Saturday, February 27, 2010

Because you're never too old for a pop-up book . . .

Today, I'm recommending Encyclopedia Mythologica: Gods & Heroes by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, the talented creators of beloved pop-up books including versions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sometimes Even Sherlock Holmes Has to Look Something Up

Let's talk handbooks.

I loved them as a boy, handbooks of all kinds covering everything from model railroading to rocketry; they were books that you could make happen in the real world. It was only later that I realized that almost any book can be a handbook. What's The Great Gatsby, after all, but a handbook on how to woo a woman by being a cool and mysterious millionaire?

The one I carried most was the Boy Scout Handbook. Need to hitch up a horse or a boat? It has you covered. Want to bake a potato in aluminum foil beneath a bed of coals? It'll tell you how. Trying to follow a deer? Bingo, it's here. Hiking, camping, lifesaving, even the rudiments of morality: this book has plenty to offer the enterprising and adventuresome lad.

But can it tell you how to make a dramatic entrance? How to analyze footprints, fingerprints, typography, or bullets? What if you need to fake your own death by surviving a plunge into a waterfall? I don't remember that from my Scout handbook, and I could have used it more than once, let me tell you.

These are all necessary skills for the really enterprising and adventuresome lad. Even cavemen knew how to hike and camp, but only The Sherlock Holmes Handbook by Ransom Riggs can teach you to find a secret chamber or examine a crime scene with flair and panache.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

Readers like to put books into mental categories. The best books for this and the best books for that. While these sets of books are often in flux, some stay with us forever. There are books that will always be in one category or another. They made us howl with laughter, they kept us up into the wee hours of the morning with fear and anticipation, they ripped out a piece from our heart, or took us to an exceptional place in our own lives. There is also that special category; a handful of books that we know as we turn page-after-page, will be among the best we have ever read. But more than being the best, we know they are important. We know they will change us. It does not happen too often, but there are times when I’m reading a book and my brain tells me that I will be a better person having read these pages. That’s how I feel about David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers.

Finkel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the Washington Post. As the “surge” in Iraq was beginning, he spent (off and on) fifteen months with Battalion 2-16, the Rangers. All of the soldiers knew that everything he witnessed and heard was on the record. They opened their lives and their deaths to Finkel. They allowed us to see war. Not “TV news war” or eighth grade “textbook war,” but the war that usually goes unseen because it’s too horrific or politically uncomfortable to show, or because it will lower Nielsen ratings, or because a nation does not want to take time away from watching “American Idol” or “Lost” to know what is happening on the other side of the world. Out of sight, out of mind.

This book is not for the faint at heart. It is violent. There were times when I was reading it that I set the book down to take a breath.

The writing is gorgeous. As I look back now, in some ways the book reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel, The Road. They are both bleak and brutal with stunning prose that leaps off the page. The difference, of course, is that McCarthy’s book is fiction. But they are both about dystopian madness. One just happens to be taking place today.

If there is a main actor the story revolves around in The Good Soldiers it would be the leader of the Rangers, Colonel Kauzlarich, a man fiercely dedicated to his soldiers. The book follows him from the battlefield to his office, from his meetings with Iraqis to visits with his wounded soldiers, from his time off with his family in Orlando and into the blood-soaked medical aid stations.

Reading this book should have nothing to do with if you were for the war or against the war. Yes, it is about Iraq, and Finkel opens each chapter with a bitingly ironic quote from George W. Bush. But this book is about war. This war, past wars, and every war we will all have to make choices about in the future.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Inventory is a book of "obsessively specific" lists collected from the The Onion's A.V. Club Website.

The idea is sublime, the execution is excellent and the lists are sometimes great, sometimes good and sometimes skippable.
But that's the nature of a book with lists such as:
"18 Songs about Specific Films"
"16 Film and TV Characters Who Knew Exactly What They'd Like to Eat"
"5 Crazy-Ass Members of the Legion of Superheroes"
"10 Hilarious On-screen Drug Freakouts"
"10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined by Saxophone"

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Poison Eaters & Other Stories

So unless you've been living under a rock, or perhaps a bridge, you should have heard of Holly Black. She did this Spiderwick series... which became a movie after selling more copies than there are specks of glitter in Stephanie Meyer's work. And before that she wrote Tithe, an amazing surburban dark fantasy. So what the hell is she doing writing short stories? The answer is simple: she's kicking ass!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Breach by Patrick Lee

First, a word of warning about Patrick Lee's The Breach: there are some disgustingly gruesome scenes in here, including one that is almost Gretchen Lowell-worthy.

Anyway, I went into this novel expecting fast-paced, adrenaline-filled entertainment, and this is exactly what I got.

After spending more than a decade in jail, Travis Chase left Minnesota for Alaska. On the first anniversary of his release, Travis sets off on a solo hike, avoiding as many people as possible. A few days into the hike, he spots the wreckage of a plane. The crash is recent, but strangely, there is no sign of helicopters or search-and-rescue teams in the area. Even more disturbing, everyone on the plane is dead, and not because of the crash itself. They'd all been shot.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Have Clues, Will Travel: Luke Harding, F.I.

How would you like your mystery served with a side of science fiction? I found I liked it just fine.

Published in the UK and the US between 2005-2008, the Traces books by UK author Malcolm Rose are the tightly written first cases in a young Forensic Investigator's professional life.

In Futuristic England, where the North is posh, and the South -- including London and Cambridge -- is a lawless, slum-infested disaster, the Authorities have taken over.

The Authorities are everything -- your parents, your teachers, and Big Brother, all rolled into one. They've instituted a few programs, to insure maximum productivity, prosperity and satisfaction for those who participate. The Authorities are in charge of childcare centers, educational facilities and job placement. When you come of age, The Authorities will also arrange a Pairing for you, because they know you best, and can do better at hooking you up with your future mate than you could ever do yourself.

There are few surprises in this new world, because The Authorities strive to take the surprises out of life. There are no more extremes -- most people are a homogeneous light brown -- a perfect multicultural mix. Most people do what they're told, take the jobs they're suited for, and the Pairings they're given. The Authorities don't seem that most people...mostly...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Short Story Remix 2: Discovering some classics

About a year and a half ago, I mused on the possibilities of creating your own short story collection. How, in this day and age of music shuffles and home-grown compilations, that it would be cool to put together a list of short stories that you would put into your own anthology. It’s about time to do that again, I think. Only, this time, I want to make a collection composed of nothing but freebies, works in the public domain. And to do so, we’re going to reach way, way back, to old stuff, and see if, in putting them together in a new context, we can see them not in a moldy-oldy kind of way, but see them fresh, see them as something new…

When being a teen is really all about survival

Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes just might be one of my favorite reads of all time. Set during one week in 1973, it's the story of high school senior Karl Shoemaker’s last-ditch attempt to be normal. Achieving that goal is no easy feat, however, for Karl is a long time member of the “Madman Underground," a group of teens with a variety of troubling family issues that has marooned them in mandatory group therapy sessions. Karl’s father, the town’s former mayor, is dead from cancer, and his hippie mother is a binge partier who has filled their house with cats. The other kids in the group are struggling with incest, alcoholism, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and just flat out family weirdness. What they have in common is being branded by teachers as screw-ups, then doomed to an endless array of therapists who don’t know what they're doing. The Madmen struggle along through chaos at home, varying degrees of teasing at school, and some true terror in their own minds. The week of normal that Karl embarks on ends up being a hugely significant period in all of their lives, culminating in the moment they embrace a communal friendship long denied, but stronger than any of them had anticipated. It’s also about a hell of a lot more than that and has some killer writing that should not be missed.

Barnes covers dozens of high school tropes, but turns them on their heads with ease. From the coach/lit teacher who insists that Huck Finn is not “a story about a couple of queers on a raft,” to the idiotic bullies, jocks, socials, farm boys, band geeks, drama queens, hoods, and on and on. Everyone you expect is here, but by definition the Madmen belong to themselves more than any clique, even though several walk a border between popular and weird. They can never separate themselves from the fact that once a week they are all together because something is wrong with them, and it can’t be fixed. Operation Be Fucking Normal is all Karl can think about, but high school is a narrative all its own, that can't be stopped no matter how hard you try. Karl juggles four jobs, keeps the house clean, buries the cats when the raccoons get them, attends AA meetings faithfully, and dreams of normalcy, but there is still the fact that the people he cares about most in the world -- and the ones who understand him better than anyone -- are all different kinds of not normal. Fortunately, Karl figures that out early on, and the story becomes more about survival and the benefits of being true to who you are, and who you want to be.

This is not a sweet or simple story, and at moments, the reality of what the Madmen suffer through can be quite daunting. But that is the point, as Barnes illustrates so perfectly in one passage: "While Huck had these problems, Tom Sawyer just wanted to play stupid games about being robbers and things -- that was something us Madmen talked about all the time, the way kids getting raped or beaten were sitting in class next to kids whose biggest concern was what to wear for homecoming.” Karl has problems, and so do his friends. Separately they're adrift, but together, even in the unlikeliest of circumstances, they save one another. In the end, there are a few adults as well who chip in when Karl needs them, and while no one in this story is perfect, a lot of them are decent and kind and good. And the Madmen prevail against mean classmates and foolish parents and really crappy circumstances. If that doesn’t make for a truly epic coming-of-age tale, I don’t know what does. Tales of the Madman Underground is one for the ages, pure and simple. A must read.

Cross posted from my Bookslut column - Tales was named a Printz Honor title for 2009.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ronald Kidd's The Year of the Bomb

Ronald Kidd's The Year of the Bomb is a book I wish I'd thought of. I don't say that about many books. I don't particularly wish I'd thought of Harry Potter, for example (though it could be fun living in a Scottish castle, if you could keep the thing reasonably temperate), since it's different than what I write. But Kidd's "Bomb" is a very unusual stew of politics, film iconography, history and California specificity -- all in a terrific cautionary tale about what happens when we let fear dictate laws and policy.

It's the kind of blend I've attempted to go after in my own writing, but was here duly impressed with the easygoing way Kidd mixes his elements: In the mid-50's. a group of 12(ish) year olds are watching a film being shot in their home town of Sierra Madre, California: The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, and staring Kevin McCarthy. Based on Jack Finney's cautionary tale about pod people taking over "real" personalities, it's been remade several times, though the original served as a kind of postwar Rorschach test: Was it about the perceived threat of "Communist" conformity we were allegedly fending off from the East? (Before all our factories were located there) Or was the story about Americans giving up their own "free will" in the face of Senator Joe McCarthy's paranoid investigations of "domestic enemies?"

Or both?

Here, Kidd pretty firmly comes down on the latter interpretation, while following the adventures of a certain Paul, and his pals Crank, Oz, and Arnie. They're already movie buffs, having ventured into L.A. to catch matinees, and when Body Snatchers comes to their own town, they're smitten with the Klieg lights of Hollywood. They're also smitten with a young actress named Laura, after whom they lust and love. Which means -- speaking as a former 12 year old boy -- they're constantly awkward and tongue-tied in her presence.

Kidd also brings legendary physicist Richard Feynman into the plot. Feynman lived nearby, and taught at Caltech in Pasadena. In his pre-Nobel Prize days, he was also briefly suspected of potentially being a spy, primarily because he expressed well-founded regrets on having helped develop the atomic bomb.

And of course, as Kidd's story ably tells us, once a state confuses healthy dissent with treason, we're all on the way to becoming Pod People, ourselves.

This is just one of the realizations Paul has in this coming of age -- hitting that age while simultaneously wishing he could be a grown up (in his pursuit of Laura), while also realizing grown-ups are much less sure of themselves, or life's "answers," than they let on.

But aside from its necessary and timely themes, the book's pleasures also rest in the deft blend of real characters with fictional ones, and its assured sense of place (SoCal of the era is vividly recreated), along with its knowledgeable grounding of movie making, and what sets and sound stages are like.

As the publishing biz itself becomes more and more like Hollywood filmmaking, it's somewhat surprising "a book like this got made" -- as we say about studio films that still manage to, well, surprise us.

I am, however, very glad it did.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

Definition of monstrumology:
1: the study of life forms generally malevolent to humans and not recognized by science as actual organisms, specifically those considered products of myth and folklore.

2: the hunting of such creatures.

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey is the tale of Dr. Pellinore Warthrop and his assistant Will Henry. Will is an orphan under the care of Dr. Warthrop, a peculiar man who studies dangerous creatures and monsters. In the middle of the night in 1888, a nightmarish specimen is carted to the monstrumologist's home. Will can barely stand the sight of a half-eaten girl and an anthropuphagi, which is a vicious man-eating creature without a head. Will is forced to assist the intense doctor and is eventually led on a quest to find more of the creatures. Encased in this book are the three folios compiled by Will during their adventures.

Yancey, author of the memoir Confessions of a Tax Collector, has created quite a story here. It is as much about fear, perseverance and what we don't understand about our world, as it is about monsters with sharp teeth. Dr. Warthrop identifies fear as "the enemy" and relentlessly ignores the emotion, while Will is developing a healthy respect for fear. I'm glad to see this on some "best of" lists from 2009 because it is quite worthy of that distinction. This is a well-written, creepy read
in the vein of David Almond's Clay .

Friday, February 12, 2010

Be a Super-hero . . . Until You Grow Up.

Graphic novels and comic books aren't the only place to find super-heroes these days. Just have a look in Noble's Green, a town where kids can fly, have super-strength, can turn invisible. But in the novel Powerless (by Cody), the super-kids know there are four laws which guide their lives: 1. Use your powers to help. Never hurt. 2. The North Face and the Old Quarry are off-limits. Danger waits there. 3. It ends at thirteen. 4. Never, ever let grown ups know. From this great high concept, Cody tells the story of the new kid, the one who doesn't have the powers, but nevertheless finds himself in charge of unraveling the mystery behind these rules. And new kid Daniel can imagine, like any reader, what a remarkable gift it would be to have such extraordinary powers, just as he can imagine how horrible it must be to see your thirteenth birthday closing in and know it's all about to end. Worse yet, when your powers go, so does your memory of them, your memory of your friends; an entire part of your life simply disappears. Powerless is not only an exciting adventure that remembers the magic of old comic books, but a great mystery with surprises that keep coming. Most importantly, it's also a powerful statement on being a kid and being a hero (even without the powers).

And speaking of kids and super-heroes, what about the Marvel Adventures titles? All the big guys (and gals) in fast, fresh stories without the burden of continuity slowing them down. Just because they're labeled "All Ages" shouldn't give you pause either. Of all the comics out there, these comics most passionately and cleverly reflect the sense of fun and character-driven action that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko pioneered back in the day -- and believe me, I do not say that lightly. There's a lot of collections out there already, but if you're interested in investigating, check out Marvel Adventures Thor Featuring Captain America, Dr. Strange & Ant-Man Digest (by Tobin, Van Lente and Simonson), which includes a hilarious re-telling of Ant-Man's origin and also stars Spider-Man (even though they don't tell you). Marvel Adventures Spider-Man Volume 14: Thwip! Digest (by Tobin and Lolli) is also an excellent jumping-on point, filled with great fights, but also the human drama that Spidey is famous for.

Super-heroes aren't just for kids any . . . wait a second, maybe they are.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

For Lincoln's Birthday

Tomorrow is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Self-educated, with "a passion to right wrong, a courage to translate that feeling into action, a resolution that carried him through any opposition, a belief and trust in God... A tragic intensity strangely coupled with a saving sense of humor marked all his days... he never lost... his human compassion..." (from a Dictionary of Names, published by Rodale in The Phrase Finder).

I thoroughly enjoyed a three-volume, shortened biography of him written by Carl Sandburg. Not sure if I'll ever read the original six-volume (!) set, but I love Sandburg, and he loved Lincoln, so who knows? David Herbert Donald's Lincoln was a best-seller, and is wonderful. Seriously. It blew me away.

But it, too, is rather long. So I want to recommend Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Anthology of Fantastic Zoology

The Book of Imaginary Beings is exactly the sort of book I would have been discouraged from reading as a teen. No plot, no scholarly analysis required, and in many ways probably seen as a shortcut to "real" reading in literature. Just one author's cyclopedic reference of the beings he has encountered in his life's reading – a literary Cliff's Notes as it were.

But this is exactly the sort of book I was craving. This alphabetic arrangement of the fantastical creatures would have done more to push me toward exploring other books than any teacher or librarian recommendation. I consider books like this a sort of "gateway" guide into possibilities for future exploration in reading; I would have then and I do even now.

Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine surrealist-fabulist, not only collects the fantastic beings of classic literature, but also the creations sprung from American and Chinese tall tales, the beasts from religious texts around the world, and the creatures recorded from the dream journals of other literary luminaries like Kafka, C.S. Lewis, and Poe.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Quicksand by Anonymous

If someone you know is diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, it can feel as if they and everyone who knows them is being pulled into quicksand. Today's title provides all the facts and information you need to learn about HIV and AIDS: what they are, how they are transmitted, how they can be prevented, how people react to the news, and what sorts of problems they can expect - healthwise and otherwise, given the bias against people with HIV/AIDS that continues to exist in our society.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Humans Were Born to Run

Christopher McDougall started the quest that became Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen with a seemingly simple question: Why does my foot hurt? Like the majority of runners (from the morning joggers you see in the park to the best trained Olympians), he was plauged with injuries that kept him from participating fully in the sport that he loved. His questions led him to scientists at top research facilities, sports medicine specialists, and ultimately to the Copper Canyons of Mexico and the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe of people who make running long distances a way of life. McDougall wanted to learn the secret to their seemingly effortless running, and along the way touches on the history of the human race as runners, a 100-mile race in the Colorado mountains, the science behind why your expensive running shoes might just be bad for you, and some of the interesting but relatively unknown characters in the ultrarunning world.

You don't have to be a super athlete to enjoy this book. McDougall alternates chapters between scientific research (which is presented in interesting ways--don't worry about a dry presentation of numbers here!), stories of some of ultrarunning's current powerhouses, and his own quests to find the Tarahumara and become a better runner himself. We meet Ann Trason, one of the few people who have given any Tarahumara runner a challenge in a race (and are left to ponder the question of why, as the distances get longer, the times of male and female runners get closer and closer). There's Barefoot Ted, a runner who, you guessed it, sings the praises of running barefoot. Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett are known for partying as hard as they run. The man who ties the story together is Caballo Blanco, an outsider who has been living in the Copper Canyons for years, earning the trust of the Tarahumara and learning their techniques for both running and serenity. It is Caballo who has organized the race that brings the author, various other ultrarunners, and some of the top Tarahumara runners together and is the focus of the last third of the book.

Read Born to Run to meet some fascinating people, learn a bit of the scienctific design of the human body, and be engrossed in a story. It may inspire you to get out and run, it may make you look at competition and mindset in a new way, it may make you believe that humans really were born to run. Here's an interview with McDougall from the Daily Show if you want a bit more background on how he got inspired to research the Tarahumara.

Cross posted at Dwelling in Possibility.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Incarceron -- Catherine Fisher

I read Catherine Fisher's Incarceron back when it was released in the UK, raved about it, and was so very excited for it to be released in the US, so I could recommend it to everyone, everyone, everyone. Well, I waited. And waited. And waited. And now, years later, it has finally been released here.

The following is my original post about it:

From Incarceron:

It was decided from the beginning that the location of Incarceron should be known only to the Warden. All criminals, undesirables, political extremists, degenerates, lunatics would be transported there. The Gate would be sealed and the Experiment commence. It was vital that nothing should disturb the delicate balance of Incarceron's programming, which would provide everything needed - education, balanced diet, exercise, spiritual welfare and purposeful work - to create a paradise.

One hundred and fifty years have passed. The Warden reports that progress is excellent.

Court Archives 4302/6

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, J.G. Jones and Doug Mahnke

I'm of two distinct minds where it comes to so-called "event" comics. On one hand, they are the sort of thing that rightfully deserves their place in discount back issue bins. But on the other hand, they are what initially brought me to comics as a teenager. Early adolescence disconnected me from what I felt were "childish" things - and comics were on that list. But somewhere around 1984 I was daring enough to venture into a local comic book shop (an extememly novel business at the time), where my eyes quickly found the first three or four issues of Marvel's Secret Wars.

Now, anyone who knows anything about comics of the past 25 years will tell you that Secret Wars (for lack of a better or more accurate phrase) sucks. And this is true. It does suck. Inconsistent and contradictory plotting collide with ham-fisted diaogue and ultra rushed art to create the paradigm of the "comics as pure product" movement. But to my teenaged eyes, it was a wonder. Here were all of the characters I had loved as a child fighting against all of their most familiar villains in an epic battle for the fate of existence. It was a way to instantly re-access all of these characters and catch up on the changes that had occurred to them over the years. It was my "gateway drug."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Creation Myth

Science gives us a lot of specificity. We know how the universe began (though we don’t yet know what came before it), and we know an quite a about what’s happened since then--the formation of the galaxy and of the solar system, the geological history of the earth, the evolutionary history of life. It’s all fascinating stuff.

But those old pre-science creation myths have a lot going for them, too, whether stories of Gaia and Uranus, or of turtles and coyotes, or of a God making the heavens and earth in six days. While they may be inaccurate from a factual basis, they capture much of the mystery and awe we feel when we consider the origins of everything. And, because they often center around human desire, love, revenge, or failings, they tell us quite a bit about humans too.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Operation TBD Is Back!

Guys Lit Wire has once again teamed up with the readergirlz and YALSA for Operation Teen Book Drop 2010, and we're once again aiming to get thousands of YA books into the hands of teens on April 15, 2010. The countdown has already started (see nifty sidebar widget).

This year, we're also teaming up with If I Can Read I Can Do Anything in order to drop publisher-donated YA books into the hands of teens on Native American reservations.

Nationwide, librarians, authors, and teens are invited to drop YA books in their own communities on April 15th, 2010, to raise awareness for Operation TBD 2010 and Support Teen Literature Day--and to join the readergirlz for a party that night, at the readergirlz blog.

Neal Cassady, aka Dean Moriarty, aka The Holy Goof

The Holy Goof by the late William Plummer is a biography of one of the greatest literary figures to never write anything substantial--his best-known work is a fragment of a letter. But Sherlock Holmes' words to Watson might also describe Neal Cassady's relationship to Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Jerry Garcia (leader of the Grateful Dead): "Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it."