Thursday, April 30, 2009

Books on the horizon

Several new books coming out down the line that look like they will appeal to GLW readers. Here are few to consider.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
by Reif Larsen. I wrote about this one at my site earlier this month. It's an illustrated novel which I always find appealing. The description makes it hard to resist (although I do admit there is no small degree of "whimsy" involved here):

When twelve-year-old genius cartographer T.S. Spivet receives an unexpected phone call from the Smithsonian announcing he has won the prestigious Baird Award, life as normal — if you consider mapping family dinner table conversation normal — is interrupted and a wild cross-country adventure begins, taking T.S. from his family ranch just north of Divide, Montana, to the museum's hallowed halls.

T.S. sets out alone, leaving before dawn with a plan to hop a freight train and hobo east. Once aboard, his adventures step into high gear and he meticulously maps, charts, and illustrates his exploits, documenting mythical wormholes in the Midwest, the urban phenomenon of "rims," and the pleasures of McDonald's, among other things. We come to see the world through T.S.'s eyes and in his thorough investigation of the outside world he also reveals himself.

Look for it the first week of May (and also hopefully in my Bookslut YA column with other "road trip" titles in August.)

Car aficionados should take a long look at The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Automobiles by Giles Chapman. From the pub:

This chunky format, retro-feel encyclopedia reviews 150 of the most incredible cars in motoring history from the earliest to experiments for the future. Each automobile is illustrated and accompanied by informative text, a colorful quote, and a specifications box. Distributed generously throughout the book are delightful photographic spreads showing cars that are typical of their era. The chapters trace the story from the first steam-powered vehicles and the Ford Model T, to favorites such as the James Bond amphibian car, the holder of the supersonic land speed record, and right up to the latest Air car, which has been hailed as the true car of tomorrow.

This one is also due out in May.

Scott Westerfield has a new trilogy debuting this fall, and as usual he is at the forefront of the new cool in YA lit; this time it is steampunk.

"It is the cusp of World War I and all of the European powers are arming themselves for combat. The machine loving Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their big steam-powered Clankers loaded with guns and explosives. Inspired by the discoveries of Darwin, the British have fabricated animals into warships. Their mothership, the Leviathan, is a marvelous whale dirigible."

is due out October 6th - there's no cover available yet although the catalog pics are awesome.

Rick Yancey (of The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp) has a new series starting this fall also. The Monstrumologist is due out September 22nd. The current description is short and sweet: "A monster-hunting doctor and his apprentice face off against a plague of monsters."

Okay, what's not to love in that one? (Also apparently set in Victorian times and perhaps with steampunk influences as well.) (I swear, steampunk is THE new big thing this year.)

Alas - no cover on this one online yet either.

For basketball fans The Shooting Stars sounds like something special. It's due from Penguin this fall and as there is nothing yet online, I'm going to give you the full catalog copy:

The Shooting Stars were a bunch of kids— LeBron James and his best friends— from Akron, Ohio, who first met on a youth basketball team of the same name when they were ten and eleven years old. United by their love of the game and their yearning for companionship, they quickly forged a bond that would carry them through thick and thin (a lot of thin)and, at last, to a national championship in their senior year of high school. They were a motley group who faced challenges all too typical of inner-city America. LeBron grew up without a father and had moved with his mother more than a dozen times by the age of ten. Willie McGee, the quiet one, had left both his parents behind in Chicago to be raised by his older brother in Akron. Dru Joyce was outspoken, and his dad was ever present; he would end up coaching all five of the boys in high school.

Sian Cotton, who also played football, was the happy-go-lucky enforcer, while Romeo Travis was unhappy, bitter, even surly, until he finally opened himself up to the bond his teammates offered him.

In the summer after seventh grade, the Shooting Stars tasted glory when they qualified for a national championship tournament in Memphis. But they lost their focus and had to go home early. They promised one another they would stay together and do whatever it took to win a national title. They had no idea how hard it would be to fulfill that promise. In the years that followed, they would endure jealousy, hostility, exploitation, resentment from the black community (because they went to a “white” high school), and the consequences of their own overconfidence. Not least, they would all have to wrestle with LeBron’s outsize success, which brought too much attention and even a whiff of scandal their way. But together these five boys became men, and together they claimed the prize they had fought for all those years — a national championship.

I'll be sure to mention when it comes out; I'm impressed by the description and the fact that the co-author is Buzz Bissinger of Friday Night Lights.

And finally, Conan fans should note that Subterranean Press has Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol. One due out in August. What you're getting here is a sample of everything else Howard wrote about beyond the Barbarian he is famous for. From the Sub Press site:

Robert E Howard is best known as the father of “sword and sorcery” fiction, an exciting blend of swashbuckling action and supernatural horror epitomized by his characters King Kull, barbarian usurper of the throne of fabled Valusia, and Conan, who wanders the Hyborian Age “to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”

But the young Texas author was far more gifted and versatile than many readers know: in a career that lasted only twelve years before his untimely death, he wrote some 300 stories and 800 poems, covering anastonishing variety of subject matter—fantasy, boxing, westerns, horror, adventure, historical, detective, spicy, even confessions—running the gamut from dark fantasy to broad humor, from brooding horror to gentle love story. In this volume, and its forthcoming companion, editor Rusty Burke, with help from his fellow Howard fans and scholars, has selected the very best of Howard's work from most of these genres, enabling newer readers to discover the richness of Howard's varied oeuvre, fans of his fantasy tales to sample his other work, and long-time fans to reconnect with old favorites.

Crimson Shadows
is illustrated with both color plates and b/w illustrations. It is a spendy, but if your going to invest in an author than Howard is one to look for. (And hopefully, with the limited edition coming out another pub will pick up an affordable trade paperback edition later.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Favorite Poems from Male Poets

In honor of the second national Poem In Your Pocket Day (which is technically tomorrow, Thursday, April 30th, 2009) I wanted to share some of my favorite poetry written by guys.

The Mouse's Tale as published in the classic story Alice's Adventures of Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is a wonderful example of emblematic verse. You have to see it to believe it. No, really. See? It's structured to look like a mouse's tail!

The poem in Carroll's original manuscript, Alice's Adventures Under Ground, was completely different, but it too was emblematic. Click here to check it out.

I've posted about The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald at both Bildungsroman and GuysLitWire. But Fitzgerald didn't only write novels and short stories; he also wrote poems. My favorites include On a Play Twice Seen, in which an audience member connects scenes to memories, and the beautifully haunting We Leave To-night, which was printed in This Side of Paradise.

I could easily ramble on here for days and share quotes from my favorite poems, plays, and songs. I want to make sure you read Fog by Carl Sandburg, which makes me think of cats and San Francisco. I'd like you to visit Robert Frost and let him introduce you to My November Guest and Fireflies in the Garden. I want you to discover what Hamlet wrote to Ophelia and run with the fairies over hill, over dale, as described by William Shakespeare. I urge you to consider the poetry of music and lyrics, such as those by Duncan Sheik.

Most of all, I hope that you hear and see the poetry in your daily life. In the words you speak. In the words that you hear. In the rhythm of your steps (to the beat of your heart).

In the rush, and the wind, and the silence, may the poetry always be there.

Who are your favorite male poets?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We all have to pass through that Phantom Tollbooth

I remember as a kid one of the readers they gave us at school. You know, the sort of book that has a mix of different stories, including excerpts from novels. There was this one excerpt that had such cool artwork and was a clever dinner party scene. I enjoyed reading it over and over until I just had to buy the book.

And that was my introduction to Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth...

This is definitely one of my favorite books to read. I found one of the early hardcovers and paid a ridiculous sum but as soon as I sat down and started reading, I was transported to Juster's enchanted world.

The story is one boy's quest, though at the start he has no idea that he's set out on a journey that will change his life. Milo is a boy who takes the world around him for granted. He only sees the mundane.

Then, one birthday, he receives a mysterious present. A box containing a tollbooth kit. For the first time in his life, Milo feels a sense of curiosity. So, he gets into the pedal car he was given years ago and never bothered using, and embarks through the tollbooth... and finds himself Someplace Else. Along the way, every good hero needs some companions, and so Milo is joined by the watchdog Tock (a literal blend of canine and clock) and the Humbug, who is a bit of bore but very loyal to the end.

This is a fantasy novel about discovering the joy of learning and thinking... a teacher's daydream. And before you think it would have to read like a student's nightmare, let me say that this is a most witty and clever book (on par, in my opinion, Dahl's many works). You just can't help smiling as Milo encounters the denizens of Dictionopolis (where one can truly eat his own words) or faces the demons at the Mountains of Ignorance.

I suppose when you're in your late teens learning can seem like the last thing you want to do on a sunny day. But experiencing life, meeting new friends, thinking new thoughts, is learning. And Juster's novel has always been the book that I can turn to, for a reminder that words have meaning beyond just an arrangement of letters.

I think this book will make you laugh and then pause and remember what it was like to be that boy with a book. Some times it can be lonely being that boy who loses himself in pages. But better to be him, to be interested in worlds, then be trapped as poor Milo was at Tollbooth's beginning. Trust me.

Btw, Chuck Jones, of Bugs Bunny / Warner Brothers fame, created an animated version of The Phantom Tollbooth. It's pretty good (though not the same as reading the book, of course) and worth viewing with much popcorn and friends.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

I had originally planned to write about another book today, until, late last week, skimming some headlines in Google Reader, I saw the name Michael Oher and decided it was time I revisited Michael Lewis' 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game instead.

In football, the blind side is most often the right side of the field, the side the quarterback cannot see and is therefore vulnerable to. The Blind Side the book is part biography, part football history, and altogether an engrossing read. It's an account of opportunity and necessity, how left tackles became so important to football teams and how one left tackle in particular, Michael Oher, suddenly appeared on the radar of every Division I football team in the country.

According to Lewis, there are two main reasons left tackles are so important: Bill Walsh and Lawrence Taylor. Walsh, because he developed the West Coast offense, in which precision passing (and hence, protecting the quarterback long enough for him to deliver the ball to his receivers) is of utmost importance, and Taylor because of the ferocity of his pass rush and his ability to change the outcome of a game singlehandedly with his combination of size and speed. The influence of Walsh and Taylor spread throughout the NFL, as other teams started to throw the ball more while trying to find some way to stop Taylor and the linebackers or defensive ends who had the ability to disrupt their passing attacks. The need for a skilled left tackle, protector of the quarterback's blind side, suddenly became paramount.

As NFL coaches moved to the college level, bringing with them their NFL schemes, college teams needed a left tackle who could do more than run block. And so college coaches would scour the country, looking for high school players to recruit, athletes who could successfully play left tackle in college.

Which brings us to Michael Oher, who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. The bad side of Memphis, Tennessee, until a series of fortunate events landed him at Briarcrest Christian School. In telling the story of, to quote the subtitle of the book, the evolution of football, and left tackles in particular, Lewis also gives us the story of Oher, formerly a poor black kid, "one of thirteen children born to a mother who couldn't care for them, and so had more or less raised himself on the streets of Memphis," and the Tuohys, the rich white family who takes him in (p. 292).

I've read at least one article disagreeing with Lewis' account of football history, but The Blind Side is still worth reading. Fascinating, especially if you're a football fan, with great anecdotes from legends like Bill Parcells. The human interest side of the story is pretty good, too. Lewis has such a conversational way of describing events and a knack for capturing the little details in brief turns of phrase that tell you more about a person than other writers can manage in a paragraph, that you are immediately drawn into the narrative, and the intersecting lives of Oher and the Tuohys.

For more sports books you might enjoy, check out the Okay to Read without a Cup booklist here at Guys Lit Wire.

And as for Michael Oher, he was drafted on Saturday, in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens.

[cross posted at The YA YA YAs]

Friday, April 24, 2009

Duke Elric (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Vol. 4)

If you didn't know any better, you might glance at the cover of one of Michael Moorcock's "Elric" books and dismiss it as some ridiculously derivative sword-and-sorcery story. The only problem with that assessment is that Moorcock (a Nebula Grand Master and one of the godfathers of SF) was the guy who literally *coined the term* "sword-and-sorcery"--and it's the many books and cultural references that followed that are derivative of the ur-anti-hero and proto-goth Elric, the brooding albino emperor of Melbinoné and wielder of the soul-devouring sword Stormbringer.

A classic Michael Whelan cover.

Along with writers like Fritz Leiber and L. Sprague de Camp, Moorock defined the genre, continuing in the '60s, '70s, and beyond what Robert E. Howard had started way back in the '30s with his Conan the Barbarian stories.

The latest Elric collection just came out in paperback last month, and it includes the 1976 novella The Sailor on the Seas of Fate--which Michael Chabon calls a "minor masterpiece" in his enthusiastic foreword. Chabon praises the novella for "packing" in...

...such diverting fare as speculation on ontology and determinism, gory subterranean duels with giant killer baboons, literary criticism (the murmuring soul-vampiric sword Stormbringer offers what is essentially a running commentary on the equivocal nature of heroic swordsmen in fiction), buildings that are really alien beings, and ruminations on the self-similar or endlessly reflective interrelationship of hero, writer, and reader...

Duke Elric has a bunch of other stuff going on, too, including some cool classic art, the script for an Elric graphic novel, a story from the Metatemporal Detective, and a 1963 article in which Moorcock describes how he basically gets high from reading 18th and 19th century Gothic novels. You can read a preview here:

Or, of course, you can't go wrong doing what I did in high school and picking up Elric's story from the beginning. Michael Chabon has apparently been a fan since he was 14, and he sums up the appeal at that time perfectly:

"... I found profound comfort in feeling that I shared in the nature of lost and wandering Elric, isolate but still hungering for connection, herocially curious, apparently weak but capable of surprising power, unready and unwilling to sit on the moldering throne of his father's but having nothing certain to offer in its stead."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Post-Operation TBD Post

Speaking of Operation Teen Book Drop -

The second annual event, presented by readergirlz, GuysLitWire, and YALSA, was held last Thursday, April 16th, 2009 in honor of Teen Literature Day. Over 8,000 teen books were donated to pediatric hospitals all over the country. People were encouraged to drop books anywhere - libraries, skate parks, coffeehouses, bus stops, subways - as lucky finds for lucky readers, with bookplates pasted inside such as the one you see to the left of this text.

This was the first year GuysLitWire joined up. I hope GLW will be rocking the drop again next year.

How many of you participated? I'd love to hear which books you dropped, and where - Let me know in the comments below. If you have pictures, please share them!

Donating Books After the Storm

From the blog Justina Chen Headley, reposted with her permission.

Meet one of my writer-mentors, Nikki Grimes, a NY Times bestselling author and Coretta Scott King award winner. She is brilliant and fierce and 100% heart.

She called me last night to check in on me, shored me up with some solid advice, and then told me her chilling story. Just nine days after speaking at a school in Arkansas, the entire town was leveled by a hurricane. "Cherish every day," she told me. "Every day."

Nikki is a woman after my own heart. She is singlehandedly spearheading her own Operation Teen Book Drop by trying to replenish that school's devastated collection of young adult titles. So if you didn't rock the readergirlz drop and still have YA books lying around that are in need of a good home, consider sending a few of them here:

Jimma Holder
Literacy Specialist
Mena Public Schools
501 Hickory
Mena, AR 71953

Dope Sick by Walter Dean Myers

Reviewed by Steven Wolk

Recently I was inside a bookstore with my son. We were walking through the children's section, and standing before me was a large display of books, all by Walter Dean Myers. It would be one thing to comment on how prolific a writer Myers is. It seems he always has a new book out. Does the man ever sleep? But it is another thing entirely when you examine the scope of his writing. Fiction, non-fiction, picture books, poetry. His non-fiction ranges from Antarctica to Jazz, from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X. The scope of his fiction is breathtaking: from basketball (Game, Hoops, Slam!), to race and crime (Monster, Shooter, The Scorpions, Autobiography of My Dead Brother); from war stories (Fallen Angels, Sunrise Over Fallujah), to short stories (145th Street, What They Found: Love on 145th Street); from historical fiction (The Glory Field, The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins), to Shakespearean novels written in verse (Street Love).

Are there genres Myers has not tackled? Yes. Fantasy, science fiction, dystopia. But now there is Dope Sick, a book that subtly moves Myers into the fantastical elements of fiction. He uses magical realism to tell the story of Jeremy "Lil J" Dance, a seventeen year-old heroin addict in denial – about his life, his loves, his drug use. This is a short, provocative novel that should get readers thinking. Magical realism brings fantasy elements to otherwise realistic books. Another terrific young adult novel with magical realism is Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, about a gay high school boy whose town and high school celebrates homosexuality rather than condemns it.

Lil J is shot in the arm and on the run. After involvement in a drug deal gone bad that results in his friend shooting a police officer, Lil J is in a panic. Trying to get away he runs into an abandoned building. On his way to the roof, he comes across Kelly, a mysterious man sitting before a television. From this point forward, most of the book is a conversation between Lil J and Kelly, with occasional flashbacks to Lil J's life.

The magical realism involves Kelly's TV. That set (and his remote control), have the power to show scenes from Lil J's life, including – if set to fast forward – his horrifying future up on that roof if he chooses to go that route. Through watching scenes of his life and his back-and-forth with Kelly, Lil J gets some time to reconsider some of the decisions he’s made. This is often a painful, difficult, and courageous thing for anyone to do, let alone a young adult hooked on heroin with a gun in his pocket and a shot cop in the hospital. You don't have to be involved with drugs or crime to place yourself in Lil J's shoes. About halfway through the book a question popped into my head: If I could watch myself on TV and see some of things I've done and said before I did them, would I not do them? The answer is obvious. Absolutely. That's a rather chilling thought.

The ending of Dope Sick will be debated. I was intrigued as I zipped through the book about how Myers would finish his story. Once you bring magical realism into a book, even realistic fiction, anything becomes possible. So Myers had virtually limitless ways to end Lil J's story. I’d say that right now – with finishing the book still somewhat fresh in my mind – that I was unhappy with his ending. Something about it felt too easy. But Dope Sick is a quick, fascinating, and thought-provoking read that can encourage us to question the decisions we make and the actions we take each day as we work our way through our lives. Lil J may be on the run from the police and in denial about dope, but we can all benefit from Kelly's magical TV.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Feed, by M.T. Anderson, is not a pleasant read. But it’s an important read.

The are two main differences between the world of FEED and our world today. First there are flying cars and second you don’t need to use a computer, because you’ve got UNLIMITED Internet access via a feed directly to your brain. You can chat, watch movies, buy stuff, and anything else right there in your brain.

If any of that sounds good then you REALLY need to read Feed, because it’s not good, it’s hell.

Feed is a book about how bad things are going to be in the future. You’ll get everything you want and more. And if you ever stop wanting something for a second, the Feed will remind you of the many great values that are ON SALE NOW!

I think Feed deserves a place amongst the Great Dystopian Books -- 1984 and Brave New World are clearly on that list, other books arguably have a place. I like The Futurological Congress, you may like Do Androids Dream…

Feed should probably move to the front of the list, because there’s a certain urgency to it. It feels like it’s getting closer and closer to reality with every twitter tweet.

In 1984, people are ruled by a totalitarian government. Snore.

In Brave New World, people are ruled by a benevolent government which seeks to iron out all our problems by getting rid of stressful stuff like intelligence.

Feed has some similarities to Brave New World, but rather than being ruled by a government, we’re trodden down by corporations -- their only tools are the Feed and our own greed.
That’s what makes the book SO painful to read. Our “hero” can make the right choices any time he wants. There’s no Big Brother to stop him, he just has to resist the Feed a little. You’ll be begging him to resist the Feed and he’ll be busy thinking about how great it is to have access to information about the latest styles of cargo pants.

Can he resist the Feed? That may be beside the point. The real point is: can WE resist the Feed? In the book, it’s very hard to switch off the Feed. In real life we can switch it off any time we want. But we don’t.

A couple of notes:
The book is loaded with profanity, both futuristic and 2009 cussing.

I listened to the audiobook version and it is incredible. A pitch-perfect reading by David Aaron Baker and extremely abrasive excerpts from the Feed really immerse you in this horrible, horrible society.

As a novel, I don’t think Feed is as good as Anderson’s masterful “Octavian Nothing.” (Admittedly, that’s a tough book to get compared to.) However, Feed - like Brave New World -- is more than a novel; it’s a warning.

Living in a small town of large characters

Earlier this year, Joe Cottonwood released his book Boone Barnaby (now out of print) on podcast where it can be easily downloaded and enjoyed by the masses. Here's the SLJ review from 1992:

Boone Barnaby, the narrator of this warmly engaging story of innocence and experience, describes his relationship with his best friend, Danny; and Babcock, the new kid with one name who becomes the much needed eleventh player on their soccer team and a close, talented, and valued friend. Boone and his friends live in a run-down, near-coastal California town just across the mountain from the prosperous, Volvo-infested silicon valley where Boone's computer engineer father commutes to work. One of the book's most colorful characters is the soccer coach, who rides a Harley and fires his .44 magnum to start the team's trashathon fund raiser to clean up San Puerco. The town goose and a pack of dogs also play supporting roles, as does a redwood tree that looks over their small town and lends a helpful perspective. Hippies vs. yuppies, UFOs, discussions about the '60s draft, and drugs all enter into the mix as Boone and his friends struggle to find out what's fair--a theme that runs throughout the book. The resolution rights the wrongs, yet leaves open a variety of problems to be faced in the search for justice that will continue throughout the lives of these characters. A book that is resplendent with humor, irony, thoughtful introspection, and well-paced plotting.

I like what Joe had to say at his site about the book way more though:

There's some discussion of the Vietnam War as a less-than-noble endeavor. There's a father who smoked marijuana, didn't go crazy, and didn't go to jail. The word "fart" appears once. And one of Boone's friends has a "stepmom" who is living unwedded with a man. Shocking, isn't it? None of these items have much to do with a story that actually promotes rock solid family values. The book is in school libraries everywhere. Teachers read it aloud to their classes. Kids—and parents—send me e-mail saying "Thank you for writing this," and sometimes asking fascinating questions. It's for these things that I write, and keep on writing...

You can download a pdf of the book at Joe's site or catch the podcast here. You can also read the book's first chapter at Joe's site.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Project Sweet Life by Brent Hartinger

The great summer that Dave, Victor and Curtis have planned is about to be ruined. Apparently their fathers do not realize that in the summer of your 15th year, getting a job is supposed to be optional. It should be their last summer of sleeping in,playing video games and hanging out at the beach. Instead the three friends are forced to get jobs and make money.

Dave decides this is the worst thing ever, so the friends plot to quickly make the money they would have made in their jobs and then slack away the rest of the summer. Of course, all of this goes wildly awry and Dave has to do more work keeping up appearances than if he just took his fake life guarding job in the first place.

This is a fun book about spending the summer with friends, creating crazy schemes and learning responsibility. Hartinger injects a great sense of humor into his characters and their camaraderie is quite convincing. The plot is not exactly realistic yet Project Sweet Life is a light, fun read.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Drop was Rocked!

The fabulous readergirlz dropping books at Children's Hospital in Seattle. GLW participated by helping to hook-up some pubs with the girlz and get more books to more sick kids. As the second component of Teen Book Day, lots of folks left books for teens in places across the country - I hope some found them in YOUR neighborhoods and are reading tonight.

King of the Screwups

You know what they say, "Nobody's good at everything, but everybody's good at something." What if your "thing", your big talent, was screwing up over and over again? Meet Liam Geller, King of the Screwups. To be fair, Liam is good at lots of things, like knowing how to put together the perfect outfit, and having girls fall for him, and being Mr. Popularity without even working at it. Unfortunately, none of these things matters to his dad, the super-successful CEO of MoneyVision. He wants Liam to smarten up, stop his "delinquent" behaviour and start seriously thinking about his future. All of this comes to a crisis point when Liam crosses the line in a big way and gets caught in the act. He gets kicked out of the house and his father's brother, a gay glam-rocker DJ, gives him a place to stay for a while. The place? A trailer in upstate New York. His new roommate? "Aunt" Pete. Liam decides this is exactly the opportunity he needs to become the son his father always wanted. He is going to be a huge nerd and make his father proud... or will he screw that up too?

K.L. Going succeeds brilliantly with King of the Screwups, offering readers pure satisfaction in this hilarious and charming portrait of imperfection. Liam's story might seem like one you've read before, the "coming-of-age / stuck-in-a-small town" narrative that is built for both comic and heart-warming moments, but Going takes it all to a new level. A huge part of the strength of the story is Liam's voice - he's sharp, super-funny but still realistic, and self-deprecating. He's not the only memorable character. "Aunt Pete" is a complete original, and the relationship between uncle and nephew is one of the most entertaining and heartwarming aspects of the novel. This novel offers more than great comedy. It takes a critical look at how parental expectations can damage a kid's sense of identity and really mess up a family. I also think the book could inspire interesting conversation about definitions of masculinity and what it means to be popular. Bottom line? A book that makes you think and entertains on every page.

King of the Screwups reminded me of the best kind of quirky indie movie, where the character keeps struggling because he can't get out of his own way, but then in the end, he realizes that his way of doing things has been the right way for him all along. Read King of the Screwups to find out how Liam stumbles his way to enlightenment.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Author Interviews, part II: Terra McVoy

Okay, so, a good friend of yours writes a book. And it's a girl book--full on, pink cover and everything. But you want to be nice, so you read it so you can give her your opinion. But then something weird happens. You like the book, despite the pink, despite the teen girl characters. Even, it seems, despite the fact that the author is your friend.

This is what happened to me with Pure, Terra McVoy's new YA novel. I like it enough that I've actually said to a mutual friend, "I like Terra and all, but Pure is a really good book!"

Anyways, she's now in the midst of a full-on book promotion blitz, but I had some time to ply her with a few questions. Interview after the jump--

Terra Elan McVoy's first novel, Pure, is about a group of high school girls who, back when they were in middle school, took purity pledges--promised before their friends and their church youth groups leaders and their parents, to keep their virginity until marriage. They all wear "purity rings," symbols of this pledge, and in a way, symbols of their friendship. Only now they're in high school, and things have changed--like the fact that one of them decides that she doesn't need to be quite so pure...

From the description, and from the book cover, you can probably tell that the guyslitwire readership is not exactly the main audience for Pure. But I love this book for two reasons, and both are tied into the fantastic characterization on the author's part. First, these girls are real. They've got their drama, but they aren't the empty, one-issue, one-care, one-dimensional characters that seem to populate books in the same category. Second, as much as the plot screams S-E-X!, the book is really about faith, and I can't think of another YA book that handles characters with faith quite as well as this.

Guys, I may not be able to convince you to go out and buy this book, but if you have a chance--if you see it in the library, or your sister or friend has it lying around, then make a cover for it (like this, or maybe design one on a website like this, where I made this funny image) and read it. Anyways, here's what author Terra Elan McVoy had to say:

Justin: Given that this is primarily a book directed at a teen girl audience, what might a teen guy get from reading Pure? Put another way, nowadays there are so many books for so many different demographics of teens and adults, why read outside that at all?

Terra: I totally agree that there is a lot of amazing stuff out there to read, and honestly far be it from me to keep guys from those books! But I do hope that some guys read Pure, mainly because I know that they struggle with all kinds of pressures to fall in line with everyone else, just the same as girls. So since this book is mainly about making your own decisions—about how hard it can be to figure out what you really believe without the influence of friends or family, it’s my hope that there are one or two guys out there who can relate to that. (Even if it is wrapped in a superpink cover.)

Justin: I connected so much with the characters in your book, especially the direct, honest way they wrestle with their faith. It felt very fresh to me, in part because other books I read that touch on religion or faith, whether aimed at a YA or an adult audience, seem to treat the subject in a very pat way--religion is either good or bad, it either has all the answers or none at all. What's up with that, and was that in your head at all when you wrote Pure?

Terra: Well I think you say it perfectly when you mention that people often think of religion as either good or bad, all or nothing, without acknowledging the whole messy gray lot in the middle that most people of faith find themselves in. I think that in the last decade we’ve heard very loud voices from both extremes, while the sort of “normal” person—the person who’s wanting to be true to his faith (or perhaps discover it), but is finding that occasionally kind of difficult—doesn’t get heard much. Before I started writing I found this crazy statistic that said some huge number of teenagers were actively involved in their churches. And I was like, “Where’s the book for that kid? The one juggling youth group and mission trips and getting a driver’s license and sports and dating and curfews and all that?” That’s a hard kid to be, and is who I wanted to give some voice to in Pure, absolutely.

Justin: Pure, from the book description, sounds like it could be a "social issue" novel, but I write above how you steer clear of having the "hook" define the characters and everything they do, and instead let the characters stand on their own. Why do you think there are so many books coming out now that are based around "problems with teens today," and, to be frank, why are a large number of these books so bad?

Terra: Well I’m not sure I can speak in great sweeping statements about the quality of what’s out there, but in my long life with literature, it’s been my impression that teen books love to focus on teen problems in general, partly because that’s what teens have always wanted to read. Look at The Outsiders, or A Separate Peace—there’s some high high drama in those books! And melodrama is hard to pull off, no matter how you slice it. But to get to the root of your question, I think the difference now is that teen culture has become popular culture, so us adults are a lot more aware of all of it. Also there are fewer obstacles now to writing about more extreme problems—problems like suicide and sex and cutting and drugs—so you see more books about those topics. But I don’t think teens are necessarily more troubled today than they used to be. Look at Holden Caufield! He’s essentially the first teenager in literature, and he’s in a mental institution! We are just in a freer society where we can discuss the issues more openly, and in more gross detail.

Justin: When we were teens, I think there were more books aimed at guys than at gals. Nowadays, that seems reversed. Were there any books you read at the time that might have been considered "boy books" that you loved or deeply affected you?

Terra: Well I always kind of associate fantasy books with boys—even though I know a lot of girls who are into fantasy and sci-fi —and when I was in high school I of course got into Stephen King (his short stories were my favorite) and also Dean R. Koontz. One of my favorite books then (that is still one of my favorites now) was The Talisman that King co-wrote with Peter Straub. In so many ways that’s like the perfect fantasy novel. I also read this book by Robert McCammon called Swan Song that is, I swear, one of my top 20 favorite books, ever. Lord of the Flies is pretty boyish and that had a big affect on me too of course. But I realize these are all “adult” books that I’m saying. To be honest, I don’t think I ever read any “YA” books for boys, except maybe A Separate Peace—but I don’t even know guys who like that book.

Justin: Finally, you also manage a kidslit bookstore. What do you say to the whole notion that guys don't read? Is it about the books being written, the books being published, the way books are presented to teen guys, all of the above or none? Or, asked another way, who or what is standing between guys and great books: parents and their expectations? Teachers and their crappy assignments? Booksellers and librarians for their misguided assumptions? Give us a scapegoat.

Terra: For one thing, guys do read. I know they do. But I think they are shier about it than girls. I mean, one of the biggest differences that I’ve observed (not that I’m an expert) between boys and girls is that girls often like to be more socially vocal about what they’re doing, and how they feel about it. And books are kind of one of those things where everyone wants to know all about what you’re reading and, more importantly, what you think about it. So I imagine that part of what can turn guys off from books is all the talking that can go on around them. You can’t just, like, read a book and love it or hate it. If your mom sees you reading something she’ll be all like, “What are you reading? What do you like about it? Who’s it by?” and try to engage you for 45 minutes. But if she sees you playing a video game she’ll just roll her eyes and tell you your 20 minutes are almost up or whatever. So, if you aren’t reading, you can be left alone a little more. I mean, a book can kind of be an invitation for a conversation, right? And one of the things I really dig about a lot of guys is how they really can handle their own solitude—how they are just okay with it in this great way instead of constantly needing some chattering companion. And while I’m not thrilled about making big sexist generalizations, I think if we just give guys access to books that they care about (and there are tons and tons of possibilities), and then leave them alone and not bug them with a bunch of discussion questions about how they feel, then we’ll see them reading more. It won’t have to be a big secret for them.

At least, that’s what I think. And you know what they say about opinions! But thank you so much for these questions, Justin—this was really fun!

Thank you Terra. Especially for the clever and graceful way you avoided the pitfalls of my leading questions, leaving me exposed as the curmudgeony ass I'm getting to be in my late thirties!

You can find Terra's website here, and her book anywhere books are sold (including your local independent bookseller). As a final aside, she has the most expansive knowledge of picture books, chapter books, middle-grade and YA books of anyone I know, and if you're ever stuck for a recommendation, she's the best at coming up with exactly the right book for whatever mood you're in.

Author Interviews part I: Alan Gratz

Today I've got two great interviews with authors. The first post is an interview with Alan Gratz, author of The Brooklyn Nine, Samurai Shortstop, and his great mystery series starring the hard-boiled, ever-hopeful teen detective Horatio Wilkes, which includes the books Something Rotten and Something Wicked.

The second is with first time author and good friend Tara McVoy, whose new YA novel, Pure just came out in hardback. So, without further ado, Alan Gratz after the jump!

Last month, I reviewed Alan's newest book, a baseball epic titled The Brooklyn Nine. A friend asked me what it was about, and, after I described it, he said, "So is it like James Michener?" I wanted to say no, but the more I thought about it, the book is structured like a Michener novel--only not nearly so sprawling because of his tight, baseball-inspired format: Nine generations of kids in Brooklyn, 150 years of Brooklyn baseball. As I mentioned last month, I think this book is awesome. Anyways, despite our hectic schedules (I think Alan was on a book tour at the time) we found time to exchange some questions and answers:

Justin:What was your inspiration for Brooklyn Nine? This is probably the most cliched question ever, but I ask it here because the book is so distinct-- Nine generations, nine distinct stories, yet still a novel. I guess I'm wondering what came first, the story, the structure, the characters...?

Alan: In this case, the structure of the novel came first. That's unusual for me, and The Brooklyn Nine turned out to be an unusual--and challenging!--project for me. The idea of nine generations as nine "innings" in a book seemed like a fun idea, and I knew I wanted to begin with modern baseball's beginnings in the 1840s. Beyond that, the only time period I really worked hard to hit was the 1940s, so I could get a girl in there playing baseball in the pro women's league that emerged during World War II. For the rest of the innings, I let the family's natural generations dictate the time and place of each story as much as I could. Some of the time periods I then had to learn more about--the 1890s, the early 1900s, the 1920s--ended up being some of my favorites, even though I had zero idea what I'd be writing about when I began my research. I looked at each era in terms of Brooklyn history, baseball history, and American history, and tried to find the most interesting--and untold--stories from those times. Sometimes that meant staying away from good stories that had already been told--in particular, Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and the Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series. Both of those events were hugely important to the nation and to Brooklyn itself, but I had other stories of race and victory I wanted to tell.

In some of the eras, I struggled to decide which story to tell. The other factor in all this was of course the history of Snider/Flint family, and I had to make sure that each story was always about them, not about baseball or America or Brooklyn. Those things had to provide the backdrop, but the stories had to belong to the kids. That was a difficult thing to remember sometimes. :-) I ended up rewriting one or two "innings" over and over again until I found the kids' stories.

I should also add that I looked to my own family's history for inspiration in this novel. The Gratz family history is certainly not as exciting as the Snider/Flint family history, but my family can trace our line back to Louis A. Gratz, who immigrated from Germany to America in the 1860s and worked his way up in the Union Army before settling down to start a family in Knoxville, Tennessee--where I'm from. Louis is partially the inspiration for the kids in the first and second innings, and the boy fighting in the Civil War is named after him. Later, I used my father's experiences growing up in the 50s to help me write "Duck and Cover," and I used my own childhood memories to write the 1981 inning. (Although I was most definitely not a good baseball player...)

Justin: This is your second baseball novel. Your first, Samurai Shortstop,
isn't exactly your average baseball book either. What's your connection to the sport, and why write about it? Is it a challenge to create a "new" baseball story?

Alan: I played youth baseball off and on as a kid, but I was never very good at it. I became a bigger baseball fan in high school, and I even worked out over a summer to try out for the varsity team my senior year--but of course by that time athletes at that level have been playing consistently since they were kids, and I didn't have much of a chance. I was also pretty heavily into fantasy baseball then--and this was back in the day before web-based games, when we used to send off our weekly moves to a stat service that would mail back hard copies with our team stats on them! But my fondest memories have to be getting home from school and plopping down on the couch to watch afternoon Cubs games on WGN, even though I was a Reds fan. Baseball was made to be played in the bright summer sun.

As to why I write about it--and why baseball seems to be written about in fiction more than any other sport--that's a more difficult question. In Samurai Shortstop, I saw baseball as a way to bridge the cultural gap between an Eastern culture and Western readers. Because so little of 1890s Japanese culture would make sense to my readers, it helped to have at least one area of common ground--and that common ground was the dirt of a baseball diamond. Even if nothing else about the Meiji Era makes sense to my Western readers, the baseball will--it's their gateway into that world.

In The Brooklyn Nine, baseball's long and storied past worked as a parallel to a family's history. I think that's what drew me to baseball in this case--that it's been around so long, and is filled with ups and downs, triumph and tragedy, joy and heartache, just like the generations in a family. I'm certainly not the first writer to see those aspects in it. But baseball, like most family histories, doesn't have an overall story. It doesn't have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (At least I hope it doesn't have an end.) It's a series of smaller stories, linked by a shared heritage. Everything that has come before has shaped the present, and the present will only shape what is to come after that, and after that. I don't want to get too mystical about it--it is, after all, a professional sport, with all the greed and cold-hearted business practices that go with it--but since its inception, baseball has captured the imaginations and loyalty of its players and fans, and that will always lend it an air of enchantment.

Justin: You wait a long time (multiple generations) before giving us full-on, play-by-play baseball. I thought this really amped up the tension and drama of the game. So what makes for good baseball fiction? Does baseball inherently make for good stories? Who's written the best baseball fiction, in your opinion?

Alan: Believe it or not, I hadn't originally planned to ever tell a story in The Brooklyn Nine that was just a baseball story--that is, a story that takes place entirely on the baseball field. But I came to realize the book needed that, and the eighth inning seemed the perfect place for it. I had avoided a purely baseball story because I wanted the novel to be about so much more than just baseball, and the way to do that, I felt, was to keep baseball in the background, ever-present, but never the story itself. But in the eighth inning, baseball is the story. Michael, the boy pitching the perfect game, realizes that in the end. It's not about him, or his friends, or the opposing team; this story is baseball's story, and he's just a part of it. After saying the opposite thing all along--that baseball was just a part of this family's story--it felt great to pull back and offer a counterpoint to that. That baseball is something bigger than all of us, something eternal, a perfection and purity we can only hope to taste. But there I go getting all mystical again.

What makes good baseball fiction? That's tough. Just how much drama can be drawn from a baseball diamond day after day? I suppose that's a question Major League Baseball tries to answer. As I point out in Samurai Shortstop, there's the one-on-one drama of pitcher versus batter in every out, and then the larger drama of the team living and dying together. It seems to be both an individual sport and a team sport at the same time, where single heroes can appear bigger than their teams, but cannot win without the help of their teammates. Perhaps all team sports are like that, but baseball seems to highlight it more than others. So there's lots of drama to be found on the diamond, but are there any new stories to tell there? Can we find anything novel in a sport that has been around for almost two hundred years? I suppose that's like asking if there are no new boy-meets-girl stories to tell. Boys and girls have been meeting and falling in love since the dawn of life, but it seems we can find endless permutations in the formula. Perhaps baseball is the same. Ultimately, I guess, it's not really about the baseball, just as a romance isn't really about the romance. It's about the characters--and the characters are always new.

Who's written the best baseball fiction? I really enjoyed John Ritter's The Boy Who Saved Baseball, and was surprised it didn't earn recognition by the Newbery committee the year it came out. Michael Chabon's Summerland was a lot of fun. I also loved James Sturm's The Golem's Mighty Swing, a graphic novel about a barnstorming Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David. For non-fiction, George Will's Men at Work, Robert Whiting's You Gotta Have Wa, and Robert Adair's The Physics of Baseball are all great explorations on a theme. And dare I mention Samurai Shortstop and The Brooklyn Nine? :-) There are lots more, of course, but those are some of my favorites.

Thanks Alan! Here's a link to his website, which has info about all his books, including some interesting extras and background material.

Coming next: my interview with author Terra McVoy...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The messy, brilliant origins of Indiana Smith... er... Jones

In 1978, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan got together for several brainstorming sessions about a movie with a "Clark Gable-type" who carries a whip. The result was, of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark. They recorded the marathon sessions, then had them typed up. Recently, the transcript found its way onto the internet, where you can download it here.

Okay, first a little fanboy hyperventilating. When Indiana Jones made it to the theaters (and then repeated endlessly on the new-fangled VHS machines we had back then) I was at the prime age for him to be so much more than a movie character. Running around on the playground, bullwhipping Nazis then swinging to safety, was an integral part of my childhood, ranking in importance somewhere between my mother's love and the pet turtle I kept in a cardboard box on the front porch.

To a guy like me, this is just incredible. I love that Spielberg hated the name "Indiana." I love reading the initial brain spark that leads Lucas to the final shot in the movie. He rambles for pages coming up with not much of anything. Then out of nowhere, he says, "The end sort of, is that he takes the Ark... It's crated up, no one even looks at it. They crate it up put it in an Army warehouse somewhere. That's how it ends, very bureaucratic... The bureaucracy is the big winner in the film."

(I also think it's interesting that that final iconic scene is one of the very first they come up with.)

But even if you're not humming John Williams' score thirty years later, this is still a pretty amazing document. Nobody really knows what was going through Shakespeare's head while he was writing Midsummer Night's Dream, or when Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. But here is 125 pages of three artists at the top of their games working through the creative process in all it's messy, manic beauty.

They start with the spirit of the thing. They know they want to recreate the adventure serials that had been integral parts of their childhoods, and build a movie around that idea.

Nobody bothers with actual research until pretty late in the game. Before that, they're just spitballing ideas as fast as they can. Most of what they come up never made it into the final film. They initially imagined Indy as a bounty hunter instead of an archeologist, which would have sucked. Also, at one point he was going to fight both Nazis and samurai warriors, which would have been so awesome my six-year-old eyeballs might have burst into flame.

Two Nasty Poetry Collections

These two aren't particularly new, but they are vastly entertaining, each in their own way.

First up, Revolting Rhymes, from Roald Dahl, author of such classics as James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

As you might expect from Dahl, his take on well-known fairy tales is a bit, well, twisted. In Revolting Rhymes, Dahl presents us with fractured and semi-frightening versions of six favorite fairy tales, told in rhyming verse. He begins the "real" story of Cinderella (in which the Prince proves to be a homicidal maniac), Jack and the Beanstalk (the moral of the story? "take a bath"), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (actually, seven ex-jockeys with a betting habit), Goldilocks and the Three Bears (about Goldie's breaking and entering), Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (in which Red goes a-hunting), and the Three Little Pigs (in which Red goes a-hunting again). Some of the words used dabble in the four-letter variety of the naughty type (not of the "George Carlin dirty words" type, but still, "hell" and "slut" and others make an appearance); as a result, some folks have asked for it to be banned and/or relegated to the adult section. But if you liked Dahl's stories when you were a kid, his poems are just the thing for you.

My second selection today was designed for an older crowd, and includes some truly revolting rhyme from folks who generally write fantasy, science fiction and horror:

If you like slightly naughty, decidedly macabre poems (and who doesn't?), check out Now We Are Sick: An Anthology of Nasty Verse, edited by Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones, with illustrations by Andrew Smith and Clive Barker. The poems are from thirty of the world's best-known sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers. Most of them are somewhat funny (in a very black-humor sort of way). I am particularly fond of Galad Elflandsson's pirate poem The Good Ship "Revenger", Something Came Out of the Toilet by Harriet Adam Knight,the delightful Things that Go Bump in the Night by Ian Pemble and Diann Wynn Jones's A Slice of Life, which evokes a Sweeney Todd-like school lunch program.

Here's a sample from "Something Came Out of the Toilet" by Harry Adam Knight:

Something came out of the toilet,
Slimy and shiny and thick.
It looked like a gelatinous drainpipe
And smelled quite distinctly of sick.

It had some sort of hole at its top end
Like a mouth or a hollowed-out eye
Or a nostril that maybe it ate with
Or an ear through which it might spy.

Now We Are Sick is separated into the following sections: "Nasty Habits", "In Loving Memory", "Less Welcome Tenants", "Night Fears", and "Adults Only", and it is bookended by an "Introduction" and and "Epilogue". Many of the poems contain humorous content (of a sort); all of them include material that some (okay, many) people will find objectionable or disturbing, which is part of what makes this collection so much, well, fun.

For the Lewis Carroll fans out there, I particularly recommend "You Are Dead, Father William" by Colin Greenland (who specifically says his poem is "After Lewis Carroll" - Carroll's poem, "You Are Old, Father William" was actually a parody of Robert Southey's poem, "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them"). Here's how Greenland's parody starts:

"You're deceased, Father William," the young man said,
"And your skin has become very green.
But you stroll down the boulevard toting your head:
Don't you think this is a trifle a obscene?"

"In my youth," grinned the spectre, "I read many books
By Campbell and Barker and King
Which convinced me that lipless, cadaverous looks
were demonstrably every year's thing."

Monday, April 13, 2009


Don't forget that this week is Teen Book Drop week where readers, authors and illustrators are asked to "rock the drop" and leave a book where a teen can find it. From the readergirlz blog:

You know rgz, GuysLitWire, YALSA, and publishers are dropping 8,000 new young-adult novels, audiobooks, and graphic novels into hospitals for teens across the country on April 16th, 2009.

Now it's time to focus on YOU! We invite all of you teen readers and YA authors to participate in Operation TBD. Help spur reading on a national scale! Leave a YA book in a public place on April 16th. Look at the joy you can share when a teen finds your book!

So what right now? You need a bookplate!

Click for bookplates!

Then leave a comment here telling us what you are going to drop in your community. Want to tell us where? Think about taking a photo when you drop your book. You can upload it during the TBD Post-Op Party, a live chat in another blog post that night at 6 PM Pacific/9 PM Eastern. You never know who you might bump into...

Are you an author? Drop a comment here with your title and link to your site. We'd love to celebrate your work as you leave a free copy in your town! Mark your calendar for the Post-Op Party.

Spread the news about this blog! Report in now to rock the drop!

Are You A Record Breaker?

If you’re anything like me, you spent some period in your life thinking that The Guinness Book of World Records was the coolest book ever. It wasn’t a book that was ever assigned in school, and it didn’t even need to be read straight through! It’s a book that folks keep going back to for fact checking, to get ideas of crazy things to try, or just see what wacky fact you can find to impress your friends with. And those pictures! The man with the beard of bees. The guy with the long fingernails. The tallest, shortest, fattest, fastest, highest—Guinness had it all (and still does). We’re all familiar with the Guinness Book. But do you know how it came about, how it has evolved over the years? What does it take to get IN to the book? Getting Into Guinness: One Man’s Longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World’s Most Famous Record Book won’t get you any closer to breaking a record yourself just by reading it, but reading it just might inspire you to try.

Larry Olmsted takes a multi-pronged approach in his (unofficial and unsanctioned by the Guinness people) look at Guinness. He chronicles the humble beginnings of the book as a marketing ploy for the beer company (yes, that IS where the name came from) to help settle bar bets and arguments in pubs all over Ireland and Britain to its current status as the world's best-selling copyrighted book. Along with this history, Olmsted talks about the evolution of the book itself, how categories and focus have changed over the years, and about some of the most unique records and record breakers. Some of the most interesting chapters recount Olmsted’s own attempts to set and break his own records—one for golf, and one for marathon poker playing. One of the final chapters recounts dangerous Guinness pursuits, some of which have now been retired as records, or banned entirely. Alas, the rules officials seem to be working with their own special logic when it comes to “too dangerous”. While tug of war, kissing cobras, and “youngest” anything (surgeon, pilot) are no longer considered, categories like keeping planes from taking off with your bare hands and dangling poisonous snakes from your mouth are still ok. The appendices at the end of the book are fun to read by themselves, and quite interesting. Olmsted details some of his favorite records in one, and another is a timeline of the book and its evolution, from its conception in 1954 to the company’s February 2008 sale to the same company that owns rival Ripley’s Entertainment (of Believe it Or Not fame). Recent years have seen more of an emphasis on celebrities and on color photographs, but even in its earlier years, Guinness evolved by putting more emphasis on human achievements (rather than mechanical or natural world ones), because that is what people wanted. And people always wanted more! From copycat books to television shows all over the world, Guinness World Records has reaches most corners of the globe. Arguably, the Guinness Book and accompanying television shows featuring record breakers and record attempts were the beginning of what we know today as reality TV. But you might be most interested in the chapter about what it really takes to get your name into the book. Olmsted details the process of applying to break a record (or having a new one accepted), all of which must be done through the Guinness web site, with further communication occurring via fax. He gives some helpful hints, though there will never be a guarantee that your record will be approved (or broken by someone else first!), and even if it is approved, and you achieve your goal, only about 10 % of records are actually published in the book! You might be particularly interested in checking out the new Guinness Gamer’s Edition. Getting Into Guinness is a fun read whether you just want to learn more about the history of the book and the people involved in creating it and making it famous, or if you have a special skill that you think just might make you a record breaker yourself. Start growing those fingernails now!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tough Little Canadian

Seems like a good time to talk about Wolverine, as his movie is going to be leading off the imminent season of summer blockbusters. Star of movies, cartoons and pretty much every monthly comic Marvel produces, there's not much doubt that he's the most popular super-hero around. Why? I figure it's got a lot to do with the fact that he's about the toughest thing around, though his life has basically been one horrible, torturous loss after another (and nothing makes a better hero than fighting on when things are at their darkest). That and his claws. People really seem to love those claws.

With the movie in mind, I encourage you to have a look at Weapon X (by Windsor-Smith), which was the very first attempt to attribute some kind of origin to the little Canadian. Part of his appeal, no doubt, was the fact that his past was steeped in mystery, and this story cleverly reveals a little, but not too much. What we have here is basically the tale of the nefarious Weapon X project as it carries out a grim experiment on this feral mutant which, in the end, goes horribly, horribly awry. You get tantalizing snatches of Wolverine's background and the full explanation of the admantium bones and claws so central to the character's mythology. The art, by the way, is appropriately sinewy and gritty and recalls Windsor-Smith's early work on another savage hero, none other than Conan the Barbarian.

While you're at it, have a look at Wolverine: Origin (by Jenkins and Kubert). This one went much further back and examined Logan's earliest life, covering not only the discovery of his mutant powers, but also the secret of his relationship with archenemy Sabretooth (also appearing in the movie) and explains why Wolverine has a soft spot for red-heads.

The movie script delved deeply into both those books for inspiration. But, if you're lo
oking for the best Wolverine story out there, that's got to be Wolverine Volume 1 (by Claremont and Miller), which collects his first solo miniseries from 1982. This is two superstar creators (Claremont made the X-Men what they are today and Frank Miller, well, between Dark Knight Returns, Sin City and 300, I can't imagine you don't know who he is) working at the absolute height of their talents. Wolverine goes to Japan and winds up tangling with the deadly Ninja clan known as The Hand, as well as a beautiful assassin who maybe friend or foe, or even both. This truly shows Wolverine off at his best, when he was still cloaked in mystery, when his tough, noir-ish voice-over felt fresh and crackled with menace. This has got a seriously brutal final battle, which powerfully reflects the character's dark nature, and it has a last panel that will make you shake your head in surprise.

Right, so, there's your Wolverine. Next month, the the subject of the movie I'm most excited about this summer: Star Trek.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Interview with Joshua Mowll, creator of Operation Storm City

If you were intrigued at all by my post last week about Operation Storm City, go check out the interview I just did with the UK author/artist behind the series, Joshua Mowll.

He was also kind enough to send me some cool images from the book, too--which you can check out in the Q&A--like this schematic of a zoridium bomb:

Maximum War Game

I don't normally read manga. I'm 55, okay? But I had to. I mean I had no choice. This manga is different. It's about go.

Hikaru No Go features a boy who finds a go board while exploring in the attic. The go board is possessed by the ghost of an ancient Japanese go master (Go is the national game of Japan. At Gobase, you can study games of today's masters, and games dating all the way back into the 1700s, as well!).

Hikaru learns to play from the ghost. Only Hikaru can see him, and Sai (the ghost) still loves to play.

I love this game. Anyone who enjoys games of strategy and tactics, such as chess, should learn to play go, IMHO. At the Chess and Go program at the local library, some of the regular players taught themselves the game by reading this manga series or watching the anime. But learning the rules is just the start, as Hikaru finds out. To play go well, you have to keep playing. As the series progresses, Hikaru gets better and better.

So how is go better than chess? Well, first, it's a game about conquering territory, much more like war than just capturing a king. And second - while a chess board has 64 squares, there are 361 points on a go board. There are way more possibilities to consider, offensively and defensively.

Try the manga. It's quite fun. And if you want to pursue go, Janice Kim's Learn to Play Go series, reviewed here last June, is an excellent introduction. I also like the four-volume series, Graded Go Problems for Beginners, though I haven't made it past volume 2 yet. I just have too much to read, you know?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How to Properly Stunt Your Growth

While I recognize that April is National Poetry Month it also happens to be the month that begins with one of my favorite non-holiday holidays: April Fool's Day. Is there anything more delicious than planning and pulling off that perfect prank, that preposterous practical joke? It seems such a shame that there's only one day a year dedicated to (mostly) good-natured frivolity; after all, they repackage Halloween candy as Christmas candy, and as Easter candy, and even in "fall colors."

But I think the problem is that it can be difficult to come up with the perfect stunt to pull off in a given situation. Putting a vacuum cleaner under someone's bed and waking them up with it instead of an alarm clock (as I did this year) doesn't work at a party, and similarly you can't pin a glass of water to the ceiling with your elderly aunt the way you could with younger sibling. Wouldn't it be great if someone could collect hundreds of these sorts of things, illustrate them in an amusing cartoon format, and present them in one volume with an index so you could look up the exact stunt you are looking for when you need it?

Ta da! I present you with Sam Bartlett's collection, The Best of Stuntology. Like the subtitle says, 304 pranks, tricks and challenges to amuse and annoy your friends.

I think the word "friends" is key here because you really ought to know who your audience is before performing some of these nifty little numbers. Some people have a lower tolerance for the absurd, where others just don't appreciate humor at their expense. It's too bad, because I do think at times like the world has lost it's sense of humor, and if only people could laugh (and laugh at themselves) more then maybe things would be alright. Then again, I'm not so sure how I'd feel if someone convinced me to try and catch a quarter in a funnel tucked into my waistband so they could pour a drink down my pants when I wasn't looking. I'd like to think I would laugh if someone could convince me to draw a moose with my eyes closed and tricked me into sticking my finger into peanut butter when I got to the "tail."

But Stuntology is more than pranks, as its name implies, and there are plenty of stunts that don't embarrass or otherwise deliberately set out to cause grief or hard feelings. Many, in fact, are participatory fun. One can, for example, engage in a conversation where each side only gets to say two words per sentence. Good fun. Not easy. Takes practice. Or you could dealing with some other annoying aspects of life via stunts. Say you've got a telemarketer on the phone and you can get past your immediate response to just hang up. Why not tuck your tongue between your teeth and lower lip and attempt to have a conversation until the person who called gives up in frustration?

One of the great things about this collection is the portability of the stunts. Of the stunts that require props, few involve items not commonly found around the house. It is entirely possible to keep a mental storeroom of a dozen or so stunts that you can perform at parties or while visiting other people's houses. No need to buy fancy gewgaws at the joke or hobby shop (or online), simply show up and become the life of the party!

The pranks are single-page mini comics and Bartlett's illustration style has a playful naive quality, filled with rubbery pranksters and patsies who convey the full range of emotions. And without being explicit, one can gather from the response of the cartoon victims what a prankster or stuntologist can expect - no claims of "but I didn't realize you'd get upset" will be accepted.

The Best of Stuntology
Pranks, Tricks & Challenges to Amuse & Annoy Your Friends
written and drawn by master trickster
Sam Bartlett
Workman 2008

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

We like to be fair. Most of us learned fairness on the playground and around board games. Fairness is further reinforced by our educators and schools, and then by the media which often tries to report “both sides” of a controversy. We hold these values dear. When I taught composition to freshman college students, the most commonly used sentence was “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

And of course I have to agree with this sentiment. I like fairness and I value open-mindedness very highly. But when fairness is exploited at the expense of truth, it’s time to re-evaluate. Being fair and open-minded does not mean giving equal weight to all ideas, it means giving proper weight to ideas based on the strength of the evidence and arguments supporting them.

I suspect that people, including school board members and educators, who consider Intelligent Design (or other variations of creationism) as an alternative to the theory of evolution mean well and are acting only in the interest of fairness and open-mindedness. But they are doing themselves and their students a great disservice. It’s like proposing the ideas of the Flat Earth Society as an alternative to the Spherical Earth Theory.

Jerry Coyne, in Why Evolution is True, complains that the story of evolution has not been told often enough or well enough, and that it is simple ignorance, even among scientists, of the extraordinary wealth of evidence in support of evolution, that leaves people susceptible to creationist ideas. The truth is that Intelligent Design proponents ask some intriguing questions of nature, the answers to which are anything but obvious (How could an eye evolve? Or a wing? How does a cow-like creature transition into a whale-like creature?). But what is largely unknown is that evolutionary thoerists have asked the very questions and come up with answers for them, answers that agree perfectly with the fossil record and with what evolutionary theory predicts. People simply need to be aware of all that evolutionary theory has allowed us to learn about the natural world.

The evidence Coyne outlines is vast and can leave no doubt in the reader that species evolved through natural selection very much as Darwin first established 150 years go (Happy Anniversary, Origin of Species!). Using the theory of evolution, scientists have repeatedly been able to predict the existence of extinct species and then have been able to find examples of those creatures in the fossil record, nearly exactly where the theory predicted. The power of selection has been clearly demonstrated by plant and animal breeders, who, in the course of a few thousand years, have been able through artificial selection to create chihuahuas, blood hounds, and great danes from a single species of wolf. Native American farmers bred corn from a species that resembles crab grass. Certainly these examples show the potential for modification through selection that exists in living species. What’s more, natural selection has been observed in real time in nature—on the Galopogas islands, finches responded to tougher seed husks by developing larger beaks in a mere ten years. Furthermore, natural selection and speciation have been demonstrated in the laboratory. In one experiment, new species of bacteria emereged in a laboratory environment in only weeks . Given all of this evidence, it becomes much less difficult to believe that the forces of natural selection, applied over hundreds of millions of years, could create the diversity of life on this planet and even lead ultimately to human beings.

Coyne never lays out exactly what the ideas of Intelligent Design and other creationists are. Rather he answers ID proponents and creationists point-by-point in passing as he lays out an airtight argument for evolution.

What is most valuable in this book, though, isn’t its excellent argument, but rather Coyne’s illumination of the myriad ways in which evolution has worked on species, the fascinating adaptions that have developed (some of them blatantly unintelligent), and the clever and dedicated science that explains our natural world. Any threat to that kind of knowledge demands a defense.