Friday, March 29, 2013

Teen Survey: Patric

Meet Patric, a fantastic fellow who is a director, a playwright, and a filmmaker, among other things. Currently enrolled in his senior year of high school, he's juggling schoolwork with theatrical events (meaning both stage and screen) and other obligations. He also has some awesome T-shirts.  

Here's a little peek into his library:

Name: Patric 

Age: 17

Grade: 12

Books recently read for fun: Siddhartha (Hermann Hesse), I Am Not Myself These Days (Josh Kilman Purcell)

Books recently read for class:
Hamlet, King Lear (William Shakespeare), Paradise Lost (John Milton), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Mao (Junot Diaz)

Books you want to read: The Sound and the Fury (love love LOVE Faulkner) and The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

Books you read as a kid: Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie), Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), The Hundred and One Dalmatians (Dodie Smith) -- I'm a Disney kid.

Why you like to read: It's an escape act, I guess.  When you find that really good read -- I mean, that one that really grabs you, so that you can't stop reading until you've read the whole thing cover to cover -- and you've realized that you've lived someone's entire lifetime in just an hour and a half, it's staggering.  It's fantastic.

Favorite book genres/topics: Fantasy, I'm now getting into a lot of Fantasy Realism in particular.  I also like reading fictionalized memoirs (like I Am Not Myself These Days)

Favorite authors: J.M. Barrie, Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, William Faulkner, Maiya Williams (and not just 'cause she's my mom) and so many more!

Favorite playwrights and plays: Shakespeare, especially A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Laramie Project (Moisés Kaufman)

Favorite movies: The Dark Knight, Casablanca, Cloud Atlas, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Favorite musicians/music genres: David Bowie, Fun., Janelle Monáe, Lana Del Rey, The Beatles

Anything else you want to say: Tip for the road (literally): Keep Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha in your car.  It's a brilliant read, and you can open it up to any page and find a little gem of the deepest insight.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Savage Fortress

The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda*

Thirteen-year-old Ash Mistry grew up with tales of Rama and other heroes of Indian mythology, so when he gets the chance to visit his Uncle Vikram in Varanasi one summer, he is ecstatic. Then he gets to India. It's hot, muggy and so not fun. He can't wait to get back to London, his friends and his video games. But then his uncle is contracted by the mysterious Lord Savage to translate documents relating to an ancient civilization, and soon Ash and his sister Lucky are embroiled in a battle for their lives as they fight the evil Lord Savage and his army of rakshasas.

Much like Percy Jackson and the Kanes, Ash Mistry is an average kid thrust into extraordinary circumstances. I picked this book because I was looking for a Percy Jackson read-alike, but with a different myth system, and I was not disappointed. It turns out that Ash is a reincarnation of Rama, and he must battle Ravana, the demon king brought back to life by Lord Savage. The book is as action-packed as any of Riordan's mythology based books, and I think it's great to get kids interested in non-Western myth systems (although I also want someone to write me a book like this but with Norse mythology, so chop chop, writers).

I do have one itty bitty concern about this book. It is recommended for 8-12 year olds, which is great because I am trying to shore up my knowledge of upper-elementary and middle grade fiction. Generally, I think this book is perfect for 5th - 7th graders. However. In the great big battle at the end. It's pretty violent. I mean, at one point Ash pulls out a demon's heart from its chest, and not much is left to the imagination in the description. Like, remember that one scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Yeah. Maybe I worry too much. Maybe kids these days are all, whatever. That's nothing. But it gave me pause when considering who I would recommend this book to among my library patrons. Still, I enjoyed the read. The story clipped along at a good pace and I finished it in two sittings. I think fans of Riordan's novels will dig The Savage Fortress, too.

*I started reading a digital copy courtesy of NetGalley (which I couldn't finish due to tech problems on my side) and finished with a copy from my fabu local library.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sumo by Thien Pham

Scott dreamed of playing in the NFL, but now his football days are over. After he is dumped by his longtime girlfriend, he decides to move to Japan and become a sumo wrestler. In Japan, he lives in a heya with other rikishi, his day regimented and hierarchical, practicing for the five bouts that will determine the fate of his career.

Sumo, Thien Pham’s first solo graphic novel (he previously illustrated Gene Luen Yang's Level Up), is a spare and understated story brought vividly to life with bold, single-tone washes of color.

It's probably not the first choice for a former football player these days (UFC, perhaps?). But back in the 1990s, before the influx of sumotori from Mongolia and Eastern Europe, Konishiki, Akebono, and Musashimaru were among the top sumotori competing in Japan. Musashimaru had played high school football, and I seem to remember reading about several former football players who decided to give sumo a try, too.

So I am a bit curious about Pham's inspiration, part of the reason I wish there had been a short afterword or note. But the bigger reason is that I think many people still view sumo as “rolling around with sweaty, half-naked men,” as one of Scott’s friends puts it--a brief word about the training, stables, traditions, such as throwing salt in the dohyo before a match (as on p. 78), could have added some context.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Saga: Volume One by Brian K. Vaughan

The universe has declared war on itself and everyone is choosing one of two sides. It all started when the species on a planet tried to conquer a species on its own moon. The destuction knows no end, but amongst the slaughter, within the dismal senselessness of bloodshed, there is a child born. She is the daughter of Alana and Marko, who are supposed to be enemies. Now all three are on the run. Saga: Volume One is the beginning of their story.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan has a talent for combining mature content with equally mature themes, creating an exciting yet strictly adult epic adventure. Sure, there are spaceships, monstrous aliens and bounty hunters -- all stuff that you would see in Star Wars—but there are also images of brutal violence and the planet Sextillion, a intergalactic red-light district of sorts. This adventure is not for the kids.

Fiona Staples' artwork tackles the narrative with surreal panache, creating vampy arachnid assassins, alligator butlers, and a race of T.V.-headed royals. Everywhere you turn, there is something new. And yet the story is still relatable when it addresses the challenges of remaining a loving couple in trying times. Alana and Marko have everything stacked against them, but they also have each other.  Parenting and science fiction don't cross paths very often, but when they do the result can be quite revelatory. You have the movie Aliens where Sigourney Weaver's Ripley and the Alien queen perform mothering roles, albiet in direct opposition to each other. Cormac McCarthy's dystopian Pulitzer winner The Road is a deep meditation of fatherhood and the purpose of it when all of humanity seems destined for extinction. In these stories, the crux of the plot is about keeping the ones you care for alive, whatever the cost.

 Alana and Marko have a long way to go before they find safety and happiness for their child, with no guarantee that they ever do. We do receive one clue of what is to come in the fact that the book's narrator is their daughter Hazel, looking back as an adult. Vaughan has expressed hope that this will be his longest comic series to date. He has proven himself before with his ten-book series Y: The Last Man, in which every male of every species on the planet Earth drops dead in one instant, except for Yorick, a twenty-something slacker who is now a hot commodity and in a dangerous situation with a mystery to solve. If Saga: Volume One is any indication, this adventure will be just as thrilling.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Going Home, Unexpectedly

I grabbed Dark Dude because 1) I'm taking a brief hiatus from my usual SFF fare and Dark Dude is not SFF, and 2) I'd read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love ages ago and liked it a lot so figured I couldn't go wrong with Oscar Hijuelos. But beyond that I knew nothing of the book, didn't even bother to read the dust cover blurbs or summary.

At the outset, the novel takes place in a Harlem neighborhood of the 1960s and is about a Cuban teen whose white skin, a genetic fluke, sets him apart from other Hispanics in his neighborhood but who, at the same time is disgusted by the thought of being "white." Though I've only briefly visited New York and I've never been to Harlem, the Harlem in Dark Dude seemed familiar from other literature -- full of energy and life but tainted by poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction.

When Rico's friend Gilberto wins the lottery, he at first gives away a lot of the money to his neighbors and buys a few nice things. But then Gilberto he decides that he's going to invest in his future -- he tells Rico that he's leaving Harlem to attend college at a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin, specifically Milton College.

When I came across this development, I felt a little woozy and disoriented. I grew up just outside of Milton, Wisconsin. A tiny town, once a railroad hub, and--pre-Civil War, an important hub on the Underground Railroad--that now largely serves as a kind of bedroom community for workers at the nearby GM plant in Janesville, WI. Discovering that Oscar Hijuelos would have ever heard of such a place, much less set the bulk of one of his novels there, left me reeling. What's more, Hijuelos initially describes the Janesville/Milton area as a kind of pastoral paradise.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Insects of the World, by Walter Linsenmaier

We're seeing increased interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) recently. This book, though out of print, is worth looking for. Walter Linsenmaier did the drawings, the photos, and the text. I compare Insects of the World to The Sibley Guide to Birds, and to David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified. It is even more remarkable, considering that insect species far outnumber the birds or the mushrooms. I am fascinated by the social bees and ants, but here is some of what Linsenmaier writes about grasshopper (locust) swarms:

Floodplains are particularly appropriate as swarming grounds... great hordes of grasshopper nymphs... become concentrated into ever-narrowing areas when water begins to dry up and food gets scarce. The crowding causes the nymphs to disturb one another, and this continual mutual disturbance rises to a level of irritation that leads to the production of the swarming phase. The nymphs develop a spotted, much darker coloration and hence absorb more warmth. Their body temperature is... (9 to 14 degrees F) higher... the whole company... begins to advance on foot on a broad front, as though under the influence of a mass psychosis... Rivers are crossed by swimming; cliffs and chasms scarcely constitute obstacles, although good-sized forests do... the nymphs gradually grow into mature locusts and begin to take to the air.

Although locusts prefer to ride the winds, swarms have been seen in flat calms over the open sea, hundreds of miles from shore; of course, they perished, as do those that happen to fly into the desert.

In South America... hordes of... (one) species overwinter in northwestern Argentina, often heaped into piles a yard high during the cold nights, and fly back southward in the spring...

The weight of a big swarm has been estimated at 15,000 tons, and its daily food consumption as equivalent to that of 1.5 million people. For days at a time... locusts may darken the sky in a given region...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


There's really no easy way to work the gray area with this book, people  – adults and kids alike – either love it or hate it.

I not only happen to like it, I think that in the right boy's hands this book could be a revelation, the long-lost permission to write about anything they can imagine. These 43 fables, vignettes, and cautionary tales mine the fine line between the absurd, the deviant, and then gross. Is it Kafka writing Captain Underpants as edited by Hemingway? Updated Twilight Zone episodes hosted by George Carlin? No! It's Barry Yourgrau twisting and tweaking at the outer fringes of the sudden fiction genre, ideal for the reluctant reader, the subversive student, and the secret writer wondering just how far the short story can be pushed around. Oh, and for the right mindset, it's pretty funny.

The hazards of nose-picking. Pirates mistaking sharks for mermaids. Farting superheroes. Elephants who cheat on tests. Murderous pets and celebrities turned into gerbils. Negligent guardian angels and witches as Internet predators. Yourgrau goes places few have imagined.

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

In Elizabeth Laban's The Tragedy Paper, readers will discover a coming-of-age story set in a traditional location (boarding school) with a familiar setup (love triangle) that turns everything you think you know about this sort of book on its ear. Laban might be giving readers a familiar setting and situations but her characters are so thoughtful and the plot just twisty enough that she manages a page-turner out of the quietest of stories. The conceit is straightforward: Tim met Vanessa while stuck at the airport on his way to his new school. After sharing the sort of fun (and mostly chaste) boy-meets-girl story everyone dreams of, they continue on their separate ways, and he discovers she is not only a fellow student but dating the school's most popular boy. They become good friends as Tim also slowly becomes enmeshed in the school's senior class tradition. It is on one fateful night involving the seniors that he connects with Duncan, the underclassman whose story is really at the heart of the novel.

Laban introduces Duncan in the very beginning as the one who figures it all out. He knows how Tim's school story ended the previous year, but not how it began, and along with the reader, he learns all the sordid history via a series of CDs that Tim has left behind for him in his dorm room as part of a departing senior gift, another school tradition. Duncan has a small but powerful connection to Tim that has left him unsure about his own future, and so hearing Tim's voice, finding out why everything happened the previous year, is critical to his own wellbeing. In the middle of all of this looms the big senior assignment: the "tragedy" paper. Talk of tragedy permeates the senior English class, literary examples are tossed about throughout the text, and Duncan, in particular, is overwhelmed with a desire to get the paper right. Laban makes clear though that tragedy is in the eye of the beholder, and also that while it might reach epic literary proportions for some students, for others the tragic is all too real and in danger of eclipsing every other facet of their lives.

It's important to note that nothing huge takes place in The Tragedy Paper. There is a serious accident, and in both Tim and Duncan's narratives, there are students in trouble, but in comparison to a lot of contemporary YA fiction, the events here are subtle and familiar. Much of the book is about aspiring and struggling to find your way to the best sort of self, and the obstacles, both internal and external, that block your way. This novel is the very definition of powerful, and while it does not possess characters spouting the sort of fake witticisms that seem to crop up all over in teen books lately, they are nothing if not real. There are no villains in The Tragedy Paper, just a lot of wishing you can get things right; a lot of trying to do the best you can.

Cross posted from my Bookslut YA Column.

Monday, March 11, 2013

In Darkness by Nick Lake

"When you keep hurting someone, you do one of three things. Either you fill them up with hate, and they destroy everything around them. Or you fill them up with sadness, and they destroy themselves. Or you fill them up with justice, and they try to destroy everything that's bad and cruel in this world" (87). 

Nick Lake’s In Darkness begins, well, in darkness. The literal darkness one finds when trapped beneath the rubble of the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. The figurative darkness of the young “chimére” (gangster) Shorty, who has grown up in Site Soléy, one of the poorest and most dangerous places in the world, a place where the sociopathic gang lord is also the person who has done the most good. And the moral darkness of a benighted government, whose constant corruption enslaves most of its citizens to a bleak future.

It was not supposed to be this way for Haiti, not after Toussaint L’Ouverture led the slave rebellion in the late 18th century, overthrowing the French colonizers. Haiti was to be a light for all the enslaved people in the world, a beacon for freedom. Using the ceremonies and belief system of “vodou,” Lake directly connects the lives of a contemporary teenage Haitian gangster and the (slightly re-imagined) historical figure of L’Ouverture: one a character filled with hate and bent on destruction, and the other yearning for justice, and bent on seeing it happen for his people and his nation.

 In Darkness is by no means an easy experience. Shorty’s world is violent (as is L’Ouverture’s), and the grim reality of life in Site Soléy retains the ability to shock even the most jaded reader. To his credit, Lake presents Site Soléy in all of its moral and spiritual complexities. And though L’Ouverture’s life ends in the darkness of a French prison cell, Shorty’s story ultimately gives us a ray of light. In Darkness was the recipient of the 2013 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley, edited by Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem

Chances are good that you’re not familiar with Robert Sheckley.  Don’t feel bad—I wasn’t familiar with him either until less than a year ago, when New York Review Books (that great bastion of unjustly forgotten writers and works) released Store of the Worlds, an collection of his short stories.  Sheckley was a mainstay of science fiction anthology magazines in their heyday—Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Omni, Weird Tales, et cetera—although he also published in “higher-class” magazine as well (Esquire, Playboy, Semiotext(e), even Cosmopolitan).  And yet today—less than ten years after his death—he is practically forgotten, with almost all of his work out of print.  And that’s terrible.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Jason Taylor has all the problems of a typical 13 year-old. He worries over his status amongst his peers; he worries over what girls think of him, or if they do at all. He has to put up with his older sister and feels disconnected from his parents. On top of all that he has a speech impediment. He's a chronic stutterer, a condition which came on rather suddenly during a class game of Hangman. He has special problems with words beginning with N and S, so he communicates through a series of workarounds, often rephrasing simple sentences to get his point across.

The summary above makes David Mitchell's Black Swan Green seem like a rather standard young adult novel. It is anything but. What sets it apart is, for one, the voice of Jason Taylor which is both breathless and witty. He divides himself into multiple personalities (not in a lunatic sort of way) including the Hangman who is responsible for his stutter and the Unborn Twin who sometimes acts as his conscious.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Snowmobile by Jules Older - some fascinating mechanical history

One the most ubiquitous things about life in Alaska is the number of snowmachines*. Everybody has one or access to one and during the winter (until it gets too cold), you are just as likely to see people run an errand on a snowmachine as in a car. As far as recreation, they truly are everywhere and if you have ever been on one you would understand why. They go incredibly fast, as are pretty easy to control and just a blast run around on. As popular as they are in many northern climates however, few people likely know about Joseph-Armand Bombardier and his decades-long goal to invent a vehicle that could move on snow. That's where this very basic, short history Snowmobile: Bombardier's Dream Machine by Jules Older comes in handy.