Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sad news....

As many of you will recall, GLW welcomed "Dewey" to the site in October as a new scheduled poster. She came to us as an English teacher on medical leave for a year who maintained a cool lit blog and wanted to become more involved in reviewing for teens in particular (which made sense as she had a teenage son at home). Last week, on the day she was scheduled for her second post here, Dewey passed away. I spoke with her husband James on Thursday and he wanted to make clear how much she loved being part of this site and helping to recommend good books to young readers. Dewey felt like she had found a home here and as someone who exchanged several emails with her, I can certainly say that she fit right in. She will be missed by all of us.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Control issues

There are a couple of ways I know a novel has worked for me. One of them is being so caught up in the story and invested in the characters that I don't notice any of its flaws or question any of its plot points until after I've finished the book. And even then, these problems don't end up detracting from my enjoyment of the book. Matt de la Peña's Mexican WhiteBoy is a perfect example of such a book.

Danny knows he sticks out in National City, where he's spending the summer. Half white and half Mexican, his skin is lighter than everyone else's, he gets good grades at the pricey private school he attends, and he speaks no Spanish. Not that he speaks much to begin with. Ever since his father left, he hasn't spoken much at all. Danny is sure he's the reason his father decided to leave, that he's too white and too much of a disappointment to his Spanish-speaking Mexico-born father. He'd looked up to his father as a kid, still looks up to him although he's gone, even became a pitcher because of him.

When Danny was a kid, his father told him being a great pitcher is better than being a great hitter. The guy on the mound controls the entire game, he'd said. Controls the pace. Who sees what pitch. Who has to dive out of the way to avoid taking one in the back. And then he dropped it. Never brought it up again. But Danny always remembered. That night he put down the bat down and decided to become a pitcher, what he is today.

Secretly, though, it still makes him feel alive to crush something with a bat. Almost as much as striking somebody out. (p. 19)

The guys in National City are shocked when they see Danny, dressed like a surfer and never talking trash—never talking, period—play ball. Especially Uno, whose African-American father wants Uno to join him and his new family in Oxnard. But Uno needs to earn some money first, and the $30 and $40 pots from the neighborhood home run derby competitions may no longer be his to win now that Danny's around. Still, though, Uno can't help becoming friends with the guy. And maybe there's a way for Uno to make the $500 he needs, after all, now that he's seen the way Danny can pitch.

Overall, I really liked Mexican WhiteBoy. I liked the way the story flowed, how everything and almost everyone seemed so real. The relationships and Danny's growth felt unforced and natural, and I could practically hear the characters speaking as I read. That said, there were some unresolved plot points and I had more than a few questions after finishing the book. Take Leucadia Prep, the school Danny attends, for example. In spite of his natural pitching ability, Danny has control problems when he's facing batters, which is why he was cut from his school's baseball team. The way I read the book, he didn't play baseball at all for his school, which later struck me as odd, because I would have thought Danny would at least have been offered a spot on the JV team. Did the school not have a JV team? (I'd think they would, since the school is in Southern California and one of the top high school players in the country was on the team.) Did Danny not make the JV team, assuming there was such a team? (But the coach told him he had "great stuff," and wouldn't JV be a good place to work on his control?) Did Danny choose not to play on the JV team, assuming, again, there was a JV team? (Always possible, but not mentioned at all.)

Does this matter? Well, maybe it will to some. And I will acknowledge that if I am judging Mexican WhiteBoy not by how much I liked it but on less subjective criteria, then, yes, the flaws do matter. But I also have a feeling that this book and Danny and Uno are going to stick with me far longer than books that may be technically "better."

This book is a Cybils YA Fiction nominee.

[cross-posted at The YA YA YAs]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What you really need for Christmas

Knock some of the crap off your Christmas list and put this on … the original BBC radio production of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy … trust me, you’ll still be enjoying it long after you’ve traded the summer blockbuster DVD or the lame video game adaptation of the summer blockbuster.

I’ve still got my old cassette version, but you can get it on CD and rip it onto your iPod and be set for life.

Why? Because it’s fun and funny and it’s fun and funny forever. And it’s brilliant, genius, life-changing, smartass, brain-warping, mind-expanding, etc…

If you’ve read Hitchhikers already, you still need this because it’s (a) the same and (b) different. The radio series is the original form of Hitchhikers. This is when “Don’t Panic” was fresh and new.

If you haven’t read Hitchhikers, you need to either (a) read it or (b) listen to this BBC masterpiece immediately.

Why do you “need” to read/listen to a relatively ancient science fiction comedy? ...

Because no one has topped it yet. No one has ever hit this many targets in a row.

A synopsis of the plot is futile, since the plot isn’t the point. I hesitate to say exactly what the point was, but puncturing all known human folly is certainly a byproduct.

If you insist on knowing something about the plot: There are people and a depressed robot flying around in a spaceship. See, as the depressed robot would tell you, that was futile. Perhaps it will help if I add that there are some doors on the spaceship that are very pleased with themselves for opening and closing to allow entry and egress.

Anyway, it doesn’t cost that much and your aunt will be happy to know what to get for you that’s not a gift card or an M rated video game.

If you’ve got more room on your list, here’s a reminder of some titles I’ve talked about before:

Stanislaw Lem: Cyberiad (Carries my highest possible recommendation.)

Martin Gardner: "The Colossal Book of Mathematics: Classic Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Problems."

Michael Moorcock: “The War Hound and The World’s Pain.”


Jobe Makar: “Macromedia Flash MX Game Design Demystified”

Time Bandits

“Sympathy for the Devil” Rolling Stones album: Beggar’s Banquet

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

David Foster Wallace for Christmas

NPR has a list of interesting book recommendations for holiday book buying. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace caught my eye. Here is what correspondent John McAlley had to say about it:

Despite a staggering intellect and talent that set him apart, the writer David Foster Wallace was by all accounts a determinedly decent and humble everyman. His death this year, at the unbearably young age of 46, was not just an impossible loss to his family and friends, but also to the literary world. For a moment, at least, it felt like the extinguishing of thought itself, and of promise and art and passionate curiosity. For some of us, the only way to salve the sadness was to bathe in Wallace's exuberant writing. Any of his published works would do, but this essential collection of his journalistic pieces — now more than 10 years in print — is particularly alive with laughter and fearless invention. The man burned brightly, and, as gifts go, he gave generously. This season or any other, you couldn't do better than to pass along his flame.

Monday, November 24, 2008

From a guy's POV

Readers familiar with Little Willow's site likely know that she creates lists for all sorts of subjects, formats, genres and just funky ideas that will appeal to certain readers. In particular she has a great list of books for teenage boys with male points of view. To name just a few she thought of, consider the following:

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Funny Little Monkey by Andrew Auseon
Nothing but the Truth by Avi
Looking for Alaska by John Green
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Paper Towns by John Green
Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser
The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin
Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld
I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak

This has all gotten me thinking about other books for teens with male POVs something we should be actively keeping track of. (Recent publications would include Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian.) (The Gaiman book actually has a younger protag but I think it still works fine for high school readers.)(You tell me if I'm wrong.)

I'm sure we could put together a list if everyone helps us out. To keep from veering into the classics (love Tom Sawyer, but we pretty much all know about Tom Sawyer... :) let's keep the titles contemporary - the 21st century only. That doesn't mean we won't take a look at older books later, but for now give me the best books in the past eight years with teenage male POV.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Nick Hornby's first venture into YA fiction is the story of a 15-year old skateboarding-crazy teen, whose life is just starting to look up when his girlfriend gets pregnant and everything comes crashing down faster than you can say frontside alley-oop. Slam follows an ordinary guy on a journey he never planned, into territory that's intense, sometimes hilarious and as real as it gets.

I'd been thinking about reading Slam for months, since I'm a huge fan of Hornby's other work (High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to Be Good, A Long Way Down). I admire how he manages to create stories about everyday people that are compelling and thought-provoking. I've always thought his books should come with a warning somewhere on the back cover: Attention: Story inside is deeper than it appears. Hornby makes me appreciate the drama of ordinary life. This said, I admit I was a tad put off by the premise of his first YA novel. After all, there are plenty of books out there already that explore teen pregnancy. I had to wonder, couldn't he come up with something a little more unexpected? I was worried that this book would veer into territory that's been done and then some.

Oh Nick. I should never have doubted you. Forgive me?

Of course, the fact that this novel looks at teen pregnancy from the guy's perspective is something a little bit different. One of the real strengths of this book is the way Hornby gets readers inside Sam's head straight off, and keeps you there, caring about this character all the way along, even when he's acting like a jerk (or perhaps just a confused and freaked out kid). The voice is so conversational and honest that you almost feel like you're sitting across the table from Sam sharing some chips while he tells you about his life so far. I love that.

Skateboarding takes centre stage in Sam's life for most of the book. He idolizes the legendary skater, Tony Hawk, and looks to him for advice and wisdom whenever things get rough. Skating is practically Sam's whole world until he meets Alicia and gets caught up in their relationship. Slowly Sam begins to trust his own judgment and strength as he moves towards the scary responsibility of fatherhood, away from being just another kid at the skate park. Hornby captures this transformation, with all of its bumps and wipe-outs, so convincingly and with great sensitivity.

I suppose you could say that this is a "feel good story," which makes it vintage Hornby, and I guess that also makes it different from a lot of the YA novels out there about teen pregnancy. It's about people making choices that aren't easy, and finding good where they can and living with the hard parts life serves up. At no point was I thinking, "It would never turn out like that in the real world." Slam is never moralistic or sentimental. It's the story of one choice, unflinching and complicated, but with a little room for some kind of "happily ever after."

So pick it up - and while you're at it, grab all the rest of Hornby's books too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Martin Millar on werewolves and Led Zeppelin

Martin Millar's Good Fairies of New York has received no small amount of cult-like status among fantasy readers (including an introduction by Neil Gaiman to its recent Soft Skull edition). I discovered Millar through his werewolf novel, Lonely Werewolf Girl which manages to be as much about a dysfunctional family and loving Sabrina the Teenage Witch as much as it is about werewolves. Here is a bit of my review from my July column:

Millar has done more for the urban fantasy genre with Lonely Werewolf Girl than most authors. He lifts the entire oeuvre of werewolf stories up, in a manner similar to what Joss Whedon has done for vampires. There is far, far more here than killing, although Millar never shies away from realistic violence. But when he introduces Kalix’s older sister as a fashion designer he then spins out a subplot concerning the theft of fashion design and gives it a fantasy element. Her cousins are alcoholic pop singers who can’t hold it together long enough to carve out decent careers and Millar takes part of the plot into their hopes, dreams and addictions. Politics, both in Kalix’s dysfunctional family and the larger werewolf world, are key to the story and the author makes that as exciting as one of Kalix’s many desperate chases through the city. Every detail in this book is rich and deep and thoughtful; Millar gives his characters the time and attention they deserve and because of that, readers finds themselves with far more story then werewolf fans have come to expect.

Martin's latest title, Suzy Led Zeppelin and Me, is an autobiographical novel about Led Zeppelin's 1972 concert in Glasgow and teenage crushes, battling with best friends and what it means to be cool. (As it jumps back and forth in time there's also a bit about being a modern literary fiction judge which will likely make many writers shake their heads and pronounce "I knew it!!"). I am reviewing that book next month but here is some of what Jenny Davidson had to say in August:

It is a work of utter genius and considerable grim hilarity, so that I was laughing out loud as often as every couple of pages. It is a short book, composed in short chapters, about the weeks leading up to the night of the 4th of December, 1972, when Led Zeppelin came to play in Glasgow. Martin Millar is just as funny as Charlie Williams and Cintra Wilson, my two other particularly favorite not-as-widely-read-as-they-should-be funny novelists.

Here are some thoughts from Martin Millar he forwarded my way in the past month.

Chasing Ray: Lonely Werewolf Girl is a big book. Did you plan in the beginning to write an epic about werewolves (everything from politics to romance to music to the ripping off of arms) or did the book’s overall narrative expand as you got deeper into it?

MM: I didn’t expect it to be such a long book; it just seemed to evolve that way. I think that’s probably due to the number of relations Kalix has. She’s a member of a large clan of werewolves. It was quite surprising, finding myself writing such a long book. My previous works have tended to be short.

CR: I know you’re a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – any aspects of the show that affected how you wrote about the MacRinnalchs? Also, what audience were you think of when you wrote Lonely Werewolf Girl? I reviewed it for teens but as an adult I enjoyed it a lot as well. It seems to crossover perfectly (just as Buffy does). Is it hard to create characters that appeal to both teens and adults?

MM: About teens and young adults - I never intended to write for a specific market. After enjoying Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much, I thought I'd like to write something which shared the same sort of general tone. And also, in a way, the tone of various comics I used to read.

So, for instance, there aren't any explicit sex scenes in the book, but that's not because I meant the book to be aimed at a specific audience, it's because an explicit sex scene wouldn't fit in with the tone of the book.

I'm quite happy for Lonely Werewolf Girl to be seen as a Young Adult book - because I seem to be a fan of this sort of thing myself - but I really didn't write it with that in mind. I expected adults to enjoy it too.

Possibly the distinction between Adult/Young Adult has become blurred to an extent where it isn't that important any more. Certainly, if I'd attempted to add any specifically 'adult' scenes to Lonely Werewolf Girl, it wouldn't have improved the book, it would have made it worse. The tone would have been spoiled, all the different strands wouldn't have fitted together properly, and it wouldn't have been believable.

CR: Kalix is not an obviously sympathetic character; in fact for most of the book she reads as more bipolar then you would expect (even for a werewolf). Was it hard not to write about the teen protag as a victim? How did you envision her from the very beginning?

MM: Poor Kalix has a lot of problems, though her highs and lows tend to arrive via anxiety and depression, rather than being strictly bi-polar. Many of the things the unfortunate young werewolf suffers from have been taken from my real-life experiences. From myself and from people I’ve known. Her eating problems and her self-abuse are based quite directly on people I’ve known, as is her depression and anxiety, and panic. Speaking personally, while I’m not prone to depression, I have suffered badly from anxiety at times in my life.

Writing about Kalix, I felt very sympathetic towards her. I didn’t regard her entirely as a victim, because she does have the power to take control of her life at times. When things really get tough, she has the willpower to come through it, just about. As for how sympathetic readers would be, that’s always hard to tell. Possibly I like her more than a lot of readers might.

CR: There is a ton of humor in this book – a lot more than readers have a right to expect compared to most of the urban fantasy out there. How much of this (from Sabrina the Teenage Witch to some major fashion insanity) did you plan ahead of time? Were you always intending to balance the violence with laughter or did some of the characters (such as Kalix) just evolve that way as time went by?

MM: You’re giving me too much credit for planning. I’m a terrible planner when it comes to writing, and always have been. However, I did set out to write Lonely Werewolf Girl with quite a specific tone in mind, and that was always going to involve humour. I think in general I find it difficult to write without being humorous to some degree.

Agrivex, or Vex, is really a character straight out of an American teen comedy. I have, for some time, been a fan of American teen comedies (This may be unusual for a British author of my age) I think this started with the film ‘Clueless’, which the first time I saw it, affected me quite a lot. I was very impressed that anyone could make such a sharp, funny film, using a Jane Austen story as the source (I am a great fan of Jane Austen, though I have never attempted to emulate her style, obviously.)

Queen Malveria is another humorous character. However, I don’t know where the inspiration for her came from, she’s not based on any other character I’ve encountered.

CR: What aspects of the story did you enjoy writing the most – the political maneuverings, the fashion crisis, the music crisis, the coming-of-age moments and friendships or the cut-throat violence? And how hard was it to bring all of this together into one story? Did you ever worry that there were too many threads or do you think maybe we (as readers) just aren’t used to reading books that combine so many characters into one coherent (and thrilling) tale?

MM: That’s difficult to say. I’m not sure what I enjoyed writing the most. I like writing anything about Kalix, because I like her, and apart from that, probably the scenes between Malveria and Vex. I liked writing about Thrix and Malveria and their fashion obsessions, though that was difficult because although I sympathise with people who are very keen on fashion, I don’t actually know anything about it. So really I was relying on copies of Vogue bought from the local newsagent.

As for the werewolf violence, I quite liked writing that too. (I wouldn’t say it was on a very high level – I’m not fond of gore or horror) It made for a change. I’ve never written about fighting before but possibly, having read a lot of comics as a youth, I had a secret desire to do so.

I wasn’t worried about including a lot of different threads. I thought that they were related enough for people to follow. Though there are a lot of characters, most of the story is driven by the feud about the succession to the leadership of the werewolf clan, so it’s all going in the same direction. As for the balance of the book, with its humorous parts and serious/violent parts, I have the general feeling that if you write these parts all properly, they should fit together well enough.

CR: Switching gears a bit, Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me reads more as a memoir than novel in a lot of ways – could we call it a fictionalized memoir? How much of your own story (past and present) is found in the book?

MM: Most of the significant events in the book are true, so in that way it’s a memoir. However, I re-arranged them all, added in pieces of fiction, and I had no qualms about shuffling events, places and times around to make it into a better story. So I think of it as a novel rather than a memoir.

CR: How much do you think we bond with the music of our youth? In a lot of ways you’re written an entire book around this subject – how significant do you think music can be over the course of someone’s life. (Or in other words – is it more important during the turbulent teen years than to adults?)

MM: We definitely bond with it. When I was a teenager there was nothing so important in my life as music. Actually, that lasted beyond my teenage years, though it’s faded a little now, which is natural as you get older. New music doesn’t resonate in the same way, and you find yourself more attached to the music you’ve always loved.

I regret this in a way. It would be good to hear some new music now and think ‘This is fantastic! It’s changing my life!’ But that doesn’t seem to be possible when you get older. Shame really.

However, when you do get older, and find yourself keener on the music from your youth than the music that people are listening to today, you should take care not to assume that the music you love is somehow better. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just that it means more to you.

CR: Part of what really appealed to me about Suzy was that it seemed like the ultimate coming-of-age story. Readers bond with Martin as he struggles with first love, fragile friendships and significant relationships and then see, basically, how he ended up. Is this sort of the ultimate (and most realistic) sort of coming-of-age story – one that does not stop with a moment of teen awareness but continues right through to adult nostalgia?

MM: I needed to find some way to write about my extreme excitement at the thought of Led Zeppelin coming to town, but I was too aware of how life went on afterwards to end it like that. So I wrote it from the viewpoint of an older person looking back, and that naturally took the story on after his coming of age moment. Possibly, if I’d been writing about some fictional characters, I’d have let them just end happily at the Led Zeppelin concert. I’m not against a happy ending, even if life isn’t really like that!

From my own point of view, it was interesting looking back in detail at the concert, and my life at the time. I got in touch with various school friends, asking what they remembered about the gig, and I learned a lot of details I’d forgotten. Also, to my amazement, I found a bootleg CD of the actual gig, which I bought from Japan. I was astonished that a recording of this concert in Glasgow in 1972 existed, and it was strange listening to the concert again, and thinking about being there, such a long time ago.

CR: So what sort of book do you prefer writing – the big sweeping epic with a dozen main characters and confrontations or the short chapters in a tightly focused story about one singular event in the narrator’s life?

MM: Short books. I said In Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me that I have a short attention span these days and it’s true. My attention span has been destroyed by cable TV and the internet, no doubt. I can offer no cogent explanation as to why I suddenly wrote something as long as Lonely Werewolf Girl. And, as I'm writing a sequel now, I’m doing it again. But I have vague plans for my next book after LWG 2, and that will almost certainly be short.

Cross posted at Chasing Ray.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Fine Art of Getting Under People's Skin

Right now, my bedroom is swamped with partly-read books.

It’s been going on for months: that shiny new cover looks so promising, love how the photographer sliced off the model’s head, very edgy.

Then I dig ten pages beneath the candy-colored photo--down into the ink and paper and flesh and blood of the story--and I’m bored. The book lands on the floor or the teetering stack on the dresser. I promise I’ll get back to it, but I won’t.

None of these abandoned books were bad. The characters are familiar. The author’s voice is soothing dulcet tones. Every major plot point is proceeded by the proper amount of foreshadowing. And if I ever did get to the end of one, I’m sure it would come to a satisfying conclusion. The evil queen would be banished or everybody would learn an important lesson about tolerance or both. True love would conquer all. There’d be just enough loose threads left for the sequel.

These books are worse than bad, they’re perfectly adequate. They’re tidy. They’re polite. They wouldn’t dream of talking over the reader’s head or asking questions they don’t have a ready answer for or making the reader feel uncomfortable or out of place. They’re perfectly adequate except that they have nothing to say and absolutely no reason to exist.

Heartbreakingly, a lot of the books laying on my floor are young adult titles. It shouldn’t be like this. Adolescence is not tidy. It’s not polite. It’s the decade when people ask the most questions, and pound their feet the loudest, demanding the answers. Maybe it’s because the YA market includes as many well-meaning grandmothers and librarians as actual young adults. Maybe we’ve gotten so desperate to get teenagers to read, we’ve stopped asking if any of it’s worth reading. But over and over good intentions gets mistaken for good art, and the horrible beige plague of adequacy spreads.

Finally, I couldn’t take anymore. After throwing one more pleasant, perfectly nice book against the wall, I put on my coat, drove down to Barnes & Noble, and picked up Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick.

Nobody would call Philip K. Dick an “adequate” author. Dick got his start writing for the science fiction pulps during the 50s and 60s, and his stories are filled with the whizz-bang fundamentals of that era, rocket ships, telepathy, the whole bit. His writing tends to be... I’ll be charitable and call it “sturdy.” A good adjective to use when describing a toolbox. Not so much when talking about prose. In fact, a lot of the stories devolve into a series of talking heads, discoursing on whatever idea Dick had bobbing around his head at the moment.

But oh, what beautiful, horrible, messy ideas they are. What does it mean to be human? How can we ever separate what’s really real from what the people in charge insist is real? And how sure are we that we even want to know the truth?

The whole of Dick’s work wobbles between modern day prophet and bat-shit crazy. It’s fun to try and pinpoint the exact paragraph where the amphetamines kicked in. But even at his drug-addled worst, Dick always has something interesting to say.

Halfway through the collection and late at night, I turned to “The Days of Perky Pat.”

At ten in the morning a terrific horn, familiar to him, hooted Sam Regan out of his sleep, and he cursed the careboy upstairs; he knew the racket was deliberate. The careboy, circling, wanted to be certain that flukers--and not merely wild animals--got a care parcels that were to be dropped.

The opening lines start something fizzing like a fuse in my brain. That word “flukers” is familiar from somewhere... Mother Teresa on Toast, I’ve read this story before.

Suddenly, I’m two people. I’m me now, laying in bed surrounded by lousy books. I’m also me at a chubby thirteen, on a camping trip with my family. To my mind, the entire outdoors can be roughly divided into things that can kill you and things that merely give you a rash, so I’m hiding in the minivan, safe from all that fresh air and sunlight. There’s nothing to read except a science fiction anthology my older brother brought along, so I flip around, mostly bored by the rocket ships and telepathy, really missing TV. Then I find a story about flukers--survivors of an apocalyptic war--who’ve become obsessed with a Barbie-like doll named Perky Pat.

Letting the world crumble around them, the survivors pull apart radios and computers to build Perky Pat garbage disposals and self-directed lawnmowers, lost in daydreams about how good life used to be.

By adulthood, I’d forgotten the author and title, but a few images were still lodged in my brain like shrapnel: The flukers living in their underground bomb shelters, the children going “upstairs” to hunt while their parents played games, and the simple idea that grown-ups spend a lot of energy and effort on stupid things. (A simple idea, but one that will get you surprisingly far in life.)

I carried those fragments around, and most of the time they didn’t hurt at all. Every once in while, though, they’d act up. Like, say, if there was a war on and the economy was in the toilet and people were actually worried about one of the candidates not wearing a flag pin or or how much money another one spent at Saks Fifth Avenue AND DID I MENTION THERE’S A DAMN WAR?

Then I’d start thinking about that strange story I’d read years back, written by a mad genius who knew the fine art of getting under people’s skin, a story that’s lingered in my memory for years while hundreds of perfectly adequate ones have vanished like fog.

Cross-posted on Kris' blog.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Notes on the Half Continent and Star Wars....

From the D.M. Cornish interview over at Finding Wonderland:

FW: The mythology of Rossamünd's world is intricately developed, particularly with respect to monsters and those who deal with them on a daily basis. Was this your starting point for the story—the idea of a world filled with monsters and monster-fighters? Or did it start with a character, like Rossamünd?

DMC: It began specifically with a city, actually, Brandenbrass, a more early 20th Century setting than the Half-Continent is currently; and with this a character called Icarus who (unsurprisingly) wore wings on his back and walked about this city of Brandenbrass in a state of poverty and perpetual confusion. Indeed, notebook 1 begins with a story some sour octogenarian is telling to the rather clueless Icarus, if I may indulge myself...

"There was this boy, you see," and he leant forward, "and he was stuck on an island with 'is dad. Couldn't get off – no boats and high walls all around, too tall to climb with spikes on top. But you see, he was sick of having nothing to do and only his old man there so he saw the birds--flying, that is--and said, 'I'll fly out too!' So he got some feathers and wax and made his own wings, and 'cause his dad bugged him so, a pair for him as well. And he flew out of there with his dad, but it doesn't end here. All was well, but this boy got proud and soon soared higher and higher still 'til he was right near the sun; too near! 'Cause the sun--the nasty evil sun--melted the wax out of spite and jealousy and the boy's wings broke and the boy fell into the sea and 'cause his idle olds hadn't taught him to swim he drowned dead."

So, in a way, it began with a soliloquy, though I had written role-playing rules (yes, I was into role-playing, I am that kind of nerdy) much of which now features--heavily modified--in the Half-Continent, and a few H.P. Lovecraft-ian bits of what these days would be called "fan fic." Deeper still, it all began with Star Wars at age 5, with The Lord of the Rings at age 12, Narnia, H.P. Lovecraft, Fighting Fantasy books, the illustrations of Ian Miller and Angus McBride and Rodney Matthews, the Iliad, Frankenstein, Dune, Steinbeck, building with Lego[TM] and inventing worlds and stories to go with the models, the dinosaur and ghost books I read as a child, that really really cool Galactic Aliens book in my primary school's library (looking out for it still)...and all those things that boiled and bubbled until Mervyn Peake's Titus Alone finally burst the lid.

See links and quotes from the all the Winter Blog Blast Tour interviews today, here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Winter Blog Blast Tour Day #1

The Winter Blog Blast Tour has started. Here are your links to the author interviews today:

Lewis Buzbee at Chasing Ray: "The other part of the question: because I was so formed, in some way, by Steinbeck, I have always had an urge to write about him, but non-fiction never felt the right venue for me. His letters are so good, there are several fine biographies, not to mention Benson’s brilliant epic biography, and I know that I am no biographer. When I first started writing this book, I thought it was all about the libraries, but for me it was all about Steinbeck, in the end, trying to pay tribute to the power of his words. That part of it kind of snuck up on me."

Louis Sachar at Fuse Number 8: "When Stanley first sees some of the other boys, their race is part of their initial description, but after digging all day, they were all the color of dirt."

Laurel Snyder at Miss Erin: "I think somehow "old fashioned" is easier for me, because I don't have to try to sound young and authentic. There's no temptation to be like, "Yo, wassup?" in a fairy tale. Nothing is worse than grownups doing bad impressions of teens. Gag."

Courtney Summers at Bildungsroman: "Maintaining an online presence takes a certain level of time and commitment, true, but I'm down with it . . . and yes, I'm totally guilty of using them as a means to procrastinate sometimes. But if it wasn't them, it'd be something else. Not to brag, but I'm a FANTASTIC procrastinator."

Elizabeth Wein at Finding Wonderland: "The symbolism of bells are wonderful, though—they ward off thunder and the devil, they warn of fire and flood and invasion. They're always female (a bell is a "she," not an "it") and they all have individual names. Some of them are also very old. I used to thrill to ring a certain bell in Magdalen College, Oxford, because it predated Columbus's discovery of America. Most musical instruments that old are in museums, not in public use."

Susan Kuklin at The YA YA YAs: "The bias probably comes from my choice of subject matter. I choose such issues as prejudice, human rights, pregnant teenagers, and so forth. These are subjects that concern me. On one hand, once the subject is chosen I try to not let my bias govern the content of the book. On the other hand, not all my books try to look at a subject from all points of view. For example, I didn’t give human rights violators a voice or, more recently, those who favor capital punishment. Perhaps that’s where my bias comes in overtly."

A President-Elect and a Writer

The President-Elect of the United States, Barack Obama, did not know much about his father. In fact, he spent very little personal time with his dad—just a brief encounter during a Christmas visit when the young Barack was in elementary school. Dreams from My Father is a sincere journey into a man’s thoughts about where he came from, the absent man who shaped his past, the people in his life who lifted him up, and the discovery of who he might be.

It’s important to stress that this is a candid book. Political books involving personal stories are usually very circumspect. The politician-author most often meanders around their biography, picking up heroic or patriotic details when convenient. It’s also rare to find a political memoir that is written by the subject. The politician usually finds a ghost writer or biographer. Obama is the rare exception. He uses highly skilled prose and deftly shapes a stirring narrative that takes the reader from Obama’s family history in Kansas, to the distant shores of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his college education in Los Angeles and New York City, his early work in Chicago, and eventually Kenya, the place of his father’s birth.

This book is very little about Obama’s politics or his destiny to become an elected Senator or President. Instead, the author wants to unravel the mystery of his identity. What does it mean to not know your father? Who am I supposed to be if I’m half black and half white? What do I believe is important or gives meaning to life? The fact that Obama felt unrooted led to aimless pursuits (including bad grades, reckless behavior and drug use). Though, it wasn’t as if he spent his time staring at the pounding Hawaiian surf pondering his history and the nature of man. He did feel loss or longing or wonder, but it took him many years, and many miles traveled, to grasp some sense of what was for so many years shapeless.

This is a powerful book, in part, because we know the outcome. A boy growing up without his father, raised on domestic and foreign lands, living a wandering but thoughtful life ends up finding purpose and reshapes history. It is also a sharp and clear analysis of a man coming to terms with a complicated history. Dreams from My Father is a fine memoir from an unlikely source (a politician) whose history is now a small part of our own American journey.

(Final note: This post is not a political endorsement. It is simply a suggestion to read a good book. If you’re at all interested in reading about John McCain, Faith of My Fathers is a fascinating book. The recent election may have been the best literary presidential race in history.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Calling all swashbuckler fans......

Midori Snyder did an excellent job at her site last week of summarizing the Captain Alatriste series by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Here's a bit of what she had to say:

It seems right on Veterans Day to review the swashbuckling and harrowing novels of the 17th century Spanish swordsman, veteran of the Thirty Years War, and sometime royal assassin, Captain Alatriste written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Pérez-Reverte deftly combines the heroic tale of a charismatic swordsman, a wry social history of a corrupt Spanish Empire, and a coming of age story for the novels' narrator, Iñgio Balboa, the orphaned son of a fallen soldier now apprentice to Alatriste as a page.

And what a figure Captain Alatriste cuts throughout these novels: tall and slim, wrapped in his cape, with a sword and long dagger at his side, his face shadowed by the broad brim of a felt hat, an aquiline nose, huge mustache, and blazing eyes. "He was not the most honest or pious of men, but he was courageous...It was one of Diego Alatriste's virtues that he could make friends in Hell," Iñgio tells us in the introduction. His title of Captain, more complimentary than official, was bestowed on him by the men who fought at his side one winter in Holland. His legendary skills with the sword have attracted the attention of the king, his scheming advisers, the Inquisition, and an Italian assassin with a score to settle.

Midori briefly reviewed each of the four books, starting with Captain Alatriste. If you've ever dreamed of taking wielding a rapier, these sound like must reads. (All Errol Flynn fans should clearly take special note.) (And if you're not a fan of Captain Blood then I pity you.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Not So Mad After All

Young Princess Alyss has been kidnapped from the safety of her home in Wonderland and, charged with finding her is her bodyguard, member of Wonderland's elite fighting men, Hatter M. It's a harrowing, bizarre and dangerous journey through strange lands like Paris and Prague. And it isn't just a matter of finding her. There are zombies, fez-wearing monkeys and the terrifying, child-kidnapping imagination vampires to contend with as well.

Based on the Looking Glass War series, which tells the "real" story behind the Alice and Wonderland that we know, Hatter M (by Beddor, Cavalier and Templesmith), features anything but a funny little teetotaler with a few screws loose. Zombies and imagination vampires? Not a problem. This guy has so many blades on his body, Wolverine would pale to think of it. He's got 'em in his sleeves, on his back, spinning, whirling, throwing, slashing. And that's not even counting his hat, which is to a Hatter as a samurai's katana is to him. A traditional weapon that seems almost alive at times is surely the coolest weapon on a comic page since Captain America's shield.

It's heavy-loaded with what comics do best: great action. And though it's nearly non-stop, there are some fascinating ideas slipped in, too, from the clever references to the original work to the dark and terrible secret at the center of Baroness Dvonna's Orphanage for Lost Girls.

Even if you're going to ignore the story completely (don't, please), get a look at Ben Templesmith's art. Perhaps you recognize it from 30 Days of Night? Full of impressionistic eeriness and blinding motion and highlighted by the most effective use of color in modern comics (and I'm not just talking about the strategic splashes of blood -- get a look at the rainbow-tinted speech balloons), this truly highlights the graphic element of the graphic novel.

Meanwhile, perhaps you already know that the day these words hit GuysLitWire, the new James Bond Movie Quantum Of Solace hits the screens. Don't know where you stand on the subject of Bond, but the last one (Casino Royale) was so great, seems to me like you really ought to check this one out. Meanwhile, should you think that all of Bond's off screen adventures took place in novel form, have a look at something like Polestar, which is merely the latest in the vast and ongoing series of Bond comic strip collections. Originally produced in the 1950's and 60's in England, the strips adapted pretty much all of Fleming's stories and then moved on to original material (which all four stories in Polestar are). Surprisingly tough and a little bit risque, all the Fleming adaptations are quite faithful (way more than most of the films) and the original stuff manages to keep the hard-hitting, suspenseful and clever spirit of the novels intact.
And, if you get a kick out of those, maybe you even want to get a look at James Bond: The Illustrated History of 007, which is a beautifully illustrated rundown of Bond's entire history in comic strips and comic books. What could it hurt?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Cautionary Tale

I have this dream. I want to take five or six months off from work, and do a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. So I have read a bunch of books by people who have done just that. I've read books about hiking techniques and equipment. And Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, which is pretty funny, although he did not accomplish a through-hike. The way it looks now, I may have to retire, and then hit the trail. But that's OK. Now I can read about fellow hikers out west: The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind - And Almost Found Myself - On the Pacific Crest Trail, by Dan White, for example, was good fun.

Dan White's writing is better than his outdoor skills, I think. I mean, after his partner, Allison, bought a fishing rod, he threw away food because he assumed they'd eat the fish she caught. She didn't catch any fish, partly because he had a schedule in mind that did not allow her enough time for that.

On another occasion, he dumped a bunch of drinking water, thinking it would save weight, as they were about to hike through some very dry terrain. Hours later, they were practically out of water. "'Did you know," Allison said... "that you can get water out of a prickly pear cactus?'... I laughed in triumph as I popped the cactus morsel into my mouth... I remember the pain, as hundreds of needles... plunged themselves...into my mouth, tongue, and gums... I spat out my spiny food, fell to the ground, and howled... 'You're supposed to remove the spines first, Dan!'"

Running out of food or water is not my idea of a good time. I don't think I would want to go backpacking with Mr. White. Allison ended up not completing the hike, because of a knee problem, he tells us (I would not have blamed her for making up such an excuse, for that matter.).

I wouldn't hike with him, but maybe I'll learn from his story. Hell, if this guy can hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I figure I can do the Appalachian Trail, no problem!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Dean Martin of Oklahoma

It's an odd, almost unsettling experience to finish reading a book, fire up the internet to see what sort of buzz the book has, and then discover that almost simultaneously the book was just named as a finalist for the National Book Award. That's exactly what happened a few weeks back, in one of those moments when you wonder if the universe is trying to tell you something important.

Cue eerie music for... The Spectacular Now.

Sutter Keely is a charmer. A senior without a care, he is an unrepentant alcoholic living in the now, willing to embrace the weird. The only problem is that his beautiful fat girlfriend Cassidy is getting tired of his shtick. He's late and constantly drinking Seagam's and 7-Up; he's fun but irresponsible; he's a good time at parties but he's selfish. When the last straw comes and Cassidy finally dumps him Sutter figures she'll eventually come back around to his wannabe Dean Martin swagger.

The problem is that Cassidy is looking down the road at life beyond high school and Sutter isn't there. And not just Cassidy, all of Sutter's friends seem intent on trying to figure out what comes next. After years of floating without a care Sutter doesn't see the big deal, or the need to plan beyond his current buzz. So when Cassidy shows how serious she is by picking up with a new boyfriend, Sutter redirects his energies toward hooking up his best friend Ricky with a girl of his own.

Wallowing drunk, he is found passed out on a lawn early one morning by Aimee, one of those withdrawn girls everyone walks all over. Taking her on as his own special project to help her grow a spine and realize her inner self, Sutter finds himself promising to take her to the prom, officially declaring her his girlfriend, and knowingly leads her on in an effort to build self esteem. But Aimee isn't like the other girls he's dated, willing to hang out with a party boy until it's no longer fun. Aimee has fallen in love -- deep, hard, and seriously -- and slowly begins to entangle Sutter into her plans and dreams, into their combined future together. She could be the girl Sutter has always needed, the one he never realized he'd always wanted, a girl who could change him for the better.

If Sutter doesn't first succeed in dragging her into his own dead-end spiral.

Will Sutter reform, confront his deadbeat father and clean up his drinking? Or will Aimee become his sloppy, drunken sidekick, the girl who abandons her dreams of college and NASA to stay by the side of the only guy that has ever bothered to give her the time of day?

Up until the final pages there's no way of knowing how this is going to turn out. Tharp does a nice job of having the characters remain true to themselves in such a way that every meeting is a quiet trial of wills. When Cassidy continues to get together with Sutter on Thursday afternoons after they break up -- and with the full knowledge of their new dating partners -- Cassidy makes no bones about the fact that she will probably always be drawn to Sutter's bad boy antics but cannot let him back into her life as anything more than a buddy. This suits Sutter just fine, but his unspoken longing for Cassidy seeps in and pushes him that much farther along. He's like a comet that gains velocity in her orbit, then spins wildly out into the universe seemingly with a lack of control, but he's always drawn back into her gravitational orbit when he reaches the outer limits with Aimee.

Tharp pulls a nifty trick in giving us the portrait of a charming young drunk well on his way toward becoming a pathetic one. But he doesn't judge -- Sutter's friends are more than willing to do that, and they do it with a large dose of tough love despite the apparent futility of their gestures. There were moments when I was almost afraid Tharp was romanticizing teen alcoholism in trying to present a realistic portrait, but Sutter's own aimlessness undermines anything remotely cool about being drunk. It plays as humor when Sutter goes to his sister's house for dinner and nearly sets himself on fire when he tries to secretly smoke a joint in her closet, but Sutter's empty apologies and quick judgments about his family members make the laughter ring hollow.

I wasn't as impressed with Tharp's last outing, The Knights of Hill Country, because there was something about it that felt stale. This time out Tharp returns to his Oklahoma soil with an approach that feels slightly on edge. Not edgy, but teetering at the brink of excess and charm -- much like its main character. It is unflinching in its handing of teen drinking, almost casual, but equally sober about what sort of dead end that leads to.

I don't think it's necessarily undeserving the National Book Award, but given the competition I'm having a hard time seeing this pull through as the winner. Then again, perhaps the universe was indeed trying to tell me something. We'll find out soon enough.

The Spectacular Now

by Tim Tharp
Knopf 2008

The Knights of Hill Country
by Tim Tharp
Knopf 2006

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Request For Recommendations

A Guys Lit Wire reader has emailed us looking for biography recommendations for her 14 year old nephew. He has an assignment (of course) to read a book of that nature and is particularly interested in WWII and/or the Roman Empire. (I'd like to meet this kid!) If any books come to mind, please let us know in the comments. (I keep thinking he needs to watch "The Great Escape" but that probably doesn't qualify.) (But man - was anyone cooler than Steve McQueen on that motorcycle?)

Here, Bullet

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, a day on which we honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces during times of war. Other parts of the world celebrate Armistice Day or Remembrance Day as well.

In keeping with the day, I thought I'd discuss a book by a veteran of the Iraq War named Brian Turner. Brian Turner earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Oregon prior to serving seven years in the U.S. Army. In 2003, he served a one-year tour of duty as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

With this collection, Turner joins the ranks of war poets who have shined a light on the atrocities and small mercies of war through the ages. Some of the best-known war poets were from World War I, and include Wilfred Owens (with poems such as "Dulce et Decorum Est", Rupert Brooke (including the fifth poem of a work entitled 1914, a poem called "The Soldier", which begins: "If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England."), and John McCrae of Canada, who wrote "In Flanders Fields". The poems in today's collection, Here, Bullet, continue the tradition of relating both the noble and base qualities of humankind during war, and are primarily the result of Turner's time in Iraq.

To give you an introduction to the power of Turner's work, here is the title poem:

Here, Bullet
by Brian Turner

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta's opened valves, that leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner was published in 2005. It has won several awards; reading some of the poems makes immediately clear why that is. Turner manages to talk about the war from a variety of viewpoints (no mean feat, I assure you). He talks about the landscape and history of Iraq, its people - those who were happy to see the U.S. forces and those who wanted them dead, and about the realities of war, from changes in perspective to bad dreams to injury and death. The poems include tremendous beauty as well as tremendous brutality (sometimes in the same poem), and enlarge the reader's perspective on Iraq, the Iraq war, and more.

Here's a poem entitled "Alhazen of Basra". A helpful note at the back of the book makes clear that the poem refers to Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, a polymath from the turn of the first millenium who made advances in the fields of physics, among others.

Alhazen of Basra
by Brian Turner

If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunset, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldn't ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the mind's great repository
of dream, and whether he's studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

Lest you think the poems are all introspective or contemplative in nature, or not particularly violent, I should alert you that there are poems such as "AB Negative (The Surgeon's Poem)" that describe in graphic terms the death of a single soldier, and "16 Iraqi Policemen" that describe the wholesale explosion of the men in the title, with lines such as these: "The shocking blood of the men/forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone/on a sidewalk, a blistered hand's gold ring/still shining . . . " The book includes other forms of graphic language as well, including the occasional swear word or sexual reference.

Reading this collection conveys an impression of Iraq and what it is to be involved in the war there in a way that news footage cannot do, for the news only has a few seconds of footage to bring you, usually with a voiceover, before the camera's eye turns to a reporter standing in the sun, in the sand, telling you what has happened. Sometimes the news tells us nothing at all of what is going on over there. But these poems pile up like verbal snapshots of moments and incidents and histories, in a way that is compelling and true. Whether they are, collectively, devastating or hopeful, is left to the reader. Whether the U.S. soldiers and their actions are always in the right is left to the reader. Turner turns his poet's camera on what he sees and feels and hears, and tells it true, even when the truth is ugly or hard.

I'll leave you with one more poem from Here, Bullet, and leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether this poem is ultimately hopeful, merely pragmatic, or something else entirely. The notes at the back of the book say that Halabjah is a city in Kurdish Northern Iraq. The Iraq military under Saddam Hussein attacked these Iraqis with chemical weapons. As many as 5,000 deaths have been attributed to a single attack on Halabjah.

by Brian Turner

The day before the Kurdish holiday
Hussein and Abid stir the muddy paste
with a shovel and their bare hands.

Because Hussein's arm is scarred
elbow to wrist from the long war with Iran,
he holds the trowel in his left hand, pushing

mud against a bullet-pocked wall, the cement
an appeasement which Hussein pauses over,
waiting out his hand's familiar tremor,

then burying the lead, its signatures
like dirt-filled sockets of bone
which he smoothes over and over.

Here, Bullet is recommended reading for those interested in war and/or military history, those interested in contemporary events including the Iraq War, and those who are interested in war poetry.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What kind of books do teen boys really want?

13-year-old Max Leone gives us his opinion in Publishers Weekly, arguing that "[t]he reason we read so little in our free time is partially because of the literary choices available to teenagers these days."

So what kind of books does Max think should be published?

All his points are worth a read (seriously, this is one entertaining guy), but my favorite is this:
Vampires, simply put, are awesome. However, today's vampire stories are 100 pages of florid descriptions of romance and 100 pages of various people being emo. However much I mock the literature of yesteryear, it definitely had it right when it came to vampires. The vampire was always depicted as a menacing badass. That is the kind of book teenage boys want to read. Also good: books with videogame-style plots involving zombie attacks, alien attacks, robot attacks or any excuse to shoot something.

The Saints of Augustine

Sam and Charlie’s lives are both spiraling out of control, but they aren’t aware that the other is in trouble. Sam and Charlie used to be best friends, but about a year ago, Sam abruptly ended their friendship, and they haven’t talked since. In that year, Charlie has lost his mother to cancer, and worries about losing his father to drunken oblivion. He escapes by working hard to save up for a car and by smoking more and more pot, which his dealer says he now owes him $500 for. Charlie’s girlfriend is increasingly frustrated with his smoking and the erratic behavior it causes. Sam’s family is also breaking apart—his mother and father are divorced, his father is now living with a man, and his mother has taken up with a homophobic jerk named Teddy. And Sam thinks that he might be gay. Charlie and Sam could each use their best friend about now, but they’re both increasingly isolated from everyone around them. As everything is falling apart for both of them, they meet up by chance and learn that the power of friendship isn’t in making all the bad things go away, its in making each other feel like they’re not alone.

P.E. Ryan's The Saints of Augustine is told in alternating chapters from both Sam and Charlie’s points of view. The scope of each of their situations is slowly revealed, and you’ll want to keep reading just to find out how things turn out for them. It may seem that both Sam and Charlie have too many problems, piled one upon the other, but we’ve all had times in our lives when it seems like one bad thing just leads to another, with seemingly no end in sight. Even their romantic relationships—Charlie’s girlfriend wants him to choose between her and smoking pot, and Sam has been spending time with a new guy named Justin, but isn’t sure whether to call their outings dates—provide more frustration and confusion than comfort. There are no easy answers to their issues, which makes this book feel more realistic and a good portrait of friendship between guys. It was easy for Sam and Charlie to be friends before, but getting back to a place where they trust each other takes some none too easy admissions from both of them. Charlie needs to know the reason why Sam ended their friendship so quickly in order to forgive him, and he needs to tell Sam what it was like to lose his mother and not have anyone to talk to about it. Sam had his first hints of his sexuality in his attractions to Charlie. He knows Charlie is straight, and is over the attraction now, but will admitting this ruin their fragile new alliance as soon as its forged? “Honesty is the best policy” may seem like a cliché, but this novel shows that it is also the only path to true friendship.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second -- Drew Ferguson

Upon being asked about what I was reading by a couple of guys my age:
Me: Oh, it's called The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second. I'm about half-way through. Not much has happened yet, except that Charlie just got his first boyfriend. Other
than that, there's been a masturbation scene on, like, every other page.

Guy 1 and Guy 2 look at each other.

Guy 1: How old is this kid?

Me: He's a senior in high school.

Guy 1 and Guy 2 look at each other again.

Both guys, in unison: Yep, sounds about right.

Charles James Stewart, II -- Charles the Second, not Charles, Jr., even though his father bears the same name -- is known as Charlie to his friends, as Chip at his running-for-state-attorney father's press conferences, and as Smart-Ass at home. He's never particularly fit in at school, drives his parents crazy (the feeling is mutual), lusts after his unfortunately straight best friend Bink (and Bink's brothers, for that matter), has failed his driver's test six times, can't seem to get his college essays written, and has never had a boyfriend.

That last part is about to change.

The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second is not an action-packed book. It's about a guy in high school. There are no car chases,government conspiracies or evil geniuses. He is not a vampire. So if that's what you're looking for, you'll probably want to look elsewhere. But if reading about a Midwestern, Lutheran, gay Adrian Mole sounds attractive, you're in for a treat.

It had a fantastic opening paragraph:

Okay, so maybe getting my scrawny ass pushed into the back of a Crystal Lake cop car wasn't the smartest thing I've done, but Dana's party last night--it sucked. She should thank me. The only thing anyone'll remember about the party is me being busted.

but it still did take me a little while for me to get into the book. Once Charlie won me over, though, once I was invested, I didn't put the book down -- I just sat where I was and read the whole thing in one go.

Charlie's smart and sarcastic and frustrated and funny, but some people might find his voice off-putting -- his descriptions of sex (whether, to use his term, "making knuckle babies" or with a partner) are pretty graphic and his descriptions of other people, while vivid and probably apt, can be somewhat cruel. I, personally, really enjoyed him.

The sometimes prickliness of his voice helped to make him more real for me, and by the end of the book, I felt more like I'd read a memoir than a novel. Charlie felt that real to me. And, of course, it helped that the dialogue was very well done, that I loved the secondary characters -- especially Bink and his family -- and that the situations Charlie would find himself in (sometimes through his own doings, sometimes not so much) always seemed within the realm of everyday life.

By the end of the book, I had to physically restrain myself from cheering for Charlie. (I was in public.)

--Crossposted at Bookshelves of Doom--

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Book Review- Soulless by Christopher Golden

Soulless by Christopher Golden
From the back cover:

"Times Square, New York City: The first ever mass séance is broadcasting live on the Sunrise morning show. If it works, the spirits of the departed on the other side will have a brief window -- just a few minutes -- to send a final message to their grieving loved ones. Clasping hands in an impenetrable grip, three mediums call to their spirit guides as the audience looks on in breathless anticipation. The mediums slump over, slackjawed -- catatonic. And in cemeteries surrounding Manhattan, fragments of old corpses dig themselves out of the ground....

The spirits have returned. The dead are walking. They will seek out those who loved them in life, those they left behind...but they are savage and they are hungry. They are no longer your mother or father, your brother or sister, your best friend or lover. They are soulless. The horror spreads quickly, droves of the ravenous dead seeking out the living -- shredding flesh from bone, feeding. But a disparate group of unlikely heroes -- two headstrong college rivals, a troubled gang member, a teenage pop star and her bodyguard -- is making its way to the center of the nightmare, fighting to protect their loved ones, fighting for their lives, and fighting to end the madness."

As you may or may not remember, I posted a review of Golden's other new YA book Poison Ink last month, and wasn't completely enthralled with it. Reading this book COMPLETELY changed my opinion of Golden and his writing. This book gripped me from the first page, and kept me reading. I found it difficult to put the book down. It's much more gory than Poison Ink since zombies are involved. It's a fast-paced book, which I thought Poison Ink lacked, and events happen right away in this story, compelling the reader along. I also loved the variety of characters that Golden talks about- he does a great job fleshing all of them out and giving them unique personalities, and all of them come from different walks of life, yet they band together to end this horror because they have a common goal. The ending is unexpected and a fitting way to conclude this horrific story. This is a fantastic novel, and one that will not leave you once you finish and close the book.

Oh, and be sure to read this with the lights on. And during the day. Otherwise, you'll be up all night.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Apocalypse 2012 by Lawrence Joseph

Change has been on everyone's lips recently. Americans voted for it yesterday. Unfortunately not all change is for the better. In Apocalypse 2012 Lawrence Joseph writes about a number of disasters that might befall the earth, changing (or wiping out) life as we know it. Asteroid strikes, super-volcanoes, and maganetic polar shifts are just the beginning.

Mayan astonomers predicted a great change would occur on December 21, 2012, a date which marked the end of a 20,000 year era and signified the beginning of a new one. Some have interpreted that as the end of the world, others a shift in consciousness among the people of the Earth. Lawrence Joseph was going through a divorce and so he wrote a book leaning towards a bleaker outlook.

Apocalypse 2012 is not a fantastic book, but it is a fascinating one, if a bit depressing. Joseph talks about the Mayan culture and investigates they way they thought about history as well as chronicling the doom of the human species via catastrophe. Some might argue that 2012 might usher in an age of peace and understanding, a shift to a higher consciousness, or the Rapture. Joseph doesn't argue against any of those things, simply states the case that the Earth is overdue for violent and drastic change, and does so in a pretty interesting way.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Enjoy being a male, a human male anyway

It's election day and I expect we're all tired of politics. So instead let's talk about sex.

If you're a young man--the intended audience of this site--it's possible that you've been thinking so much about sex that you've barely noticed an election was going on anyway. Having once been a young man (I'm still a man) I know how it is. It's enough to drive you mad. There's the sex drive, combined with a debilitating fear of potential mates, combined with feelings of inadequacy around other males . . . well, that was me anyway.

If you've got problems like this you could call into a sex talk show on the radio like Dr. Drew's Lovelines, or you could read Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice for all Creation. If you take the latter route, you may not get actual advice for resolving your sexual concerns; Dr. Tatiana, after all, doesn't specialize in human sexuality and in fact mentions humans only in passing. But by reading the advice she offers to creatures as diverse as fruitflies, sponge lice, honey bees, fig wasps, lions and chimpanzees you'll definitely get a different perspecitive on sexuality and its place in the world.

Dr. Tatiana is the alter ego of evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson. In Dr. Tatania's Sex Advice for All Creation she responds in advice columnist form to the sexual concerns of animals of all sorts. Here's an example of a letter she might receive:

Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I'm a queen bee, and I'm worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?
  Perplexed in Cloverhill


Dear Dr. Tatiana,
I'm a yellow dung fly and I've heard rumors that in my species sperm are actually chosen by the egg. Is this true, and if so, what can I do to make my sperm more attractive?
  The Dandy on the Cowpat

Reading these accounts, and the good Doctor's responses, can be, for a human, a strangely comforting experience.

If, for instance, you've learned that your girlfriend is cheating on you, Dr. Tatiana will help you understand that in the animal kingdom you have plenty of company. Early in the book, Dr. Tatiana dispels completely the notion that philandering a primarily a male activity. In nature, it turns out, it's quite the reverse. There are any number of reasons for females to seek multiple mates. They might, for instance, be looking for genetic variety, or may want to encourage competition between sperm or may want simply to make all the males in their community suspect that some of their children might be theirs which helps limit infanticide (nice, eh?). It turns out, according to Dr. Tatiania, that promiscuity among females makes a species more robust.

What Dr. Tatiana (or Olivia Judson through her) does so well, though, is not just present and describe the sexually odd and unusual, but describes how such varied sexual practices have evolved via the competition between individuals to pass on ones genes. Male members of species with promiscuous females, for instance, quickly evolve ways to limit promiscuity since every other male a female mates which reduces each individual male's chances of passing on his genes. Thus, after copulating the stick bug male coplulates with the female for over six weeks, preventing rivals from getting to her; the house mouse actually seals off the female's reproductive tract with an impenetrable plug after he deposits his sperm, creating a sort of chastity belt; even bolder the the spiny headed worm Moniliformis dubius can not only seal off the female's reproductive tract with a kind of cement but can even use its cement to seal off rivals' penises. This is not the worst thing to happen to a male in this evolutionary battle. Some species of bees actually explode after mating with the queen, leaving only their penises behind to block the way for rivals. A particular species of slug, Dr. Tatiana mischeivously reports, often gnaws off its own penis after sex to acheive something of the same end. The fruit fly Drosophila bifurca grows a sperm with a tail twenty times its own length. No one knows exactly why, but it may be to knock rival sperm out of the way.

See, fellow human males? See how much worse it could be?

There seems to be no end to what males in nature will do for a chance to mate. The natural world is a veritable treasure trove of highly inventive and often downright dirty tricks. Dr. Tatiana tells the tale of the sponge louse, whose males come in three varietys. The alpha males, as their name implies, are big muscular brutes who preside over complete harems. The harems, however, are infiltrated with beta males, a smaller version which looks just like a female and, posing as a member of the harem, has its way with the females behind the alpha males back. It gets weirder. There are also gamma males, who are even smaller and disguise themselves as the alpha male's offspring, also in order to sneak a few special moments with the females.

And you thought the dating game in high school was bad.

It goes on and on. Offering helpful advice to insects, arachnids, a variety of bacteria, numerous mollusks and jellyfish, and the full range of vertebrates, Dr. Tatiana cheerfully exposes the weirdest sex tales in all of creation.

And then she asks the most frightening question of all: "Are Men Necessary?" I bet you can guess the answer.

Calm down. For now, at least, human men are most definitely necessary. Enjoy being one.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Last week, I asked author Helen Hemphill how she felt about writing for guys and writing from a male perspective. This weekend, I posed some of the same questions to author Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, whose newest novel for kids, The Floating Circus, involves an injured orphan boy, a freed slave, an elephant, and a circus boat.

Do you approach your stories differently depending on the gender of your protagonist?

I'd like to say no, but when I wrote The Floating Circus I really concentrated on what my 12 year-old son, Cole, would like to read and I know that influenced my choices to make it feel more adventure-novel than historical.

Do you feel comfortable writing in a male voice? What are the challenges you face when writing in a male voice - and/or writing for boys?

As a writer, I get to access that part of myself which is more masculine, and that's lucky because in society we don't allow ourselves much wiggle room in this arena without serious social repercussions. I will tell you that the cadence, word choice and rhythm of Solomon's words is based off the way my dad speaks. I hear his voice whenever I read Solomon's words.

Your first and second novels (Reaching for Sun, 42 Miles) were narrated by girls, your third (The Floating Circus) by a boy. Do you feel as though there are 'girl books' and 'boy books?' Do you, like me, try to get those gender-based divisions out of the minds of readers?

I think girls have the advantage here because they don't feel self-conscious about reading whatever books they want. Anything I can do as a teacher to expand wider appeal, I try to do. I'm always pushing books on kids no matter their gender!

The Floating Circus is your first prose novel, as the two which preceded it were verse novels. Was Circus ever planned to be poetry? Did it feel strange (for lack of a better word) to write in prose?

After many years, I had developed a certain confidence in writing free verse poetry and I was uncertain whether I could reach this milestone in prose. Cheerleading from my writing partner, Julia Durango and my editor, Melanie Cecka, really helped when my insecurities had a carnival inside my head.

The title of The Floating Circus changed at least once, didn't it? Did the storyline or ending ever change?

It was originally titled The River Palace but we thought the word "palace" might not appeal to boys (see, that gender issue again) and Shannon Hale's River Secrets was on the same list. That was one too many rivers!

The appearance of Little Bet was as big a surprise to me as it is to Owen. When I revised the story I weaved Little Bet more completely into earlier scenes. This was one of those magical moments that kept me chained to my laptop!

Were they transported into present-day, what do you think Owen or Solomon would make of our contemporary world?

I think Owen would be enthralled with all the technology (and probably love YouTube like my own son) in the same way he was astonished by the Palace’s technology of that time. Solomon, I hope, would meet only people who deserved to know him.

Do you prefer to write in first-person or third-person? Is that decision influenced by the gender of your protagonist?

I really struggle with point-of-view in my books. I like how immediate first-person feels (though this is one issue that has nothing to do with gender) but I think it is confining. Third person has that wonderful storyteller’s distance but can sometimes make the reader feel removed from the main character.

When your kids were little, what were their favorite books?

Abbie LOVED anything by Lisa Wheeler. Here is a link to her 'reading' her favorite one at four. Cole loved classic children's lit stories like Corduroy, Goodnight Moon, and Harry the Dirty Dog.

What do they like to read now?

Now Abbie likes, and I quote here, "pretty much anything by Cynthia Rylant." Cole may be Margaret Peterson Haddix's biggest fan.


The Floating Circus is now available in stores and libraries everywhere.

Read my 2007 interview with Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.

Visit the author's website.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why Vote?

(This is from the 57th section of Carl Sandburg's "The People, Yes.")

He was a mystery in smoke and flags
saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
yes to the hopes of government
of the people by the people for the people,
no to debauchery of the public mind,
no to personal malice nursed and fed,
yes to the Constitution when a help,
no to the Constitution when a hindrance,
yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
each man fated to answer for himself:
Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
must I choose for my own sustaining light
to bring me beyond the present wilderness?

Lincoln? was he a poet?
and did he write verses?
"I have not willingly planted a thorn
in any man's bosom."
"I shall do nothing through malice; what
I deal with is too vast for malice."

Death was in the air.
So was birth.
What was dying few could say.
What was being born none could know.

He took the wheel in a lashing roaring
And by what compass did he steer the course
of the ship?
"My policy is to have no policy," he said in
the early months,
And three years later, "I have been controlled by events."

See you at the polls!