prologue:
I can look at this page, this news about the trial and all the background noise around it, and I can say that this is my life, and also the life of a lot of other young and old and church-going and non-church-going and hard-working and not-so-hard-working people who live in Tillmon County and places just like it. It's my life, but it's their life too. We're in this together, however we might feel about each other at any particular moment. And remembering that makes me think, at least for a little while, that maybe I've found the point.
Tillmon County Fire is a collection of connected stories that describe, one after the other and in many voices, the lead up to and the aftermath of a fire in the community.
The narrators of each story -- a young man who finds God at summer camp; a 17-year-old who doesn't think much of his non-interest in his girlfriend until he sets eyes on the new guy from New York; the girlfriend, who has troubles and dreams she's never shared with her distracted boyfriend; the new guy from New York; a trumpet player; his autistic twin brother; a pregnant girl who works in the hardware store, among others -- speak in clear, distinct voices (and different fonts) that, while separate and individual, form a chorus, even though they don't realize it themselves.
I loved the format, and I felt that the different fonts worked -- in some cases, it would have felt gimmicky, but not here. The writing was too strong for that. I always enjoy seeing the same setting and the same event from different perspectives, and Tillmon County Fire not only achieved that, but made it feel real.
I did think that the Postscript detracted from the book. It felt tacked-on and unnecessary. I didn't feel that I needed the story of Aiden's early life, as his story and his actions during the trial made it very clear that, like everyone else, he's a complicated person: not evil, not perfect. The Postscript made it feel too easy, too pat -- that suddenly every bad decision he made could be somehow traced back to that event. I felt like it lessened him somehow.
Overall, though, I enjoyed it very much -- I'll be looking for more from Pamela Ehrenberg, and I hope specifically that there's more short fiction in her writing future.
Book source: Cybils nominee; review copy from the publisher.
Crossposted at Bookshelves of Doom.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Going Bovine by Libba Bray
"All 16-year-old Cameron wants is to get through high school—and life in general—with a minimum of effort. It’s not a lot to ask. But that’s before he’s given some bad news: he’s sick and he’s going to die. Which totally sucks. Hope arrives in the winged form of Dulcie, a loopy punk angel/possible hallucination with a bad sugar habit. She tells Cam there is a cure—if he’s willing to go in search of it. With the help of a death-obsessed, video-gaming dwarf and a yard gnome, Cam sets off on the mother of all road trips through a twisted America into the heart of what matters most."- summary from Amazon
This is a very messed-up book, but in a good way, which is an odd statement to make about a book, but it's true. Bray has created a story that is hilarious, random, surreal, and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed it, but I don't think it's for everyone. It's definitely a crazy, very weird, adventure-filled book; I mean, just look at the summary. I loved the characters in this book and they were all so much fun to read about. There was one part though toward the end that gave me pause; I was happy about this revelation, but at the same time, it felt like it came out of nowhere and I was puzzled by it. From what I'd read, there had really been no clues or hints about it, so when it was revealed, it seemed out of place. The ending was really interesting and very climactic. This was a wonderful book all the way through; it is very long but it held my interest all throughout.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Is there anything more frightening than an undead cannibal with a personal grudge come straight from Hell to devour you, body and soul? Ian Rankin thinks so...and his answer to that question is "Reality TV." Before you think I'm going to act all smug and superior about how I don't watch reality TV, a caveat: I am a reformed reality TV junkie. Thankfully, I've kicked the habit, but that doesn't mean I still don't see the appeal.
If Satre's hell was other people, Rankin's is an amended version of this same place - other people watching and participating in reality entertainment. What's worse: to be stuck in a fabricated environment, chained to a dog-eat-dog competition against a group of celebrity-seeking strangers, or to be glued to the device that delivers this makeshift, ramshackle life-by-proxy straight to your home? If neither choice seems particularly appealing, you might just be willing to accept and gleefully celebrate Ian Rankin's television-as-Faustian-bargain metaphor, Dark Entries.
Outside of some oblique name recognition, I was almost completely unfamiliar with Ian Rankin before reading Dark Entries. So I was more than a little surprised that this book caught my attention while perusing my local bookstore. Ok, so the grinning, smoking, trenchcoat-wearing skeleton on the cover might have been the catalyst of my regard for the book, but I was equally suprised to see that this was billed as a "John Constantine" novel and that it was published by a new DC Comics imprint called Vertigo Crime.
Those unfamiliar with John Constantine need only know that he's a paranormal investigator, of a sort, with a shady past and a virtually savant-level skill to irritate anyone and everyone. Oh that - and maybe the fact that he was created by comic book virtuoso Alan Moore as a foil for Swamp Thing and that he most closely resembles Sting (put all thoughts - ALL THOUGHTS - out of your head of Keanu Reeves playing him in the abysmal movie).
This time, Constantine (down on his luck and isolated as noir conventions would have him) is offered the opportunity to investigate a reality television show called Dark Entries that has somehow gone wrong. The premise of the show is a hybrid of Big Brother and Scare Tactics - place a group of beautiful people in an isolated, artificial environment, attempt to scare the living hell out of them, then rake in the money as the television viewers are given their vicarious thrills. The problem that Constantine has to address is why the participants in the show are visibly haunted and terrorized by variables not introduced by the television producers. Is there something truly supernatural happening within the Dark Entries house, or is it just the "normal" psychological terror created by artificial isolation?
What seems cut and dry, from a paranormal perspective at least, turns out to be nothing of the sort, and Constantine must unravel mysteries within mysteries if he is ever able to escape the job he has accepted. To say any more about the plot would give way too much away, so I'll leave the basic story outline right there and instead evaluate the novel manner in which this work is marketed.
The new Vertigo Crime imprint is unlike most other graphic novels on the market today. In fact, at first I wasn't sure it even was a graphic novel. The only tell is a small logo in the bottom right-hand corner of the cover that states, "A Graphic Mystery." Otherwise, it's published in hardback in a much smaller form factor than traditional comics. It's an eye-catching throwback to the pulp roots of mystery fiction, and one that DC is already exploiting with a number of other artists and writers. Based on this one work alone it's hard to tell if it will be a successful venture for the company, but I certainly appreciate the experiment.
It's also odd that Ian Rankin gets HUGE billing as the author on the cover, while the artist, Werther Dell'edera gets only a third of the font size for his name in spite of his monumental contribution to the work as a whole. Certainly I realize Rankin's name is more marketable, but downplaying the artist in a work of graphic fiction speaks of disrespect for the content and the creator.
Considering Rankin's inexperience in the field of conventional comics, he does an admirable job of staying consistent with the Constantine character within this stand-alone story. Likewise, Dell'edera is strongest when depicting Constantine's menagerie of a British-noir life. Where both writer and artist lose focus is when the supernatural elements become the crux of the plot. Dell'edera is quite good at depicting the mean streets of London, but his Hell is amorphous, at best. Likewise, Rankin's plot goes off the rails when he twists the story more towards gore than grime.
Vertigo Crime has a long way to go to firmly establish its imprint. Is it primarily crime comics, mystery comics, horror comics, or some unknown hybrid of the three? Still, it's welcome to see DC trying so many new ways to deliver graphic literature into the hands of those unfamiliar with it, and attracting readers with known writing talent is a good start.
Cross-posted at PastePotPete.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The opening of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa awakes to discover he has been transformed into a man-sized cockroach, stands as one of the most recognizable moments in all of the Twentieth Century literature. If you've never read the story, Peter Kuper's graphic novel adaptation can serve as a fine introduction, and if you have, it will make you see the story in a whole new horrifyingly funny way.
Because, when the novel opens, being turned into a bug is not Gregor's biggest problem. No, weighing much more heavily on Gregor’s mind is that he is late for work. He has to figure out how to get out of bed, how to collect his salesman's samples, how to get dressed and how to catch the morning train. Gregor has been so terrorized by his bosses and is so obsessed with making money to pay off his family's debts that being stuck on his beetle-shell back with six spindly legs waving in the air pales in comparison.
And while Gregor recognizes the horror of becoming a vermin, the difficulty it might present, he is only devastated when his condition results in losing his traveling salesman job.
This is horrifying, agonizingly sad, and . . . well . . . kinda funny. For us, nearly 100 years later, The Metamorphosis can serve as something of a morality tale for our "uncertain economic times."
Peter Kuper's graphic novel adaptation fits perfectly into this landscape of eerie, comical horror. The use of a white on black background puts everything into comic-book negative, creating an appropriately nightmarish aura. Most of the characters are drawn broadly, as they are written: Gregor's sister Grete is a cute cartoon figure with a terrified expression pasted on her face, what might have happened if Blondie Bumstead had posed for Edvard Munch's The Scream; Gregor's father is a puffed out man with an over-sized angry head taken from an Otto Dix painting; and his mother looks quite simply like a corpse. Gregor is the most grotesque of all but is given the most emotional breadth: he is depicted as a beetle with a head still vaguely recognizable as a human. Kuper uses all of Gregor's attributes, from both man and insect, to convey his perpetually conflicting emotions. Graphic elements like off-kilter frames and jaggedly outlined dialog balloons contribute more to the edgy aura.
Not everything translates perfectly. The novel gets some of its horror from the visceral elements of being a bug--the ooze, the stench, the sticky and rotting stuff. Kuper's stark graphics can't really portray this kind of thing, and he doesn't really try, focusing on the story's other horrifying elements instead.
One of these is that Gregor never stops being human. He never loses the ability to hear others talking about him, although they assume he has and thus are not at all careful free in what they say. He never loses the ability to feel love, rejection, humiliation, and, finally, betrayal. What remains of his humanity Kuper expresses in his large terrified eyes, revealing an inner horror more terrifying than his invertebrate exterior.
As countless other commentators have pointed out, The Metamorphosis can be read in a number of ways, as a religious allegory, as social commentary, or as an expressionistic expose of a tortured human soul. Still, what struck me upon rereading it this time, both because of Kuper's adaptation and because of current events, is how much the story is about employment, about jobs. Even after the opening scene, Gregor continues to obsess about his lost employment as much as about being a bug. He recalls how he counted down the days until he could tell off his bosses. He swells with pride when he thinks about how he rescued his family from certain doom, working his way up from stock clerk to traveling salesman, after his father's business collapsed in an economic downturn. And he shrinks with shame when he considers all they have to go through now that he can no longer work. His retirement-age father must return to work as a bank messenger. His mother brings in sewing and his teenage sister becomes a salesgirl. The family also brings in three demanding borders who discover the family's secret shame, Gregor.
In the end, the conflict between Gregor's point of view and his family's creates the deepest irony. To Gregor, work has been mostly torture and humiliation, a life metaphorically like the one he adopts as a bug, but his family has come to find that work means something different to them. The story ends with the family, minus Gregor, riding a train together, and the three remaining members deciding that they each actually like their jobs. It seems mundane, but in this story it's the equivalent of Jason popping up out of the lake to terrify the audience one last time. Everything Gregor was about, all of his sacrifice, was for naught. All along, his family would have been happy, happier even, going to work! SKREET SKREET SKREET SKREET!
Is there a moral? I don't know. But if it's about jobs, I'd get a good one if I were you. Stay in school. Find something you love and work like hell at it. Don't let what happened to Gregor Samsa happen to you . . .
Check out the book's website. The opening movie is well worth a visit and provides and excellent preview of the book.
Ebook versions of the original, translated by David Wyllie, are available free at Project Gutenberg.
This post has been crossposted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp
Monday, November 2, 2009
King Arthur is the vampire of fantasy.
By that I mean that everyone has written about him, and he's come full circle from vicious Dark Ages battle leader to tragic romance hero to YA fantasy fixture. To write about King Arthur is to stand in a line that starts in 1136 with Geoffrey of Monmouth and shows no signs of ending:
Still, most Arthurian revisionists don't bring the chops that John Steinbeck did.
Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, and the United States Medal of Freedom. He wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and East of Eden. So when he decided to delve into Arthuriana, it was significant.
Alas, he didn't live to finish it. Begun in 1956, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was based on the original Arthurian novel, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Steinbeck did massive amounts of research into Malory, intending to retell the stories without losing the flavor and atmosphere that had so affected him as a young reader. And he got it right...mostly. Its unfinished status means it's hard to know if what we now have is truly the manuscript Steinbeck intended. He retells seven tales, beginning with the life of Merlin and ending with Lancelot and Guinevere's first embrace. But in only the final two stories do the characters, events and moral themes really come to life.
In "Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt," three questing knights meet three women who specialize in leading knights on quests. The adventures themselves are exciting and action-packed, but what's really intriguing are the relationships between the men and women after they pair off. Each knight learns something about themselves without consciously realizing it, and each lady demonstrates the power women could wield even when denied swords and shields. The final line of Marhalt's adventure, in fact, sums up the gender issues with bone-shuddering succinctness.
But it's Ewain's adventure that finishes the chapter, and rightly so. An untried knight, he finds that his questing lady, though older than the others, is also a brilliant tactician and trainer. She schools him in technique and discipline, and presciently warns him that the longbow, a weapon easily obtained and mastered by commoners, will spell the death of the knights and their feudal society. Then she accompanies him on his first battles.
The final chapter, "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot," brings the world's best knight front and center. We learn what kind of man inspires such a fearsome reputation, and we see how his best intents derail him toward the tragedy we all know is coming. The story ends, in fact, with the first irrevocable step on that path, and it strikes the reader's heart almost as vividly as it does Lancelot's.
These two tales alone make the book worthwhile, and with the exception of Mary Stewart's The Wicked Day, are the best contemporary Arthurian stories I've read. Oddly, in both Steinbeck and Stewart Arthur himself is a supporting character. But while Stewart chose to tell her story through Mordred (and in her earlier trilogy, the tiresome figure of Merlin), Steinbeck adopts Malory's tactic of jumping wherever the action is.
I disagree with Steinbeck when he says, as quoted in a letter, "Arthur is not a character. Perhaps the large symbol figures can't be characters, for if they were, we wouldn't identify with them by substituting our own." To me Arthur is the character, and all the others exist only to illuminate aspects of his personality. As Christopher Reeve once said (apropos of playing Superman as a fairly normal guy), "You can't play the king; the people around you play to you being king." Those people need the king as much as the king needs his people.
Teen male readers familiar with current fantasy might find Steinbeck's style off-putting in the earlier stories. And that's okay; there is no one "story" of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but rather a collection of stories created all over the world, among which readers are free to pick and choose their favorites. But if you skip to the final two chapters, I think you'll find both stories to be fun, exciting and thought-provoking.
(A note: Christopher Paolini does the introduction, and there's irony in the author of Eragon chastising modern fantasy for its "clotted prose.")