Tuesday, June 30, 2009

So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) by Micol Ostow with art by David Ostow

Ready for a new read? Not sure if you want a regular novel or a graphic novel next? Pick up SO PUNK ROCK (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother), a novel by Micol Ostow with art by David Ostow, which comes out in July, and learn how you can rock on - in a totally kosher way, of course.

Ari Abramson wants to be cool. He thinks being in a band will help, so he recruits three other kids from his Jewish day school: his best friend Jonas, who is cool without even trying, a classmate named Yossi because he has drums, and Yossi's younger sister, Reena, who has a surprisingly good singing voice. Together, they form the Tribe. Soon, they can play a ska version of Hava Nagila. Kind of.

So Punk Rock totally rocks. I dig this hybrid novel. It's funny, it's thoughtful, and it's just plain cool. It will definitely appeal to teen guys AND girls. It reads like a 'normal' book, with chapters and Ari's first-person narration, plus it has black-and-white illustrations: sidebars, pictures of the band members, doodles and lists from Ari's notebook when they're trying to come up with band names, and a hilarious glossary.

But don't take my word for it: Read an excerpt from the book and check out some of the illustrations.

The creators of So Punk Rock are siblings. Micol Ostow makes Ari a down-to-Earth every-guy, easy to relate to and befriend, and David Ostow makes art that will catch your eye and crack you up. How cool is it that a brother and sister teamed up to make something like this together? (And can you imagine what might happen if they collaborated on a project with another fantastic sister-brother author-artist team, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, the creators of the Babymouse graphic novels?)

To put it simply, the Ostows rock. As I helped them put together the book's website http://www.kosherpunkrock.com, I must have watched the trailer and re-read portions from the book a dozen times, and I never got tired of any of it. Seriously. And now I'm singing Hava Nagila again...

Altered Carbon and Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

If there is such a thing as a literary equivalent of a mash-up, Britain's Richard K. Morgan is surely the current master of the form. Part cyberpunk, part noir thriller, part military adventure, his novels transcend genre, and in many ways traditional characterization. Both Altered Carbon and Broken Angels (and a third novel not reviewed here - Woken Furies) feature Takeshi Kovacs (the name itself a mash-up of sorts), a flawed, honorably violent everyman who we as readers become intimately familiar with, in spite of the fact that we never have any idea what he actually looks like.

And it is this notion of fleeting, deceptive physical appearances that truly marks Morgan's novels as originals. For in the universe inhabited by Takeshi Kovacs, there is no need to stay dead forever. Pretty much everyone in the group of planets known as the "Protectorate" (think Star Trek's Federation of Planets, with a corporate Big Brother thrown into the mix) has a "stack" implanted somewhere around where the brain stem meets the spinal column. This stack is a human's digitized consciousness. Die, and your stack simply has to be retrieved and implanted into another body - or "sleeve," as bodies grown for this purpose are known. Those who are wealthy can afford a massive number of genetically enhanced sleeves, can have their consciousness backed up using any number of failsafe protocols, and can essentially cheat death. The other classes still have to fight and scrabble for their existence, but there are sleeves available even to them - for the right price - either legitimately or through the black market.

This central conceit creates a wealth of literary opportunities for Morgan, but it also raises tremendous philosophical issues, which the warrior/philosopher Kovacs deals with at various levels throughout the novels. Who are we if appearance no longer at least in part dictates our notion of self? What is the value of life when it becomes commoditized? How can we trust ourselves, let alone anyone else, in a universe such as this?

Yet, in spite of their philosophical implications, the novels' triumph is that they don't get bogged down in heavy-handed, teeth-gnashing analysis paralysis. Rather, the philosophical musings about the human condition are couched in what are ultimately riveting, action-driven thrillers. Altered Carbon, the first Takeshi Kovacs novel (and Morgan's first novel as well), doesn't give readers much time to catch their breath, as they are thrown into the midst of a seedy future Earth, where Kovacs is decanted (yet another term for re-sleeving) out of a prison sentence to solve a crime. This first novel is pure crime noir, or future noir, or cyber noir...or, just noir in general if the other appendages don't seem to fit.

The second novel, Broken Angels, takes a surprising departure from the first and becomes largely a military adventure novel on a planet far away from the Earth of the first novel. It is to Morgan's credit that Kovacs is such a robust and versatile character that he can fit a variety of story parameters.

Both novels take a particularly grim and pessimistic view of humanity, which manifests in Kovacs' noir-style first person narration. Still, Kovacs is as conflicted as we are as readers, and his mistakes often make him all the more endearing as a character.

As a word of caution, these novels are for highly mature readers. Morgan doesn't hold back in terms of language, violence or other graphic content. It fits with the universe he has created for Kovacs, but it might not be for every reader.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Playing ball and dodging the bad guys

If you're looking for a truly get summertime read about a group of guys hitting the basketball court, talking about girls and pondering life then look no further than Charles R. Smith's pitch perfect Chameleon. From my current Bookslut column:

Set in the L.A. neighborhood of Compton, Smith follows the trials and travails of four friends preparing to enter high school. The narrator, Shawn, is a bundle of typical teen confusions: he is excited about what high school might bring but also terrified by its sheer size. Shawn also has an awesome crush on a longtime school friend, Marisol which renders him nearly incapable of speech in her presence (and is a great source of hilarity for his friends). There is a lot of basketball, a lot of trying to figure out what to do everyday, a lot of pooling money for food and some lucky run-ins with Marisol and her friends in Chameleon as Shawn and his buds wander through long hot summer days filled with few plans and many daydreams. Where things get complicated is that Compton is a place fraught with peril for teenage boys as two warring gangs zealously guard their turf and their colors on nearly every corner. Shawn has been on the receiving end of gang violence in the past and he and his friends find it again this summer but the book is not a gang novel, it is a firmly and most successfully a buddy novel, and any teenage boy will find much to identify with in Shawn’s thoughtful observations of family, friendship and young love.

Charles R. Smith is best known for his books for younger children, most impressively the biography in poems, Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali, illustrated by Bryan Collier. (It’s a stunner -- be sure to look it up.) Chameleon is his first YA novel and although it came out last year I have not heard a lot of buzz about it on the blogs. I had a few trepidations about reviewing the novel as my Caucasian suburban female upbringing gives me little basis to judge the merits of a novel involving four African American teen boys who dodge gangs in Compton. I honestly had one of those moments where I wondered if this was a book I should even attempt to review. I found many reasons to care about Shawn and his friends and I very much wanted to know what was going to happen to them as their summer continued. Shawn’s divorced parents, both of whom care about him deeply, were a pleasure to read about and it was particularly gratifying to read Smith’s long discussions between parent and child. This is a kid who knows he is loved and that makes his life so much easier to navigate. It was also nice to read about his friends and their siblings; one has a brother in the navy, another a sister with a track scholarship to college (the other boys are all in love with her) and another a brother who seems to be slipping into the drug lifestyle with a local gang. Smith portrays the people of Compton (including the folks in the neighborhood, the park and on the courts) with great care. Shawn sees the world around him – all of it – as he shoots baskets, trades jokes and nearly faints at the mere site of Marisol. This neighborhood is not a perfect place but it’s one with plenty of hope and possibility as long as you make your choices with care. That’s a valid point in pretty much any teenager’s life and a big part of why I fell in love with Chameleon and knew I had to write about it. Most highly recommended.

Someone's going to have to explain to me why this book isn't way more popular - it's a great coming-of-age story with an added element of drama due to the setting. The kids are so compelling though and Smith tells it like it is - without leaning on the gang setting. It's awesome and should be read asap.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Ask and the Answer, by Patrick Ness

When I finished reading The Knife of Never Letting Go last year, I *almost* threw it across the room. I did in fact yell "WTF!" Um, although without the abbreviation.

I really was pissed off at the book at first. It did such a dance with its storytelling, pleasing then teasing then frustrating you, with endless twists, double-crosses, dramatic reveals, and seeming dead-ends. I just felt like the final cliffhanger went too far. (Sorry, *way* too many spoilers there to even begin to describe that. Both books, for that matter, are really difficult to describe without ruining much of their fun.)

But after a few days to cool off, I had to grudgingly admit that the book did, indeed, rock. I guess a book can't get its hooks into you like that unless it's really good. And Knife definitely has a lot going for it, with its fast-paced, coming-of-age story (imagine growing up in basically one long chase scene) and bizarro sci-fi dystopia setting (very low key, like the opposite end of the spectrum from space opera). And "the Noise." Can't forget "the Noise." In this world, everyone can hear what you're thinking. If you're a guy, that is. Or an animal. (Hence the book's genius opening line, "The first thing you find out when your dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.")

Many, many critics agreed on Knife's rocking last year, perhaps most controversially Frank Cotrell Boyce, another YA author. He wondered aloud why the book was even in the "'young adult' ghetto" in stores in the first place, when it should be shelved along with the Handmaid's Tale, Night of the Hunter, Huck Finn, and other books with which it shared its DNA. He also compared it to Matt Damon's "Bourne" movies (which, by the way, were books first), and that's apt in more ways than one.

I just finished the sequel, The Ask and the Answer, and... I didn't throw it across the room. In fact, despite the inevitable cliffhanger (and wow, it's a good one), I was totally satisfied. And filled with dread for what's facing the heroes in the third book (check out a teaser Ness wrote in the meantime).

Maybe I was just prepared this time? In any case, The Ask and the Answer easily matches the quality of the first book. Strangely, the best part of reading it was having it as a mental companion as I've followed what's happening in Iran. The Ask and the Answer has a lot to say about the nature of power, violence, and morality--and when (or whether) we decide to resist those in power, how torture, terrorism, and the control of information can all play a role.

It's a brutal book, I won't lie. The Knife of Never Letting Go was described as the kind of book that's so violent it needs a health warning, and The Ask and the Answer is probably worse in that way. But it's a clever, well-crafted, thought-provoking, and action-packed page turner--i.e., a perfect summer book. If you haven't read The Knife of Never Letting Go, check that out first. But if you have read it and you're wondering whether you should read the second one when it comes out in the U.S. later this summer, plan on it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

GENESIS by Bernard Beckett

Let’s gather some characters: Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Adam and Eve. What do you get? Actually, a dystopian novel from New Zealand. It’s short, which is good, because much of the book is a dialogue – as in Plato’s Dialogues -- between the main character, Anaximander (named after another Greek philosopher), and four Examiner’s giving “Anax” a kind of oral exam for her to get accepted into the Academy. Genesis is a provocative quick read on some fundamental philosophical questions, such as, What does it mean to be human? and just how “human” can we make artificial intelligence?

This is all taking place, of course, in Plato’s Republic, but we’re not sunning in the Greek Isles here. In fact, in good dystopian fashion, it is the future, there was plague and wars, and a very rich man, who saw the ensuing destruction, bought an island and encircled it with a huge, impenetrable sea wall. Welcome to the future Plato’s Republic.

Enter Anax. She’s a young history student taking her oral exam to gain admittance into the Academy, whose members lead the Republic. Her chosen subject to study was Adam Forde (and yes, there’s a brief appearance by an Eve), who played a key role in the development of the Republic. To give you an idea of the timeframe here, Adam lived from 2058-2077 and that was the distant past to Anax.

The book is divided into four sections, each one an hour “dialogue” between Anax and her four Examiners. There are brief interludes between the sections during her breaks. Much of her exam concerns Adam Forde’s imprisonment in the Republic, with her replaying key moments. The Republic is divided into four classes, and after years in this supposed utopia, the lower classes were getting restless. Who wants to be a laborer when there are riches to be had? The idea is born to perfect a human-like android – artificial intelligence – that can take over those jobs and make the working class happy. But the top android prototype needs more work; in fact, it needs a human to interact with so it can grow and learn and, well... become human? Adam is in prison and in comes Art, an android with a talent for philosophical debate and the face – literally – of an orangutan.

As I swiftly wound my way through Adam’s debates with Art on what it means to be human and have consciousness, and Anax’s questioning by the examiners, it became clear (to me anyway) that Genesis is about much more than questions about what it means to be a thinking human being, and enters into ideas about government and power. I must say I saw the ending coming from afar. But don’t let that stop you from grabbing this fascinating book. When you set it down you will be filled with many more questions than answers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Creators of the Original Land of the Lost & Other Stuff

If you’ve seen the Land of the Lost movie you may be wondering what all the fuss was about. Why did anyone care about this remake of a bad show that was already remade on TV once before? (Not to mention that the basic plot was already 100 or so years old.)

The answer: Because those of us who grew up on the original couldn’t get it out of our heads if we tried. Now could we get H.R. Pufnstuf out of our heads. Nor Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. Nor Donny & Marie. Nor any of the other Krofft shows which seemed to be on endless repeat on Saturday mornings in the 70s.

There’s a lot of weird stuff out there today, but is there anything weirder than Lidsville? Go ahead and Youtube it. See? That’s jacked up. Next, try the Banana Splits. Then Pink Lady and Jeff. You can see why these shows stayed with us. How could we ever forget them?

A little bit more YouTubing and maybe even some Netflixing will give you a peek into the uber-strange world of Krofft TV. Your guide to making this trip -- and I do mean trip -- is “Pufnstuf & Other Stuff” by David Martindale.

This book, made with the co-operation of the Kroffts, takes you through shows after show: Dr. Shrinker, Wonderbug, The Bugaloos, The Brady Bunch Hour and on and on. It’s an encyclopedia of whacked out ideas, like: let’s make a Richard Pryor show … for kids! (They really did it, too.)

And it’s full of fascinating tid-bits. For instance, the boy on the show, Will, was played by a young actor who also had a part on a soap opera: “In the mornings, I would be over at Days of Our Lives, crying about my girlfriend’s latest illness. Then I’d rush over to Land of the Lost and yell, ‘Run, Holly, run! There’s a dinosaur.’”

The good news about this book is that the author really knows his “& Stuff” and asks all the right fan boy questions. The bad news is that it does feel way too “authorized” by the Kroffts. Surely Martindale has more to say about these shows, but if he has anything snarky to say he mostly keeps it to himself.

Still, it’s an essential guide to one of the strangest chapters in TV history.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Curse of Sagamore

Once again, I'm raiding my favorite bookshelf for titles that deserve repeat readings. This time I chose one of the best examples of humorous fantasy novels: The Curse of Sagamore by Kara Dalkey. This book has everything: unhappy princes, sibling rivalry, family curses, treachery, a dragon, oh and some bawdy humor. Who can resist? My answer: you shouldn't.

My Ace Fantasy edition is a bit worn around the edges. But it's held up through repeat reads. I think the book's cover first captivated me. A magical sword leading an army of skeletons against a dragon with a really big schnozz. That was my first clue that this promised to be a funny book. That and good marketing copy for once: "Only one wizard knows how to undo Sagamore's Curse and he's crazy."

I can't recall when I bought the book. It's copyright 1986, so probably around then. And I've loved this book, cherished not only the time spent between its covers but just the memory of its passages. It's the sort of book I want to press into friends' hands. And with this review I can do that... sort of.

Prince Abderian is second-in-line to the throne of Euthymia. But he has no interest in ruling the land. His father is a crappy king and everyone knows it, so there's little urge to be involved in politics. Then, his older brother disappears-kidnapped? murdered? AWOL?--and the appearance of the sigil on Abderian's forearm indicates that he is now the heir. What's a poor kid to do? Well, he does everything he can not to achieve this destiny forced upon him. If that means taking up with crazy wizards, so be it. Oh and some damsels, too.

Abderian is faulty. That's why I adore him so. He's brave when he needs to be. But he wants to be master of his own fate. I've never cared for the fantasy trope of the good prince who saves the kingdom. Except for this book, because Abderian's intentions, while good-hearted, are a bit selfish and realistic. He's written as a teen, with all the interests of a guy his age should have. Of course, he's royalty so that has some perks...

And he has a sex life. Which makes sense. How often do fantasy characters get laid? Seems like poor Frodo was doomed to die a virgin (despite Samwise's best interests... oh, no, I didn't just say that!).

The humor of the book is not forced puns but clever characters and plenty of wit. Oh, and let's not forget the bawdy humor. A recurring jest throughout the book is a song with lyrics detailing the sex lives (and penis size) of the royal lineage. I kept laughing out loud at how these were well-used to provide... well, more characterization. And the last lines of the book are sweet and smart and make you smile.

Here's one curse that you should not avoid. The book's never been reprinted, so you may have to troll used bookstores or search through online seller's virtual dusty bins for it. There's a sequel, too, but I've never read it. I'm afraid to because I love this book so much. If you happen to read the next book and happen upon me, be gentle, please.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Man or Myth?

You may have heard of John Henry or the song of this name, about a man "who was so strong he beat a steam drill in a contest, but then laid down his hammer and died” (p. 9). Prior to reading Ain’t Nothing But a Man My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson and Marc Aronson, I had heard of the song, but didn't know much else. And I have to admit that what little I did know wasn't enough to entice me to pick up this book, until it was suggested to me by two different people and came with the recommendation that "it's great nonfic mix of music and history and folklore, all wrapped up in a mystery.”

Nelson, a historian, spent years researching the many versions of the song, determined to discover whether John Henry could have actually lived or was simply a myth. Nelson needed a few serendipitous discoveries and a lot of persistence, but he ultimately puts together the clues that point him toward the man he argues is the John Henry of the song. Recounting the discoveries that led him to conclude John Henry actually existed, Nelson's narrative touches on music, railroads, Reconstruction, and more.

Written in a conversational but authoritative style, this book is a pleasure to read. Even if you’re ultimately not convinced by every argument Nelson makes (I do think Nelson makes a convincing case that the John Henry he found is the John Henry of the song, but I’m not quite as convinced, as a non-musicologist, about all of the arguments concerning the evolution of music), the story of how he followed disparate leads is fascinating. Nelson demonstrates how he searched for primary source evidence to find John Henry, immersing the reader in the hunt for clues along with Nelson.

If you're at all interested in history and/or music, give this book a try.

Friday, June 19, 2009

When the Whistle Blows

Fran Cannon Slayton's debut, When the Whistle Blows, has garnered a lot of critical attention, earning praise all over the book world including starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. It's one of those books that you read and can't quite believe is the author's first novel. It's a beauty. You need to read it not just because everyone else loves it. Read it because this is a story that will sneak up on you and leave you with the feeling that you've just read something that has all the makings of a classic.

When the Whistle Blows is the story of Jimmy Cannon, who lives in Rowlesburg, West Virginia. It's the 1940s and the railroad is the lifeblood of the town, and it is also Jimmy's passion. He is crazy about steam trains, and he dreams of working on the railroad just like his dad, who is the Baltimore and Ohio foreman. Jimmy's dad doesn't want his son to choose this life, because he predicts that the new diesel technology will cut railroad jobs dramatically. Yet Jimmy doesn't want to walk away from the future he has always imagined. The railroad is a part of his family and his identity. Each chapter in the novel is set on All Hallows' Eve (Jimmy's father's birthday), between the years 1943-1949, so we watch Jimmy grow up from age 12 to 18. We follow Jimmy as he orchestrates pranks with his buddies, when he sneaks a look inside his father's secret society, on the day of his high school football Championship game, and one fateful night when he has a dangerous encounter with a train.

This novel is a marvelous snapshot of small town boyhood in the 1940s. Fran Cannon Slayton really makes you understand the railroad and its huge significance to the people of Rowlesburg. Even though this novel is set long ago, it has real resonance in the current economic climate since now, as then, lots of people are struggling with letting go of livelihoods that they've known for decades. Really, just as much as this is a tremendously believable and rich coming of age story, it's about change in a larger sense too, the change of a community and an entire society. Jimmy's dad tells him, "Change comes Jimmy. It'll thunder down the tracks towards you like an engine with the brakes gone out. And sometimes, there ain't a dagburn thing you can do to stop it." Jimmy learns what it means to face change and to make choices about whether to stand up against it, or to adapt and keep on moving.

Woven into all of this is Jimmy's complex relationship his father. Jimmy desperately wants to figure his dad out, but it takes him a long time to even begin to get to the bottom of his father's mysterious past. I enjoyed the structure of Slayton's book a great deal. Each chapter felt a bit like a self-contained short story, but they built upon each other and the overall effect was a richer appreciation of the characters and the family relationships. You really do get to watch Jimmy grow up, from an adventurous prankster / dreamer, into a young man who confronts loss and uncertainty for the first time. There's romance, but it's not of the lovey-dovey variety. It's the romance of the railroad. You'll feel it.

In When the Whistle Blows, there's rule-breaking and humor, loss and family secrets, all explored and mingled together with such deftness and clean writing that readers will certainly recognize Fran Cannon Slayton as a new writer to watch.

When the Whistle Blows is published by Philomel, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summertime and I loves me some comics!

(By the way: 1--I'm sorry this is so late today, and 2--looks like I'm not the only one who thinks of comics when I think of summer. This looks like graphic novels week!)

Summer means lots of things to different folks, but for me it’s all about a fat stack of books and comics with all the time in the world to read them. Especially comics. Summertime made my father anxious, something about idle hands do the devil’s handiwork, so I always had to get a job. But no job, no camp, nothing eats up the kind of time school and school work do. So it just mean I had disposable income and time to hunt for comics.

Yeah, nowadays, American comics are kind of byzantine and dumb, and yeah, Manga provides more bang for the buck. Oh, and you don’t have to search to find an entire storyline because they have the collections readily available, both in comics shops and in bookstores. But let me give you a taste of some comics new, cool, and fresh enough you might have to do some hoofing (or at least burn a little time on your search engine) to find all the issues.

Hang on—you might say when you hear me call American comics “Byzantine and dumb” or “Manga has more bang for the buck”—What’s your beef with the good ol’ red white and blue superhero? Nothing, I say, except that today’s writers aren’t writing good stories. They’re writing fan fiction for thirty year olds. Really. I mean, I read most every Avenger story for the last twenty-five years, kept up with Green Lantern, Flash, X-Men—but I lost track of things for a year or two recently, and suddenly I have no idea what’s going on. Not just because they require arcane knowledge of story points from thirty year old comics, but also because my eyes glaze over trying to read them. They’re boring!

I remember reading comics, not knowing who the hell anybody was, and yet I was electrified by how exciting, fun, and engrossing they were. I not only couldn’t wait for the next issue, I wanted to know what had happened in the past as well. And that’s when the hunt was on.

Recently, I’ve come across several comics that are fun, though. Comics that capture the gonzo, go for broke, sheer awesomeness of simply being what they are—stories about superheroes out to save the world, two fists at a time (or whatever their superpower may be). They don’t have to solve world problems, they don’t attempt to be “serious” or “mature,” and they sure as hell avoid nostalgia. What are these titles?

Well, last month I was giving the heads up on some Greek classics, and I tossed in the Incredible Hercules as a comic worth reading. This is what I said:

“Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hercules is awesome. It’s awesome in the way that every comic I loved as a teenager was awesome, and it’s awesome in the way I now get geeky over references to Greek mythology. Just a pure pleasure of a superhero comic, something I’m finding harder and harder to find nowadays-but that’s a topic for another post.

Suffice it to say, if you like good-old four-color two-fisted comics, this one is hard to beat. Hercules punches his way through any problem, and there’s lots of rollicking good fun in there, as he faces off against his half-brother Ares, his stepmother Hera, still holding a grudge 3000 years later, Amazons, alien pantheons of gods… Just great, great stuff.”

There’s this moment in an early issue of Incredible Hercules when Herc turns to someone quibbling with him over some story he’s telling them about his past. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially says “Ignore continuity—this is myth, and these stories are too big to fit together nicely.” I wish every comic had that as its mantra.

Another great comic is the current run on Ghost Rider. Now, here’s a character I never cared for, but I’d heard so many good things about the current run I had to go out and see it for myself. It’s like coming home—like somebody who spent lots of time getting a fancy college degree did the whole thing so they could return home to Alabama, or Georgia, or Kentucky, or wherever their Southern roots raised them, just to shake their fists at grits and James Joyce both. It’s as if they’re writing the apocalypse while listening to Robert Earl Keene (don’t know the name? Watch the video for his "Merry Christmas from the Family" on YouTube) or Alan Moore was raised in Clinton, Mississippi.

Okay, you get the idea. But here’s the thing: Ghost Rider is fun and interesting because it’s awesomely exactly what you’d think it’d be—a dude kicking ass with a burning skull and an enormous motorcycle. Sure, there’s the occasional invocation of worldly things like a Brahmin Spirit of Vengeance atop a flaming skulled Ganesh-evoking sacred elephant, but for the most part he fights demonic truck drivers and sweaty, corrupt evil—real devil-went-down-Georgia kind of stuff. Again, awesome.

Okay, if neither over-the-top ancient mythology meets modern superheroes nor southern gothic supernatural hero horror grabs you, imagine Dracula not as the creature of the night loner cartoon he’s been made out to be, but a beguiling, uncanny, devious dictator of his own vampire army—his own vampire nation, even. Now they’re looking for a home, and have set their sights on the British Isles. Captain Britain and MI 13 (that's the pic at the top of the post) is fascinating because it does some of the exact things I complained about above—reach back into the way past for story ideas, depend on continuity for semi and even totally obscure characters—only it does them effortlessly, in ways that are captivating, mesmerizing even, and never gets bogged down in “what you need to know.”

So there you have it, three ongoing comics* that are worth buying before they are collected in books (although I think they’ve already done that with the Herc material). They’re even worth hunting down recent back-issues for. There’s some other comics that are similarly fun—the first 15-20 issues of Iron Fist, for example. I hear Agents of Atlas and Thor are also great fun. But why these and not the main titles from the big two American Comics publishers? My theory is that these comics are kind of obscure, they’re a bit of a throwaway, below-the-radar thing for the big-time editors. So the creators involved, from the writers and artists to the editors, are more free to do what they will, and they care more about telling engaging, fun stories than stories that depend on lots of “big/important” moving parts.

Anyways, take one of my suggestions, plop down with an issue or two, and take a few moments, not an hour—this isn’t rocket science and it’s no fun if you treat it as such—take a few moments to delve into some all-out fun reads.

*Here's a weird thing: I noticed that all my suggestions are Marvel Comics. I don't know why. For years I thought Marvel was doing everything stupid and DC comics were the best. Now, it's pretty much the opposite. Hopefully it'll turn around soon.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes

Supposedly nobody outside the therapy group knew there was a group. Of course we all knew that wasn’t true. High school was like the little clear plastic tunnels that Paul’s hamsters lived in: you could run a long way but never get out, and always, everyone could see you.

Tales of the Madman Underground opens on the first day of senior year, and Karl Shoemaker has one goal: be normal.

Since eighth grade, he’s been in the school’s therapy group, the self-appointed Madman Underground. Karl is tired of being called a “psycho,” though. He hopes if he can act like an ordinary kid until Halloween, he’ll avoid getting put in therapy altogether.

But acting ordinary is hard when your life is so chaotic.

At seventeen, Karl is already a regular at AA meetings. His dad died several years ago, and his mom has become a hippie burn-out who brings home loser guys and steals Karl’s money to buy pot and party.

Besides Karl, the rest of the Madmen (and Madwomen) have parents who are abusive, crazy themselves, or just have more exciting things to do than raise kids. Tales of the Madman Underground is about kids who have to grow up fast. Their underground stretches beyond the therapy sessions; it’s the support network they’ve stitched together to look after one another: places to crash when they get locked out of their houses, the search party that forms when one of their number runs away.

With all the craziness in his life, Karl’s plan to be normal is pretty much doomed from the start, but really the plot hardly matters in a book like this. Tales of the Madman Underground takes 500-plus pages to wander through six days. It’s stuffed with flashbacks of the Madmen’s past misadventures and Karl’s half-philosophical/ half-obscene observations about everything and everybody in his little Ohio town.

Sometimes wandering seems like lost, though, and stuffed just feels bloated. Told from Karl’s first-person POV, the book includes everything he does and every conversation he has through those six days, no matter how mundane. I’m not sure what I learned from the complete rundown of his morning routine--timed to the minute--or the two pages describing him replacing an old toilet. After awhile, I started wondering if Karl--or maybe John Barnes--has undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder.

But even if the book swells with too many details, a lot of the details are sharp and well-observed. Karl’s addict mom bounces between childish manipulation, whining self-pity, and half-hearted stabs at being a real parent. When Karl deals with her, it’s with a mix of anger at how she acts and a son’s eternal affection. His teachers and the parade of fresh-from-college therapists are generally well-meaning but mostly useless.

The Madmen themselves are the best-drawn characters. As his plan to be normal falls apart, Karl begins to see what they really are: friends-by-necessity who’ve learned to trust one another, to comfort one another, and who always have time for one more wild tale.

(Cross-posted on my blog.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Batman Variety Pack

At my library I get to look at the new teen books before they end up on the shelves. Lately, it seems as if every other book is a new graphic novel featuring Batman (or Catwoman). I have enjoyed all of them, so here is the rundown.

Batman and the Outsiders: The Snare was my first exposure to this series and it was interesting to see Batman lead a group of heroes. Chuck Dixon writes a story arc that takes place all over the globe and into space. Dixon weaves political intrigue around The Outsiders, who include the Green Arrow, Metamorpho, Batgirl and others. Part of the team is dealing with a suspicious space station, while the others are captured at a military installation in China. When they start to figure out the connection, Batman's life is endangered. This is a rollicking superhero adventure, though Batman himself does not play a huge role in it.

Batman Black and White is an anthology series originally published in 1996 (then published again in '07) with a great lineup of writers and artists. These stories are mostly dark and insular which matches the art which is exclusively in black and white. Different writers tackle various parts of the Batman legend. Most of the stories have held up over time, though a couple seem quite dated. In Volume 1, Good Evening, Midnight and Heist are two of my favorites and Archie Goodwin's Heroes won an Eisner for Best Short Story. If you haven’t seen these stories before they offer a lot of depth for Batman fans to dig through.

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul by Grant Morrison and Paul Dini follows the rearing of Ra's grandson, Damian. His mother, Talia, is teaching Damian about the rise and near immortality of Ra's. Batman is lead into the story while investigating the death of two archeologists in Australia who were working for the Wayne Ecological Foundation. Batman doubts that his foe is dead and needs to track down the whole family. The story takes some weird side trips, but there was enough ninja fighting to keep me interested and Ra's al Ghul remains one of the most intriguing figures in Batman's history.

Catwoman: The Long Road Home by Will Pfeifer (don't worry Batman shows up) begins with the title character caught in an alternate world which she is trying to escape. In this world, Catwoman is in the middle of chaos along with other known criminals like Lex Luthor. Meanwhile, her disappearance becomes noticed and Slam Bradley is working to get her back. Batman also makes an appearance (see, I told you so) as he confronts Selina and tries to convince her she needs to change her lawbreaking ways, which does not go over so great.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ode to a Robot

Never really invested myself in manga as much as I did in their American cousins, the comic and graphic novel, but when something special comes along, it doesn't really matter what format (or visual language) it's in. Case in point: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka (by Urasawa). Ostensibly based on the prototypical manga and anime character Astro Boy (star of an imminent movie blockbuster, as it happens), this trades in the fun, high-energy kid-oriented adventure for a considerably more thoughtful, suspenseful and sophisticated story. Using the Astro Boy arc "the Greatest Robot on Earth" as a jumping off point, Urusawa turns this into a tense mystery and philosophical rumination on identity that is equal parts Silence of the Lambs and I, Robot.

Though only Volumes One, Two and Three of the seven volume series are available so far, we have already been injected into a near future world where robots have been assimilated into jobs as integral to everyday life as sanitation worker and policeman. Among these cl
ass of mechanical citizens are a rare breed of super-robots who have transcended their programming and have attained extraordinary levels of humanity and philosophical depth. And now, this elite breed is being hunted by something terrible and unknown, a serial killer of robots who itself appears to be robot, too. Europol Agent Gesicht, a robot detective, has been assigned to the case and in his investigation, we meet a young robot of uniquely human character, a warrior robot who yearns to break his mechanical bonds and create art, and a terrifying, broken, robot murderer who, like Hannibal Lecter, may hold the key to this new series of robot murders. At the same time, Gesicht comes up against the limits of his own robotic existence and identity and begins to uncover a solution with vast and insidious implications.

This is not a fast-moving, action-packed blow-out. But you may want to pick it up when you've had as much slam-bang Transformers actions as you can take and are looking for something with an unusual depth and power (and clean, evocative and subtle art).

If you can never get enough slam-bang action, however, there's always Green Lantern: Secret Origin (by Johns and Reis), which puts a modern spin on the classic character's history. Re-framing the tale of the fearless test pilot recruited into a galactic peace-keeping force as the story of a young hotshot's coming of age, Johns cleverly plunges the authority-averse Hal Jordan into boot camp, sticks him with a partner destined to become his greatest enemy, and throws him up against a truly ghastly enemy. The art is slick, the action is exciting and (almost) non-stop, and you even get some thoughtful characterization in the bargain. And within the story, Johns has laid the foundation for DC's huge upcoming crossover event Blackest Night. Get it while it's hot.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Motorcycle Song

What is it about Harley Davidson motorcycles? When I was at Myrtle Beach last month, Harley riders were having a spring rally. Thousands of people riding up and down the road with no mufflers or lousy mufflers. They do this every year. I'm not sure why.

I was an apprentice mechanic at a Harley shop for about six weeks when I was a teen. I saw too many wrecked bikes and people in casts. Plus, I'm a crummy mechanic. So I decided I didn't need a motorcycle.

Gary Paulsen bought a Harley when he was 56 years old. He had heart disease, and thought it was time for The Bike. He and a buddy rode from Alamagordo, New Mexico to Fairbanks, Alaska, by way of St. Paul, Minnesota. He wrote about his experience in Pilgrimage on a Steel Ride: A Memoir About Men and Motorcycles. He told some other stories, too. Guy stories, I'd say, for the most part.

If you've read Paulsen's Hatchet, you know he is a good writer. But in Pilgrimage on a Steel Ride, he tells of an incident in his life that certainly inspired part of Hatchet: "I was ... hitchhiking... I rode with a Hungarian refugee who had escaped the Russian brutality when they brought tanks and took Hungary. He was a short man with dark hair and dark glasses and was driving an old DeSoto at great speed, smiling and telling me of the wonders of living in America when a pheasant tried to clear the road, came through the windshield, hit his face and broke his neck and killed him. The car went off the road, but the shoulder was flat, as North Dakota road shoulders tend to be, and the car simply bounced and came to rest in a plowed field. He was not breathing nor could I feel his heart, and in fear I ran from there, covered with pheasant blood and guts, and an old lady picked me up and I worked for her until I took off with the carnival."

That's just one of Paulsen's stories. What a life and what a great storyteller. He raced the Iditarod twice! I have enjoyed a few of his novels, but his nonfiction keeps me coming back for more. I cannot get enough of it. This one is for more mature readers, in my opinion.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Best American Comics

I have this problem with Summer Reading lists that are doled out by schools. Basically, they suck. They suck the joy of reading right down to the marrow and attempt to equate vacation time with extended education. Either schools should go year-round and quit the pretense or Summer Reading lists need to lighten up. Spend the Summer returning fun the the reading quotient, there'll be plenty of time starting in September for reading the Serious, the Dry, the Meaningful to be analyzed within inches of their pulpy lives.

I've got plenty of suggestions for alternate Summer Reading but today I want to talk about comics, and specifically The Best American Comics of 2008. I've actually wanted to talk about this for months but teetered on the edge of deciding whether or not the collection is appropriate. It's that whole chicken v. egg thing of whether or not some graphic imagery and story elements are appropriate for teens or if they're already seeing them in other places (like movies and TV) and there's little harm involved in comics that do the same thing.

Murder, sex, and drugs are involved, but these are topics often touched on in Young Adult literature. The difference is that when they appear in comics there's this feeling that somehow minors are being corrupted, that "comics" equals "funny" or "humorous" and that anything more is some grand betrayal of morals.

Editor Lynda Berry mentions in her introduction that "If this book had been in my house when I was a kid, I would have found a way to read it in secret." This is exactly what I would have done as a kid, and it got me wondering if that still isn't the best way to discover a world of comics beyond superheroes and other ridiculous over-muscled, tights-wearing vigilantes. On the other hand, shouldn't we have evolved in our thinking that kids shouldn't have to discover these things in secret? Sure, the thrill of doing something forbidden is lost, as is the wonderment that comes with discovery, but comics already have a hard enough time (though it's getting better) with acceptance that maybe that secret reading should be secret no longer.

For anyone who grew up, as I did, looking forward to the comics in the alternative weekly papers, and those who have kept tabs with small press and alternative comics, there are few surprises here. Matt Groening, Nick Bertozzi, Kaz, Jaime Hernandez, Seth, Alison Bechdel, Rick Geary, Chris Ware, Derf... the line-up reads like a brief history of 80s and 90s comics history, and the fact that these folks are still around (and perhaps to some extent largely unknown) may make a larger point about comics history in America. The fact that one "mainstream" comic was chosen - a Batman: Year 100 excerpt was chosen and pulled at the last minute by its publisher makes another point about this collection: there's still a Wild West frontier in comics.

With a wide range of styles and subject matter, the comics Barry has chosen are incredibly strong. Usually with collections like this the pieces I like are outweighed by the number I don't, but here I found only two duds and a couple of marginal pieces and the rest were solid. Subjects cover everything from the opening comic where fratricide is played as a casual punchline to the horrors of the war in Iraq from a journalist to kids playing war and discovering girlie magazines while "invading" a homeless encampment. The four panel strip format flips it's wig with surreality, the Tortoise and the Hare becomes a battle between a rock-steady drummer on the one hand and a party-hearty type on the other, a pair of nocturnal ragamuffins spending the night building a tower of boxes to play hopscotch on, young woman tries to help a drug addict, a man is sanguine about losing his love to a suicidal cult, Cupid's assistant takes over for a day and has cats mating with dogs (literally) in no time... there's something for (and possibly to offend) every sensibility, though that isn't it's purpose.

To those who have felt the short story is dead, I propose that the short story is alive and well in the form of comics. Even as stand-alone excepts from larger works, these stories deliver – not so much a punchline but a promise of a satisfying resolution.

There is always that danger that one person's "best" is another person's worst, but omnibus collections like The Best American Comics series (previous editions edited by Harvey Pekar and Chris Ware) and Flight (now in it's fifth volume, edited by Kazu Kibuishi) are a great ways to sample what's out there and explore the possibilities of storytelling that don't involve nefarious villains plotting to take over the world.

Lynda Barry's advice for how to approach the book is one I wish more adults would encourage in collections. She suggests opening the book to find something of interest – as a kid she would have tried to zoom in on swear words or crazy pictures – and start reading from there. Jump around, find what interests, read in pieces, not all at once. Linear is highly overrated and constricting, not unlike a lot of educational thinking about Summer Reading.

Lighten up and enjoy the experience.

Books mentioned:

The Best American Comics 2008
edited by Lynda Barry
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Comics 2007
edited by Chris Ware
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Comics 2006
edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore
Houghton Mifflin

Flight, volumes 1 through 5
edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Villard Books

Batman: Year 100
Paul Pope
DC Comics

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

No Fear Shakespeare SONNETS

I have a confession to make: I have gone batty for the Bard this month. Over at my blog, I've dedicated the entire month of June to posts for what I've dubbed "Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month." It should therefore come as no surprise to you that I'm talking about Shakespeare here as well. Specifically, I'm talking about Shakespeare's sonnets.

If you head to Barnes & Noble or to any number of online book sources, you can purchase your own copy of the No Fear Shakespeare SONNETS: The Poems Plus a Translation Anyone Can Understand. The book contains all 154 of Shakespeare's Sonnets. In each case, the actual text as written by Shakespeare is located on the left-hand page of the book, and the updated translation is on the right-hand side of the page.

Here's an example, using one of the most-recognized sonnets in the collection, Sonnet #18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?")

First, the original:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
   So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The No Fear version:

Shall I compare you to a summer day? You're lovelier and milder. Rough winds shake the pretty buds of May, and summer doesn't last nearly long enough. Sometimes the sun shines too hot, and often its golden face is darkened by clouds. And everything beautiful stops being beautiful, either by accident or simply in the course of nature. But your eternal summer will never fade, nor will you lose possession of your beauty, nor shall death brag that you are wandering in the underworld, once you're captured in my eternal verses. As long as men are alive and have eyes with which to see, this poem will live and keep you alive.

As you can see, the No Fear version is not kept in verse; it does, however, render Shakespeare's poem in terms that are simpler to understand than some of Shakespeare's words. Highly recommended for anyone studying the sonnets who isn't comfortable with Elizabethan English.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Alone Across the Atlantic

Have you ever wanted to challenge yourself, to do something to see if you could do it, see if you were capable? Ever just wanted to get away from everything—REALLY get away? These questions lie at the heart of A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean. Tori McClure was the first woman to row alone across the Atlantic Ocean, and this is her story.

McClure started rowing at Smith College, and had rowing mentors who had made the journey across the Atlantic. She decided to try it herself, in a 23-foot plywood rowboat she christened The American Pearl. The picture on the cover of the book, a very small boat in the middle of a vast ocean, gives you an idea of what kind of “living space” she had to work with on what was expected to be a 3-month long journey of thousands of miles. While many friends and sponsors assisted her with the building of the boat and financing for equipment, food, and other necessities, this was McClure’s journey to make alone.

McClure’s writing vividly brings forth both the day-to-day drudgery of her rowing routine, and the wonders that can be found when you find yourself alone in the middle of the ocean: being surrounded by dolphins, gazing at the night sky with no chance of light pollution to obscure the stars, coming upon a pod of whales. In describing the dangers she encountered, including a battering storm that she later found out was actually a hurricane, McClure brings to life the violence that can happen to small craft on the ocean. After reading descriptive passages about storms and what they did to her boat and her body, I was almost checking myself for bruises!

Just days after she set out, McClure lost all long-range communications, and was on her own but for a few radio transmissions with nearby boats. After her boat and her body took beatings during hurricane Danielle, she made the hard decision to set off her rescue beacon and be picked up by another boat. While she felt like a failure doing this, the months following her return to land gave her time to reflect on inner strength and what it means to face obstacles. After working for Muhammed Ali, and receiving encouragement from him, McClure made another, ultimately successful, attempt to cross the Atlantic in her rebuilt rowboat. She used what she learned from her first journey to be more prepared for her second—redundant communications systems, a lighter boat, and a padded ceiling were some of the enhancements for her second crossing.

This true story is inspirational not because it is the story of a superhuman feat, but the story of a very human one—having a goal, experiencing setbacks, and getting back on your feet and trying again. Part of being human is accepting the fact of your humanity, and defining what that means for yourself. McClure wraps the story of her finding herself into a great adventure tale. See the book’s official web site for some Q & A with McClure, videos, pictures, boat specs, and the list of books she brought along to read and listen to on her journey.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fade to Blonde -- Max Phillips
Hard Case Crime, #2

Joining the Hard Case Crime book club was the best $6-a-month investment I made last year. (It was also the only one I made, but I'm confident that if there'd been others, it would still be on top.) Sometimes the books are reprints with awesome new covers, sometimes they're original publications, some of them are stronger pieces of writing than others, but they've all been entertaining. They make me happy. If you enjoy the crime genre and aren't offended by the un-PC (especially in regards to how the ladies are treated), they're well worth a read.

Since I jumped in somewhere in the late-40's, I have, of course, been worrying about what I missed. So I decided to go back to the beginning and read their releases in order. Or as close to in order as I can.

Fade to Blonde was a Hard Case original, and it won the 2005 Shamus Award for Best Paperback of the Year. It's a pretty familiar setup, with a more-striking-than-classically-beautiful woman approaching the narrator and spinning a story about being in danger and needing help, leading him to an underworld of drugs, gangsters, prostitution and pornography. The tension, for me, came from never being quite sure how it would all play out -- Ray Corson is aware from minute one that Rebecca isn't telling him everything, but are her omissions (or are they just flat-out lies?) going to get him killed?

While this book got what looks to be stellar reviews across the board, my feelings were a little more mixed. For the first half-to-three-quarters of the book, I had a hard time believing that Ray Corson would've gotten as involved as he did -- I never believed that he cared much for Rebecca, though I think I was supposed to, and even if his motivation was different (say, simple curiosity), I felt that he was too smart to stick around. There were moments when his temper took over, when he made a decision to do something even though he knew that it would come back to slap him, but those moments were different. They worked for me. There was a distinct turning point where my issues dissolved and it finally made sense to me for him to go all-in, but that was so far into the story -- there had been so many moments that I felt he would have just walked away -- that I felt it was still a problem.

What really worked for me was his voice. Ray Corson was bright and likable and great with the one-liners and literary references (he's an aspiring-but-pretty-much-failed screenwriter) without laying them on too thick:

His suit was what mine wanted to be when it grew up. My suit was kidding itself.

By the time I got there, the bartender had another gimlet waiting. I'd be doing well to get home that night with my liver still attached.

I laid them out in a row and started noodling names and facts and connecting them with arrows and generally smoking my meerschaum and playing my violin.

If you want more, there's a sample chapter up at Hard Case's site.

I also really enjoyed, for the most part, the secondary characters -- Mattie and L. R. Bellinger, especially. And the Hollywood setting was great. Even with the aspects I found problematic, I found myself thinking quite often of Chinatown, actually. Which is in no way a bad thing.



1. Grifter's Game, Lawrence Block
3. Top of the Heap, Erle Stanley Gardner


(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review- The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
"It’s Dade’s last summer at home. He has a crappy job at Food World, a “boyfriend” who won’t publicly acknowledge his existence (maybe because Pablo also has a girlfriend), and parents on the verge of a divorce. College is Dade’s shining beacon of possibility, a horizon to keep him from floating away. Then he meets the mysterious Alex Kincaid. Falling in real love finally lets Dade come out of the closet—and, ironically, ignites a ruthless passion in Pablo. But just when true happiness has set in, tragedy shatters the dreamy curtain of summer, and Dade will use every ounce of strength he’s gained to break from his past and start fresh with the future."- summary from Amazon

This was an amazing book; Burd's debut is simply fantastic. It's so detailed, realistic, witty, emotional, pretty much everything you'd want in a novel. Dade is a relateable character and I loved reading about his adventures this summer with his friend Lucy and boyfriend Alex and other friends and enemies he meets along the way. While it is a coming out story, it doesn't feel tired like some seem to be as Burd breathes new life into this kind of story. The prose is beautifully written and compelling, which made the book difficult to put down. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Summer Reads Roundup

I'm on vacation as of 30 minutes from now and I haven't read anything worth recommending to Guys Lit Wire. So I'll let you know what I'm PLANNING on reading while lying on the beach. Check back next month for what panned out and what didn't.

I'm in the middle of listening to The Enemy by Lee Child which is one of the middle Jack Reacher books and one of 2 I haven't read. If you know anything about Jack Reacher it's that he can't be stopped. And the novels are the same way. I ran out and bought I copy of this one so that I can continue the story without hiatus.

I'm in the middle of reading Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. While not nearly as gripping (or well written) as The Long Walk or Hunger Games the theme of kids fighting to the death is just too good to resist. Though I suspect I know how it ends I'm looking forward to getting there.

I'm bringing along Lost City of Z by David Grann a highly recommended story of Amazon adventure, disease, madness and obsession. I don't really know any more about it than that, but really, do I need to?

Also making the trip is Against Destiny by Aleksandr Dolinin. Its about the desperate escape of Russian political prisoners from the Siberian gulag, a plot point I haven't been able to turn down since my friend Jeff Kinyon told me in elementary school about a movie called Gulag where a guy fell in a crevasse and compound fractured his leg. There are probably BETTER reasons to read a book, but this one comes highly recommended.

And I think I'll throw in Reality Check by Peter Abrahams. One, because I'm a Teen librarian and I should at least TRY to read some teen fiction while I'm away. And two, because Stephen King recommended it and I do LOVE The Long Walk. Reality Check is the story of a high school athlete with a blown out knee and a vanished girlfriend who goes looking for her at her prestigious boarding school. I'm not a huge fan of mysteries but the desperation of the protagonist and the boarding school setting pique my interest.

So that should keep my busy the week I'm away. I'll let you know what I think.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

When the Tripods Came, by John Christopher

Before I even get started today, let me just say right here and right now that I am against brainwashing. No matter how good it might make you feel, being brainwashed is something you want to avoid. It’s better to be tormented by confusion but have your own ideas than to become some sort of blissed out zombie with spinning spirals for pupils under the complete control of an insidious master. I hope that’s clear.

When the Tripods Came is John Christopher’s belated prequel to the original series (which I reviewed here). The whole series, in large part, is about brainwashing, and just how bad it is. Though what it means to be brainwashed is something that seems to be open for discussion. Or it seemed to be, anyway, before the prequel existed.

The prequel was inspired, according to the preface, by critics who complained of the story being implausible. Even a few years after the publication of the books, real human technology had advanced so rapidly that fictional Tripod technology looked rather primitive and even silly by comparison. So, how would the Tripods have taken humanity over so easily?

It’s curious that Christopher felt the need to answer these critics. Juding dated science fiction on its plausibility is a little like complaining that 80s fashions looks dated in the year 2009 (oh, wait).

But the author composed an answer anyway. It turns out that the Tripods began their conquest of Earth slowly and rather unsuccessfully. When the Tripods Came opens with two boys, Laurie (short for Laurence so don’t make fun of him) and Andy (short for Andrew, duh) on a camping trip in England who witness a massive (several stories high) Tripod’s initial exploration of our planet. The Tripod mirthlessly destroys a farmhouse, abducts a man, kills a dog, and battles some tanks before jet fighters swoop in and nonchalantly demolish it. Two other Tripods are sighted elsewhere in the world and meet similar fates.

The Tripod technology, then, did look a bit silly to humanity whose long history of warfare had given them quite a few tools with which to engage an invading force. “They didn’t even have infrared!” hoots one of Andy and Laurie’s teachers in a post-invasion classroom discussion. Humans expend much energy patting themselves on the back. There’s even a television show, from America, called the Trippy Show, dedicated to satirizing the Tripods. It acheives wide international success.

It’s so successful, in fact, that a cult begins to form around it and by the time anyone realizes that the audience is being brainwashed by television (imagine that), it’s too late. Communes of TV-hypnotized “Trippies” form to welcome and defend new invasions of Tripods. The Tripods extend their mind control powers by hard-wiring human brains through the use of Caps, and soon their conquest is, more or less, over. Christopher’s answer, to his critics, is that while their weapons of mass destruction may have been primitive, the Tripods understanding of the human mind and human culture gave them what they needed to take over the planet.

Now, my review of the original trilogy gave a general, and I think, generous reading of the Tripod allegory. I claimed the Masters represented authority and that the uncapped represented free-thinking youth. In the comments that followed, A Paperback Writer proposed that the books were a kind of Cold War* propaganda, and that the Masters represented Communists. I didn’t like that reading because I find propaganda insipid by definition and I thought the Tripod series was too interesting and engaging for that.

But maybe I was fooled. While I think the generous reading is still the better one, and the one that may allow the series to remain readable and interesting into the future, its hard to argue, after considering When the Tripods Came, that Christopher did not intend the Masters to represent Communists. There are a number of passages in the novel singing the praises of “individuality” and “freedom”—obvious anti-communist code words. And the countercultural references to “Tripping” (drug use) and “Trippies” (hippies) make it difficult to imagine that Christopher had a lot of warm feelings for tie-dye wearing vegetarians who were often associated with the propagation of socailist/communist ideology in the West. The mass gatherings of Trippies also look a lot like the countercultural protest movement. (Groups that gather in large masses appear from the outside like people brainwashed by common ideology, even to those looking at them while nestled within the warmth of a large mass.)

Does that make When the Tripods Came, or the rest of the Tripod series, Cold War propaganda? Maybe. If you let yourself read it that way. You could instead focus on the things it has to say about the demise of the nuclear family, which I didn’t get into here, but which are actually rather subtle and touching. Or, you could just read it as a ripping good sci-fi saga. Which it is.

The problem, of course, with propaganda is that it’s an attempt to brainwash the reader. And, as we’ve established, brainwashing is to be avoided. So even if the propaganda is against brainwashing, it’s brainwashing that’s against brainwashing. So I’m confused. And tormented. But my mind is free.

*If you weren’t around for the Cold War, let me give you a brief summary. There was the Eastern Block (or Bloch), led by the Soviet Union, which wanted to create an empire in the name of Communism (often considered evil, but on its surface about sharing) and there were the Western countries, led by the United States, which wanted to form an empire (but claimed they didn’t) in the name of Capitalism (which is supposed to be good but on its surface is about selling things for more than they’re actually worth). The two sides really really wanted to blow each other up, but were very nervous about accidentally blowing themselves up in the process.

Crossposted at Critique de Mr Chompchomp

Monday, June 1, 2009

More Graphic Classics, now in COLOR!

I have dim childhood memories of TV shows announcing with great enthusiasm that they were now "in COLOR!" (The irony is, most TV sets at the time were only black-and-white). The latest superlative volume (number seventeen) from Graphic Classics is also their first one in color, so consider this a similar enthusiastic announcement. Subtitled Science Fiction Classics, it proves to contain exactly that, with the possible exception of a Lord Dunsany tale I don't think really qualifies as SF. But original SF gangstas H.G. Wells and Jules Verne rub shoulders with Stanley G. Weinbaum, Arthur Conan Doyle and odd-man-out E.M. Forster's (Howards End, Maurice, A Room with a View) lone SF story.

Although there's not really a weak spot quality-wise in the whole volume, two stories really stand out. One is Micah Farritor's evocative interpretation of The War of the Worlds. The public perception of the story has always been contemporary, from (Orson) Welles' radio drama to the George Pal 1953 movie and including the recent Spielberg/Cruise version. Farritor manages to show the setting as (H.G.) Wells imagined it, with troops on horseback and artillery cannons facing the Martian death machines and doing surprisingly well.

The other superlative piece is "The Disintegration Machine," one of Arthur Conan Doyle's "Professor Challenger" stories. Challenger has always been lost in the shadow of Doyle's other creation, but he's an equally vivid character: brilliant, larger-than-life, quick to fly into theatrical rages and always up for...well, a challenge. He's the hero of Doyle's dinosaur epic The Lost World (adapted in a prior Arthur Conan Doyle Graphic Classics collection), and "The Disintegration Machine" has always been one of my favorites. In it, Challenger is recruited to test the veracity of Dr. Nemor's titular device, a kind of primitive transporter of obvious value to the more aggressive nations of the world. Robert Langridge's artwork catches the perfect tone, and his glowering take on Professor Challenger is marvelous. Why has no one ever cast Brian Blessed as this character?

Weinbaum's classic "A Martian Odyssey" is given a rollicking treatment by George Sellas. Brad Teare brings a woodcut style to Dunsany's "The Bureau d'Echange de Maux," which only enhances its non-SF feel. And Ellen Lindner illustrates Forster's "The Machine Stops" in a style that emphasizes its family resemblance to Wall-E.

Each Graphic Classics volume I've had the pleasure of reviewing has done an admirable job of putting new graphic flesh onto old narrative bones, reminding us why they were considered classics in the first place. With this volume's addition of color, that effect is only intensified. Any reader of any age can connect with these stories and get a little of the thrill that the original readers experienced.