Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Saved By Rock 'n' Roll: Fat Kid Rules the World

As K. L. Goings’s Fat Kid Rules the World begins, Troy, narrator and eponymous fat kid, has his life—like The Velvet Underground’s Jenny—saved by rock ‘n’ roll. Here, rock ‘n’ roll arrives in the guise of Curt, semi-homeless, semi-drop out, and musical legend around Troy’s school.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix

The Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix is a fantastic seven-book series which follows one boy's pulse-racing journey through a world where seven mysterious and powerful Trustees vie for control -- a realm that he, an asthmatic seventh-grader, is destined to save.

If he survives the next seven days, that is.

Two weeks after moving to a new town, Arthur Penhaligon (pen-HAL-uh-gun) is begrudgingly participating in the all-grade cross-country run. Even though he is severely asthmatic and has recently been hospitalized for his condition, he is forced to take part in the weekly event. When he begins his trudge across campus, little does that he will soon stumble upon what looks to be the minute hand of an antique clock. The piece is actually one of the Keys to the Kingdom, and handling it makes Arthur the Rightful Heir to the Realm, a place where otherworldly beings have long been engaged in a power struggle and are loathe to welcome the presence of a human child, much less acknowledge his title. The minute hand, the Key, leads Arthur to a mysterious house in another Universe where there's a Will, a (hard) way, and seven strange Keepers named after days. With no time to lose, Arthur must quickly determine who's good and who's up to no good, who can help him and who will hurt him.

This enchanting series is sure to delight fans of fantasy classics such as The NeverEnding Story by Michael Ende as well as followers of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and the OutCast quartet by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski. Each book leads readers in vastly different lands, ranging from the watery to the industrial. When the locomotives came into play, I dreamt of steampunk. There are gardens and hidden passages, winged beings and mysterious creatures, skies heavy with unending rain and buildings which will never reach their desired destination, magical rings and stairs that appear at will. There's also the Will and assistance from assistants, hindered by the deceit and venom of those who want Arthur gone and/or dead.

Nix populates his world with distinct and dramatic characters. From the greedy Tuesday to the gluttonous Wednesday to the merciless Saturday, each and every one of the Trustees is intimidating and looming to their own degrees. Each Trustee also represents a deadly sin, something which is subtly suggested rather than blatantly stated.

My favorite supporting character was Suzy Turquoise Blue, a daring, quirky girl who has the gumption of Eliza Doolittle. I could see and hear her very clearly as I read the series. I loved her sassy nature, her boldness, and her mannerisms. It was the kind of role I'd love to play.

As with many truly good, solid fantasy books, The Keys to the Kingdom is a coming-of-age story, detailing Arthur's ascent from a sickly boy to a strong young man. Along the way, Arthur must make difficult choices and sacrifices to fully understand, maintain, and realize not only his position in the Realm but also his physical health, and to protect his family members and his newfound friends and companions. When the story began, Arthur was in the right place at the right time - or the wrong time, depending on how you look at it. When the story ends, he is irrevocably changed. His unexpected duality is powerful, and his internal and external struggle to maintain control over both his illness and his self-awareness is captivating, all of which would surely be appreciated by, say, Bastian from The NeverEnding Story or Bindi from The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks. (Note: Though Bindi's book skews a little younger than Arthur's, this reviewer will never forget how she felt when Bindi was 'taken over' by her unhealthy impulses. My jaw may have actually dropped.)

It is crucial that you read the books in order:

#1 Mister Monday
#2 Grim Tuesday
#3 Drowned Wednesday
#4 Sir Thursday
#5 Lady Friday
#6 Superior Saturday
#7 Lord Sunday

Mister Monday Grim Tuesday Drowned Wednesday Sir Thursday Lady Friday

To learn more about The Keys to the Kingdom and read and hear excerpts from the books, visit and

Related Posts at Bildungsroman:
Booklist: From a Land Down Under
Booklist: Fantasy Novels for Kids and Teens

Monday, June 28, 2010

Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth

When I first heard about Blood Oath, I admit was skeptical. A vampire secretly working for the president, protecting the country from threats? Seriously? I was also a bit intrigued, though, so when I had the chance to read the book, I was willing to give it a try. And I found Christopher Farnsworth's novel to be a sometimes humorous, sometimes gruesome, but always entertaining thriller. Seriously.

Friday, June 25, 2010

You Call That an Alien? Try Reading The Mote in God's Eye

If Star Trek is anything to go by, it isn't that hard to glue a few rubber ridges to someone's forehead and call him an alien. He can have the same desires for food, for love, for friendship, for success, for personal and spiritual fulfillment -- as long as they're skewed slightly from ours.

Of course, science fiction (including Star Trek) has a long tradition of using the ostensibly alien to illustrate our human assumptions. These aliens eat their dessert first, and they therefore have a whole different idea of what it means to truly live in the moment, seizing happiness wherever they can get it, celebrating life without our cumbersome self-punishing concepts of the order of dinner.

Lots of us read science fiction for an injection of the strange, for a glimpse at some of the real possibilities of our expansive universe. I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure that no alien we ever encounter will stand on two legs, shake our hands with one of its two arms, and grin beneath its ridged forehead.

So if there's one thing we can be sure of regarding alien life, it is that it will be weird. Not Uncle Hiram weird, either: weird like those horseshoe crab carcasses you find on the beach or those fans of fungus growing from the sides of trees.

And here, in the Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel The Mote in God’s Eye, we meet a truly alien species.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

John Christopher's White Mountains

Aliens have invaded and destroyed our modern way of life, replacing it with ... the good old days.

These aliens have done what we never could ... created world-wide peace. And they've (re)created a sort of utopian middle ages society for us to live in. All we have to do in return is submit to wearing a metal cap, which will keep us from ever getting violent and trying to wreck the peace.

It all sounds pretty cushy and most everybody goes for it. Except for Will, a boy who resists the thought of being capped and losing ... what exactly?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Story for Every Couch Potato Who Really Wants to Save the World

Life is not about the small things. That's a lie too many parents tell their sons. It is really about the large stuff, the things that take teamwork and effort. Like a couch. And some couch's are magical things and change the lives of three guys who are friends. Like in Couch by Benjamin Parzybok.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Orbital: Scars and Ruptures

Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pelle have created an expansive world in their Orbital graphic novel series that would do Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas proud. The first volume, Scars, was originally published in 2006 then released in English last year. Along with volume two, Ruptures, the Orbital series is a stunning achievement.

Published in a large format, illustrator Pelle creates a bustling 23rd century landscape. Runberg's story begins in 2278, when earth is allegedly poised to join the intergalactic Confederation. Unfortunately violence erupts, killing many of the Sandjaar race and the reputation of the humans.

Moving several years forward, Caleb Swany is now the first human to be a special agent for the Confederation's diplomatic unit. In a controversial move, the Prime Dignitary pairs up Caleb with Mezoke Ozzua, a Sandjaar Confederation Citizen. Caleb and Mezoke must deal with their own conflict, as well as those of the planet they are visiting and the horrifyingly destructive insects that also live there.

The new agents' mission is on the planet Senestam where war is eminent between a human colony and the Javlads. There is great conflict between all of the parties as Runberg leads his fictional world through realistic issues like immigration, racism and moral relativism. Runberg, who grew up in France, seems to be heavily influenced by Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, among many other Science Fiction staples. Orbital is a deep series of politics, though there is still a sense of adventure and the heavy issues never weigh down the books.

I may be over-gushing, but this is one of my favorite graphic novels of the last few years. Fans of Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man and Tim Eldred's Grease Monkey will enjoy Orbital.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Born to Rock

You are probably not going to have a summer job as surreal or as cool (or as potentially corrupting) as Leo Caraway's (not unless you have just discovered that your dad is the lead singer of the world's most popular punk rock band and you are about to be his roadie for a cross-country tour, in which case, good luck to you). For those of you stuck with work at the other end of the excitement spectrum, you'll be happy to hear that if you read Gordon Korman's hilarious Born to Rock, you'll score all the laughs of life on tour and none of the hearing loss.

Leo Caraway is all set to embrace his perfectly-planned future. He was president of the Young Republicans club, a model student, acceptance to Harvard in hand. Then two things happen that send this plan off the rails. First, he comes to the aid of a kid who he doesn't even like very much, gets accused of cheating on a test, and before he can say "That's not fair" his scholarship to Harvard is revoked. As if anything could be more disturbing, next he finds out his biological dad is King Maggot, the lead singer of Purge, the legendary punk band. This disturbing revelation quickly becomes Leo's best hope for finding his way back to the Ivy League. He decides to accept a job as a roadie for Purge's summer revival tour, expecting that he will "bond" with the King, and convince him to pay his tuition for the fall. It's not long before Leo realizes that the road is an even stranger and more surprising place than he had imagined it would be. Much hilarity ensues.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Aid in the Desert

Let me be upfront about this book, Crossing with the Virgin: Stories from the Migrant Trail. My mother is one of the authors.

She is a retired physician living in Tucson, Arizona, and she has spent the better part of the last decade volunteering to prevent deaths in the desert between southern Arizona and northern Mexico. The group she volunteers with, Samaritan Patrol, places water in the desert in the hopes of curbing the tremendous number of deaths by dehydration that occur every year, particularly during these summer months when the heat is unbearable.

In addition, they try to provide medical aid to the injured and dying, getting them to the hospital should they need. They also help migrants get in touch with the Border Patrol should they desire aid in returning home. What they do is legal, but politically charged. What isn't political are the heartwrenching stories she and two other Samaritan volunteers wrote down in this book.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anthill by E. O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson is one of the most accomplished biologist and conservationist working and writing today. A professor at Harvard, Wilson has discovered 337 species of ants. He coined the term "biodiversity" and was a pioneer in the field of chemical ecology (studying pheromones and the chemical signals insects and other animals use to communicate.) All this led to his most pivotal work, The Insect Societies, a study of social ants, bees, and termites. Wilson concluded that, while an ant is a simple creature, an anthill is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a complex system able to "remember" important information and adapt to new challenges.

Recently, Wilson published his first novel. Anthill is about Raff Cody, a boy from in southern Alabama (where Wilson spent most of his own childhood) trying to protect Lake Nokobee from developers. On a larger scale, though, it's about how people can accomplish big things when they work together. How, like ant colonies, human communities can become greater than the sum of their parts.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Trickster tales with Matt Dembicki

Comics creator Matt Dembicki is the editor/creative force behind "Trickster," a graphic novel anthology collecting tales of North America's first adventure heroes -- trickster figures like Coyote, Raven, and other "animal humans," who both transformed the world around them, and were often transformed by it (in spite of themselves).

The book pairs up Native American storytellers with comics artists, and provides a great batch of reading that is, well, both thrilling and yes, transformative. As you'd demand from any encounter with a trickster!

In the course of my comics review writing, I asked Dembicki some (virtual) questions about the anthology, which has been gaining lots of media notice -- perhaps because a project like this is so vastly overdue.

GLW: What was the original impetus for the collection?

MD: I was reading a prose anthology of Native American trickster stories when I decided to sketch some of the animals depicted in the various stories. Then it occurred to me that these tales could make great stories in a sequential art format. But if I was going to undertake such a project, I wanted to include Native American storytellers to have them write stories based on their tribes’ trickster tales. That was the only way to make it authentic.

GLW: How did you decide which trickster tales to include? (Did you want to keep from becoming "all-Coyote," say?)

MD: My goal was to have geographic representation among the storytellers. And since each region has its own trickster animal or being, it guaranteed a variety of animals. So, for example, many of the Southwestern tribes have coyotes, while those in the Northwest have ravens, Northeast raccoons and Southeast rabbits. Some tribes had a few trickster animals, so I encouraged storytellers to consider stories that were particularly unique or ones that featured lesser-known tricksters.

GLW: How did you match "teller" to artist? (Especially given the range of visual styles in the book?)

MD: After reading a storyteller’s submission, I would give him or her a short list of about four artists who I felt would do a good job rendering the story. I included a range of styles, from cartoony to more realistic. The storyteller then selected which artist he or she wanted to illustrate the story.

GLW: Had each teller worked in comics before? If not, how did you work the breakdowns and layout?

MD: None of the storytellers had experience working in the comics format. For most of the stories, the selected artist took the prose story and did some character sketches and pages thumbnails and got the OK from the writer. Many of the artists also did research on their own to ensure things like the setting, clothing and shelter were as authentic as possible.

GLW: Any thought of trickster tales from other cultures? Pan? Elijah? Anansi? (etc...!)

MD: I don’t think so. This project took four years to complete, which is quite a bit of time. But I may work on another Native American-focused project, something historically based. In the meantime, I’m finishing up a graphic novel about a great white shark’s journey across the Pacific!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Enemy

I don't get my hands on ARCs very often, but occasionally my friends in the colleciton development and children's departments will send something along--possibly because I beg, and possibly because they know I'm particularly looking forward to something. Such was the case with The Enemy by Charlie Higson (author of the Young Bond series). This one was released in May, so I got to read it just a bit early. It should be available at your local library by now, and I'm thinking it will be pretty popular with anyone who enjoyed The Hunger Games.

London. Could be the near future, could be now. Most adults have succumbed to a wasting, terrible disease, leaving the city's children to fend for themselves. This is complicated by the fact that some of the adults have turned in to zombie-like creatures who survive by eating the children. Some kids have found each other and banded together, living in supermarkets, parks, and any other safe place they can find, trying to forage for food and stay one step ahead of the grownups. Some groups are bigger than others, some are having better luck finding food and fighting for their lives than others. Can society be rebuilt? Do they want it to be?

The Enemy follows some of the kids as they fight for their survival. Two rival factions who have been living in different grocery stores come together to make their way across the city when they are told of a refuge and much better life at Buckingham Palace. Their journey across London is full of action and peril. One kid who was dragged off by the grownups manages to escape them, and we also follow him as he is on his own, learning that the grownups he fears are not the only danger in the city. Rival leaders, different ideas about what the right thing is, and hard decisions are inescapable. This book is fast paced, action packed, and no one is truly safe. You'll be left rooting for these kids to survive and figure out what they're going to do next (and while this book does have an ending, there's lots of room left for a sequel). Zombie, apocalypse, and survival lovers, get your hands on The Enemy!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Long Good-Bye

This is going to be my final post for Guys Lit Wire and I wanted to sign off with something appropriately epic. And what is more epic, more legendary, more mythical than myth itself? The first book in the Olympians series, Zeus: King of the Gods (by O'Connor), struck like a bolt of lightning, and now Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess (also by O'Connor) attacks with a vengeance. Athena was Greek mythology's fiercest warrior -- sort of an Ancient Greek Punisher -- and the book presents her at her battlin' best. Leading the gods against the invading army of the Gigantomachy or launching into an incredibly conceived, beautifully rendered, soaring battle against their leader Pallas, the action is like the very best that super-hero comics have to offer. At the same time, O'Connor has carefully researched his subject and fills his heroine with a seething, coiled personality and his tale with plenty of fascinating details. He doesn't just recount Athena's battles but also highlights her influence on the lives of mere mortals (and semi-mortals) like Perseus as he battles the Medusa and Arachne as she is punished for her arrogance. The series is already a high-water mark in heroic comics, with two more titles still to come (Hera and Hades).

As far as legendary heroism goes, you could do a lot worse than the samurai. From history to books to movies, their devotion to honor and combat skill has lived in the imagination for centuries. In Swordsmith Assassin (by Cosby, Nelson and Hayrula), Japan's greatest sword-maker, Toshiro Ono, returns home one day to find his wife and son dead. The true horror, he learns, is that they were slain with a blade of Ono's own making. The despairing swordsmith launches himself on a quest of honor to track down every blade he ever forged so that he can remove them from the Earth, intent on reclaiming them from whoever possesses them, be it the land's greatest sword master or the emperor himself. On this great emotional hook comes a gritty tale of conflict with something to say about the true path to redemption. And is this the only Japan-centered graphic novel that doesn't feature manga-style art? Maybe, but you won't miss it. Hayrula has created a dark, moody feudal Japan where you can feel the dirt under your feet and sweep of the blade as it cuts the air. And just look at that cover.

It's been my pleasure to spout off about things I love every month and an honor to do it in such impressive company. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hiking Afghanistan

Before reading Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, I listened to an audio version of the book. I liked it a lot, but I had trouble remembering unfamiliar names, of people and places. Also, occasionally, my mind wanders if I listen as I drive to work. A few days after being captivated by the recording, I decided I had to read it.

Mr. Stewart walked across Afghanistan in January, 2002 (He had also walked through Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal). People told him he would die. Fortunately, he knows Persian, and was able to converse with the people he met. It was not an easy hike - some of the mountains were under nine feet of snow, and foreigners are not always welcome. It's a different world over there, folks!

'"How much does it cost to buy a wife in England?"
"But you are already married."
"I want a second wife."
"Nothing. You don't have to pay in England."
Then why don't I just go to England and get one for free instead of paying five thousand dollars here?"
"No reason," I said.
Abdul Haq looked at me suspiciously.'

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

According to Hoyle

I'm not a big fan of required summer reading.  I have my reasons, but primary among them is this idea that books on required reading lists rarely allow room for personal exploration in literature.  I know the lists make concessions from the broccoli reading – you know, the classic and "good for you" books – but where's the fun in exploring genres and delving into the empty calorie beach reads if they're on a sanctioned list?

On the other hand, if someone asked me to suggest a single book for summer reading, one that could be casually perused and practically applied, I would go with a solid edition of Hoyle's Rules of Games.  With a copy of this book, a scrounged deck or two of playing cards, perhaps some dice, a reader could spend an entire summer filling in the odd gaps of time at camp, the down time between rain showers, and the shady respites from sweltering afternoon sun.  A commitment to learn one game a week would, by summer's end, yield nearly a dozen opportunities to gain lessons in strategy, gambling, skill, luck and plain old relief from boredom.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Android Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

It's hard to imagine, but the literary mash-up rage only started a little over a year ago with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and before anyone chimes in, yes, I know that there have been plenty of other mash-ups previous to P&P&Z, but none with the same economic or pop culture effect). Perhaps it's a sign of a thin concept stretched too far, but within one year this burgeoning genre has begun to feel already played out and cliched. I have to admit that I was immediately fascinated by P&P&Z when it was first released, and my curiosity was piqued enough by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to purchase it upon release. But Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters? Pardon my yawn. When the best and most notable concept in a book is its cover, you know you're in trouble.

I suppose that's why I've been so surprised by Android Karenina, the latest mash-up from Quirk Books and author Ben H. Winters. I was hardly predisposed to like the book from the get-go, given my past teaching Tolstoy's classic and my own hardly enthusiastic attitude about yet another too clever by half literary mash-up. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the invention Winters employs to remix this classic novel.

Imagine a steampunk Russia in the late 19th century. That's Android Karenina. Fortunately, rather than set this novel in the future, Winters wisely chooses to keep it distinctly in the past, but a radically re-imagined past. All of the familiar characters from the original novel are present - Anna, Count Vronsky, Levin, Oblonsky - but now the world they inhabit is drastically changed. This is a Russia where the discovery of a new metal and energy source, groznium, has transformed every aspect of society. The most striking change is in the field of robotics. Robots are everywhere, divided (as suits Russia of the past) into distinct classes. Class 1 robots are menial, servile creatures beneath almost everyone's notice. Class 2s are a few steps above this, capable of slight speech but still mostly primitive and simple. Class 3s, however, are quite different. The wealthy and powerful all receive a Class 3 when they come of age as adults. These Class 3s are constant companions, trusted confidants and valiant protectors - something like the daemons in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. They are an extension of the self. Anna's Class 3 is, for example, Android Karenina, a beautiful but strangely silent presence, while Levin's Class 3 is Socrates, a wise oddball of a robot.

This focus on robots, their classes and the Iron Laws (think Asimov's robotics laws) they are programmed to obey enhances and expands the original novel's themes of class distinctions, gender roles and identity. I am happy to say that Winters does not treat Android Karenina as a one note joke, as it easily could have become. Instead, it enriches the original while staying true to the characters. It reads as if it were created by someone with the utmost respect for the original material, and that is a good thing.

So who is this book for? All of the Quirk editions beg this question at one level or another. Is Android Karenina for the long-time devotee to the original? As someone who has read the original book several, several times, I can honestly say it was fun seeing what changes Winters brought to the mix - robotics in one moment, space travel in the next. Could this appeal to someone who has never read Anna Karenina? Probably, and it could possibly get some males to read it who would otherwise avoid it altogether. Before you think it, yes, I realize that reading this is not the same as reading the original, but it might be a good bridge into other classic Russian lit.

Either way, Android Karenina represents a genre-bending leap forward for the literary remix. Whether it's the pinnacle of a declining empire remains to be seen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

No treasure on this Island

I started reading Peter Benchley's 1979 novel The Island sitting in a waiting room, for lack of anything better to read. And the sucker hooked me.

For those who don't know, the late author was the son of Nathaniel Benchley and the grandson of Robert Benchley, both literary figures of high reknown. He was also the author of Jaws, the novel that was the Twilight of the early Seventies.

The Island was his second novel after Jaws (following the sunken-treasure tale The Deep) and centers on magazine writer Blair Maynard (a typical name for a Benchley hero; the main character of The Deep was named "Romer Treece," Beast's hero was "Whip Dalton," and so forth). Maynard and his twelve-year-old son, Justin, head into the Caribbean to investigate ship disappearances, but what should have been a father-son lark turns unbelievably grim. They run afoul of an isolated population of inbred descendants of 17th-century pirates who co-opt Justin into their ranks and plan a grisly end for Maynard when he's no longer useful. These are not the rollicking buccaneers of Errol Flynn and Jonny Depp, but disgusting, bloodthirsty killers with appalling levels of hygiene.

The first third of the novel is a crackling good mystery-adventure with a surprisingly realistic father/son relationship. It was this aspect that caught my eye and kept me reading. Maynard wants to be a good dad, and tries very hard to stay connected to Justin despite being divorced from the boy's diffident mother. He's conscious of his status as a role model, and even if he never quite lives up to it, he sincerely tries. And Justin is depicted as a normal kid, neither precocious nor infuriatingly dense. I had hopes that this might turn out to be a lost treasure (no pun intended) for Guys Lit Wire readers.

Unfortunately, once the Maynard lads are captured by the pirates, the novel's considerable momentum slows to a crawl. Justin vanishes from the story for long stretches, and we spend our time with Maynard senior and the pirate woman who wants him to impregnate her (yep, you read that right). And here's a tip to you would-be adventure writers out there: if you want to keep your readers on your hero's side, don't have the villains give him an enema. In graphic detail. Really. For any reason. If your plot demands it, then you should seriously re-evaluate it. Sometimes your fetishes should stay private.

Eventually Maynard realizes that Justin likes the bloodthirsty pirate life, and so the battle becomes one for the boy's soul. I won't give away the ending--hell, if you slog through the last third of the book, you deserve the suspense--but its impact is considerably lessened because we don't see Justin's gradual transformation from comic-reading 'tween to Blackbeard-in-waiting. I don't know what Benchley was after, exactly, but what promised to be a neat modern twist on Treasure Island becomes instead one more sad artifact on the trail of a writer trying to reclaim the buried treasure of his debut novel. And it remains a missed opportunity for teen pirate fans.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why Dogs Eat Poop & Other Useless or Gross Information About the Animal Kingdom, by Francesca Gould and David Haviland

The title kind of says it all, right?

Want more? There's a blurb on the front cover that says: "Every disgusting fact about animals you ever wanted to know--from monkey-face lamb disease to exploding toads!"

Heck, exploding toads? I'm there. Even though it was published for the adult market, Why Dogs Eat Poop is EXACTLY the sort of book that my fifth-grade self would have loved. And my sixth-grade self. And, really, every version of me -- because ever since I received it in the mail, I've been wandering around, asking people things like:

  • Do you know how squirrels use their tails to outsmart rattlesnakes?

  • Did you know that snapping turtles have assisted in police investigations?

  • Do you know what "penis fencing" is?

Gould & Haviland cover lots of ground, from super-smart animals to not-so-bright-but-ultra-strong animals, to the bizarre sex lives found in the animal world to some utterly disgusting facts about vomit. (I say utterly disgusting, but what was the first chapter I turned to? You got it.) Occasionally, the writing feels a little choppy and repetitive, but the subject matter carries it, and it's not a book that many people will sit down and read cover to cover. It's more of a book for waiting rooms or bathrooms or long car rides. Or, like I said, my fifth-grade self.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk
"Being a hefty, deaf newcomer almost makes Will Halpin the least popular guy at Coaler High. But when he befriends the only guy less popular than him, the dork-namic duo has the smarts and guts to figure out who knocked off the star quarterback. Will can’t hear what’s going on, but he’s a great observer. So, who did it? And why does that guy talk to his fingers? And will the beautiful girl ever notice him? (Okay, so Will’s interested in more than just murder . . .)

Those who prefer their heroes to be not-so-usual and with a side of wiseguy will gobble up this witty, geeks-rule debut."- summary from Amazon

I really enjoyed this book; it was original and had a unique perspective to it. It's not often I read books with male protagonists (that alone is original enough considering YA), but for him to also be deaf and on the large side? Almost unthinkable. I loved reading through Will's perspective with his being deaf because he would have to rely on clues to figure out what was going on rather than simply hearing his classmates make fun of him.

Relying on clues helped him and his friends figure out the murder that happened. Now, I had a bit of a problem with this. I felt like it took way too long for that part of the plot to kick in. I mean, when it's included in the summary, I expect it to begin like 50ish pages into the book, but this didn't start until well after page 100 and I wondered if there would be enough time for that part of the book to develop. I think what Berk did was good, but I think it could've used a bit more screen time.

OK, now I can't review this book and not mention the humor. This book was so funny. I laughed out loud many times while reading this, which definitely got major approval from me since I am a guy who loves to laugh and loves any book with humor. Will was a great character who seemed like such a great guy that you'd love to hang out with- he's hilarious, kind, and full of good intentions. I also enjoyed his friends Devon and Ebony; their interactions were fun to read.

Overall, this is a really good book and I did really enjoy it, despite the flaw mentioned above. Definitely go out and get a copy as soon as you can since the book is in stores now!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days

On the day of President Obama's inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander read her poem, "Praise Song for the Day". Alexander's poem is the poem posted on Day 1, and it can be seen as a celebration of the moment, with mention made of the historical nature of his presidency based on his race as well as mention made of the simple joy of the day. Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg, the forces behind today's book, Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days, put out a call before the inauguration for 99 more poets, creating a blog with a new poem posted every day. The catch? Apart from Alexander's poem, most or all of the poems were written only a day or so before they were posted on the blog that housed them. (Sadly, the blog has since been pretty much wiped clean, although there are now a few poems - and their performances - posted there.

Within the remaining 99 poems, there are occasionally other poems celebrating the new President and his life. I am fond, for instance of the poem offered for Day 27, which was Valentine's Day. It's a poem by Diane Wald entitled "nonromantic obama valentine for america, february 14th, 2009", and it opens with a focus on Obama's smile:

let us just make a note of one thing before traveling too far on:
obama eats the camera.

in every single photograph where he is smiling
the presidential teeth
require a taming of light, a scrooching in of every aperture
so the picture is not too far bedazzled.

in honor of this i send all america this nonromantic obama valentine command:
thou shalt smile!

for our president
is smiling.

just a man.
openly smiling.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Below the Surface

If you've been following the Gulf oil spill you know that, ominous at as it is, the slick, spreading mass on the surface is only a fraction of the problem. Deep below the surface, a giant plume of oil billows through thousands of feet of seawater, representing far more oil and possibly a far greater environmental threat than anything happening on the surface.

It's pure coincidence that the Gulf oil disaster happens to come at the same time as a special re-release from Subterranean press of Neal Stephenson's largely unknown first novel, Zodiac: the Eco Thriller. But the parallels are undeniable. Both the real-life story and this novel involve large corporations guilty of atrocities deep underwater. The name of the novel refers not to any astrological symbols, but to the boat--a small, quick and maneuverable inflatable craft--that its protagonist, Sagamon Taylor uses in his work. Sagamon Taylor, or S.T., a.k.a. the Granola James Bond, a.k.a. Toxic Spiderman, is a detective of sorts, an environmental detective who spends his time collecting and analyzing water samples to pinpoint criminal corporations dumping chemical waste into bodies of water. He then organizes actions, such as blocking up companies drain pipes in order to bring political and media attention to them. His main territory is the Boston Harbor and there seems to be plenty of work for him there.