Tuesday, March 30, 2010
I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest the plays should be read in the modern vernacular, as classes now tackle Beowulf, but in order to capture what’s rewarding about Shakespeare, readers have to be able to engage with the substance of the work in ways meaningful to their lives. Macbeth and Julius Caesar are masterfully written political thrillers, rife with some of the language’s most beautiful poetry, raising questions about the nature and dangers of power. But what in them speaks to the experience of a sixteen year-old?
Monday, March 29, 2010
At the age of five, Jeffrey was diagnosed with leukemia - lymphocytic lymphoma, to be specific. He was a lucky little boy: His parents and 13-year-old brother, Steven, were there for him every step of the way, and the community rallied around him. He was a lucky little boy: He survived.
Years later, Jeffrey's in remission, but reminded of his illness every day, thanks to the limp and other irrevocable marks left on his body and his mind by the cancer. Radiation and chemotherapy left him "a little scrambled up," making him "spacey" on occasion. Now in eighth grade, he instantly bonds with a new classmate, a girl who just moved to New Jersey from California. The second Jeffrey meets Lindsey, he knows she's his dream girl. Dealing with middle school (and trying to impress female classmates) is hard enough without having physical impairments, but Jeffrey has an unsinkable spirit. His best friend, Tad, also a cancer survivor, is less upbeat about his condition. The two boys have leaned on each other both in and outside of school since the fourth grade. Now, their last year in middle school will test their strength - physical strength, mental strength, and strength of character - over and over again.
After Ever After will make readers laugh and cry and feel. It will be a delight to fans of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, the book that introduced us to the Alper family, a book that I read, loved, and hand-sold like crazy the year of its release, and have continued to recommend ever since. After Ever After is a solid stand-alone story, so those who came upon After without having read Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie won't be lost, but they would be wise to read the equally-fabulous Drums to see how the story began. Instead of picking up the story right where Pie left off, Sonnenblick opted to fast-forward After Ever After to Jeffrey's eighth grade year and make him the first-person narrator instead of Steven, who was the protagonist of the previous story. Readers catch up with Jeffrey quickly, learning not only of his medical history and current health status but also of his elementary and middle school experiences. Likewise, we are informed of Steven's whereabouts - something I won't give away here, something that was another bold choice on Sonnenblick's part which ensured that this story was now solidly Jeffrey's - and what a great story it is.
"I can't walk too well, but when I'm on my bike, I can fly."
Go, Jeffrey, go.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
This month I have a guest reviewer. It’s Max, my 12-year-old son, who was thrilled to see a new book by D.J. MacHale.
I believe in ghosts.
That’s the first sentence of D.J. MacHale’s riveting fantasy novel, Morpheus Road: The Light. It’s taken some convincing, but after I read the book, I’m starting to believe it too.
Marshall Seaver is expected to have the time of his life, home alone while his dad is on a business trip in Las Vegas. This 16 year-old, finds this out in ways that he never expected. The knocks on his bedroom wall, the signs he sees formed in spilled cat food. He feels these are all messages; signs that someone is in his house.
Friday, March 26, 2010
Of course, there's always the long view. After all, just a few thousand years ago, we were living in caves and eating carrion, weren't we? We've come much farther than you might expect (some more than others).
Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End is all about the long view of humanity--the VERY long view from our present difficult days to an almost miraculous ascension to our higher destiny in the distant future. It's a book full of wonder and possibility, a veritable mission statement for science fiction as the literature of amazement and hope.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Matt Cunningham is a Hollywood screenwriter, SFX artist and director. He worked on special effects for Starship Troopers, wrote and directed "The Mangler Reborn" and even played "chainsaw victim" in "Decampitated." (More on IMDB.)
But now he's transitioning into writing books for young readers, including a moody monster book called "Eternal Springs." He interviewed me about a project, so I jumped at the chance to interview him, too, mostly about books...
When you were in high school or college and people started talking books, what would you tell them they just had to read?
As a guy you can imagine the looks I got from other boys in high school spreading the word of Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Katherine Paterson. Bridge to Terabithia is one of my all time favorite books. That one I tell everyone to read, if they haven't already. Of course C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and in the darker days, Lovecraft and King.
Today, what books would you tell guys that age they should read?
I am a book junkie (my wife can attest to this) and I could ramble on for days about what to read. So I will go with some of the most recent books that I love. Monster Blood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish. This one really grabbed me and has lots of great mystical aspects to it. Percy Jackson books, sooo good. Thanks Rick Riordan for those goodies. Spiderwick Chronicles, I love these books. I gobble them up. This really fun series of books called Secrets of Dripping Fang by Dan Greenburg. I just get a kick out of them. Lots of boogery fun. For comedy and good times check out I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I want to be Your Class President by Josh Lieb, I was laughing out loud at this one.
And what books should they avoid?
Twilight - seriously, spend your time reading Bram Stoker or Mary Shelly. This onslaught of vampire novels is nauseating. Every book on the shelf looks like a vampire novel. I like vamps, but give me something that hasn't been done in Buffy. Buffy rules by the way.
Were there any particular books that got you moving on the road to SFX and movie work?
Monday, March 22, 2010
There is value in the official report of the United Nation's Postwar Commission, "a collection of cold, hard data, an objective 'after-action report' that would allow future generations to study the events of that apocalyptic decade." But the stories of the survivors, military and civilian, those who profited from the war and those who are still bearing its scars, are too important to lose. The stories of some of these survivors have been transcribed and collected in Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.
Friday, March 19, 2010
L.K. Madigan's first YA novel, Flash Burnout, is one to take note of for any teen guy who likes a story about real life - no spies with guns, no wizards, no goofball comedy (but still funny - just not all funny, all the time). The novel won this year's William C. Morris YA Debut Award (given to the most impressive new voice in YA literature). It was up against some well-reviewed titles, so I had high expectations. It met them, quietly.
Flash Burnout is the story of Blake, a pretty ordinary kid, a nice guy. He's a bit of a clown, always trying to get people laughing. He has a girlfriend, who is a total babe. She's the first girl he's ever said, "I love you" to. He's figuring out exactly what it feels like to be with someone you care about that much. He thinks about sex, quite a bit, but he's not sure whether he's ready or not, and he'd really like it if his dad stopped trying to talk to him about it. Blake is also friends with a girl named Marissa from his photography class. She's cool, and they have great conversations. She takes photos of pretty things, and he takes pictures of edgy stuff, which is why their photography teacher calls them "pretty and gritty." By chance, Blake ends up taking a picture of Marissa's mom on the street for photography homework, and this gets Marissa back in touch with her mom, who has been addicted to meth for a long time and has drifted in and out of Marissa's life. The more Blake gets involved with Marissa's messy personal life, the more he has trouble juggling time with his girlfriend and his girl friend. Flash Burnout is about love and loyalty, growing up and making mistakes, and learning how messy relationships can be.
Blake has a voice that is immediately engaging and true, which really pulls you into the story. This is a book very much focused on everyday life, the ordinary interactions that happen between family members and friends at home and at school. This means that it isn't a fast-paced read, but it will be satisfying for someone who appreciates convincing relationships between characters and values that more than external drama. It is refreshing to read a story about such an ordinary kid. He's not grappling with a life or death situation. He's not tortured by his past / present experience. He's just figuring out his life as he goes along, and is beginning to appreciate the complexity of friendship and love. I'd like to listen in on a YA book club discussion of this title, because I think it would stir up some good conversation among girl and guy readers. So remember Flash Burnout when you're in the mood for a little real life.
Flash Burnout is published by Houghton Mifflin.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
as Michael Jordan's moves are to poetry. I mean, he's good.
I was not a big poetry guy, and whenever I bumped into poetry, poets, and poetry readings, I always felt left of center and outside everything going on.
But then, several years ago, I happened to hear Terrance Hayes read his poetry. Terrance Hayes is a powerful reader, a great reader, and he has an easy, inviting way of discussing his poems that lets you feel like he's okay with you enjoying them, eating them up, making them your own.
That right there to the left, that's him. I decided to put his face there instead of the cover of one of his books, mostly because I couldn't choose just one Terrance Hayes collection of poetry to highlight--they've all got good stuff.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
A decrepit castle the size of a small city. An noble lineage ruled by obscure ritual. A retinue of servants, all insane in their own unique ways. Gothic and absurd, Titus Groan is a lush fantasy novel with as much in common with Alice in Wonderland as Lord of the Rings.
Published in 1946, Titus Groan is the first book in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. It tells the story of ancient Gormenghast castle, where over the centuries, life has fossilized into an endless series of ceremonies. Any meaning the rituals once had was forgotten generations ago, but they're still clung to with a spiritless sense of duty by the seventy-sixth earl of Groan, his family, and their servants. It is what has always been done, and so it is what must be done forever.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Occasionally, I am not even stumped when I get asked this.
Recently, I was asked to write up a brief "thumbnail guide" of overlooked titles for a school booklet that would be chockablock with similar handy/useful advice on other subjects, given out as part of a school fundraiser. Here, then, is a rewrite of that recent page-long guide, which required to me to focus on five titles, only. Since one of those titles was the reviewed-last-month "The Year of the Bomb," that leaves a quartet for us. So straight from the pages of the "parent's guide" and program, to you, the remaining foursome of oft-overlooked titles:
4) "The Great God Pan" by Donna Jo Napoli. Perhaps the "oldest" book on this list, in terms of intended readership, Napoli takes two unfinished Greek legends -- that of the nature god Pan (rumored to be the only one among the pantheon whose death was noted by humans), and the very mortal princess Iphigenia, slated to be sacrificed by her father, so he can get his war on. The legends have various twists on whether her father, Agamemnon, was ultimately successful. Here, Napoli provides one more. Full of yearning, and a broken heart or two, it's a great next step after your reader has finished all the "Percy Jackson" books. And maybe experienced his, or her, first crush.
Monday, March 15, 2010
In One of the Survivors, Joey Campbell and his friend Maureen leave their classroom against the orders of their teacher, Mr. Bednarik. The alarms have been going off for a while and everyone assumes there is no real danger. Except that Joey has had experience with fire and he goes against his strong desire to follow the rules, which proves to save their lives.
Now, at the insistence of his father, Joey is writing in a journal. He recounts the horrifying dreams, the fence they built to keep out the angry townsfolk who can't understand how he could have survived while others died and how Maureen is changing as well. It is a dark period where even his own back yard is unsafe, due to the garbage-throwing mobs.
Joey writes about a lot of things though, like his cat Preston and vanilla ice cream. As is her previous novel, Safe, Shaw deals with tragedy with a subtle understanding. The story and Joey's healing are slowly revealed during the incredibly engrossing One of the Survivors. Fans of Jacqueline Woodson's Peace, Locomotion or Zane's Trace by Allan Wolf will enjoy this novel.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
I’ve also visited many mosques in Egypt, Turkey and Spain. (The imam at the Mosque of Quaitbey in Cairo was kind enough to let me climb the minaret to see the surrounding City of the Dead.) But work on BORDERLINE introduced me to a range of Muslim congregations and prayer services, both conservative and progressive, where I was reconfirmed in the obvious: that there is an equally wide range of religious interpretation and observance in Muslim congregations and individuals as there are in Christian and other faith traditions; and that the media has done a great disservice in reinforcing only negative stereotypes of Islam, rather than exploring the progressive elements of the faith as well.
That said, I must stress again that this is a character-based, coming-of-age mystery/thriller. By the time one starts writing, all one’s research should be internalized so that the reader isn’t aware of it. Characters and story are paramount: they must be gripping. Research can help root a novel by giving it a more authentic voice; for the greater the human truth of a novel, the greater the spell it casts on its audience.
Read the whole interview at Holly's site.
Friday, March 12, 2010
On a lighter note, take Matt Blurdy, the star of The Helm (by Hardison and Sears): a pudgy loser, thirty-years-old, working in a video store and living with his Mom. Things might be looking up though, when Matt finds an ancient helm in an antique store, which tells him flat out that he's got a heroic destiny waiting for him and all he needs is to put the helm on and claim it. Except when he does, the helm apologizes. Sorry, big mistake, Matt definitely does not have a heroic destiny waiting for him. But this is Matt's chance, see, so he keeps the helm and starts a hardcore regimen designed to make him a hero. Only problem is, he's got to beat the murder rap and shed a few pounds before the dark forces looking for that helm catch up with him. Both hilarious and exciting, this is for all the comic book and fantasy geeks out there and for anyone who ever loved them or hated them.
Fantasy to make you laugh or cry.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
There's a lot that I like about The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. And a lot that makes me crazy.
I like the story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird that is close to extinction, if, indeed, it still exists. The author, Phillip Hoose, has worked on the staffs of the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He's also a songwriter, a performing musician, and a founding member of the Children's Music Network. Very cool. His writing is thoughtful and compelling.
What makes me crazy, though, is the incredible ignorance. In the late 1800s and into the twentieth century, rare birds were hunted and killed, to be sold to collectors. And "by about 1870... many American women wouldn't think of buying a hat that wasn't topped by at least one long bird feather." "Some of the hat brims were like small tabletops, holding up great heaps of feathers. And it wasn't just feathers: one of the... most admired styles contained the beak, claws, and legs of a dead crow." An ornithologist (one who studies birds) in 1887 walked two blocks in New York City. Frank Chapman counted 700 hats, and 542 had feathers sewn into them.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker's habitat is practically gone from the earth. Vast old-growth forests in the southern U.S. have been wiped out. The last confirmed sighting was in Cuba in 1987.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
The big "what if" here is basically little more than Buffy the Vampire Slayer merged with the life story of the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln was born, fated as it were, toward a life of vampire killin' in the name of preserving the Union. Unlike Buffy, however, Honest Abe takes his marching orders from a master vamp who finds the purpose and methods of his Southern brethren reprehensible. Add a dose of revenge to Lincoln's early life and the tall, soft-spoken gentleman of our history books becomes the axe wielding vampire assassin with more blood on his hands, literally, than any other president in history.
Oh yeah, there's blood alright. Red blood, and plenty of it.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
1. What do you do for a living and what do you like best about your job?
My job now is writing. I taught at a community college for a bunch of years. I liked it and I was a good teacher, but when I hit sixty and could hang it up, I did. What I like most about being a writer is working every day. I have a dandy studio and Buddy the cat and I come up here pretty much seven days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year. There's supposed to be two kinds of writers -- those who like to write and those who like having written. I'm the first kind. I can be the second kind. It's fun to go places and stay in nice hotels and meet librarians and readers but it doesn't get the work done. My parents lived through the Depression; they were solid, blue collar folks. I went to work in my dad's confectionary when I was ten, got a Social Security card as soon as I could, and worked through high school and college selling clothes, being a waiter, doing yard work, etc. I have a feeling that the books and poems I write are prodding at me, urging me to keep going. I'm the door, after all, that lets them from their world into this one. So I understand why they're anxious.
This spring brings the release of Shakespeare Makes The Playoffs, which picks up a bit later in baseball season. Kevin and Mira are still going out, although Kevin is starting to question that relationship a bit - Mira doesn't "get" him or his poetry, whereas a new girl he's met (named Amy) sure does. Not only that, she writes poems with and for Kevin. What's a guy to do?
Monday, March 8, 2010
When I first heard that Marvel was adapting Stephen King's epic The Stand into graphic novel format, I got pretty excited. The Stand is one of my favorite books of all time, one that I re-read every few years, one with scenes and characters that are unforgettable to many. I wasn't disappointed in the first 2 collected gn volumes, Captain Trips and American Nightmares, and I'm looking forward to the continuation of this familiar story being told in a new way. So yes, I'm writing this as someone who knows the original material well--and I would love to hear an opinion on this adaptation from someone who hasn't read King's novel.
Volume 1, collecting issues 1-5, sets up the battle between good and evil to come, introducing us to the characters on each side, and of course we have to start with how we got to this specific apocalypse in the first place. Besides meeting the survivors of the superflu (aka Captain Trips), we get a bit of backstory involving Project Blue, a governemnt biolgogical weapons project that got out of control. Only 1 man escaped the compound before it was locked down, but 1 man was enough to spread the epidemic throughout the country, maybe the world.
Friday, March 5, 2010
Little Cody Bockman disappeared on a rainy morning.
So begins the second installment in F. Paul Wilson's series about the teen years of his most famous creation, Repairman Jack.
While it certainly isn't necessary to be familiar with the adult version of Jack to enjoy these books, I have to admit that that's their main appeal for me. Yes, there's secret societies and worldwide conspiracies and monsters and unsolved murders and hidden tunnels, but, for me, the real puzzle will probably always be Jack. Any glimpse, however brief, at What Makes Him Tick... well, that'll always be something I want to see.
I should back up. To the future. Jack, as an adult, is known as Repairman Jack. He's got no last name and no social security number. To most people -- and the government -- he's untraceable. Unknowable. Unfindable. And for a fee, if he chooses to take the job, he'll solve your problem, whatever it is. Cool, right? Yeah. While I've never found Wilson's writing to be particularly stellar, Jack keeps me coming back.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
16-year-old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father’s fist) and a secret. He tries to move on -- new friends, new school, new job -- but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind: his mother, who is still trapped with his dad. Split is about what happens after. After you have gotten out, how do you begin to live again?
The Less Dead by April Lurie
"Noah Nordstrom has been dissing the religious beliefs of his father, who hosts a popular Christian radio show and whom Noah accuses of spreading hate. When two local gay teens are murdered, Noah’s anti-evangelism intensifies—he’s convinced that the killer is a caller on his dad’s program.
Then Noah meets Will Reed, a cool guy. But when he learns that Will is gay, Noah gets a little weirded out. Especially since Will seems really into him. Noah gives Will the brush-off. Meanwhile, the killer is still at large . . . and soon Noah finds the next victim. It’s Will.
Racked with guilt, Noah decides to investigate. He knows the serial killer is targeting gay teens, but only those who live in foster homes, whose deaths are not that important to society; they are the less-dead. Noah, however, is determined to prove that someone cares. With the help of Will’s journal, which he pocketed at the scene of the crime and in which the killer has written clues, Noah closes in on an opponent more dangerous than he can guess."- summary from Amazon
This was a really interesting book; it combines mystery, suspense, and religious debate. The book does get quite a bit preachy, but I agreed with the pro-gay stance that many of the characters in the book had, so it didn't bother me as much. I was surprised I was able to read it as quickly as I did because I figured I might get so upset and PO'd at the anti-gay stance a couple characters had that I'd have to put the book away and calm down. I enjoyed Lurie's writing though at some times it felt a bit odd and stilted, and not at all realistic, mainly with the dialogue.
The mystery aspect of it was intriguing, and kept me guessing the whole time. I was shocked at the outcome because even though I had narrowed down the suspects to two, both of them were still odd choices and I wondered about the "why" of it all, which, by the way, is a whole other story. Right before the climax, I was seriously thinking like I was watching a horror movie- "No! Don't go in there, moron! Why are you going there by yourself?!?!" It was frustrating, but a bit funny, and also obviously necessary.
So overall, I really loved this book. It had some flaws, but the good parts outweigh the bad by a lot. Definitely a book to read if you're into mystery and religious stuff. There's an Author's Note in the back which talks about the Bible passages that supposedly mention homosexuality and Lurie debunks them all as well as talks about her own experiences growing up in a strict religious household just like my main character.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Take a good, close look at the first image above. It tells you all you need to know about why current incarnations of the Justice League of America just haven't worked out. This is the kind of JLA issue I regularly saw when I was a kid - circa 1979 or so. Notice the heroes who made up the league back then? Sure, there are some B-Listers and C-Listers up there, but the big five are fully represented - Flash, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman (Aquaman didn't even get any love in the 70s. Can the man EVER catch a break?). Without all of these five - ALL OF THEM - there really isn't a reason for the League.
Every time some writer tries to experiment with the tried-and-true formula of the classic JLA, it ends in dismal failure. Case in point - the grotesque aberration that was the Detroit-based JLA.
Justice League Detroit? A terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE idea! Note that NONE of the big five were present. No wonder this was a doomed effort from the get-go.
I have fond memories of the Giffen-Dematteis-Maguire JLA years, but their efforts were also in vain as they did not follow the cardinal rule of five. Even Batman, who was a league stalwart at the beginning of this run, was later ditched in favor of - I can't believe I'm saying this - the likes of G'nort. And let's not even begin discussing Justice League Europe. What hope does a team have when its anchors are Captain Atom and Metamorpho?
The only hope for the JLA in recent years was Grant Morrison's run on the series. Again, like many others before him, Morrison started off strong by focusing on the core power players. But even Morrison gave into temptation and began adding and deleting characters from the roster ad nauseum. Credit where credit is due - Morrison's stories were still damned good, mostly because he viewed and presented the League as a pantheon of god-like characters, so even his additions of characters like Azrael, Orion and Big Barda made sense within the confines of that conceit.
I highly recommend the recently-collected deluxe editions of Morrison's tenure on the JLA. They are not as narratively complex or challenging as, say, his more recent work on Batman or Final Crisis, but they capture the essence of the team far better than anything in recent memory.
The recent return of the Justice League of America, courtesy of writer/novelist Brad Meltzer, has just been a damned mess. It started off with an interesting premise - Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman discussing who should be added to the team - but the recruitment ended once again with a League featuring a select few of the Big 5 and mostly lesser-known characters. While I dig Speedy (now known as Red Arrow), he's just not JLA material, you know?
Once Meltzer departed, the League was once again on editorially shaky ground, with writers and artists hamstrung by what DC said could and could not be done with the characters. Perhaps the current creative team of James Robinson and Mark Bagley can do something to bring back the magic of the JLA, but I'll believe it when I see it.
Is there any hope for the League? Can anyone write for the Big 5, or is it simply too creatively (and/or editorially) challenging? Is there any way to revive the current incarnation of the League? If so, how?Cross-posted at PastePotPete
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Monday, March 1, 2010
I just finished Peter and Max by Bill Willingham, an extremely well-written tale set in Vertigo Comics' "Fables" universe where fairy-tale characters exist in a sort of vast commune called "Fabletown." Moving, intense and gripping, filled with action and suspense, teen boys will probably love it. But I'm going to go a bit afield and explain why I didn't like it.
You see, it's symptomatic of something that, as a reader, a writer and a parent, both annoys and worries me. It's dark: the kind of trendy Dark Knight-dark that everyone wants now. And truthfully, as a reader, a writer and a parent, I'm worried about, and wearied by, this trend. I mean, if everything is dark, then what is there to see?