Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Notable Boy-Friendly Books Read in 2009

The Map of Moments by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

At the end of the week, when one year ends and another begins, I will post my Best Books of 2009 list at Bildungsroman, my book blog. I have a sneak-peek version available at Amazon: Best Books of 2009 (So Far) - but, as I've read over 300 books this year, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Today, for GuysLitWire, I thought I'd post a list of some good books I read this year which were written by men and/or feature male protagonists. These are all works of fiction, though some are inspired by true events. (Hurrah for historical fiction!) I've included graphic novels and novels with artwork, dramas and comedies, sequels and series, first-person narratives and ensemble pieces. The titles are in the order in which they were read, so a title's placement is not indicative of anything other than when I read it. No rankings here -- just recommendations.

* This is What I Want to Tell You by Heather Duffy Stone
* The Waking: Dreams of the Dead by Thomas Randall
* The Map of Moments: A Novel of the Hidden Cities by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon (Note: This is adult fiction, not YA, and thus shelved in the sci-fi/fantasy section of bookstores and libraries.)
* Dancing on the Head of a Pin by Thomas E. Sniegoski (the follow-up to A Kiss Before the Apocalypse)
* So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) by Micol Ostow with art by David Ostow
* Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles Into Comics by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost
* Legacy by Tom Sniegoski
* Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles
* The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan
* Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan
* Bug Boy by Eric Luper
* After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick (coming out in February 2010, this is the follow-up to Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie)
* Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes

I'm throwing in four bonus titles - two picture books and two non-fiction titles - which may not be typical GLW fodder but are completely worth your time:

* Peg Leg Peke by Brie Spangler, a sweet picture book about a dog whose injury is overshadowed by his wonderful imagination and upbeat attitude;
* Hug Time by Patrick McDonnell, another adorable Mutts book about a happy-go-lucky dog named Earl
* Guardians of Being, with powerful words by Eckhart Tolle and lovely art by Patrick McDonnell
* The Complete Professional Audition: A Commonsense Guide To Auditioning For Musicals and Plays by Darren R. Cohen with Michael Perilstein (and a foreword by Jason Robert Brown), one of the best resources I've ever read on the subject. I highly recommend it to any and all of my fellow stage actors.

Break a leg, GuysLitWire folks, and crack open a good book!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Gone by Michael Grant

Gone, the first novel in a planned six book series by Michael Grant, starts off with a bang. Or, to be more accurate, without a bang, a flash of light, or an explosion. But, wow, is it an exciting start to a series.

Sam Temple is in history class when his teacher suddenly disappears. As in, was there one moment, and the next he was gone. Sam and his classmates soon realize that EVERYONE over the age of 14 disappeared from the town of Perdido Beach, California.

While the other kids in town quickly look to Sam for leadership, Sam just wants to find a way to escape and find out what really happened, worried about his recently discovered ability to create light from his hands. Into this leadership void step the Perdido Beach School bullies and, eventually, a small group of students from Coates Academy, a boarding school for wealthy troublemakers, who have an agenda of their own. Led by the charismatic Caine Soren, they quickly move to consolidate power, enforcing order and creating new rules. Caine immediately realizes Sam is their biggest obstacle, both because of how the Perdido Beach kids look to him and because the strength of Sam’s superpowers may rival Caine’s own. And if the Coates kids need to eliminate Sam to retain power, well, they don't see anything wrong with trying to do just that.

Even at 558 pages, Gone is a very fast read. Despite its length, though, there isn’t much character development, something that didn't actually bother me since it’s plenty entertaining on plot alone and this is the first book in a series, setting things up for future books. Grant manages to sustain the fast pace by combining multiple sources of suspense—why did the adults disappear? What do the hours and minutes running down before each chapter mean? Will they have enough resources to survive? What caused all the superpowers and mutations? Will there be a Coates Academy vs. Perdido Beach showdown? and more—in such a way that enhances the momentum of the story instead of bogging it down. He doesn't let up on the tension, and the fast pace of the story will have many readers racing through the pages, eager to find out what will happen next.

Once you've read Gone, you'll want to pick up the second book in the series, Hunger, which was published this past May. You will, however, have to wait until May 2010 for book three, Lies.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Let's hear it for the Second Line

Poppy Z. Brite had a collection of two novellas come out from Small Beer Press in October that are both excellent. Second Line includes both The Value of X and D*U*C*K. The Value of X should be particularly noteworthy for teens, as it is the coming out and coming-of-age stories of two of Brite's long time characters, future chefs (and restaurant owners) Rickey and G-Man. Here's a bit on the collection from Small Beer:

These two short novels bookend Poppy Z. Brite’s cheerfully chaotic series starring two chefs in New Orleans. The Value of X introduces G-man and Rickey, who grew up in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and who are slowly realizing there are only two important things in life: cooking and each other. Rickey’s parents aren’t quite so taken with the boy’s plans and get him an impossible-to-resist place at the Culinary Institute of America.

In D*U*C*K, Rickey and G-man’s restaurant, Liquor, is doing well but there are the usual complications of running a kitchen: egos get bruised, people get fired . . . and then Rickey is jumped in an alley by one of their ex-waiters.

On the mend, Rickey takes a side job to cater the annual Ducks Unlimited banquet, where every course must, of course, include the ducks the hunters have bagged. Rickey’s crew are ready to meet the challenge, but Rickey’s not sure he can do it all and deal with the guest of honor—his childhood hero, former New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert.

Originally published in limited hardcover editions by Subterranean Press, these two novels are full of the pure joy of love, hard work, and great food and are a tremendous extension (or introduction) to Brite’s series.

Brite's books and stories about New Orleans are some of my all time favorite comfort reading and fans of southern writing and food should not let this collection pass them by. Great stuff, for sure.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I KILL GIANTS by Joe Kelly + JM Ken Nimura

You go to school and announce to your fifth grade class that you kill giants. Really. You kill giants. What do they say?

You are crazy. A nutcase. A freak.

Barbara Thorson is a skinny kid with bunny ears and a heart-shaped purse holding her magic hammer named Coveleski. With that hammer she kills giants. And she is angry, so she may be the worst (or perhaps the best) kind of giant-killer: an angry giant-killer. So, you would do yourself a favor and not get Barbara pissed. But giants can do exactly that to all of us. We never really know when our own giant will rear its ugly head. So, wouldn’t we all be lucky to have our own magic hammer?

I Kill Giants started life as a short series of comic books, and now, wonderfully for all of us, it’s available as a single graphic novel. It’s tough to review this book without giving away key elements to the plot, but I’ll dance around those and give you just a taste of the story. First and foremost, don’t assume too much from the title. Barbara may slay giants, but the world is filled with so many different kinds of towering beasts.

Tormented at school, without a friend, and struggling through her own private turmoil, Barbara’s life is a bowl overfilled with grief and fury. But no matter the words people say or the cruelty they inflict, Barbara refuses to back down. After all, she can confront those enraged giants and eliminate them with the mighty Coveleski hammer.

Two people become important to her. Sophia, a new girl in town, is the friend she desperately needs. Mrs. Molle, the school social worker, refuses to give up on Barbara – even after the girl lands a vicious slap across her face. There is a beautiful scene I just loved. Barbara learns that Mrs. Molle did not tell the principal about the slap. They sit together and Mrs. Molle says, “Tell me about giants.” So they talk about giants. Barbara tells Mrs. Molle about the magic hammer, and she asks to see it. Barbara says no. “Because I like you… I don’t want you to hurt yourself. When Coveleski speaks, the world cries.”

The black and white artwork is splendid. Messy. Intense. Angry. It perfectly captures life inside Barbara’s brain. We see the world through Barbara’s eyes – not just what she sees, but how she sees it. I Kill Giants is a perfect example of the power of graphic novels to not just tell stories, but to tell different kinds of stories. The images are as vital to the story as the words. And don’t let anyone tell you graphic novels can’t be about important ideas. Read I Kill Giants and you will find plenty of ideas. Filled with humanity and emotion and grace, this story will resonate with all of us as we move through life confronting our giants.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

You will listen... Candor

Prepare your brain.

*Incoming message transmitted.*

You must read Candor. This book is different. This book has a clever boy. Too clever if he thinks he has a chance against a town's (his father's!) subliminal messages.
So I think I have discovered my favorite read of 2009. Candor by Pam Bachorz.

We all love stories about boys who fight against the system. After all, when we're on the sofa or at the beach reading, we're basically just loafing about, so if we can live vicariously through a hero facing incredible odds, we're cheering on the inside as we flip the page.

Oscar Banks is my new hero. He's the worm in the pretty apple that is Candor, a town that is seemingly perfect. Too perfect. No crime, no violence, everyone listens. That's because Oscar's own father has invented a system of messages that the brain picks up. Yep, good ol' brainwashing. At school the kids are told not to be late to class, not to cheat, not to disobey. At home, the kids hear (without ever being aware of it) to eat their veggies, do their homework, make their beds.

Oscar's aware of what is going on and fights every day to keep control. If he fails, he'll slowly become one of the grinning good boys. If his father ever finds out he resists, he'll be hauled off to the Listening Room for a complete mental wipe.

In other words, the stakes are dire.

Why does he stay? Well, he's a bit mercenary and been running an underground freedom train for rich kids who want out (parents pay a million dollars to buy a house in Candor).

Things start to go awry when Nia moves into town. She's rebellious when she arrives and Oscar's attraction is sudden and fierce. Which leaves him in a dilemma: if he helps her out of town, he probably won't ever see her again; but if she stays, she'll become a drone and what he likes in her will be destroyed. What's a schemer to do?

Complications like a dreadful rich kid client who is jealous of the attention Oscar's giving Nia as opposed to helping him escape Candor, Oscar's old girlfriend, and dealing with the family dysfunction that drove the father to create a "perfect environment safe from harm" mean that the book has plenty of moments where you'll go damn. In a good way.

I love so much the many subliminal messages. For instance:

Saturday night is family night. Save your weekends for family time. Make your family a priority.

Always be courteous.

Respectful space in every place.

The great are never late.

Kinda chilling in a numb, whitebread way, right?

This is Bachorz's debut novel. I'm impressed. I'm envious. I didn't want to stop reading. Oh, and what an ending... but I can't tell you that. I want to, I so do. But something is keeping me. Like a whisper at the back of my mind...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Candor by Pam Bachorz

Librarians love lists. They especially love making lists of books. More than anything though, they love lists of "if you like book A, then you will also like books B, C and D." Candor by Pam Barchorz will soon be on numerous read-alikes lists for Lois Lowry's The Giver.

While Candor will never be the classic must-read that The Giver is, it fits in a lot of the same themes. Oscar Banks is the most popular kid in Candor, Florida. Oscar's father built Candor, a town where parents bring their troubled families to live their ideal life. What the town's children don't know is that they are being manipulated and re-programmed by messages piped into the city through music. The only way to leave Candor is through Oscar, who knows how to neutralize the messages and sneak other teens out of town. Oscar has carefully crafted his life in Candor to please his father and provide a cover for undermining his father's "perfect" creation. Eventually he meets Nia, an amazing girl who he wants to save from Candor, but he is not sure he can accomplish that without exposing what he is doing.

Candor is a smart and occasionally creepy Sci-fi novel about individuality and the problems in any modern society. This is a very solid debut by Bachorz, though readers will need to suspend some belief in order to keep up with a couple of the book's unrealistic premises.

Candor is for fans of The Giver and The Sky Inside by Clare B. Dunkle.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Maze Runner

James Dashner's The Maze Runner is about as action-packed as a book can be. If you are at all inclined to start reading a book at bedtime and then just keep on reading because it is way too exciting to stop, then make sure you don't have to set your alarm when you settle into bed with this book. It has "all-nighter" written all over it (also because it's seriously freaky. You won't be doing any sleeping after you meet Dashner's "Grievers." Trust me).

The Maze Runner is the first book in a trilogy, with book two, The Scorch Trials to be released in fall 2010. Maze Runner begins when a boy wakes up in a lift, with his memory almost entirely gone. All he knows is his name. This boy, Thomas, can't remember anything of his former life beyond the vaguest traces that seem to hover at the very edge of his consciousness. His new home is a vast open area enclosed by high stone walls, called the Glade, where other boys like him have found themselves likewise stranded with no answers about their past lives or present situation. Every thirty days another boy is brought to the Glade in the lift, deposited there like all the others before him. Beyond the stone walls of the Glade is a maze. During the day, the stone walls open up for the boys to access the maze. At night, the walls seal up again which is just as well, because fearsome creatures called Grievers crawl through the maze at night, hunting anyone who remains inside. The Gladers believe that solving the maze is the only way they will be able to find their way home again so they assign some boys to become Maze Runners. These boys run the Maze everyday trying to map its shifting patterns. When Thomas arrives, everything starts to change. Escape and survival seem more distant than ever.

Here's the snazzy book trailer:

Pretty scary stuff. The book conveys all of that menace and "you-can't-see-what's-out-there-in-the-darkness" tension. Over and over again as I was reading I was impressed at the tight pacing in the novel. Dashner sure knows how to end a chapter so perfectly that you simply have to turn the page to see what happens next. Closing the book seems impossible. The characters are well differentiated, with a dynamic that is a believably complex mix of camaraderie and ruthlessness. The Grievers have got to be the creepiest monsters I've come across in a really long time. Since you are as clueless about the true nature of the Glade and the Maze as the boys, it makes for a disorienting reading experience - thought not in a bad way. By keeping you in the dark, always guessing and wondering, Dashner jacks up the tension and helps you to sympathize all the more with the characters' feelings of futility and powerlessness.

There is a website devoted to the book, where you can read the latest news, see what others are saying about it, and even play a game where you "map the maze" and avoid getting squished and stung by the Grievers. It's fun/terrifying - a lot like the book itself. The Maze Runner is an ideal choice for someone who is a fan of The Hunger Games. Like that bestseller, this is a survival story, with intrigue and nonstop action. This is a downright frightening read, backed up with strong themes exploring justice, freedom, ingenuity and hope.

The Maze Runner
is published by Delacorte Press.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A preview of what we'll be doing next year

Following in the success of our wish list for the boys in the LA County jails, Guys Lit Wire will be building and hosting wishlists for two tribal schools. Here's hoping our readers are as generous this time as they were last year. Stay tuned for more info in early 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Onward to victory!

What lad doesn't dream of joining the British Colonial Expeditionary Forces?

There's simply no life for a man like exploring the solar system, trusty aetheric oscillator (or "ray gun" in the youngsters' parlance) is hand, bringing peace and proper table manners to the jibber-jabbering natives of the moon, Venus, and beyond. (And must I even mention that the uniforms are bang-and-crackers with the ladies?) Why, maybe he'll even meet every boy's hero, Lord Cockswain, that famed naturalist who's responsible for discovering and blasting away more unknown species than anyone else.

But even before he's ready to sign up, a young man can still learn about the solar system and his place in charge of it with Dr. Grordbort Presents: Victory.

This almanac, illustrated by Greg Broadmore, is full up to its snodgers with thrilling scientific niblets. Pursue the handy guide for spotting the early warning signs of a robot uprising. Wonder at the bestiary of Venusian wildlife (including information on which of the majestic creatures make the best pair of boots.) There's even compartmentalized picture essays--some common types refer to them as "comics"--about Lord Cockswain and his many triumphs over the possibly dangerous and certainly gross-looking Moon Men.

Victory is printed specifically for our young men and literate ladies by the good people at Doctor Grordbort's Infallible Aetheric Oscillators, Inc. This of course puts one in mind of that other paper-and-ink treasure of childhood, Doctor Grordbort's Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory. I can't tell you how many rainy days me and my little compatriots spent pouring over the directory, marveling at the wonders our gadget-tastic age had to offer. Need a portable massmotron? An Automaitre D' robo-servant? Or maybe a Victorious Mongoose concealable ray pistol? Doctor Grordbort has every necessary item for home or moonbase.

Like Victory, this year's directory was fully illustrated by Greg Broadmore, and includes helpful information about each quality item. For instance, did you know the Goliathon infinity beam projector can dissolve 7/9ths of an African Elephant in ten Earth seconds? Put a rush on my order, Doctor Grordbort!

Ours is a vast and miraculous solar system, filled with sights mankind has yet to even dream of. But don't worry. With luck, pluck, and the good Doctor Grordbort on our side, we'll crush all that tosh under our collective boot as we march ONWARD TO VICTORY!

Cross-posted on Kristopher's blog.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Destroy All Cars

James Hoff thinks there needs to be big change in the world. Not just using reusable shopping bags or building bike paths. To save the environment, he thinks that cars just need to go. All of them. Preferably now. Of course, life isn’t that simple for James or for anyone. Sometimes you just can’t avoid using cars or being part of the consumer culture. Just like you can’t avoid your ex forever. Sadie wants to work within the system to change the world (getting petitions signed and such), and James just can’t deal with that. Destroy All Cars by Blake Nelson takes James through 6 months of expressing his opinions on the environment, consumerism, and girls.

James mostly expresses his opinions through essays he turns in as English assignments, often getting them returned with the feedback that he needs to focus, stop ranting, and back up his points. He also tries to get over Sadie. While he hangs out at the library, James scopes out other girls (who will never compare to Sadie), and reads classic political and environmental writings by the likes of Black Elk. Over time, James refines his writing and learns that there are many ways to work to change things both within and outside of the system. He learns that obsessing over someone and getting over them are not the same thing. He learns to deal with his dad, who wants him to go to college -he knows James so little that he offers him a car if he goes! But James has other ideas about how he wants to live his life and try to make a difference. Join James as he spends some time figuring things out, writing about it, and (maybe) finally getting over Sadie. Check out Blake Nelson's web site, too. Cross posted at Dwelling in Possibility.

Friday, December 11, 2009

2009 and Then Some

As we near the end of 2009, it seems the appropriate time to reflect on some favorite graphic reads over the last year. This is my top five for 2009, with the caveat that they're all books I read over the last year, not that they were necessarily published in the last year (though, actually, only number three was published in 2008).

1. The Storm in the Barn (by Phelan). An absolute masterpiece, a true work of graphic literature that is not only the best of the year, but among my top five graphic novels EVER. I’m not going to labor the point, as two Guys Lit wordsmiths have already gushed about it (here and here), but this story of a boy growing up in the Dust Bowl during the 1930s and the dark mystery he uncovers in a nearby barn, is a grand adventure, an eerie weird tale, an archetypal coming of age story and a powerful homage to the art of storytelling itself.

2. Tales From Outer Suburbia (by Tan). Not actually a graphic novel, but a collection of illustrated short stories by the author of The Arrival (another one for the top five graphic novels of all time list). This is a collection of strange stories with a startling emotional depth. I’ve never come by a story-teller in any medium who could weave a sense of melancholy with the playful and the downright weird the way Tan does. The highlight: a tale of unfathomable stick figures that pop up in a small town, waiting behind bus stops, in doorways, at the tops of hills, feared and despised, but never understood. Shelf Elf discussed it at length here.

3. Captain America: The Chosen (by Morrell and Breitweiser). Something of a post-modern super-hero tale, a dying Captain America bequeaths a most unusual legacy of courage and heroism to a young solider fighting in Iraq. Would you expect a certain perspective on war, knowing this was written by the man who created Rambo? Well, this is a complex consideration of what it takes to be a hero and how, maybe, all of us are capable of it sometimes. That Mitch Breitweiser's art is dynamic, hyper-detailed, realistic and gritty doesn’t hurt either.

4. Wonder Woman: The Circle (by Simone and Dodson). I’ve already talked about this one here. An action-packed Wonder Woman story built on elements of mythology and family, thoughtfully considering the complex and self-destructive motivation of revenge. And it’s a story that finally lives up to the potential of the character, portraying her as an actual Wonder Woman, rather than a standard super-hero who happens to be female.

5. Adventures in Cartooning (by Sturm, Arnold and Frederick-Frost). A bit younger than we usually go on Guys Lit Wire, but a hell of a lot of fun. A classic fairy tale adventure of a young knight, a sweet-toothed horse and a magical elf on the trail of a bubble gum-chewing dragon intertwined with lessons on the language of sequential art. It covers all the major areas of the form, elucidating its structures and codes within the adventure and in bonus features, and the story itself has some great surprises as well.

It’s actually been a fantastic year for the graphic novel. I’ve seen some of what’s coming in 2010, too, and I’m happy to say things aren't going to slow down. Top of the list has got to be Zeus: King of the Gods (by O’Connor), the first of the new Olympians series, telling scrupulously researched mythological tales with art that makes the Gods look like the most dynamic super-heroes ever. And that’s only in January!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Interspecies Communication

Sometimes, for my reviews, I pick a book I've read some time ago. And I'll go through it, looking for a good section to quote, so you get a taste of the book.

With Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl, however, which I just read a few months ago, I read it all again!

It IS a remarkable story. The author, Stacey O'Brien, got involved with owl research at the California Institute of Technology. She adopted an injured 4-day old barn owl, and lived with Wesley for 19 years. In telling her story, she tells us a lot about barn owls: "Unlike human ears, which are in the same place on each side of the head, owls' ears are irregularly placed. One ear is high up on the head and the other is lower, so that the owl can triangulate the location of a sound much more accurately than a human can. The owl brain's large cortex is dedicated to auditory processing in much the way that ours has evolved for visual mapping, so it creates an auditory map of his world. As a result, a barn owl can accurately locate a mouse under three feet of snow by homing in on only the heartbeat, and can hear its footsteps from extremely far away."

"At two years of age, Wesley began to adapt his natural owl vocalizations to make new sounds to mean a variety of things. He adapted his begging sound, for example, to have slight variations in pitch, length, and intensity. Each new vocalization meant he was begging for a specific item. One variation meant 'I want you to open the door.' Another meant 'I want water.' Yet another one meant 'Let me off my perch.' Just the begging sound alone had about twenty new variations."

The author also has insights into human behavior:

"I wandered down the halls to check on some of the animals. Suddenly a closet door opened right in front of me, and a furry man walked out. He was what we called a 'troll.' Unshaven, his beard and hair both reached his belt. He didn't appear to notice me at all. He shuffled down the hall and disappeared into one of the bathrooms.

Theoretical mathematicians and physicists, trolls are ubiquitous at Caltech and go as far back into its history as anyone can remember. Caltech was built in the 1800s and was heated with steam that ran through a labyrinth of tunnels with all kinds of twists and turns. The steam and hot water pipes still run through the tunnels, making them warm in winter and comfortable in the summer. The trolls live deep in the labyrinth, rarely coming aboveground. That is their home and it's okay with everyone. They receive grants and their meager style of living doesn't cost much.

Each building has secret doors in certain closets that lead into the labyrinths so the trolls can go from building to building and use the locker rooms. People say Caltech is as close to Hogwarts as one can get in the real world, and I'd have to agree. I've been down in those tunnels, and as I walked through the darkness, I'd occasionally come upon a bluish glow, the computer screen of a troll. Next to the computer screen, in a small alcove, would be a twin bed, some blankets, piles of books and papers, and the computer. That was it. Productive genius theoreticians, they tend to keep to themselves and publish their work. Some of them clearly have what is now referred to as Asperger syndrome, a mild form of functional autism, but they are happy in their secret cubbyholes, doing calculations and making discoveries. After all, theoretical scientists do not require a lab -- only a piece of paper, a pencil, and a fantastic brain."

Most of the book is about Wesley and his human, Stacey, though, with several photos. He was a beautiful, intelligent bird, and Ms. O'Brien wrote a beautiful, intelligent book.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nice, Nice, Very Nice

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut saved me.

When I started seventh grade I somehow found myself in an English class full of really smart kids. I couldn't figure out what I was doing there because, clearly, these kids were all brilliant and I was just, you know, average. It was my first real introduction to classic literature, to the lives of great literary writers, and we had to memorize and recite before the class a new poem every other week or so.

And so began my hatred of reading.

But one day I was nosing around in the garage and I found a box of things belonging to my dad. Inside were a few books, small paperbacks, and I wondered why they weren't in the house with the other meager selection we had on our family bookcase. Among the books was one with a tantalizing title – Welcome to the Monkey House – a collection of short stories. I secreted the book into the house and locked myself in the bathroom to check it out. Two stories in and I was hooked. That following Saturday I went to public library and sought out everything else I could find by the book's author, Kurt Vonnegut.

Through trial and error I discovered which books were better than others and, if I could go back in time and give myself some kindly advice, would have suggested I start with Cat's Cradle. With its blend of science fiction and social comedy, skewering politicians, religious cults, science gone out of hand, and plain human folly, Cat's Cradle presented to me for the first time a world that proved what my teen self had always suspected: adults could be, and often were, wrong.

In researching a book on what Americans did the day Hiroshima was bombed, John discovers that Felix Hoenikker, one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, had also created a substance called ice-nice. A solid at room temperature, ice-nine rearranged the molecules of water and would instantly set off a chain reaction when it came in contact with other water molecules. Essentially, it would turn all the planet's water to ice if it were ever released.

In chasing down Hoenikker's surviving children to learn more, John discovers that one has become a high-ranking member of a dictatorship on the island of San Lorenzo in exchange for a piece of ice-nine. San Lorenzo is also the home of a semi-religious cult created by the island's former ruler and an American naval officer as a way of controlling the population through a sort of utopia. And when the current dictator of San Lorenzo commits suicide by consuming ice-nine he sets of a chain reaction of events that could destroy the planet.

This book is everything a teen boy could hope for. Ridicule of all sorts authority figures, world-wide dystopian destruction, religion as gobbledegook philosophy, and all told at a nice breezy pace with that voice that is uniquely Vonnegut.

Since I was a lad, Vonnegut has slipped in the back door of the cannon and is now widely taught (and widely banned) in high school through his anti-war classic Slaughterhouse-Five. While that book brought him fame (and out of the genre ghetto of being strictly a "Sci-Fi writer") and is one of his better books, I think there are aspects (the aliens messing with one character's linear time) that seem too much like a device. With Cat's Cradle the science fiction is real and not the unseen hand of outsiders; the mess that gets made is purely human. And for a modern audience I think it might be healthy to read a dystopia that has some humor blended with it. The end of the world can be funny, too, you know!

I love that on the cover of an early paperback edition of the book the Saturday Review is quoted as saying "...Like getting socked in the nose." And that's a good thing!

Had I not discovered that book in the garage that one day there's a good chance I would have viewed reading as one of those things only associated with a school, a static and passive activity that held no interest for me. I would have continued to assume that books had nothing to offer me and would be just another statistic, a non-reading adult male who had the joy of reading beaten out of him. I was a teen boy anxious and hungry to learn about the real world, and to learn that adults were far from the perfection. I thank the Fates that Vonnegut was there for me.

Cat's Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut


Welcome to the Monkey House


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

MANGA CLAUS by Nathaniel Marunas

'Twas the night before Christmas . . . Oh. Wait. I posted about that last year. But what if Santa wasn't a "right jolly old elf", but was instead wise in the ways of the Samurai?

May I suggest MANGA CLAUS: Honor*Loyalty*Tinsel: The Blade of Kringle by Nathaniel Marunas, artwork by Erik Craddock?

That's right, folks, Santa has some seriously ripped abs under the fuzzy red suit. And with his training as a samurai more than a century and a half ago and the Miuaguchi Daisho, two swords given to him from a knowledgeable sensei, well, Santa's ready to respond when things go wrong.

Our story begins on the night before Christmas, when Fritz, a disgruntled elf, decides to use some magic to turn a robot-like nutcracker into a ninja. His goal? To cause a bit of fuss that will allow him to showcase his mad magic skillz and save the day. His plan might have worked, too, if things hadn't gone horribly wrong. When the botched-magic nutcracker-robot-ninja falls into a furnace and coals spew into the nearby teddy bears . . . well, let's just say it's not pretty, and an army of ninja bears results.

After Santa is alerted that there's a problem, he decides to find out "what in the name of the Big Benevolent Buddha is going on around here." The comedy doesn't stop there, as Santa guesses that the ninja bears are on their way to the power plant, saying "that's where I'd go if I were a deranged ninja teddy bear." Will Fritz arrive in a bin full of elf knickers in time to deliver the samurai weapons to Santa? Will Santa be able to deliver the toys in time for Christmas, leaving from the Clement C. Moore Sleighport? I'll never tell. Er, unless you've already sorted it out.

The humor in this one is genius, from the map of the North Pole facilities inside the front cover to the black-and-white-and-red all over illustrations to the really funny text and asides, this is one bit of manga that you've gotta see. It's got a hard cover, and reads in the way of a usual book in English, making it an easy entrée into manga for the uninitiated.

I leave you with a shortened version of the copy from the back cover:

A disgruntled elf, dark magic, and a horde of possessed ninja teddy bears threaten to put an end to the holidays . . . To battle the evil teddies, Santa himself must break out his ancient samurai swords, imbued with the spirit of the season, and become MANGA CLAUS, guardian of giving and protector of presents! Santa's blades are swift and his bujitsu unmatched, but will they be enough to save Christmas?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Julius Caesar, fair and balanced

One of my favorite books to pick up and read random sections from is Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. He means the title literally: "Our ideas as to what makes the self authentically human owe more to Shakespeare than ought to be possible." I don't know if I'd go that far, but no writer can deny the primacy of Shakespeare, and you ignore it at your peril.

In high school, everyone has to read Julius Caesar. It's a perfect introduction to Shakespeare: narratively it's a simple play, it has a speech second only to "To be or not to be..." in the public consciousness, and it features gang murder and ghosts. I remember reading it aloud in English class, and marveling at how the archaic-looking speech came to life when spoken. Then I got beat up for being a dweeb.

But Julius Caesar has a surprising timelessness. Consider the speeches of Brutus and Antony following the assassination of Caesar. Both face a crowd of panicky, easily-swayed citizens (described earlier as "you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things," almost as if they sat home every night watching The Hills and Dancing with the Stars) who demand an explanation.

Brutus speaks first. He is calm, rational, and he lays out the reasons for killing Caesar in a logical fashion. He appeals to the citizenry to judge his actions for themselves ("...censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge."). And then, in one of the dumbest moves ever (right up there with "Put on those gloves, O.J."), he lets Caesar's friend and acolyte Mark Antony address the crowd.

(Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in 1953's Julius Caesar)

Antony, in observing the chaos when Caesar's death is leaked, makes a key observation: "Passion, I see, is catching." In his famous speech, he turns the crowd entirely against Brutus by appealing to their emotions, by producing bogus documents ("But here's a parchment with the seal of Caesar; I found it in his closet, 'tis his will.") and of course by claiming he isn't trying to do exactly what he's doing ("Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny."). The result is civil war.

Not to belabor the point, but Antony would fit right in with the calculating, maniacal voices on the Right screaming about socialism and Gomorrah with virtually no interest in actual facts; Brutus, while he does have the courage to get his own hands bloody, is as effective a public speaker as Al Gore on the campaign trail. And the Roman citizens, as already noted, are just as content to have their opinions handed to them as many of us are.

So what truths, ultimately, does the 400-year-old Julius Caesar have for teenage boys?

About their society: that in the war between passion and intellect, passion always wins, because most people would rather feel than think.

About Shakespeare: that Harold Bloom just might be right.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have -- Allen Zadoff

15-year-old Andrew Zansky is the second-fattest guy in the sophomore class. Tenth grade begins pretty much the same way as ninth: ten minutes in, he's already been harassed by Ugo the Bully and cheated on his diet. It looks like this year will involve lots of hanging out with his best friend, Eytan, and the other kids in the Model UN. Just like last year.

This year, at least he has April -- the gorgeous girl he met at a function his mother was catering -- to fantasize about. Why not, right? It's not like he's ever going to see her again.


Not that it really matters -- it isn't like Andy has a chance, or that he will ever make a move.

But. O. Douglas, star quarterback, golden boy and dreamboat, has suddenly shown some serious interest in Andy Zansky. And Andy finds himself pulled into a world where getting the girl just might be possible.

I really enjoyed Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have. I loved Andy's voice, which was funny and confessional (And after noting that the author has the same initials, I wondered just how confessional it was!), self-deprecating and genuine, fresh-to-the-ear but familiar-to-the-psyche:

There's a lot of fat in our family, but there's some thin, too. Dad is thin and athletic, and my sister Jessica is super skinny. She's also a super bitch, so there's clearly no correlation between being skinny and being nice, at least in her case.

That's my family. Some of us are fat, some are thin.

It may be true that we have a glandular problem, but if so, it's extremely selective.

The storyline kept me wondering -- with so many people suddenly being so nice to Andy, I kept waiting for the situation to change, for the Big Reveal, for the twist. Because, after all, it's hard to imagine a world in which a Big (literally) Nobody gets scooped up by the most popular group in school, no strings attached. Don't get me wrong: it's always refreshing to read about football players and cheerleaders who AREN'T Satan's Spawn. But I reserved judgement for quite a long time -- because I cared about Andy, and I didn't want him to get hurt. Emotionally OR physically.

I'll let you find out for yourself about whether or not there is a twist. Just know that this is a good one. It's about friendship, trust, branching out, finding out who you are and what you enjoy, about learning to see. In a lot of ways, sure, it's a story that's been told before. But the characters are real, right down to the minor ones, and Andy's voice -- and the emotions under his voice -- ring true. Thumbs up.


Crossposted at Bookshelves of Doom.


Book source: Review copy from the publisher; Cybils nominee.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Struts and Frets by Jon Skovron

Struts and Frets by Jon Skovron
"Music is in Sammy’s blood. His grandfather was a jazz musician, and Sammy’s indie rock band could be huge one day—if they don’t self-destruct first. Winning the upcoming Battle of the Bands would justify all the band’s compromises and reassure Sammy that his life’s dream could become a reality. But practices are hard to schedule when Sammy’s grandfather is sick and getting worse, his mother is too busy to help either of them, and his best friend may want to be his girlfriend.

When everything in Sammy’s life seems to be headed for major catastrophe, will his music be enough to keep him together?"- summary from Amazon

This was a fantastically written debut novel. Skovron's voice and style are perfect for this novel, which is filled with humor, introspection, first love, and figuring out what it takes to believe in yourself and going after your dreams.

Sammy is a relatable character who has flaws and is multi-dimensional, as are the secondary characters, who are also fully fleshed out and seem real. One of my favorite characters to read about was Rick (you can find out why in the excerpt vlog posted a few days ago) because he was funny and sarcastic, but also had issues keeping him back from making himself happy in the romance department. My problem with him though is that I felt like there was much more to him and I didn't really get to know about it. I know the story is about Sammy, but at the same time, if you introduce a subplot involving another character, I want to be fully satisfied by the end of it and I feel like that wasn't the case; it was a very small, simple arc when there was clearly much more to it. Alright, I'll stop harping on this complaint and move on, lol.

I loved the romance between Sammy and Jen5. The realization of it, their conversations about it, and how they interacted during the beginning stages of their relationship all felt very real to me and it's great to see this honest portrayal of best friends becoming romantically involved and all the obstacles and questions that come along with it.

The music aspect was very interesting and I loved the inclusion of Sammy's lyrics throughout the book while he was working on them. It gave this new perspective to him that I think readers will enjoy. Also, a tiny little aside, every time Joe (the lead singer) was in a scene, I kept picturing Nathan Explosion from the band Dethklok on the show Metalocalypse on Cartoon Network. Did anyone else have that connection or am I just weird?

Anyway, this is a highly recommended book, so go get a copy as soon as you can!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I read an Oprah's Book Club selection - and I liked it! Honestly, however, Oprah's glowing endorsement of Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth did nothing to encourage my reading of this weighty tome. And while the historical subject matter (the construction of a Medieval cathedral) did pique my interest somewhat, the notion of reading over 900 pages dealing with Medieval monks did not. In fact, my interest in Follett's novel came about in an unusual way - through board games.

I'm a long-time fan of German (sometimes referred to as "designer") boardgames. If you're reading this and have never heard of such a thing, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the now-ubiquitous Settlers of Catan, play it, and then, I think, you'll begin to understand. In any case, a good friend of mine operates one of the major online retailers for boardgames (Boulder Games, if I may include a small plug), and I was visiting him one day when the boardgame of The Pillars of the Earth arrived. I had never heard of the novel at that point, and was fascinated by the idea of turning an historical novel into a large-scale strategy boardgame. In America, the idea of games based on licensed properties is nothing new. In fact, it's the butt of many jokes and considerable derision among the gaming community, as all too often these games are nothing more than oversimplified tripe with a movie title and characters pasted on. The Pillars of the Earth, however, was different from its American counterparts in many ways. First, of course, was its subject matter and depth/scope of play, but beyond that was an ambition to allow a player to actually play a role in a pivotal plot point from a novel, and that drove me to pick up the book and begin my journey through it.

There's little doubt that I expected a much drier book when I first started reading Pillars of the Earth. With a subject matter of cathedral building, how could it help but be a little dry? I could not have been more wrong in my initial assessment. While, yes, the framework of the plot does revolve around the building of a cathedral at the fictional Kingsbridge priory, Follett uses this as a device to tell a remarkable story about five central characters, whose lives often intersect at the most unusual and surprising of times. By focusing on in-depth characterization, Follett achieves what all great history teachers aspire to - teaching while also telling an entertaining story. While it has taken me a while to actually finish this lengthy novel, it has never once felt sluggish or like a burden to read. In fact, it's one of the few novels (the Harry Potter novels and Stephen King's The Stand also come to mind) where you grow so close to the characters you genuinely don't want to leave them or their world behind.

I've never read anything else by Ken Follett and I don't know that I ever will after this. That's not meant as an insult, but rather as a testament to the entertaining power of this one, singular novel. Yes, there is a sequel, of sorts, titled World Without End, but don't be put off by that. If you're afraid that this is another series, or, god forbid, a trilogy, put your mind at ease. The Pillars of the Earth is self-contained. Follett himself has explained that World Without End takes place at Kingsbridge, but over 200 years later.

However you manage to find it, whether through Oprah, a boardgame, or even this meager review, I highly recommend you do make the effort to read The Pillars of the Earth. There's more to the novel than I could ever explain in a brief review, and even if I could I wouldn't. This is a world designed for exploration, and the less you know going in, the more you'll relish the experience.

Oh, and by the way, if you like similarly-themed boardgames, but a bit more abstract, I highly recommend the oldie-but-goodie Cathedral. Even if you don't care for the game, you'll still love its design aesthetic.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Anatomy Jumble

The title of Martin Chatterton's novel, The Brain Finds a Leg, evokes disturbing images, the kind of thing you encounter in nightmares or the fine details of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of the depths of Hell: a brain liberated from its skull hopping about spasmodically on a leg that sprouts from its hypothalamus, the knee flexing as gelatinous gray matter jiggles. (The title doesn't suggest it, but in my my mind the leg is also wearing a high-heeled shoe.)

The Brain Finds a Leg isn't actually anything like that. The Brain isn't an actual brain, but a guy by the name of Brain, Theophilus Brain. And the leg is lifeless, having been severed from the corpse of a murdered surfer. And the story doesn't take place in Hell but in an Australian town called Farrago Bay which includes characters nearly as strange as those imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. If you ask Sheldon McGlone, fatherless, bullied by teachers and fellow students alike, living in Farrago Bay is pretty much like living in Hell.

So, while The Brain Finds a Leg doesn't include a brain bounding about on a high-heel-shod gam, such a thing would probably find a nice home in this story.

Let me start again.

Sheldon McGlone is fatherless because his father, the captain of the whale-watching vessel The Coreal, was "lost at sea" in an unexplained and unlikely accident involving killer humpback whales, although those tormenting Sheldon have suggested that his father's incompetence was the real cause of the mishap. Sheldon's mother has taken to dating Sargeant Snook of the Farrago Bay police force who Sheldon considers a less-than-stellar paternal replacement. At school Sheldon finds himself the preferred spitball target of bully Fergus Feebly and the favorite humiliation target of the evil Mrs. Fleming. To deal with the stress, Sheldon has adopted a sugar binging habit.

Into Sheldon's depressing life walks Theophilus Brain, a new kid so nerdy--oversized head, oversized glasses, oversized intellect, etc.--Sheldon has hopes that some of the pressure will be taken off of him. But The Brain (no he's not Wellesian mouse) shows himself more than capable of standing up to both Feebly and Fleming. What's more, the evening of his sudden appearance in Farrago Bay, The Brain knocks on the McGlone's door and makes Sheldon a proposition: The Brain declares himself to be The World's Greatest Detective and asks Sheldon to play the role of his trusty sidekick, the Watson to The Brain's Holmes. Sheldon's outlook is so gloomy that The Brain's offer actually looks like an attractive option.

The two immediately have a case to solve: the murder of champion surfer and Dent-O toothpaste spokesperson Bif Manly who's body was recently discovered, minus a leg. It's not spoiling anything to announce that The Brain's first clue is the surfer's leg which The Brain finds.

In the meantime, not only the humpback whales are acting strangely. So are the koalas, the lorikeets, an out-of-place crocodile, and one particular classroom teacher. And nothing about The Brain, including hi story of being the victim of his mad scientist parents' experimental mishap, quite adds up either.

The Brain Finds a Leg starts with the absurd. Then each page tries to outdo the last. Chatterton has a Pynchonesque gift for quirky character names (Infinity Override and Carefree O'Toole are my favorites) and for slipping hyperbole into even his most offhand phrases. In short, The Brain Finds a Leg is a lot of fun, what you might get if Daniel Pinkwater channelled both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Chuck Jones then told a story with an Australian accent while standing in one of those Bosch details.

The Brain Finds a Leg made it's US debut this year and is a Cybils award nominee.

Crossposted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cut to the chase

Bond movies were the first place I encountered the idea of a story starting with an action sequence that was unrelated (or tangentially at best) to the rest of the story. The idea was to get the blood pumping with Bond in some perilous chase, have him come out victorious, slide into the title sequence, then into the story at hand.

It's an effective "hook" but what if you took it further. What if you opened with an action prologue set in 1990's Iraq, with British special forces getting ready to blow up a secret nuclear facility. Then jump ahead to today where one of the people from that mission shows up on the doorstep of his former team leader begging to be saved from unknown enemies, which sets off a chase that doesn't let up until the end... with a double assassination threat against two heads of state.

This is set-up for Sharp Shot, the third book in the Jack Higgins series featuring the teenage Chance twins, chips-off-the-block of their Bond-like father, John Chance.

As established in the previous books, Rich and Jade are more than up to the task of international intrigue and quick-witted action. If the plot gets stretched too the edges of credulity the pages burn at a frantic rate

Normally, if you asked me, I'd say I don't generally like these political espionage thrillers. At least not as books – I love this sort of thing as a movie. But I've read all three of the books in this series and I have to say, these things read like relentless action movies. No one is going to confuse these books with literature, but that's not the point; where's the fun of reading if every once in a while you can't just go with the fun?

Sharp Shot

Death Run

Sure Fire

all three by Jack Higgins
with Justin Richards
Penguin / Speak

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dropping in with Andy Mac

Dropping in with Andy Mac: The Life of a Pro Skateboarder

This is one of those books you semi-reluctantly pick up thinking, “This can’t possibly be very interesting.” But it IS interesting. In fact, I find myself continuing to think about it.

I was already a fan of Andy MacDonald, but that didn’t necessarily mean I needed to know his life story. For one thing, he’s younger than me. How much life story can he have?

Plenty, as it turns out.

When you see Andy on TV, he seems like this nice guy who just happens to be able to dial in insane tricks -- so much so that they no longer look insane. The real story is that the tricks took lots of work, getting a chance to work on them took work and that, yes, the tricks are insane and Andy probably is, too:

“I do admit that from the earliest age, I’ve had a fascination with anything that can result in bodily harm…”

As with most books about a world-class athlete, a big chunk of it is about determination. This insane desire to “make it” “against all odds.”
The odds against Andy Mac are an interesting assortment, many specific to the sport of skateboarding. Any kid with a basketball can follow that dream down at the playground. But a kid who wants to be a Skateboard Vert champ is going to need a Vert ramp and back in the day those were hard to come by. I was stunned to find out the lengths MacDonald was willing to go to. (I.e. midnight missions in black clothes and blackened face to steal plywood.)
Even when he hit the big leagues, money was still a problem. Another shocker: he skated conservatively -- aiming at placing, rather than winning -- because he needed the prize money to get to the next competition. He literally couldn’t afford to take big risks.

Risking his life, however, didn’t seem to bother him. The story and picture of his world-record-setting jump from an preposterously dangerous 4-story ramp make me wish someone had stopped him. It was just plain crazy.

The book’s not perfect. One glaring omission is “the letter.” Early in his career, Andy wrote an outrageous letter which leaked out and made him the laughing stock of the skating world. It took him years to overcome it and it’s one of the most interesting things in the book. Except that the letter itself isn’t in the book.

Obviously, I think this book would be a great read for young skateboarders. But I’m not a skateboarder -- nor young -- and I got something out of it, too.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tiger Tale Burns Bright

An admission: these days I'm a bit tired of fantasy adventures that take please in some Western European country. Or America. I mean, I'm in NJ and since GuysLitWire doesn't pay us bloggers to venture out into the world to find new books, I can't afford plane trips to exotic locales. Thankfully, I can pick up a book to explore. You can, too. Go on. Oh, wait, I haven't given you your itinerary yet.


Early 20th century India, when it was still a colony.

Gods. Demons. Magical bloodstones. Talking tigers.

Sure, there are humans. A girl who is telling stories to save her life. A boy thief promised a better life.

And one hell of a story.

Let's talk about Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis. I love books about people telling stories. Yeah, yeah, I'm a writer, so I'm biased. But everyone tells stories. Some of us do it with texting, and some do it with tigers.

Raka has definitely more problems than any girl in any high school you know. For one, she's betrothed to a vile old man. Not so good. She's not even to be the first, or the second of his wives, but his eighth. Oh so not good. And when he discovers that Raka is not a virgin [*gasp*], well no self-respecting man in early 19th century India could marry a woman, let alone his eighth woman, who has already parted her sari... so when her future husband discovers this she's be condemned to death. Ask any cheerleader is she has such problems!

To escape some of the fear, Raka tells a story to her only friend in the household, a eunuch named Lalit. Okay, guys, relax over the eunuch thing. Trust me.

Her story involves one of the fresher of the boy thieves that are so often found in YA books (don't they all owe Peter Pan a debt?). His name is Farhad, who is not having such a good time also because the Hindu god Krishna has decided that poor Farhad is just the guy to rescue Krishna's daughter from an evil demon. And yes, the evil demon plans on marrying Krishna's daughter. Farhad is not only a thief but a damn good trickster. If you don't know what a trickster is, well you better Wiki it, cause it's a world of fun. But I figure you're smart since you read this blog, so I won't say more.

Farhad is promised a better reincarnation if he succeeds. That's pretty cool - wouldn't we all want to come back as rock stars or rich son's with sports cars? Of course, I think having a best friend who is a talking white tiger is much better than a white Porsche (though if it could talk like K.I.T.T. I'm good with that).

So the book goes back and forth from Raka to Farhad. Things get more and more dire.
Meanwhile we get a tour (maybe even a tour d'force) of India in a distant time when it was a British colony. So there is a lot on the culture and traditions of India, as well as the bitterness of being occupied by foreigners, but learning is part of reading, didn't your teachers drone on and on about that? It's true. True and with tigers!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Man vs. Weather by Dennis DiClaudio

So here's the deal with me and weather.

I grew up in Hawaii distrusting the weatherpeople on the news because it seemed like they were wrong more often than they were right. All their talk about low pressure systems and fronts and other things I knew nothing about didn't seem to improve the accuracy of their predictions. I went to college in Ohio, where I was initially impressed by the weather forecasts (it rained when it was supposed to! And stopped when they said it would!), before deciding the weatherpeople on television news, at least, really were idiots, it didn't matter where you were, because they'd say things along the lines of "Stay indoors if you can because of the windchill" while reporting from...outdoors. Watching other weatherpeople broadcasting live on location from the outdoors in the midst of some hurricanes a few years later did not improve my opinion of them. (Meteorologists who didn't forecast weather on the news, though, they were okay.)

In other words, my meteorological literacy was next to nil and I was therefore the perfect audience for Dennis DiClaudio's Man vs. Weather: How to Be Your Own Weatherman.

DiClaudio is a comedian, not a meteorologist. He's the kind of guy who writes things like "Do you know how many different gases make up our atmosphere? Do you have any idea? I personally do not. But I have a feeling it's a whole, whole lot. Anyway, we're going to focus mainly on the important ones that people care about. The other ones can suck it." (p. 14-15) Acting as a sort of tour guide, and anthropomorphizing things like water molecules, he begins by leading readers through the water cycle and atmosphere, knowledge you need to understand, well, weather. Or, Weather, as DiClaudio writes it. Because you need to know about the water cycle and how wind impacts it, and how the atmosphere affects the wind, and therefore the water cycle, before you can move on to things like fronts and hurricanes and so on. And although DiClaudio's chart of the Fujita Scale for measuring tornadoes claims that, in addition to "devastating damage," during an F4 tornado, you can expect "cows turned into deadly projectiles; portal to Oz beginning to open," there is a lot of actual scientific knowledge to be found in the pages of Man vs. Weather.

Weather turns out to be just as complicated as it seemed before I read Man vs. Weather, and, yes, it only makes sense that weather forecasts sometimes are not accurate. It operates on different scales (in an air circulation kind of way, though I suppose the phrase does apply to things like the metric system), does weird things, and there are still weather events scientists don't fully understand. The humor occasionally wore thin, especially in the latter chapters, but DiClaudio does a good job explaining things, and doing so in a logical order. He acknowledges that Weather is complicated and confusing, so certain sections may require multiple readings before things really start to make sense.

The one disappointing thing about the book is that it lacks both a glossary and an index. Seriously, for a book that comes across as a slightly demented version of the Magic School Bus for older readers, with a sarcastic Mr. Frizzle teaching the class without a bus—and I mean this as a compliment because the Magic School Bus rocks—a glossary and index would come in handy.

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.

Friday, November 20, 2009

John Marsden's Hamlet

As soon as I saw that John Marsden had written his own prose version of Hamlet, I knew I had to check it out. You know John Marsden, author of the hugely bestselling Tomorrow Series and The Ellie Chronicles? Yep, that John Marsden. The man knows how to write a good story, so bring him on board with one of the most known Shakespearean plays, and I had a hunch that good things were in store for readers.

I thought right.

I imagine a plot teaser isn't really necessary for this one, because Marsden sticks very close to the events as they happen in the play, just one reason why high school students everywhere will be cheering. Certainly, this retelling of the play will be the saving grace for many an English student who needs a little 21st century language to really get the Dane, in all of his half-crazed glory. I confess that it's been a while since I've read Hamlet, but I couldn't identify any grand departures from the original plot in Marsden's book. You get into the minds of the characters differently, of course, compared to the insights you get through the bard's poetry. I felt this especially with Horatio and Ophelia. I had greater understanding of their motivations and character though Marsden's book, though they were true to the way I remembered the characters in the play. He also succeeds in capturing the intense moodiness and sense of foreboding from the play. Even though most readers will know what's coming, you will feel tension from the first chapter.

Marsden's style seems made for telling this kind of intensely dramatic and bleak tale. His description is outstanding. Take this passage that comes just after Hamlet has climbed down after looking out over the land from the castle tower:

Against the rich green grass and the close horizon, the lowering clouds, pregnant with storm and snow, against the white windmill and the stone tower, Hamlet was all that moved. His white hair and white shirt held the eye; a line could be drawn between him and the windmill and the dark tower, the last two heavy and immovable, the other too light, too bright: nothing to hold it down to the earth. He slipped in the mud and rolled down the hill but was up again as he spun, flitting, flying. He was alive and hopeless.

There are many passages as good as that. The writing feels charged and direct, just the right fit for the story being told. Another impressive accomplishment is the way that Marsden weaves in lines from the play in such a convincingly seamless way that they feel a natural part of the dialogue. You'll recognize some of the more famous lines scattered throughout the text. There's a strong erotic element to the novel as well. It's pretty sexy, which might not work for everyone, but in my view, it didn't feel out of place in the novel.

I feel compelled to mention that the US cover is nothing to the cover on my copy, purchased in Canada, which is called Hamlet & Ophelia. Take a look:

That just says dark and brooding and rotten to me. Don't you think? I vote for this one rather than good ol' Yorrick. Either way, definitely read this book. Your English teacher might even ask you if she can borrow it.

Published in Canada by Harper Collins, and in the U.S. by Candlewick

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Neil Gaiman is Coming to Town!

Okay, I have to brag. Little Shop of Stories, the bookstore where I work in Decatur, Georgia (it's a town right next to downtown Atlanta),has won a visit from Neil Gaiman. Yes, THE Neil Gaiman.

Here's the deal: Neil wanted to offer independent bookstores a chance to get a visit from him. As I understand it, his line of reasoning was this: giant chains like Barnes & Nobles or Borders have every opportunity to have an author signing from an author of his stature, but for independent books that is an impossibility.

So he had a contest. The best Graveyard Book-themed Halloween party thrown by an independent, community bookstore would win a store visit. And guess what? We (along with McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Manitoba) won!

We're excited, and thrilled, but there are some dark clouds on the horizon. What follows after the jump is a meditation on the awesomeness of your local bookstore, and the dark vagaries of the book business...

Here's a little history about me and Little Shop of Stories. Several years ago, after my son was born, my wife got a job here in Decatur. I was a stay-at-home dad for that first year, taking care of him and our daughter, and I tried to get the kids out and about as much as possible. Somehow (was it the Decatur Book Festival? Was it storytimes?) I discovered the store, and it was awesome! The bookstore is focused on kidslit, and has fantastic sections of picture books, chapter books, board books, YA, etc etc. But it also has adult books, and the adult book section is unlike any I'd seen before: rather than having the NYT bestsellers, or shelves devoted to every subcategory of book you can think of (half a shelf for philosophy, two shelves for history, three for self-help, another for mysteries, and on and on)--instead of that, it was just divided up into nonfiction and fiction, and it felt like the most awesome personal library I'd ever seen. Little Shop's "grown-up" section is one of the clearest indicators that the bookstore only carries books that somebody in the store loves.

So I started to find excuses to take the kids to the bookstore--any chance I could get we would visit. You know, "for the children's sake." Then I'd find excuses to go without the kids. Then, Diane, one of the owners, asked me if I wanted to work there, and I jumped at the chance.

I had worked in bookstores and libraries before, so I know what to look for when I go into an independent--Does the store have a clear idea of what they're about, who their customer is, do they know their identity? Does the store have a vibrant, strong connection to the community? Do the employees love introducing books to customers, or are they book snobs? When I discovered Little Shop of Stories, I discovered a bookstore that has this in spades.

I've worked for the store going on three years now, and the store has only grown better over that time. This despite the downturn in the economy, downturns in the book business, the end of Harry Potter, a move to a bigger location that stretched our budget, the opening and closing of another bookstore two blocks away...

In that time, we've been able to get some really cook authors and illustrators to come to the store: Doreen Cronin, Robert Sabuda, Rick Riordan, Mo Willems, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jeff Kinney. And this is a great thing, because we're not able to offer the kinds of discounts that you can find on Amazon, or that's offered at B&N or Borders. What we have to offer that draws our customers to us is the fact that they know they can come in looking for a good book, and we will help them find one. We make suggestions, we go on hunts, we provide service that isn't necessarily out there. We bring authors to the store and to the local schools so that kids get to meet great writers.

And this isn't something that Little Shop of Stories is alone in providing. After all, we share the prize with McNally Robinson. I've been to awesome shops all over, in every city or community I've lived in or visited, I've tried to find a good local bookstore. My wife and I did it on our honeymoon in Bermuda. There's several great local bookstores within a few miles of us (hey Eagle Eye! Hey Books Again! Hey Blue Elephant!) that each have their own special ways of serving this great bookloving community.

I have a friend who loves Amazon. He doesn't have time to go find books in a bookstore. But he still asks me for recommendations for books for his kids. He still looks to me for book news. And the big guys look for ways to horn in local bookstore awesomeness: At the signing we had for Mo Willems two years ago, a B&N employee showed up with 50+ books from their stock to have signed and sell at their store. When we brought in Kate DiCamillo for the Decatur Book Festival this past September, Amazon had her sign books for them so they could sell them for an extra $10 on their website.

What then, at the end of this, is the take-away? Your local bookstore is awesome, but they can't be awesome without your help. Shop there, talk to the employees and owners, let them know what you want to see from an independent, help them know about opportunities to engage the community where they are, where you live. If they don't listen, if they don't engage, then they deserve to fail. But if you love your local bookstore and show up at a signing with a book you bought on Amazon or at B&N because it was cheaper, then you're killing them. Really. If you go to the store find out about a book that sounds great, but go home and order it online because it's cheaper, then you're driving that local shop, that great resource, that wonderful thing that gives your community life, right out of business.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A terrible beauty is born: The poetry of Wilfred Owen

Last week, people around the world celebrated Veteran's / Armistice / Remembrance Day. With that little lump still in our hearts, I thought it'd be a good time to talk about Wilfred Owen, a British poet who died too young, but not before finding his voice in the muddy trenches and madness of the first world war.

Owen was the oldest of four children. He grew up a quiet, intelligent kid, often taking care of his younger siblings. After graduating college, he was unsure what to do. He worked as a English and French tutor and dreamed of being a poet, but doubted if he could earn a living from it. The few poems he had published were heavily influenced by the Romantics and John Keats in particular. While they were proficient, they were fairly unremarkable. In a letter to his mother, Owen wrote, "My heart is ready, but my brain unprepared, and my hand untrained. I quite envisage possibility of non-success."

Then when he was 22, he enlisted and went to war. At first he was eager, caught up in the pageantry and pride of the military. After awhile on the front lines, though, he grew disillusioned, sickened by the grinding slaughter of trench warfare.

"For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep," he wrote in another letter. "For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B. Coy., 2nd Lt. G., lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest be a 9-days-Rest."

Soon after, Owen's mental state deteriorated rapidly. He was admitted to a hospital for post-traumatic stress syndrome, then known as "shell shock." While recovering, he returned to poetry. Stripping away the Romanticism and melancholy that had influenced his earlier stuff, these new poems were full of brutal scenes from the front lines, anger toward the old men who send young men to war, and a naked desperation to make people understand.

"Anthem for Doomed Youth"

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -- -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

This poem mirrors Owen's own experience with shell-shock, but viewed from a much different perspective.

"The Dead-Beat"

He dropped, - more sullenly than wearily,

Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,

And none of us could kick him to his feet;

Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;

- Didn't appear to know a war was on,

Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.

"I'll do 'em in," he whined, "If this hand's spared,

I'll murder them, I will."
                               A low voice said,

"It's Blighty, p'raps, he sees; his pluck's all gone,

Dreaming of all the valiant, that aren't dead:

Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;

Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun

In some new home, improved materially.

It's not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun."

We sent him down at last, out of the way.

Unwounded; - stout lad, too, before that strafe.

Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, "Not half!"

Next day I heard the Doc's well-whiskied laugh:

"That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!"

After about a year of recuperation, first at the army hospital and then in Scotland, Owen returned to service. His hatred of the war and the people who glorified it didn't negate the sense duty he had toward his men.

Owen died on November 4th, 1918, one week before Armastice Day and the end of the war. The message telling his mother about his death was delayed, and apocryphally, she learned he had died while the church bells were ringing to celebrate the new peace.
In 1919, Owen was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. The citation describes his final hours during an attack on an entrenched German position: "On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly."

But a greater honor came later that year when Sigfried Sassoon, Owen's friend and fellow soldier-poet, put together a small volume of Owen's poetry. While his body of work is tiny--only about forty poems and a few fragments, most written during his recovery from shell shock--he's come to be seen as a great war poet whose images still have the power to jolt ninety years later.

"All the poet can do to-day is to warn," Owen once wrote. "That is why the true Poets must be truthful." And we who've never been to war--who can barely imagine what is like--will always have a duty to listen and remember.


Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,—still warm,—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

(Cross-posted on my blog.)