Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

When a young boy named Garth Hale accidentally gets transported to the afterlife, a ghostcatcher must retrieve him - with the help of his ex-fiancee, who just so happens to be a ghost. From Doug TenNapel, the creator of Earthworm Jim, this is Ghostopolis.

I went into this full-color graphic novel thinking it might been good for comic book enthusiasts who enjoyed films like Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters, and I was right. I must say, though, that I wanted more information about Garth's condition (it is revealed early in the volume that he has an incurable disease, which is never named) and the powers he later acquires. I'm all for finding the inner strength you never knew you had as well as developing superpowers; I just want to know more about the earning and acquisition.

Since this book was published through Scholastic's Graphix imprint, I thought the target audience would be kids, but I think that the storyline between Frank Gallows and Claire Voyant, the aptly-named ghost hunter and his hauntingly beautiful ex-fiance, will attract adult readers as well. More folks will certainly seek out this graphic novel when the movie version of Ghostopolis - which producer Hugh Jackman will star in - comes out.

For another story about a living kid who accidentally gets into the land of the dead, check out the May Bird Trilogy by Jodi Lynn Anderson - and adults seeking the same simply must try The Ferryman by Christopher Golden, an amazing story about a woman who crosses paths with Charon.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

MindBlind by Jennifer Roy

There are lots of books these days written from the point of view of an Aspie. (That's someone with Asperger's Syndrome, like myself.)

The most famous is the mega-seller "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" and this year brings the moving "Mockingbird," about an Aspie dealing with the murder of her brother.

I recently read another Aspie-narrated book, "MindBlind," which is a little different than either of the above. While it does cover some big moments in a young guy's life, it's more of a slice-of-life story. This gives the reader a chance to experience regular, everyday stuff as filtered through a very different brain.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

Sometimes it takes more than one book to figure out what the fuss is about. You know, when you read your first novel in a certain genre or subgenre, or by a particular author, and you enjoyed it, but haven't been converted into a fan. Then one or two or three books later, you stumble across the book that makes the proverbial lightbulb click on and you finally understand what the big deal is.

I'd read a couple of Chris Crutcher books before and liked them well enough, but (and this may be heresy for a YA librarian) I didn't think they were all that amazing. Then I read Whale Talk and said, "Oh, so that's why people are such big Chris Crutcher fans."

So, Whale Talk.

Cutter High School is obsessed with sports. Which is one of the reasons T. J. Jones sticks out. T. J. (full legal name: The Tao Jones), adopted as a child by white parents, is "black. And Japanese. And white. Politically correct would be African-American, Japanese-American, and what? Northern-European American?" (Though you can't exactly tell from the book cover.) He's one of the few people of color in town and one of the best athletes in school, even though he refuses to join any of its sports teams.

Friday, July 23, 2010

I Burn with Life: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

Quick quiz, readers: Who wrote or said these great lines of wisdom?

Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content.

Shakespeare? Byron? Thoreau? Here's a little more, in case it helps.

If life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

Give up? That's Conan, often called "Conan the Barbarian" by comic book writers and schlock movie makers, as he was written in the original short stories by Robert E. Howard.

Starting in 1929, long before anyone had ever heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, pulp writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard were writing stories set in far away times and places, often modeled on myths and folklore, usually with low technology and high adventure. These tales have come to be called "Sword and Sorcery," and their popularity has grown and shrunk and grown again with the varying tastes of the decades since.

Conan was one of the first and he's still one of the best, and if you love stories of adventure and discovery, you should certainly look for The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

(This is a preferred edition, untainted by later "editors" and "collaborators.")

In the thirteen stories of this book, we're introduced to a rangy, clever, and philosophical Conan. Part Indiana Jones and part Klingon, part Byron and part Odysseus, Conan uses the full range of his abilities in these early adventures -- everything from sneaking to swordsmanship -- as he rises from an orphaned thief to a proud warrior.

In "The God in the Bowl," Conan's thievery places him at the center of a murder investigation, one with an unlikely and terrifying culprit. In "The Tower of the Elephant," Conan frees a creature from the sorcerer Yara and learns about the early origins of magic in his world. In my favorite, "Queen of the Black Coast," Conan falls in love with a pirate queen and helps her raid an ancient city, fabled to be deadly -- and he is saved only by a surprising intervention.

These are stories infused with dark and terrifying magic, the kind that will eventually devour you alive. You will feel grit in your sandals, sweat in your eyes, and aches in your bones from long travels and desperate battles. There's something real and true in Howard's stories, and the movies and comic books tend to get it wrong. Or at least not get it all.

They're somehow primitive and sophisticated at the same time, full of grand pronouncements and dramatic ideas...but also laden with some silly ones about race and gender endemic to the times in which they were written. But at their core, these tales are about the collision of culture and ideals, so you'll be fighting that battle much as Conan does.

If you think you know sword and sorcery -- if you think you know Conan -- you're wrong until you've read these stories.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I Was a Teenage Cthulhu Worshiper

“Then in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky. And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

Introduced to Lovecraft’s stories in my sophomore year of high school, I was immediately pulled in by his beautiful, brutal visions. At the same time, along with peppering English essays with words like “ichor” and “Stygian”, I was sneaking out of the house to tear along the back roads with Chad and Billy. One night, we went out to the river and got drunk on stolen beers. I fell for a girl who’d eventually break my heart. Jessica, whom I’d only though of as a friend before, helped me put the pieces back together.

Back then, I didn’t think those weird old stories had much to do with my first unsteady steps toward adulthood. Looking back, though, I see the connection between adolescence and Lovecraft’s vast, incomprehensible universe.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hot Rewrites at Midnight

Well, it’s not quite midnight -- yet. That’s when my GLW post is due, at the (theoretical) latest, so it appears, as agreed upon, on the anointed Tuesday.

I even have a book I want to review -- written by an author pal here in L.A. I’ll caveat and disclaim my familiarity with the scribe when I actually do write it up -- next month.

Right now though, in the sultry L.A. night, I’m in the midst of rewrites for one of my own books, coming up briefly for some air (well, it’s not officially a book yet -- manuscript?). My agent has been waiting for it for months. Her wager was that if I had it finished by Comic Con, she’d buy me a drink. If I didn’t, I’m picking up the tab when I see her.

Well, though I’ve made it close, I think I’ll be buying the drink. Unless the next 24 hours are somewhat miraculous. There’re a final two-four chapters to write, and about 100 pages to rewrite, (or “polish,” as we like to say when we want to make it sound less daunting).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Carter's Big Break by Brent Crawford

One of my favorite books of 2009 was Brent Crawford's Carter Finally Gets It. Carter was a high school freshman trying to get along with girls, terrible nicknames and his attention deficit disorder. I was beyond excited when I saw the sequel, Carter's Big Break, come into my library.

The new book covers Carter's summer after his freshman year. Things are looking pretty good for Carter. He is going to be a lifeguard at the local pool and he can hang out with Abby, his girlfriend, all summer. Unfortunately, he is too young to get the lifeguard job and after an awkward moment atop a rocket-ship slide he is girlfriendless. So now he is stuck building a deck with his dad and figuring out how to properly apologize to Abby.

When a local author returns to Merrian to produce the film version of Carter's favorite book (and only book he has really read) Carter and Abby have shots at being in the movie. It turns out that Carter gets a role and is playing opposite Kidz Channel star Hilary Idaho. Carter and Hilary bond, but does he do the right thing when he suspects she has a substance abuse problem?

This is just about as funny as the first novel. Carter's Big Break is full of great characters between Carter's friends and family. The best part of these novels is the realistic portrayal of how guys interact and communicate with each other. I think Steven Goldman's Two Parties, One Tux and a Very Short Film about the Grapes of Wrath is the only other book as good as these are at portraying teenage boys and their friends.

Even though I don't even remotely care about the world of celebrities, watching Carter interact in it was quite amusing. Crawford definitely leans on his experience in film and television for this book. It doesn't seem as well thought out as the original as this volume was a bit disjointed and fantastical compared to the realism of the first Carter book. It still stands up quite well and I hope there are more Carter books to come. Besides Steven Goldman's novel, I would also recommend this to fans of The One Where the Kid Nearly Jumps to his Death and Lands in California by Mary Hershey.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Lynne Cox is the sort of person who makes you feel like you need to do more with your life. Not only has she set records for open-water swimming all over the world (beginning at the tender age of 14), she's been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and in her free time, she's written two remarkable, best-selling books. One of them is Grayson. It is a thrilling adventure, a dear fable, and a remarkable true story, and it kind of makes me wonder what other tremendous things have happened to Lynne Cox that she just needs to write down.

Grayson isn't a long book, which makes it perfect for reading in one sitting. (I did, and I think you will too). In the opening chapter, Cox describes a training swim she completed very early one morning when she was 17 years old. It was no ordinary swim because something was in the water with her, swimming close by. Something big. Turns out it was a baby gray whale who had lost his mother somewhere in the vast Pacific. The whole of the book focuses on Lynne's experience swimming with Grayson, as she tried to help him to find his mother. It's magic. Really. If you are at all inclined to enjoy an animal story, or you're up for some brilliantly evocative nature-writing, this book is exactly what you need.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What was so great about that Alexander guy, anyway?

When I teach ancient lit, I have to cram 3000 years worth of culture, history, storytelling, geography, politics, art, religion, and on and on--all into fourteen weeks, give or take. It's a big task, hampered by the fact that, anything my students know about any of the works in question is usually heavily layered with a big fat "who cares?"

Gilgamesh? Who cares? Homer's Odyssey or Iliad? I had to read that in high school and couldn't get through it, I was so bored. Shakespeare? Really? You expect us to read that guy? These are the kinds of looks I get at the beginning of the semester. It's my job to change that attitude. I have to make books and poems from 2500 years ago interesting, relevant, and worth giving a damn.

Two of the many tools I use are humor (because, let's face it, whether it's in Chaucer or Captain Underpants, farts and poop are hilarious), and analogies to contemporary life.

These are some of the same things Vicky Alvear Shecter uses in Alexander the Great Rocks the World, an emminently readable biography (and more) of Alexander the Great.

As a biography, it reads a little odd--Shecter uses a very conversational voice, filled with sarcasm and biting humor, to convey the story. She also lets you know what she thinks about these figures from ancient history. But here's why it works: she knows her stuff. She's very well read; the book is very well researched, and so you feel like your in strong and steady hands as she guides you through the details of history. And, because she's so up front about her views on how these figures played out, what history says about these events, and what scholarship is reliable or not, you as a reader feel like you're in a conversation with the author.

The art and spot illustrations are fun--kind of a Mad Magazine's Dick Berg or Jack Davis sensibility to them--but sometimes can make you wince. And, I'll be honest, there are spots where the writing tries too hard to be hip, rather than relevant. Of course, that's more due to the aging of certain phrases and expressions(it was published nearly five years ago) than any actual problems with the book or writing style.

Overall, an enjoyable biography that opens up whole worlds of knowledge about Alexander's context, the social, political, and religious standards of his day, and how he revolutionized it all. Like all great biographies, it feels both intimate (you get a good sense of what made the world-conqeror tick) and epic. This is what's great about a writer who knows their stuff and works hard to draw you into a dialogue with their subject--you become a more active reader, which means you have to figure out why the material is worth giving a damn.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sopranos, Fantasy-style (or this isn't one of those vamp lover books, thank goodness)

My pal Gwenda Bond recently posted about Holly Black's new novel, WHITE CAT, and all the reasons why everyone needs to read it. We both thought it was perfect for GLW so here is her (slightly edited) post to persuade you to go find this one, posthaste:

"Here is what I love most about White Cat: It's filled with surprises.

This is, of course, the newest novel by Holly Black. Long time readers know how much I heart her books, and a new one is always, always a treat. And it's the first in a series, even better. I actually read it some time ago, and have been meaning to write about it ever since. It's a book that crawls around in your brain for weeks afterward--or it did mine anyway.

I'm sure you know the premise already, but just in case. White Cat features an alternate version of our world, close in many ways, but different in a major one: Magic is real, but only a small percentage of the population known as curse workers can do it. Cassel is from a family of curse workers, but isn't one. Curse work is akin to the mafia in our world, and it's accomplished through touch, which means bare hands are forbidden by society. This first in the series begins with Cassel waking up on a roof at the boarding school where he's been playing at normal, only running a light bookie racket. The implication is that he's being worked, and he finds himself obsessing over the memory of a murder, one he himself committed. The journey that follows is witty, sly, and complicated. True darkness waits in the shadows of this world, and the reader is riveted by the twin hope that Cassel will manage to both master that darkness and escape it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Many Waters: L'Engle's forgotten Murry twins

Team Dennys! The start of the teenage years also marks, often, the beginnings of a deeper exploration of religion. Institutionalized with bar mitzvahs and confirmation, it is part of a search to understand oneself as the definition of that self becomes less clear. So it’s no surprise that quite a number of works for this age group take religion as a jumping off point for adventures in rapidly changing worlds. Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass series is a fantasy Paradise Lost for beginners, as Lyra is swept up out of her own Eden into a rebellion against heaven.

Pullman’s trilogy was pre-dated by Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, which approaches its religiosity at a more general level as a quest for order and against darkness. If the world were a just place, movie theaters would be packed with Team Sandy and Team Dennys tee-shirts, but it’s not and they’ve always been the neglected Murry siblings, strangely normal against the misfit and more-written-about siblings Meg and Charles Wallace.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chilling Truth

Well, after I decided to review Stasiland this month, I read another book I wanted to recommend: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. It's about two guys from Baltimore, both named Wes Moore. One wrote the book, and was a Rhodes Scholar (a prestigious academic award). The other Wes is in prison for life with no possibility of parole. The author wrote to, and visited with him, before deciding to tell their stories.
For the writer, getting to know the other Wes Moore revealed some striking similarities: raised in fatherless families in poor African-American neighborhoods, both felt the lure of making money from selling drugs. The author got away from the criminal life, but the other Wes did not. Why? The author's mother and grandparents sent him away to military school. Obviously, that's not the whole story.

Dystopia, but NOT Fiction

I know that a lot of the GuysLitWire target audience is too young to remember the Cold War. The Soviet Union and its East European allies have been gone for twenty years or so. But when I read Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, I knew I had to tell you about it. In the mid-1990s, soon after East Germany had abandoned the dictatorship, Australian journalist Anna Funder went there to talk with people about life under that regime.

"The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next. In its forty years, 'the Firm' generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages. Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometers long." (That's almost 112 miles.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fantastic Four Volume 1 by Jonathan Hickman

The Fantastic Four really haven't gotten a fair shake in the 2000s. Some might say that their basic premise, that of an oddball adventuring family, is simply out of date and way behind the times. I disagree. Clearly, very few writers have been able to handle the FF in the modern age of comics. John Byrne was one. Heck, Byrne is one of the main reasons why I read comics at all. His efforts on the Fantastic Four in the 80s were dead on perfect and unfortunately over before they should have been (blame creative differences - always the bane of Mr. Byrne).

There have been glimmers of hope since then, of course. Alan Davis tried, but didn't stick with the FF long enough. Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo (R.I.P.) had a spectacular run focusing on the four as imaginauts, but again it wasn't nearly long enough to re-establish the Fantastic Four as the preeminent team in the Marvel Universe (thank Marvel's ever-destructive editorial policies for that one).

And then there were the movies. leave it at that.

In recent years the Fantastic Four have been vehicles for Marvel's so-called "event" books, but the team and its core humanity has taken a back seat to plot-driven crossovers. My friends, that time is over. The FF are back and better than they have ever been, and it's all because of Jonathan Hickman.

If you're unfamiliar with Hickman's writing credentials, you've got some great reading to catch up on. One of his major projects before turning his attention to Marvel was Pax Romana, about the Catholic church sending a group back in time to right the wrongs of the church throughout history. Hickman is also systematically rewriting the Marvel Universe with his audacious S.H.I.E.L.D. series. But his Fantastic Four work is truly inspired and is a welcome return to the real meat of the series and the characters at the heart of it.

Volume one of Hickman's work has recently been released and I encourage anyone who once loved, still loves or possibly could love the Fantastic Four to read it. This arc primarily involves Reed Richards' attempts to solve every problem imaginable, which brings him into contact with a cohort of like-minded individuals. The ideas are big - monstrously big - but Hickman grounds them in an understanding of the characters that honestly has not been seen since Byrne or Waid. The focus of the series is now on family, first and foremost, and while that may seem cheesy and cornball to some, read the book before you make so many snap judgments. The FF has ALWAYS been about a dysfunctional, yet loving, family, albeit with superpowers. By drawing on that inspiration, Hickman has crafted a book that is thought-provoking and darn fun to read. I can't remember when I've enjoyed reading a comic book story as much as this.

After Civil Wars, Final Crises and every kind of Blackest Night you could imagine, it's refreshing to read a comic that inspires this much awe and wonder.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Prospero is a magician ("not the one you think" the narrator assures us) who battles a number of phobias. At the opening of John Bellairs The Face in the Frost, he is afraid of his own basement. This is a somewhat unusual condition even for Prospero, and to be fair, Prospero's house, "a huge, doodad-coveted, trash filled, two-story horror of a house," has a basement scarier than most. Prospero can't shake the feeling that something is wrong, and that he is being watched. In this he turns out to be right. His friend and fellow magician, Roger Bacon, also plagued by feelings of unease, has, practicing a regular habit of his, sneak up on Prospero and his house to observe. Once the two wizards are together within the house and set about investigating, they discover that they are surrounded by dark and malevolent beings. They plan a wizardly escape, but not before a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Cardturner -- Louis Sachar

Alton Richards has just finished his junior year of high school. His girlfriend has dumped him and started dating his best friend. He has no job. (And no money.) His car just... stops working sometimes. And then he takes this phone call from his great-uncle, who is elderly, blind, and very, very rich:

"Do you know the difference between a king and a jack?" asked a gruff voice that did not belong to Mrs. Mahoney.

"Uh, yes, sir," I said.

My mother's eyes widened when she realized to whom I was talking. "Tell him he's your favorite uncle," she urged.

"Do you know how to play bridge?" asked my uncle.

I didn't, but thought that maybe I could fake it.

"Tell him you love him," said my mother.

"No," I said to my uncle (and to my mother).

"Good!" barked my uncle. "It's better that way!"

So begins Alton's summer of being Lester Trapp's eyes at the bridge table. Alton tries to keep his mind as empty as Trapp believes it to be, but it isn't long before he's fascinated by the game. And then, it isn't long before he's fascinated by Tori Castaneda, a girl who -- according to his mother -- belongs to a family that is not only certifiably crazy, but out to inherit Lester Trapp's fortune.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Line by Teri Hall

The Line by Teri Hall
"An invisible, uncrossable physical barrier encloses the Unified States. The Line is the part of the border that lopped off part of the country, dooming the inhabitants to an unknown fate when the enemy used a banned weapon. It’s said that bizarre creatures and superhumans live on the other side, in Away. Nobody except tough old Ms. Moore would ever live next to the Line.

Nobody but Rachel and her mother, who went to live there after Rachel’s dad died in the last war. It’s a safe, quiet life. Until Rachel finds a mysterious recorded message that can only have come from Away. The voice is asking for help.

Who sent the message? Why is her mother so protective? And to what lengths is Rachel willing to go in order to do what she thinks is right?"- summary from Amazon

It took me a little while to get into this book. The beginning, with the world building, was a bit too infodump-y for me and I started to get bored. But the book did eventually pick up and it got more suspenseful, and I loved when a new secret was revealed.

Rachel is a wonderful character that is strong, but has doubts and reservations about what she's doing, and the character is written really well. When the ending comes, she knows what she has to do and realizes what it will entail. She's led a sheltered life and is now having to branch out on her own. It's a great scene at the end as she has to shed her kid self who's codependent toward her mother and step into her adult life and into the unknown.

So despite the shaky start, this is a really good novel that brings up a lot of issues, which dystopian novels tend to do, of the way our world could be going. And despite the female protagonist, I do still think guys would enjoy this book. I'm excited for the sequel which will be out next year.