Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

No one in the town of Lobo's Nod wants to believe that the dead girl in the field was the victim of a serial killer.

Jazz knows better.

Spying on the cops and crime scene tech gathering evidence, his father's words echo in Jazz's mind.

"Most of these guys, they want to get caught. You understand what I’m saying? I’m saying most of the time, they get caught ’cause they want it, not ’cause anyone figures ’em out, not ’cause anyone outthinks ’em."

"Anything that slows them down—even if it’s just by a few minutes—is a good thing, Jasper. You want them nice and slow. Slow like a turtle. Slow like ketchup."

"Always check the hands and feet. And the mouth and ears. You’d be surprised what gets left behind."

And Jazz is sure that, despite the sheriff's insistence otherwise, Lobo's Nod has another serial killer on its hands. After all, Jazz knows the signs, knows how serial killers think—because his father was the most notorious serial killer of the century, and Billy Dent liked to share his wisdom with his young son.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Joe Golem and the Drowning City by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

Joe Golem and the Drowning City
by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

Steampunk + Christopher Golden + Mike Mignola = brilliant!

Fifty years ago, earthquakes shook Lower Manhattan, submerging the city and forever changing the landscape and livelihood of all who lived there. As the years passed, the gap between the classes widened: the wealthy live and thrive in Uptown, where they grow wealthier, as the poor people in submerged Downtown try desperately to survive in what is now known as the Drowning City.

It is in Downtown that aging magician Felix Orlov resides. His energetic and devoted assistant, 14-year-old Molly McHugh, lives the floor above him. Dark dreams, a seance, and an attack lead to Orlov's abduction and cause Molly to run away - and enlist the help of Simon Church, an investigator, and Joe Golem, the bodyguard to end all bodyguards.

If Hellboy were mixed with Eliot Spencer on Leverage and dressed in clothes from some classic Warren Beatty films, he might just be Joe Golem. Due to his size, stature, and strength, Joe's appearance often intimidates others, which can be useful in a physical confrontation but is not so helpful when he's trying to reach out and help the average citizen. Consider how he is described when Molly first sees him:

She looked up into cold gray eyes, sad but wise, set into a scarred, grizzled face. The newcomer had the solid, imposing build of an old-time boxer, or some back-alley legbreaker. [...] But he had a quiet, inner nobility Molly sensed instantly. Though he had no jacket or tie, his trousers were clean and pressed and his suspenders harkened back to an earlier era. In the first moment, she thought he might be fifty, but then decided he couldn't be much more than thirty. But it had been a rough thirty years, from the look of him. - Page 42, illustration on 43

- and a few pages later:

"But in spite of his size, he only looked kind and slightly amused." - Page 55

This seemingly unstoppable man has an astonishing history which is revealed as the story progressed.

Molly, described as "all freckles and red hair and youthful vigor," is a force to be reckoned with. Molly's got moxie, and she can certainly hold her own. She trusts her gut, which has helped her to survive. This quote relays that nicely, and is something that many of my favorite characters have in common.

A tiny voice in the back of Molly's mind screamed at her not to trust him. Her self-preservation had depended on her learning over the years not to trust anyone. Felix had been the one exception. - Page 55

I don't want to tell you too much about the fantastic workings of Simon Church, because that was a wonderful surprise for me the first time I read the book. I was really fascinated by what made him tick. I could draw a parallel between his story and A Christmas Carol, as he is visited one by one by important people from his past.

If you are a fan of Fringe, this book needs to be on your radar. (Hello, Manhattan and alternate history!)

Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola make me want to live in the Drowning City, to meet the wonderful characters they've created and help them defeat the monstrous villains. They've also offered up a short story, Joe Golem and the Copper Girl, but I still want more. Mignola's black-and-white illustrations are, as always, memorable. One only hopes that the movie, which is currently in development, captures the spirit and intensity of this book. The submerged city, falling buildings, and fight scenes need to be Inception-level awesome on screen. This captivating story deserves all of that, and more.

Bonus: Before or after you've read Joe Golem and the Drowning City, make sure you check out the short story Joe Golem and the Copper Girl, which is available as an eBook for just 99 cents. Sweet deal!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick

Peter Friedman has been training as a baseball pitcher his entire life. He and his best friend A.J. have always planned on making and dominating their high school team. But you can't always count on your plans to work out. Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip is one teen's journey to figure out what Plan B is.

When Peter seriously injures his throwing arm during the last game of his middle school career, it becomes clear that he's not going to be throwing any more strikes. It must be devastating to have to change your main goal in life so suddenly. Thankfully Peter also has an interest in photography, due to his grandfather, who has shot thousands of weddings. The kid has a lot of expertise and training on his side. Pete's grandfather knows all the equipment and techniques. He even remembers the name of every bride he's shot.

Once ninth grade starts, Peter finds himself swept into an advanced photography class for seniors. The only other freshman in the class is Angelika, who is funny, cute, and very knowledgeable about cameras herself. Things seem to be turning out fine.

But Peter can't shake his pitching past. A.J. keeps talking about spring training as if his friend didn't blow out his elbow. Will A.J. even want to hang out with Peter once they go their separate ways? Plus, Peter's grandfather is acting strange. He gave Peter all of his cameras and lenses and quit his job. He runs into one of the brides he shot and says "Nice to meet you." Peter just doesn't know what to do. Luckily Angelika offers some words of wisdom. At the same time, his talent gets him a job as a sports photographer for the yearbook.

This story managed to ask a lot of soul-searching, emotional questions without drowning in utter depression. A sports story that mainly takes place in the off season, Jordan Sonnenblick's book shows how life can toss all sorts of curveballs at us.

Cross-posted on Librarypoint.org

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tom Swift, Jr. and his Jetmarine

From Goodreads.
My copy had lost its dust jacket.
 Tom Swift, Jr. and his Jetmarine by Victor Appleton II

To say that my father was a reluctant reader* when he was a kid is a gross understatement. Stories of his schoolboy antics would curl the hair of the most stalwart teacher. He was a contrary feller (still is) and he chaffed at the impositions of the school system. I imagine you, dear readers, know one or two kiddos like this. But Dad loved history, especially military history, and he loved Tom Swift, Boy Inventor books, so when I came across this book at my local used book store, I decided to give it a go.

So the plot of Tom Swift and his Jetmarine is pretty movie-of-the-week -- some pirates are disabling ships in the Carribbean, only these aren't like Johnny Depp -- they're high tech wizards who use some sort of improbably device that renders the passengers and crew unconscious so the pirates can take all the valuables (like jewels and uranium -- who sends uranium on a passenger ship??) without a fuss. Only now, at the beginning of the book, they sank a ship, and that aboard that ship was "Uncle" Ned, Tom Senior's BFF. Of course, the Toms, along with their friend Bud, with the might of the US Navy behind them, are on the job.

This book was published in 1954, so for a jaded 21st century gal, some of the inventions and conventions of the novel seemed quaint. Television phones? We have Skype. Loving sexism in the way the Tom Junior treats his mother and sister? Adorable ignorance of a bygone era. But, I have to say that despite the smug modern view I have, I found the science really interesting, if improbable. For example, Tom's jetmarine, essentially a personal submarine, is a nuclear sub powered by Swiftonium, a radioactive element the Swifts discovered in South America. And Tomasite, a plastic developed at Swift Enterprises designed to counteract gamma radiation from the Swiftonium. As I read the story, part of me was all, "yeah right," but it's really no sillier than kryptonite or any other devices used by Marvel and DC characters. And I found myself wanting to call up my friend Alex, who is studying nuclear physics and ask him if any of this was possible. I was getting excited about exploring the science, testing what was possible from Tom Swift's world and what was fantasy, and this is where I think Tom Swift stories have their greatest merit. Not only are the stories just entertaining (and as someone who counts The Librarian: Quest for the Spear among her favorite movies, I have NO room to throw stones), but I can see how the stories inspire readers to imagine what might be possible, what might be invented, and I worry about a profound lack of imagination, or a systematic quashing of imagination. Besides giving my Dad something to read, Tom Swift stories inspired Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and authors  Ray Kurzweil and Isaac Asimov. I don't know much about Kurzweil beyond the term "singularity" and mentions in John Hodgman's book That is All, but I don't think we can deny the influence Apple and Asimov have had in our world. And without Tom Swift, we wouldn't have that immortal phrase, "Don't tase me, bro!" The acronym TASER stands for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.

Like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins series, the Tom Swift were actually ghost written by several people for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging company founded by Edward Stratemeyer in 1906. The Tom Swift series was first published in 1910, and various series were released up through 2007, which fills my nerdy, trivia-loving heart with glee. Tom Swift, Jr. and his Jetmarine is the second book in the second series, which was published between 1954 and 1971, but like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, you don't need to read these books in order. Each is a self-contained adventure.

This is cross-posted at my blog, (Library Lass) Adventures in Reading, with some additional, albeit rambly, thoughts. I recommend this for 4-6 grade readers.

*But there's hope. Now that Dad has a Kindle and can embiggen the font AND read whatever he wants, free of the shackles of educational oppression (as he puts it), he reads all the time.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Alexander Outland: Space Pirate by G.J. Koch

Alexander Outland: Space Pirate, by G.J. Koch hits all the right notes. It has space battles, humor, gun battles, robots, pirates... yeah, it's good.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure: Mars!

I'm at the beach this week, and there's two things about taking books on vacation that it's important to keep in mind. First, you can't take nearly as many books with you as you wish. Second, you want something that will both suck you in, but is also easy to pick up and put down, because somebody somewhere is always telling you to do something other than what you really want to be doing--especially reading!

This week, I'm bringing one of the new "choose your own adventure" -type novels from the people who wrote the Worst-Case Scenario books, and it is perfect for a vacation read-- I'm sucked in, I've got multiple reads all within one cover, and it's got lots of places where I can stop, but, with about a bajillion cliffhanger choices to make, I can't wait to pick it back up again.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The unfinishable story of comics

Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Mary Oliver, "What Can I Say"

One of the Unquestioned Truths about comic books is that their decades of backstory make them confusing and impenetrable for new readers. As Tim Marchman complained in the Wall Street Journal recently, comics' long history render them "incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology." Lots of potential readers stay away because they believe this Truth. They come into Haven Comics & Games, the store where I work, and talk wistfully about superhero movies or cartoons they watched as a kid. But if I suggest they pick up a comic and give it a try, they just shake their head, saying, "No, no. I wouldn't understand it. I'd have to start at the beginning." The Truth has fueled multiple series reboots over the years--including Marvel's Ultimate Universe and DC's recent New 52--as publishers hope restarting their comics at issue #1 will draw in new readers.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (in Real Life) by Chris Hardwick

There are a ton of career and self help books, but I don't know of any written specifically for nerds. I also don't know any that are particularly witty and funny. Until that is, Chris Hardwick's The Nerdist Way came out late last year. Hardwick is a comedian and the host of one of the most popular podcasts, The Nerdist.

Hardwick, a self proclaimed nerd, respectfully defines nerds as those who are extremely passionate about certain things so intensely that they learn every bit of minutia and immerse themselves in what they love. The author points out the strengths and weaknesses of nerds and how best to use these aspects throughout life. Hardwick recounts a lot of personal stories, which I found to be the most interesting and helpful parts of the book.

He definitely knows his audience and uses the language and basics of role playing games to help readers focus on their strengths and interests. The book includes a lot of exercises for readers to see how they can make positive steps in their lives and careers and avoid some pitfalls. The book is split into three parts with Hardwick covering your body, your mind and your time.

Hardwick is quite funny and it comes out in his smooth and conversational writing style. The book is primarily written for older teens and up, so the humor targets those age groups. Pop culture references and nerd culture make the Nerdist Way a fun read. More importantly, there is quite a bit of helpful information on how to deal with struggles and self doubt.

While for me the book gets a little bogged down at points and I wish he would have concentrated on his strength of using personal experiences to provide his readers with tips and lessons, Hardwick has crafted a unique book on life and work. Those who have struggled with the strengths and weaknesses of having nerdy tendencies or just anyone who appreciates humorous yet productive views of life should pick up The Nerdist Way.

Readers who have enjoyed books like American Nerd: the Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt or the short story collection Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd will enjoy The Nerdist Way.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sweeney Todd: Words without music

A friend was over the other day and began poking fun at my collection of scripts to musicals. “Why do you have all those? What’s the point without the music?” Most were copies I had picked up for research or leftovers from shows I’d been in, but as I considered the question, I realized some do actually stand pretty well on their own. Among those scripts that do something more in the text than offer perfunctory dialogue to link together songs in which music is allowed to do all the heavy lifting, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s book and lyrics to Sweeney Todd may be among the best. (And what better for a Friday the thirteenth?)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

From Chocolate to Morphine

The book I recommend when I get asked for drug information at the library is From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know about Mind-Altering Drugs.

Andrew Weil, M.D., and Winifred Rosen write, "Drugs are here to stay... We have tried to make this book accessible to young people by keeping our language and ideas simple and straightforward." Here is their list of chapter titles:
1 Straight Talk at the Start
2 What is a Drug?
3 Why People Use Drugs
4 Relationships with Drugs
5 Types of Drugs
6 Stimulants
7 Depressants
8 Psychedelics, or Hallucinogens
9 Marijuana
10 Solvents and Inhalants; Deliriants; PCP and Ketamine
11 Medical Drugs; Herbal Remedies; Smart Drugs
12 Problems with Drugs
13 Alternatives to Taking Drugs
14 Final Words

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Actions Speak & Louder Than Words

If you look closely, the word you'll see most associated with summer is escape. We escape the heat, escape on vacations, escape from our regular grind, escape to mindless movies, and most importantly, we escape into summer reading. For as much as I resented reading during the school year I couldn't wait until summer to read whatever I wanted, never mind that I could read whatever I wanted any time of year via my local library. Summer was meant for escape.

In that light I'd like to propose a pair of books by Sergio Aragones that provide the satisfying escape from even the most escapist of summer books, two collections of wordless comics.

If Aragones name isn't familiar his comics might be: for over forty years his "marginals," the little doodles that serve as visual one-liners, have been tucked into the borders of MAD magazine while comic book aficionados might be familiar with the barbarian spoof Groo the Wanderer. But in Louder Than Words, and the follow-up Actions Speak, Aragones' drawings not only get the chance to stretch out into longer narratives, the increased space allows for a crazy volume of detail that serve as a sort of Where's Waldo in terms of hidden humor. The "joke" can be gleaned at a glance, but the devil, as they say, is in the details and he's a pretty clever devil!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I AM (NOT) THE WALRUS by Ed Briant

If you've read today's interview with Ed Briant, then you know that when he was a teen, he found a stash of his parent's books and read through a ton of spy novels and at least a few romances. Those influences are both present in his current novel, I Am (Not) the Walrus, which contains both a mystery and a love story, both of which turn out in strangely satisfying ways. Oh. And the book is funny.
"Toby," Zack shakes his head. "I can't believe I have to tell you this, but the whole point of playing rock and roll is to make yourself more interesting to girls." He puts his guitar case down and shoves his hands into his pockets, as if to emphasize the fact that he is not going to move. "If you have to pass up an opportunity for romance in order to work on your set, then you're not just barking up the wrong tree, you're barking in the wrong bloody forest."
Written from Toby's perspective, we learn right away that he's crap at rugby and has a rather sad romantic history, but that he's excellent at playing his brother's Fender precision bass. Toby is part of a two-man band, playing covers of Beatles songs with his friend Zack. Mostly they play in Shawn's old bedroom, Shawn being the owner of the bass and all - and being away in the British Navy. (For a character who never once graces the pages of the novel in person, Shawn is a very real presence - almost as real as the creepy guy who seems interested in reclaiming Shawn's bass. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

An Interview with Ed Briant

Ed Briant is the author of the novels Choppy Socky Blues and I Am (Not) the Walrus, which is reviewed today here at Guys Lit Wire. I had the good fortune to ask Ed the Guys Lit Wire "Five Quick Questions". Here they are, with Ed's answers:

1. What do you do for a living and what do you like best about your job?

When I’m not writing I teach a class in creative writing at a university, and when I’m neither writing nor teaching I write and illustrate a weekly comic strip.

In the days before I was a writer-comics-creator-teacher I was a saxophone player in a number of rock bands. Most musicians are late-night people, I was no different, and even when I stopped being a sax-player I never really got the hang of working during daylight hours again. So, for me, one of the best things about writing and comics is that because I do them on my own at home I can work on them in the middle of the night, and I think I often do my most creative work in the small hours of the morning.

Naturally I have to teach classes during more conventional hours. The students have to learn during the day because they need their nights to go and see the very same kind of rock bands that I used to play in when I was their age. I view it as the karmic retribution of rock-n-roll. I love teaching though. I love reading the students’ stories. I love finding what’s good in the stories and encouraging the students to do more of the same.

The best thing of all about being a writer-comics person is the same as the best thing about being a musician. It happens when I stop work at about 4AM on a chilly night, and I climb into bed next to my wife. I’m freezing, she’s fast asleep and hot, and I just wrap my arms around her until I warm up and fall asleep.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Secret Heroes, by Paul Martin

History, at least on the high school level, is often taught as a series of dates and names to be memorized. But history comes alive in stories, and often the most interesting stories are not those of the “great men” whose names were choices on your ninth-grade American History test.

Paul Martin recognizes the value of stories in the telling of history, and he tells thirty of them in Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World. Martin uses a tripartite structure in the book, dividing it into three sections: Voyagers, Innovators, and Humanitarians. Each hero’s story is eight to ten pages long, long enough to provide necessary context but short enough to seem like an extended anecdote rather than (gasp) a history text.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How to Create New Life Forms in Your Kitchen

Genetic engineering experiments generally take place in huge corporate, university or government labs manned by white-lab-coated folks with advanced degrees and bulging pre-frontal cortexes. Normal people like you and I can't understand what's going on in there and should keep our distance. I mean, somebody who doesn't know what he's doing could unleash a virus that turned us all into zombies or something, right?

Well, maybe not. A new movement of biotech hobbyists, called biopunks, demands that the tools, materials and knowledge associated with genetic engineering be made "open source." That is, genetic knowledge and the design of instruments used for genetic manipulation should be publicly available and free. Biopunks think that the dangers of hobbyists tinkering with genetic material are highly overstated and the potential benefits to science are innumerable.

In his book Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, Marcus Wohlsen introduces readers to this movement, describing weekend scientists many of whom are already messing about, inventing and developing new biotech processes in their kitchens or hacked-together labs.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman

I can only really think of one thing that is harder than middle school: middle school in space as a former member of a galactic superhero squad. Which is exactly what Hakata Soy is facing when he breaks from his group of galactic defenders, the Meta-Team, to attend the prestigious Astronaut Academy. Forced to make an effort to conceal his heroic past, Hakata has to blend in with the decidedly eccentric students of Astronaut Academy. It is, of course, an understatement to say that mayhem ensues.