Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Swept away by steampunk fun

This review was written by occasional contributor Lee Wind!

In a steam punk world parallel to our own, where cruise ships travel the sky… Mr. Mat Cruise, a cabin boy of little means but great spirit, faces down villains, mystery, first love, and pirates on the high air.

The story had so many twists and turns it’s impossible to tell you much more without giving away too many of the surprises.

But I can tell you that besides the pirates, Mat has to deal with a rich female teenage passenger with an insufferable chaperone, the derailment of Mat’s own career by a scion of the majestic liner’s owner, and working through the death of his father a few years earlier.

I listened to the Full Cast audio recording of the book, and it was wonderful. A bit like listening to a radio play, it wasn’t as ‘external’ as watching a movie, nor as ‘internal’ as reading the words off a page or screen. It definitely felt like a different experience than reading the book would have been – but I really enjoyed listening to it.

AIRBORN” was adventure that swept me up and made me cheer, and boo, and ache, and ultimately delight. I loved this book.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review & Discussion, The Boys Are Back in Town

The Boys are Back in Town by Christopher GoldenOnce upon a time, I received a box in the mail whose contents were a special surprise. That box contained what would become one of my favorite modern thrillers: The Boys are Back in Town by Christopher Golden. I was riveted from the start, and stayed in one spot until the last page. That should tell you plenty, for rarely am I still.  Years later, I befriended Courtney Summers, an author in her own right, and introduced her to the works of Golden. After she read a couple of his books, we couldn't stop talking about them, which lead to this roundtable discussion of Boys. But first, here are our individual reviews of the book:

From Little Willow's review:
What adult hasn't wondered what life would be like if things had been different in high school, and what teen hasn't wondered what they'd do when they grew up? Take those questions, those ideas, and darken them, then insert the twists of tragedy and forgotten (or altered) memories, and you've got The Boys are Back in Town by Christopher Golden. When Will attends his ten-year reunion, he expects to catch up with old friends, not discover that one is dead. The victim is someone with whom he recently communicated, yet everyone else claims died in high school. In the blink of an eye, Will remembers the event, yet retains his 'regular' memories as well. As the story continues, more memories are revealed. These aren't suppressed memories, but rather new-old memories. Altered memories. Someone or something is changing the minds of Will and his old friends. Finding the source - and the strength to stop it - will lead him on an imaginative journey readers will always remember.

From Courtney's review:

I don't know how much I can say about the plot without giving everything away. So just read the description on GoodReads and then come back.

Okay. Isn't that a cool plot description? I KNOW. The Boys Are Back in Town is my second Christopher Golden book, the first being his YA zombie book, Soulless. In both books, Golden takes something I'm not crazy about (talking zombies in Soulless and magic in Boys) and then incorporates it into a story in such an awesome and entertaining and compelling way, he forces me to give him a pass. This is a big deal, especially if you know how much I hate talking zombies (Ihatethemsomuch). My ire for magic is less fiery in my heart, BUT STILL. It is enough so that my loving this book unreservedly is a feat. And I loved this book! I really enjoyed it.

It's just GOOD. I wish I had read it in October. The book is set IN October and he just nails the crunchy-dead leaves, creepy/cozy feeling so well that I wanted it to be October while I was reading. Such perfect atmosphere. I love that kind of atmosphere and seek it out in horror movies all the time, so if you are into that kinda vibe you should check out this book.

Psst . . . Before we get to the roundtable, we wanted to tell you that Christopher Golden's newest book is out today! Look for The Waking: Dreams of the Dead in YA Fiction - and look in the Rs, not the Gs! This thrilling series is being published under a pseudonym: Thomas Randall. But we didn't tell you that...

Now, on to the roundtable book discussion:


It's an adult novel but I think it has crossover appeal because it's set in two different times--an adult present and a teenage past. Golden really nails how the petty problems of high school can quickly become exacerbated to the point that people make SCARY choices that they can't take back. You just see the snowball effect happening and you totally understand it and you're like agggh nooo this is awful turn back turn back now agggh and everything gets steadily worse for the characters but it is impossible to stop reading because you have to see how it continues to unfold and is (hopefully) resolved. And the nostalgia laced throughout the novel is also something that's dead on... we all feel that wistfulness for youth as we get older. It's articulated very, very well in these pages.

The final showdown was very BIG and DRAMATIC, which I'm not sure I was expecting or at first wanted, but enjoyed nonetheless (maybe "enjoyed" is the wrong word because it was horrific but... yeah, okay, I enjoyed it). And the epilogue made me sad and the final page made me go gah (not a bad gah). Hm. I am trying so hard not to give anything away... I read ahead to see who was responsible for the terrible and fantastical going-ons (bad Courtney) but even that didn't prepare me for some of the twists and turns getting there. It was just a great ride.

Reading Christopher Golden kind of reminds me of reading some of my favourite mystery/sci-fi/thriller/suspense teen novels when I was younger, books I still love to this day. More specifically, his books remind me of the FEELING I got when I read them. Both times I've picked up a Christopher Golden novel, I just felt totally assured I was going to be entertained and the writing was going to be solid and I was going to be told an excellent story and it would be worth my time. Both times it was. He's a fantastic storyteller is all. This is definitely not going to be the last book I read by him. And given his catalogue, I am going to have fun choosing which one is next!
And now, without further delay, our roundtable discussion of The Boys are Back in Town by Christopher Golden:

LW: This is my favorite book which employs time travel. It is also one of my favorite books written by Golden, which is saying a lot, considering 1) how much I love his books and 2) how many books he's written. (Over 100!)

CS: I was introduced to Christopher Golden by you, Little Willow -- you recommended Soulless to me because of my penchant for zombies and I LOVED Soulless so much, I asked for further Christopher Golden recs!  You came back to me with a list (if I am remembering correctly) and The Boys Are Back in Town immediately caught my eye.  I loved the idea of a book centered around a high school reunion, creepy time-shifts, the whole deal.  It just was really compelling.  So I chose that to read!  And then took my sweet time reading it.  Which I regret now.  Because when I finally did... AWESOMENESS.

LW: Simply put: Told you!  In all seriousness, though, I am so happy to share his books with you, and so happy that you genuinely loved Soulless and The Boys are Back in Town.

CS:  I am properly shamed.  They were both fantastic.  I think he's a genuine storyteller.  You know you're in for a treat. 

LW: I think highly of Golden's storytelling abilities.

CS: Can I just say -- I thought Will was a fabulous protagonist.  He was genuine and it was interesting how you had to trust him even though you definitely couldn't trust his memories.  You felt very 'there' with him.

LW: I think Will is swell. He was a reliable narrator whose memories were unreliable. He wasn't at all an unreliable narrator in the 'classic' sense. He could not help when things changed, not at first, and he had to figure things out, just like the reader did.  I agreed that you felt right there with him, and that you felt for him. I think people who liked The Time Traveler's Wife and the television series The Dead Zone will definitely like this book. In The Dead Zone TV show, Anthony Michael Hall's version of Johnny Smith had episodes in which his visions played tricks on his mind, and I couldn't help but think that he and Will could relate to one another.

CS:  I never saw The Dead Zone TV series, sadly!  But I can see how people who dug it would totally dig Boys. 

LW: Oh, you should watch it. I think you'd enjoy it. I certainly did.

CS: Back to Will's unreliable memories -- one of my FAVOURITE scenes in the book was when he was talking to Ashleigh and she just... changes!  Just like that. 

LW: I love that moment!

CS: I am so petrified of giving anything away, but it's such an awesomely chilling moment.  Someone has messed with the past in that exact moment and Will watches it happen on her face. 

LW: Such a great scene. It shows that things really can change in the blink of an eye. 

CS: It really gives it a sense of urgency.  Nothing changes all at once, but in increments that become steadily more devastating to Will and the people around him (even though they don't know it).  I just loved that part.  I could pick up the book right now and reread it.  So good.

LW: This discussion is making me want to re-read it right now!  Who was your favorite character, other than Will? Mine was Ashleigh. I liked her the instant that she was introduced, and how Golden described Will and Ashleigh's lifelong friendship in Chapter One:

When Will was a kid, Ashleigh had literally been the girl next door.

She was his oldest friend, and he had never thought of her any other way.

Will’s parents had never had any other children, but in Ashleigh, he had a sister.

CS:  I really liked Ashleigh as well.  She was so genuine and likeable.  I also loved the guys.  Brian, Nick -- especially the dynamic they had when they hung around each other.  I liked the section of the book through Dori's eyes when she was cursed because I felt bad for her even though she's... not very nice.  What did you think of Kyle?  I would get frustrated by his standoffishness but then I really liked those brief moments where he was willing to listen and was amazed at what was going on around him.

LW: I thought it was a really neat idea to not only meet the people who lived in Will's old house now, but to involve someone in the story from there on out - and to have it be a teenage boy was perfect! It was a way to involve someone new and to compare this generation to Will's generation, not to mention finding that note and the book - such crucial pieces to the puzzle.

CS:  The moment when Kyle gave Will the note gave me chills.  What did you think of Golden's take on magic?  I really liked how dark and grim and possible it was.  As I said in my review, I am not a big fan of magic (okay with a few exceptions like Harry Potter) in fiction, but it worked for me in this novel.  I loved when Will and Brian were trying to upstage each other in the ice cream shop.  It seemed exactly like what a couple of teenage boys who had come into this extraordinary power would do.

LW: Golden's use of magick in this and other novels, such as The Gathering Dark, is the stuff that dreams - and blockbuster films - are made of: imaginative, powerful, and "ooh"-worthy. I very much like the fact that his characters suffer consequences as a direct result of their actions, be they domestic or magical. There's a cost. There's some semblance of justice as well as the randomness and unfairness of life - the good guys don't always win, much less always live. The magick book Will and the others handle in this particular story gave me chills. I could see that and sense its heaviness, its darkness. And yes, ice cream can be evil.
 
CS:  I will never look at orange soda the same way again.  I read ahead to the end (I am awful) and even though I knew who was responsible for what had happened before I finished, the book still managed to surprise me in places.  Did you read ahead?  And if you didn't -- since I can't answer this question -- did the identity of the antagonist surprise you?  Was it what you expected and were you satisfied?  It satisfied me.  I could understand that particular character carrying that kind of hurt and letting it get majorly out of control, because they had been drawn so well.

LW: I did not read ahead. I read it cover to cover. I was surprised by the antagonist's identity in a good way: I wasn't wholly expecting it, but it made complete sense, and everything fell into place when that identity was revealed. Everything could be explained. At what point in the story did you read the ending? Just curious.  (I had a friend who read the book jacket summary first, then flipped to the last page and read that next - yes, she read the last page before reading the first page! - because she wanted to know if the book had a happy ending.)

CS:  I was about close to halfway through when I peeked ahead.  I couldn't take the suspense!  But it didn't really help me out in that department because each time that character appeared, it was like waiting for the other shoe to drop.  And then it did.  When I was reading Boys, I kept picturing it as a movie.  Golden's writing is super cinematic.  If you could cast any of the main characters in a movie version of the book, which actors would you pick?  I kept picturing Will as Matt Damon because there was a reference to them looking the same.  Ashleigh looked like an older Ashley Greene in my head and... I'll just admit it:  the Will-Matt Damon reference cemented Brian as Ben Affleck for me.  :)


LW: When I read books, I tend to picture them as the author described, and try not to picture them as famous people. However, if my arm was twisted and I had the chance to cast this and could freeze actors at the proper ages (late 20s for most of the main characters, since this is their 10 year reunion to portray these characters), I would cast Megan Follows for adult Ashleigh, see if Kathryn Morris and Poppy Montgomery were available for another female roles, and hire Paul Rudd or Anthony Michael Hall to portray adult Will. If I was not able to magically make these actors 28 years old, then I'd call in all of the talented actors currently in their mid-to-late twenties or early thirties that I feel are underrated and underappreciated, like Larisa Oleynik, Matt Czuchry, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and others, to see who they could play. There are so many great parts to cast: Will, Ashleigh, Kyle, Nick Acosta, PixieGirl, Danny... Hey, what about a young Ron Howard for Kyle?
 
CS: ! Young Ron Howard for Kyle would be perfect.  Do you think Boys would be the best introduction to Christopher Golden?  I've only read two of his books so far (but there will be more read, mark my words!) and if I had to choose between Boys and Soulless as a CG intro, I'd choose Boys.  I also think Boys has great crossover appeal.  Teens would like it too.  What are your top three Golden recommendations for people who have never read him before?

LW: He's written for so many different audiences, and in so many genres, that it's easier for me to make top picks based on main plot element and genre. I think Boys makes for a great introduction to his writing, as does Soulless (zombies! road trips! pop stars!) and The Gathering Dark (vampires! apocalypse! mages!) Those two novels are more action-based than Boys, but, like I said before, The Gathering Dark also deals with dark magick. Strangewood, which is a story within a story, is also in my top five standalone* Golden books. (By standalone, I mean a title not in a series.) I also think The Ferryman and Straight on 'til Morning are also great standalone reads, especially for those looking for stories that twist something with which they are familiar - the Greek myth of the ferryman Charon, and the story of Peter Pan and Never Never Land, respectively. For those who want something non-fantastical, I highly recommend the Body of Evidence murder mystery series. There are ten books in that line, so make sure that you read them in order, starting with the first book, Body Bags. I greatly enjoy the Prowlers quartet, which includes shapeshifters and ghosts. The good guys vs. bad guys action-packed scenes are simply awesome.

CS:  I think I'm definitely going to be trying The Ferryman next.  Now, I am a big cover freak (although this makes me far from an expert) so that brings me to my next question.  What do you think of the cover?  I think it really fits.  I love the blurring faces and the title placement.

LW: I agree that the cover fits it. Memories get blurry...

CS:  If you could pick one song to go with this book, which would you pick?  (No picking the obvious choice!)  My pick is Jill Tracy's Pulling Your Insides Out.  Especially certain pieces of the lyrics:  Baby know your nemesis / he's posing as your best friend / don't believe the newspapers / they're telling lies again.  And it's really moody and evocative and mysterious, just like the book!  Natch.

LW: I am not familiar with that song nor the singer. Thanks for the link! I immediately go to Duncan Sheik songs for this. He's one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and I feel that his vocals and lyrics in the song Time and Good Forture really fit the sense of loss, change, and regret Will experiences:

Singer, will the singing say it?
Singer, would such saying change it?
A whole long life spent tuning strings
And will it now mean anything
But empty chords that only bring
An endless, voiceless sorrowing


CS:  That's a great choice.  Speaking of choice, I love the role it plays in this novel.  Particularly where the magic is concerned--to use it for good or for bad.  If you had ever found a book as powerful as Will and Brian did, full of both fun and dark spells, do you think you'd choose to try them or do you think you'd walk away?  The way the book of spells was described terrified me and I think I'd be leery of the vicious spells.  I don't think I could use spells against someone.  But!  I would totally wanna try levitation.

LW: I would not try them because they could cause harm. Did you go to your high school reunion? I did not. Happily, I was otherwise engaged at the time - I was performing on stage, in a professional musical production.

CS:  Yay!  That's a good reason to miss out.  :)  I left high school to pursue my education independently.  I don't think I was there long enough to the most out of something like a high school reunion (I'm not even sure if my graduating class has had one yet!)  I think this book has forever made me afraid of high school reunions though.  The potential mishaps that could occur.  Especially if they involve time travel.  Time travel freaks me out.  Too many things can go wrong!

LW: I love the concept of time travel. I know that it could go horribly awry in practice, but I love the concept. I even have a booklist dedicated to it - which includes some movie titles as well, like Frequency, Somewhere in Time, and Donnie Darko. Have you seen any of those films? I read and enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife, so I hope the film version stays true to the book. I liked the movie Somewhere in Time much, much more than the book upon which it was based, Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson.

CS:  I haven't seen any of those movies!  Appalling, I know.  I really want to see The Time Traveler's Wife, but I feel I must read the book first (which I also haven't done yet).

LW: Read it first. Read it first. Read it first.

CS:  I shall!  Okay, in six words or less, what do you think readers are in for when they pick up Boys?  Here's mine:  "Thrills, chills, and a good time."

LW: Nicely done. I'll name that tune in four notes: "Memories, magick, and murder."

Learn more about the book at the author's official website.

Read the first three chapters of the book online.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

It had been Ellie and Corrie’s idea, going bush for a few days over the Christmas holidays. They gathered some friends and supplies, went camping, and returned to find their homes deserted, their families missing. A fax Ellie finds at Corrie’s house seems to confirm the group’s worst fear: Australia has been invaded by a foreign army. The country is at war.

The fax from Corrie's dad tells them to go bush again, and, living in the country, Ellie and some others in the group do have the skills they need to survive. After a few harrowing trips into town to do some reconnaissance and check on their homes, they head back out to the place they had been camping when everything went down. But soon they feel the need to do more than just survive. They want to fight the invaders.

John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began, the first novel in the Tomorrow series, is absolutely riveting. It’s told by Ellie, elected by the group to write down what has happened as a way of “telling ourselves that we mean something, that we matter. That the things we’ve done have made a difference. I don’t know how big a difference, but a difference. Writing it down means we might be remembered.” (p. 2)

Ellie tells us from the beginning that she is recounting events in chronological order and we know from the back cover that the country had been invaded during the original camping trip, so I did not feel impatient as I read this first part of the book, waiting for the action to begin. And there is a lot of action. Marsden writes in a style that is immediate and accessible, making Tomorrow, When the War Began a fast-paced read, exciting and full of tension. Chilling, too, in how realistic and plausible everything seems, how people are forced to change, and with a lingering sense of fear as the group can only hope that all their families are still alive, held with the rest of the town in the Showground. That their actions will make a difference. That they will all survive.

Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs. A film version of Tomorrow, When the War Began is currently in production.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza, by Eugene Ostashevsky

High school is usually the first time we get our hands on post-Dr. Seuss, post-Shel Silverstein, "grownup" poetry: your Walt Whitmans, your E.E. Cummings-es, your Robert Frosts. They're all great, of course. Of course!

But you don't usually get the *really* good stuff until college or later--and that's if you're lucky. By the really good stuff, I mean hilarious and surreal and culturally contemporary poetry like The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza. You know, poetry about things that really matter, like rap battles and epistemology and peeing dinosaurs.

My girlfriend loves poetry, which I don't particularly--or haven't since college, with a few exceptions, like periodic Rilke and Mark Strand obsessions--but I know that there's a lot of great poetry on our bookshelves at home. Sometimes I accidentally read some of it, and that's what happened with The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza.

I picked up this slim book just because it looked cool, and I started reading in the middle, at a poem called "Infinite Recursor or the Bride of DJ Spinoza," which begins

The bride of DJ Spinoza
has an absolute cleavage
like that between natural numbers and Aleph-null


and quickly ends up in a refrain that goes "cause I got more rhymes than Joseph Brodsky/I got more rhymes than Leon Trotsky/Brodsky/Trotsky/Brodsky/Trotsky/La--là" then is immediately followed by the stage direction "She comes down and drop-kicks him in the head."

I was hooked. I can't get over how this stuff manages to be simultaneously so funny and so brainy. The poet, Eugene Ostashevsky, flips back and forth constantly from academic to slapstick, making jokes involving philosophy, pirates, mathematics, hip-hop conventions, historical references, and just stupidly goofy humor. How can you not love poems like "The Origin of the Specious" and "Myopia Is Youropia"? There's even a "Peepeesaurus" character, the star of a series of poems that he wrote as a gift for his three- or four-year-old nephew, who "as all children, or all boys do, he went through this very penis-centered stage, which coincided with a dinosaur-centered stage." (Pause, audience bursts into laughter.)

Through all of this--while mixing in French and Latin and Russian--Ostashevsky somehow pulls together some pretty heady (not to mention intellectually acrobatic) meditations on the nature of... well, everything. Love and life and logic and even conversations with God. But maybe that's not too surprising, since DJ Spinoza is obviously based on Baruch Spinoza. Clearly, even if for some inexplicable reason you don't want to read this book, you need to be *seen* reading it if you're hoping to pick up someone as cute and brainy and weird as yourself.

And, you know, I feel like I have to stress this because it's *poetry*, but... it's really funny. But don't take my word for it: I liked reading better than listening, just because I wanted to keep re-reading parts of it, but you can hear Ostashevsky read much of the book at a performance at Bowdoin College.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Book of the Dun Cow


Before you run screaming, let me assure you this is not a kid's book. Yes, it has a chicken on the cover. Get over it. Yes, it's a talking chicken. Again, get over it. It's an allegory.

I'm not a big fan of allegories. I don’t like Narnia, because I felt like the author cheated me by disguising a Christian allegory as a fantasy series.I also don’t like Pilgrim’s Progress, because the author didn’t bother to disguise his Christian allegory at all.

And yet, one of my favorite books is a Christian allegory. At least I think it is. It’s been disguised just the right amount. And whatever else it is, it's also an exciting story. It‘s Walter Wangerin‘s “The Book of the Dun Cow,” a barnyard tale of cosmic dimensions and eternal ramifications.

You don’t hear much about it, but when it came out in 1978 The New York Times proclaimed it “The Best Book of the Year.”


There’s a rooster and a dog and a cow, of course, but there’s also the big stuff:

“For in those days the earth was fixed in the absolute center of the universe. It had not yet been cracked loose from that holy place, to b sent whirling -- wild, helpless and ignorant -- among the blind stars.”

Inside this world, God has locked away Wyrm.

“He was in the shape of a serpent, so damnably huge that he could pass once around the earth and then bit his own tail ahead of him…. He was powerful, because evil is powerful. He was angry. And he hated, with an intense and abiding hatred, the God who had locked him within the earth. And what put the edge upon his hatred, what made it an everlasting acid inside of him, was the knowledge that God had given the key to his prison in this bottomless pit to a pack of animals.”

The animals don’t know this, but in the course of the story they will find out and we shall see if God chose wisely when he picked a rooster to hold back the mighty Wyrm.

So, this barnyard is more than a barnyard. And this book is more than a barnyard tale. AND more than just another allegory.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Echoes of Bradbury and the summers we all miss


In a pre-Civil Rights small Alabama town, a 12 yr old boy finds his life thrown into chaos when a strange murder haunts his father. Monsters and mysteries of all sorts, including of the human variety, make this a book you'll never tire of.

When I want to become younger, a boy again, there are a few books on my shelf that transform me, take me back to an age when I believed anything could happen. Boy's Life by Robert McCammon is one of them.

McCammon, who has written some terrific horror novels (Stinger, Swan's Song), has taken every kid's daydreams, sprinkled them with a few nightmares, and bound them between a cover to create Boy's Life. I'm glad Pocket has reprinted this terrific book. Go read it. Now.

What, you want more details? Fine.

In Zephyr, Alabama, the year is 1964, and 12-year-old Cory Mackenson one day helps his father with his milk route (yes, once upon a time people actually delivered milk as opposed to cows hidden in the sub-basements of your local supermarkets). Father and son watch a car drive straight into the (rumored) bottomless depths of the local lake with the driver still inside. Cory's father dives in to rescue the driver and comes back to the surface alone. He admits to Cory that the driver was naked and handcuffed to the steering wheel.

The memory of seeing the body in the car begins to eat away at Cory's father bit by bit as he tries to figure out who was responsible and why did this murder happen.
And Cory, who had never known what Evil with a capital E was, begins to learn. This is Alabama before the Civil Rights Movement, and several characters in the book are connected with the Ku Klux Klan. But don't think the book gets preachy about desegregation. No, McCammon is a better writer than that.

Mystery not enough? Oh, there's more.

In Zephyr, like childhood, magic lurks at the edges of our vision. In these pages readers meet Old Moses, an immense gator prowls the river, the last surviving triceratops, wrestlers who bear an uncanny resemblance to moviedom's most famous monsters, spirits of the dead, and the greatest bicycle a kid could ever own. Ray Bradbury could not do better. And hasn't.

Convinced? You should be. If this book is not already on your night table waiting to be read then you're missing out in of the greatest reads. Ever.

What I adore about this book is that it offers all of us the chance to recall that greatest summer of our life, before we get too old to see wonders, when your friends meant the world to you, and your father meant even more.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd

Ever wondered what would happen if a Klingon and a Jedi fell in love? How about a Comic-Con throw-down between Jedi and Klingons? Or what if a captain of the cheerleading squad needs a crash course in geekdom? The answers to these questions are in the short story collection, Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd. Authors Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci edited the book and gathered a great group of teen authors and graphic novelists for this collection.

I'll have to admit I have mixed feelings about the current use and connotations of the word geek and how it is treated in popular culture. So when I saw my library's new copy of Geektastic, I thought, "Great, yet another medium disingenuously dealing with geeks so that they can actually just make fun of them." Okay, so maybe I'm a bit cynical. The cover, however, was too great to be ignored, so I gave it a try and thoroughly enjoyed it.

There is a great range of stories here. From humourus to angst filled, the stories in Geektastic are quite enjoyable and are respectful to those they write about. Seeing the list of authors that includes M.T. Anderson, Scott Westerfeld and John Green, I should not have been worried in the first place.

Black and Castellucci start the book with Once You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All the Way. A Jedi and a Klingon wake up in bed together. The story is told from each perspective and includes the awesome convention brawl.

One of Us by Tracy Lynn tells the story of head cheerleader Montgomery K. Bushnell who pays the four members of Springfield High's Genre and Nonsense Club to instruct her how to impress her boyfriend. They do this by teaching her about the important things in life including Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings.

My favorite was Barry Lyga's The Truth about Dino Girl. Katie is into dinosaurs and wants to be an archeologist. She processes high school and her crush of the very popular Jamie like an archeologist and eventually prepares to enact revenge on one of her rivals.

In addition to all of this coolness, Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O'Malley illustrated a bunch of fun comics throughout this collection. This is a smart look at geek culture by several accomplished writers.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Skeleton Creek

Two years ago I would have rolled my eyes if someone had put Patrick Carman's Skeleton Creek in my hands. The "multi-media" content (that is, videos and text combined) would have made me an instant skeptic. I probably would have labeled it as gimmicky and shelved it without a moment's pause. Now that I am much more technologically enlightened, only a tiny bit of skepticism lurked as I started reading (watching?) this book a few days back. I was actually pretty excited to see how the video / text concept worked out. All it took was one video installment and I was hooked. Kind of made me wonder if even the purest, most traditional bookworm can't be seduced by a little film.

Privacy is a religion in Skeleton Creek. For Ryan McCray and his best friend Sarah Fincher, it's always felt like everyone in town had secrets. For instance, why was their town's name changed to Skeleton Creek and why is there a secret society known as The Crossbones? In the past, the town was connected to the now bankrupt New York Gold and Silver Company and the teens are certain that an abandoned dredge, once used to mine gold, is at the center of the mystery they feel permeating the Creek. So they investigate the dredge one night and an accident leaves Ryan with a serious broken leg and also results in both of their sets of parents forbidding the two to see or communicate with each other for good. But neither of them can forget what they saw, or think they saw, that night. Ryan writes all that he remembers in his journal and Sarah continues to stay in touch with him through vlogs that she sends to him, which include footage of their night at the dredge and other film that she takes as she continues looking for answers. As the friends get closer to some kind of truth, they have to ask themselves, should they return to the dredge and face what they think is inside, or stop asking the questions that might lead to the worst kind of accident imaginable?


So, the big question is whether or not the video/text format works. On the whole, I'd say it does. You'll wait more than 20 pages before the first video installment, and I'll admit that I was itching to get there. In fact, I think the whole package could have easily handled more video without seeming to cross the line into more film / less book territory. The videos themselves are relatively simple, much of the action taking place either in Sarah's room or in the woods and the dredge. Of course, the clips set in the forest around the dredge do a whole lot to add to the fright factor, the handheld camera style reminiscent of Blair Witch, with the same breathless narration happening throughout. It was, in a word, fun.

But just in case you wonder how the text holds up, I was impressed. Patrick Carman has created a compelling voice for Ryan, who happens to be a gifted writer. Ryan writes in order to make what has happened to him feel more like fiction. The text turns out to be just as moody and creepy as the film. Here's a taste:

There was no nurse or doctor or chalky smell this morning, only the early train crawling through town to wake me at half past five. But in my waking mind, it wasn't a train I heard. It was something more menacing, trying to sneak past in the early dawn, glancing down the dead-end streets, hunting.

Is it spooky? Yep, though I think it would be spookier still at night (I read/watched on a blue sky perfect day and I was still pretty freaked out in places). The acting in the videos is so-so, but mostly decent. Sarah's character comes off quite convincingly, it's the guy who plays the forest ranger who's a tad on the cheesy side. Take a peek at the trailer:



Thank me for reviewing this so close to the release of Book #2, Ghost in the Machine, in October, because Skeleton Creek ends with a cliffhanger to beat all cliffhangers. By the end, you'll rethink reading in the 21st century, if you haven't already - oh, and you won't be heading into any abandoned buildings in the dark anytime soon.

Skeleton Creek is published by Scholastic.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

What in the world is Trout Fishing in America?

1) Eventually this is about Richard Brautigan.

2) One of my favorite musicians, Jay Farrar of Son Volt, has a new music project about to drop, and I'm very excited for it. It's called One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur. He's gotten together with Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service to do the soundtrack for a new documentary about Jack Kerouac, specifically the writing of his novel Big Sur. What an incredible line up of talent-- I can't wait to hear what their collaboration has produced.

But, thinking about Jack Kerouac and the Beats? They've always seemed kinda dopey to me. Slack, self-absorbed, juvenile-outrage fueled, consumed by their own disjointed empty otherness... I read On the Road in high school and couldn't seem to care. Which, on paper? Never made sense to me: by all accounts, if you do the math, I should love the Beats.


3) Maybe it was Ernie Bushmiller and Chuck Jones making easy targets of late fifties hipsters, back when those that produced youth culture could easily mock youth itself--Something nearly impossible now that that particular tail wags the giant pop culture dog. Maybe Sluggo and Bugs Bunny instilled in me a general distrust of anything with the Beat label.

4) A good friend of mine once dated the coolest high school chick ever, only it was illegal for him to do so (she was 17 and he was 21--he immolated himself daily over it. Good thing he'd already quit drinking). Anyways, this gal was ready to up and defend the Beats, particularly Diane di Prima, one of the few women associated with the Beats. Thus, my sneer at the Beats broadened-- there's something at heart messed up about a movement so centered around being able to pick up and blow like dust, right? And ain't that a gendered thing? Because when the party moves on, the women are the one's stuck having the babies.

5) For that matter, did Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlingetti, etc. ever wear berets and black turtlenecks? Grow soul patches?

6) That girlfriend's name was Erin. She had a great laugh, was wise way beyond her years. A Bellarmine gal with wicked plans. She was Irish, and the only thing I really remember crystal clear about her was a joke she told. A pun on erin go bragh-- she called herself Erin Go Bragh-less-- which cleaves to memory for obvious reasons.

7) Trout Fishing in America, though the most famous, may not be the place to begin. Remember that about Brautigan, in case I don't get there in time.

8) It was Erin who also introduced me to Richard Brautigan, in part because she didn't know how to explain him. He was Beat-ish, certainly the covers to all his books demonstrate a notably Hippy-dippy, flower-power kind of guy. I can say this because he's the only author I know who appears on the cover of every single book I've every found by him.

9)I Feel Horrible. She Doesn't
by Richard Brautigan

I feel horrible. She doesn't
love me and I wander around
like a sewing machine
that's just finished sewing
a turd to a garbage can lid.

10) On paper, when you do the math, I should hate him. Richard Brautigan cares little for narrative clarity, his writing has negligible plot, and sometimes the various pieces of everything we call fiction: character, setting, structure, etc. are all sacrificed for a bewildering yet hypnotic tone, a fascinating piling of metaphor upon metaphor until you don't know what's what anymore. He constructs worlds out of familiar words roped together such that the phrase "Machines of Loving Grace" exists in our language and you're thankful for it, and watermelon sugar is not that at all, but something much much more. And funny! Man, the guy has so much humor and satire going on, but never vicious. He's an incredibly giving writer. Despite the poem above that I quote--what a great first line!--he's never really bitter. His novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 is filled filled filled with love. Man his books are brimming with love, an earthy love and I don't mean "tee hee; naughty!" either. I mean he just loves the good body of the world, however that may be expressed, whether it's trout fishing or his beloved San Francisco and all the people in it.

11) There's a kid, well, adult now I suppose, who changed his name to Trout Fishing in America. Legal and everything.

12) My fear is: I just recently found one of the holy grails of comics collecting: Barnaby, by Crockett Johnson. He's the guy who wrote and drew Harold and the Purple Crayon. Anyways, Barnaby is this legendary strip which was collected once back in the forties and again twenty or thirty years later, but that's it. So it's immanently unavailable, a rare thing in these days of Google and Wikipedia and gorgeous, high-priced comic strip reprints. I bought it for 3.50.

Brautigan is like that. He's not really available. I think there may be one collection that's got Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus The Springhill Mining Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar that's in print. Hell, he's even got a 600 word novel that's never been printed. But I've found this used bookstore where for some reason they've got all these super cheap paperbacks of all his books collecting dust. And I first picked up one because I remembered the name. Then I went back looking for something to spice up my poetry reading. Now I go just for his stuff.

But I don't want it to be out of some collecting, hoarding fever. And every time I get that worry, I sit down with the opening pages of The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Romance, or The Abortion, and his prose just knocks all worries out of my head. Man, what an amazing writer.

13)Band names derived from Richard Brautigan's writing: Trout Fishing in America, Machines of Loving Grace. Watermelon Sugar.

14) He's not really one of the Beats. He wrote and was published mostly in the sixties, but Ferlingetti was an editor and friend, and he's a quintessential Californian writer, which I guess is how the connection is made. Oh, and one of his books is titled A Confederate General from Big Sur. So, diid I stick the landing?

Find these by Brautigan. I would start at your library, but if not, you might go here:
Novels

The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western


Poetry:
The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster

Who knows what this is:
Trout Fishing In America

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How did I get here? Me and the Sandman

When I try figuring out exactly how I ended up writing about heartbroken werewolves and mushroom gods, I can trace the course of this rather odd career choice through twists and turns to two major influences: Neil Gaiman, who wrote the Sandman comics, and my mom, who took the Sandman comics away from me.

Before I wade in, though, I should explain that there are actually two Sandmen in the comic book world. One Sandman’s real name is William Baker. He is a man made of sand. A supervillan with all the powers of sand is pretty much as useless as he sounds, except to point out the kinds of goofy stories I was enthralled with when I was thirteen.

By that time, most of my friends had given up comic books for basketball and french kissing. Honestly, my tendency to get lost in fantasy worlds was starting to become a concern for my parents. But my love of comics and cartoons continued unabashed, to the point that I had–seriously–a framed picture of Captain America on my dresser.

Anyway, when I was thirteen, William Baker briefly turned good and had his own mini-series. That was the book I went into the comic shop to buy. By some divine accident, though, I walked out with a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman instead.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has thousands of names. He is the god of dreams and the source for every story ever told. He has existed almost since the dawn of time. He has near-infinite powers but serious problems with his siblings, the personifications of destiny, death destruction, desire, despair and delirium.

To sum it up: I was in over my head.


The issue I happened to buy was a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, which I’d never heard before. It told about his journey to the land of the dead, showed him being torn apart by the Maenads, and then his head floating down the river still singing beautiful songs.

An aside: I was reading Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection the day my boss at the ambulance company called and told me I was fired. The Einstein Intersection is a great piece of experimental sci-fi which splices Orpheus’s journey with a futuristic adventure and nonfiction journal entries Delany wrote during his own trip to Greece. I’d never been fired before and wasn’t sure what to do, so I hung up and started reading again. After about thirty minutes, I thought to myself, Well, if you ever want to take a shot at writing your own book, now’s the time to do it. What does it mean that the Orpheus myth appeared at two critical points on my way to become a writer? Only the gods know.

But back to age thirteen: When my mom found Sandman, she sort of freaked. Censoring didn’t come naturally to her. She gave me Twain, Kipling, and Vonnegut, but the pictures disturbed her, for instance this naked and blood-drenched Maenad kissing Orpheus’ severed head, which removed from its mythological context, is pretty twisted.

And also remember I was still pie-eyed enough to think a guy who turned into sand was way cool. (Once, William Baker got caught in an explosion, and the extreme heat turned his body into glass. A man made out of shattered glass is more menacing than a man made out of sand but still lame.) My mom made a judgement call. Sadly for all those puppies I might have nursed back to health as Kristopher Reisz, veterinarian, it was a call that turned me from a spooked by Gaiman’s world to obsessed.

My brother Sean, three years older than me and with infinitely better taste, got interested in Sandman soon after. Swiping his graphic novel versions, I devoured them. Gaiman used his King of Dreams to tell stories about stories. Besides Orpheus, Sandman was the first time I encountered Midsummer Night’s Dream; the kitsune legends; and the original, not-very-nice version of Little Red Riding Hood. And the fact that it was all a little forbidden just added an extra veil of mystery to these truths disguised as myths disguised as truths, to the raw alchemy of storytelling.

There’s no going back now, though. My youthful social awkwardness has bloomed into a nice curmudgeonly streak. I’ve made up some stories of my own, and even been paid for a few. Still, all those kittens I would have bandaged and bottle-fed... sometimes I hear them meowing in my dreams.

(Cross-posted from my blog.)

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Amiri & Odette: A Love Story by Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers is known for gritty novels like Monster and Shooter and Dope Sick and Sunrise Over Fallujah, and for picture book poetry collections like Jazz. This year, he's managed to combine gritty, urban teen themes with poetry . . . and ballet.

Yeah, I said it. Ballet.

See, Myers was much struck with the story of the ballet Swan Lake, which you may know from, say, having seen Billy Elliot or The Swan Princess, if you haven't seen the ballet on its own. The ballet, which dates from about 1875, was based on a variety of Russian and German fairy tales involving a princess (named Odette) who is under the spell of a magical bad guy named Rothbart (German for "Red Beard"), who tries to pair his own daughter, Odile, with Prince Siegfried. Siegfried, however, loves only Odette.

The ballet comes in four acts, but the final act varies wildly:

Act 1: Siegfried must choose a bride at his birthday ball (sounds like the prince in Cinderella, yes?) He heads into the woods and chases some swans.

Act 2: Siegfried gets ready to shoot an arrow at one of the swans, then realizes she is more human than swan. He finds out she's Odette, bewitched by Rothbart to be a swan by day. Love ensues. He wants to kill Rothbart, but if he does so before the spell is broken, it will never end.

Act 3: Siegfried has his ball. Rothbart tricks him into thinking that Odile is Odette, and he pledges his love to the wrong girl.

Act 4: Back at the lake, Siegfried apologizes to Odette, who forgives him. They refuse to be parted, and kill themselves, thereby weakening Rothbart's power so much that he dies OR their love is so strong it overcomes Rothbart, who dies while they live happily ever after OR Odette is stuck being a swan forever and Siegfried is left broken and alone.

Walter Dean Myers sets this book, Amiri and Odette in the Swan Lake Projects, an urban apartment complex in an asphalt world. Javaka Steptoe, the illustrator, took Myers's idea and ran with it, literally creating collage art on slabs of asphalt and cinder block. His images include original art and the sort of objects one might use in everyday life - I spotted a menu from a Chinese restaurant, actual feathers and some of the real jewelry that Steptoe mentions in his illustrator's note.

In Myers's text, Siegfried becomes Amiri (a version of the Arabic word meaning Prince). Rothbart becomes "Big Red". And Odette? Yeah, she's still Odette. The book, like the ballet, is split into four "acts".

Act 1: His mother says she's having a party so he can find a nice girl to settle down with.

Act 2: Amiri and his friends play basketball in the night:

But on the far edge of this boy-boy dream,
As far as forever, as close as a scream,
There are girl shadows dancing
And one who is glancing

At the muscular form that leaps toward the rim.
He sees her -- she sees him.
A feeling of magic in the air.
He holds his breath,
she smooths her hair.


Act 3: At the party, Big Red sends an unidentified girl in a black swan mask to Amiri; she pretends to be Odette and he pledges his love to her. Odette, who is late to the party (I guess), shrieks and takes off, with Amiri in hot pursuit.

Act 4: Back out on the basketball court, Amiri finds Odette alone, "shivering in the dark". Odette says she's already dead, and only a specter.

"No, I am Amiri," he says.
"And what I see is a sweet promise of tomorrow.
Invent our love, and we will beat Big Red.
Without this hope, we may as well be dead."

Big Red and Amiri duke it out - with weapons - over Odette, and Big Red loses and leaves town as Amiri and Odette end up dancing in the sunrise.

And yes, I just told you the ending, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have a look at the book, which is, as I've already mentioned, written as a poem. Myers's use of language and fluid approach to meter and rhyme is interesting, and Steptoe's use of textures and rich colors to bring the story alive visually is exciting.

Perhaps my most serious criticism of the story is Myers's decision to call the bad guy "Big Red", because it's a name I can't read without thinking of my favorite cinnamon chewing gum. Putting that aside (which I must do every. single. time. I read the guy's name), I thought this adaptation worked well. It does for Swan Lake what West Side Story did for Romeo and Juliet: brought it forward in time and made it seem fresh and relevant.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Do we really need to win?

As a.fortis mentioned last week, Guys Lit Wire was nominated and then shortlisted for two categories in Book Blogger Appreciation Week (Best Specialized Blog and Most Altruistic). I've been thinking a lot about this over the past few days and how I feel about popularity and blogging. The thing that concerns me the most here is Most Altruistic Blog. Basically, GLW is competing against other sites for the prize of who has been the kindest to others. Everyone in the short list has donated their time to raise money or collect books (as we did in the Book Fair for Boys) to help those in need. And now we are up for an award for our kindness.

And something about that just seems....well, it seems wrong.

I did not remove GLW from consideration in this award because initially I really was touched that folks thought of us. And honestly, I know that being short listed meant that new readers found our blog by perusing the lists and that is good for us - it certainly helps to spread the word on what we work very hard at here. But still. Do we want an award for doing something that in a perfect world wouldn't need to be done at all? Do any of us need to be recognized for helping kids who have little access to books get some?

Not to get all Spike Lee on you, but do you ever need a prize for doing the right thing?

We might very well win this award, I really don't know. But speaking for me, I don't think in the future I will accept GLW being shortlisted in this category and I like to know what everyone else who contributes here thinks. I prefer that folks just buy the damn books when we run the book fair. We put our time and money where our mouths are - and if everyone else would do the same then changing the world (for these boys anyway) would be easy.

There's an award idea - having everyone vote by purchasing a book for one of the causes supported by the shortlisters. Imagine how awesome that prize would be.

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Carnivorous Giraffes and Sentient U(n)brellas



Zanna and Deeba have just followed a walking umbrella (and mysterious signs that they’ve been seeing everywhere) and discovered the world of UnLondon, a fantastic place full of amazing creatures--carnivorous (and hungry!) giraffes, pet milk cartons, fighting trashcans called the Binja, and the Smog, which is trying to take control of the city. Zanna is hailed by the UnLondoners as their Shwazzy (Chosen One), but is quickly defeated and sent home, losing all her memories of UnLondon. Can a sidekick save the day? Find out as Deeba journeys back into UnLondon and has adventures all her own.

I ran a teen book club over the summer, and this was the first title that we read and discussed. Everyone was extremely enthusiastic about the book, and none of the 10 avid readers had heard of it before, even though it’s been out for a few years, so I thought I should write about it here, too.

China Mieville creates a vivid world, both with his writing and in the drawings throughout Un Lun Dun. Everything in UnLondon is just a little off, familiar enough to make you comfortable if you let down your guard, strange enough to remind you that you are travelling in new territory. Buildings are constructed from obsolete items that have made their way over from London (record players, typewriters, etc). Travel is by double-decker buses modified to fly. Danger comes not just from the Smog, but from ghosts, flying grossbottles, and spider-like Black Windows. When Deeba realizes that UnLondon is still in great danger, and that Zanna isn’t going to be much help, she has to figure out how to get back there on her own.

Un Lun Dun takes the common fantasy elements of prophecy and predestination and turns them on their heads. The (talking) Book that contains the predictions for UnLondon's future is sometimes wrong, often confused. Words and meanings have gotten garbled over the years, and are misinterpreted by the Propheseers. And some words actually spring into life as Utterlings. To save UnLondon, Deeba is given a list of tasks that she must complete, in order, that will enable her to get the tools to fight the Smog. But what is the true purpose of this quest? Does she really have to do everything on the list, or can she cut to the chase? And what is this UnGun that everyone keeps talking about, but no one has ever seen?

Mieville’s book will surprise you at every turn. Though everyone in my book club was asking if there was a second book, Un Lun Dun also proves that a fantasy novel doesn’t have to be part of a series to satisfy. Yes, you’ll be left wanting more, but your imagination won’t soon forget the world of UnLondon.

Cross posted at my brand new blog, Dwelling in Possibility.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Some Sword-wielders You Can Always Count On

Notice how some stories tend to get told over and over again? They’re our myths, containing patterns and archetypes which nourish our ideologies and our imaginations. Comic books are overflowing with them. How many dozens of times has the origin of Superman been re-imagined? And that story itself is, of course, a collection of ideas and elements taken from mythology and various cultural histories. And sometimes, all you need is a slightly different perspective to bring out the power in one of these familiar tales. Take Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood (by Lee, Hart and Fujita) as a case in point. Naturally, it’s got the merry men, Maid Marian, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, sword fights, daring escapes, romance and archery contests. But it casts them in a darker, grittier light than you’ve seen them in before. Think a Robin Hood origin by way of Casino Royale and Batman Begins. The tone of the art is shadowy and dark, so much so that you can actually feel the chills wafting through those old stone castles, while the Hood’s struggle with corrupt authority is painfully appropriate for the here and now, too. Just the same, Robin is still very much a hero in outlook and deed. And heroes, of course, never really go out of style.

And speaking of tried and true heroic figures, character types that fit story after story and never get boring, how about a samurai? Better yet, how about a rabbit samurai? Hares have long been a symbol of cleverness and resilience (just ask Bugs Bunny) and samurai; well, I'm sure you know all about them. Usagi Yojimbo, Stan Sakai’s always impressive ode to Japanese history and comic book animals, is in the middle of his twenty-fifth year in publishing and has never been better. The thrilling sword battles (right out of a Kurasawa epic) and funny animal characters (right out of an Uncle Scrooge comic) might give the impression that the material is on the simplistic side. But using elements from Japanese history and mythology and through the deeply honorable and moral character of Usagi himself, Sakai always manages to put a complex and thoughtful spin on the most straightforward situations. With a large body of work, it can be hard to know where to start, but I’m happy to say that Sakai’s skill in writing an accessible tale is such that you can dive in almost anywhere. Among his very best are Usagi Yojimbo Volume 12: Grasscutter, a massive epic featuring loads of characters and plots coming together around an ancient sword of the gods and the battles fought to determine its fate. Also, Usagi Yojimbo Volume 23: Bridge of Tears, the latest installment, is a standout episode that finds Usagi contending with the Assassin Guild’s plot of revenge, featuring several of the characters from Grasscutter’s Tale.

You can’t go wrong with knights or samurai as far as I can see.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

A question from one of our readers

This was sent in via email - please provide your opinions if you know the book!

Dear Guys,

Have any of you read this title [Michael Coleman's The Snog Log]? My son loved it, and as a (former) girl, I was just a little disturbed about it. I'd welcome any opinions that you have. I think I will buy it for my library, because it was pretty amusing.

Thanks!

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Those without tears have a grief which never ends. --Mexican saying


"The driver of the DeSoto tried to pull out, but somebody threw a brick at his head. For a long time, I observed the beatings as if I were outside of everything, as if a moth of tainted wings floating over the steamed sidewalk. Then I felt a hand pull at my arm and I sluggishly turned toward it. Puppet looked squarely into my one opened eye. He had a rusty screwdriver in his other hand.

'Do it, man," he said. Simply that.

I clasped the screwdriver and walked up to the beaten driver in the seat whose head was bleeding. The dude looked at me through glazed eyes, horrified at my presence, at what I held in my hand, at this twisted, swollen face that came at him through the dark. Do it! were the last words I recalled before I plunged the screwdriver into flesh and bone, and the sky screamed."

That's Luis J. Rodriguez describing a gang initiation he went through around age 13 or 14, in Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. When his son encountered peer pressure to join a gang, Rodriguez "tried to get Ramiro to understand the systematic nature of what was happening in the street which in effect made choices for him before he was born."


And he wrote this book, a book to help show what happens in the street.

"At 18 years old, I felt like a war veteran, with a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome. I wanted the pain to end, the self-consuming hate to wither in the sunlight. With the help of those who saw potential in me, I got out.

And what of my son? Recently, Ramiro went up to the stage at a Chicago poetry event and read a moving piece about being physically abused by a step-father when he was a child. It stopped everyone cold. He later read the poem to some 2,000 people at Chicago's Poetry Festival. Its title: 'Running Away.'

There's a small but intense fire burning in Ramiro. He turned 17... ; he's made it so far, but every day is a challenge. Now I tell him: You have worth outside of a job, outside the 'jacket' imposed on you since birth. Draw on your expressive powers.

Stop running."

It is a powerful story. Note that there is a helpful glossary in the back that explains the Spanish slang terms, which I failed to notice until I finished the book! If you like it and want more, try Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh, or Brothers and Keepers, by John Edgar Wideman.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Some Guys Like Art


Back in the day, when people read newspapers with some regularity, it was said that only something like 7% of the male population didn't read the sports section. I was part of the 7%. It was around the same time that my junior and senior high classmates began schlepping the sports section to homeroom that I began trolling the art and graphic design sections of bookstores and libraries hungry for some visual stimulation. Uneducated and unfamiliar with the art world, and with no finer appreciation for museums, I loved pulling out something that looked interesting and pouring over the glossy pages at images that inspired.

As a result, I became more aware of the graphic design of everyday life: the covers of alternative newspapers, the flyers for punk bands on the telephone poles, the zine piled in the entry ways of music stores. That love of graphics and the photocopier lead me to create zines and design letterpress books, and foundered a lifelong love of both high and low art. It also taught me that there was gold to be discovered in the bookshelves, if you knew where to look.

For my money, one of the best practitioners of 1990s was Art Chantry. While many (many) amateur graphic designers cut their teeth in the trenches of post-Sex Pistols punk rock show posters, Chantry bent and pushed and burned and mutilated the medium to its extremes. To be fair, what the Sex Pistols were doing was little more than aping the detournement of the French Situationists (who in turn were borrowing the Dadaist approach to found collage) so there is a long-standing tradition of image manipulation within art and politics. Nonetheless, Chantry took the low-budget, high concept approach to word and image and put a stamp on it that was at once sophisticated in it's thievery while appearing completely naive.

Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry is the first survey of Chantry's work and is the sort of thing a teen might find pretty darn inspirational. Based in the Pacific Northwest, one could argue that he was the graphic face of the grunge movement. His work for Sub Pop and Estrus records, among many other small bands and labels, will be readily familiar to fans of music from that era. Unlike other artists who spring from pop culture, like Shepard Fairey and his Obey industries, Chantry has no single iconic image or style yet there is a unique look to all his work that nonetheless feels part of a whole.

"An art book? That counts as reading?" Yes, I admit, it is tempting to pick up a book like this and simply look at the pictures. But I believe that one of the mysteries of the adult world to teens is in the arts where often we only know what's presented to us (or covered in the tabloids). How an artist lives and creates, what inspires them and influences them, tells a younger reader a lot about what it means to follow that path. Outsiders, often living on the margins, artists have to learn how to improvise not only with their art but with survival. Sometimes all it takes is a book like this to ignite the spark in a reader's mind: Oh, yeah, someone had to create that? And how did they do it? And what were their influences? A book that opens the door to questions and perhaps inspires a reader into action counts by me.

An artists' retrospective, like Some People Can't Surf, reads like a biography with documentation. Instead of photos of the subject posing on vacation abroad we see their growth as an artist visually while reading about their struggles to meet deadlines and working with no budgets. They're like a picture book where the words and pictures compliment each other, and provide a window into the world of a working artist.

Chantry has been exhibited in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, The Smithsonian, and the Louvre. That's a trifecta in my book.

Some People Can't Surf:
The Graphic Design of Art Chantry

by Julie Lasky
Chronicle Books
2001

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

GLW Shortlisted for BBAW

Hey, everyone! Guys Lit Wire has been shortlisted for a Book Blogger Appreciation Week award for Best Special Interest Blog. There's a rather dauntingly long list of categories, but if you go check out the post with nominees, you'll have a chance to vote online for GLW and any other favorite blogs that made the cut. And, if you're like me, you'll find a whole slew of intriguing sites about books and reading that you might not have visited before. Check it out!

ETA: Also don't miss that we were nominated for Most Altruistic Blog in recognition of the Book Fair for Boys!

Also, psssst!, don't forget about this year's Cybil Awards, which are kicking into gear with a new 2009 logo and a new crop of panelists--stay tuned to the blog to find out more.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Lighting the fuse on A Bomb Built in Hell


I've just finished reading the bookends of one of my favorite series, the "Burke" novels by Andrew Vachss. After 18 books in 23 years, he completed it with the release of Another Life in 2008. Meanwhile, his website has the free PDF of his first, unpublished novel, a sort of prelude to the Burke series titled, A Bomb Built in Hell.

To call Bomb "disturbing" is an understatement. Written in 1973, it deals with Wesley, a supporting character in the Burke series, one who's so scary even mentioning his name terrifies people. He's an amoral hit man who, weary of his life, decides to take out the next generation of those he blames for making his life what it is. But his judgment, needless to say, is a bit twisted.

What skews it, as in all Vachss' novels, is Wesley's tormented childhood at the hands of the government. Abandoned at age four, he's raised by the state and becomes a petty teen criminal. In the first few pages he refers to reform institutions as "upstate sodomy schools," and thinks no more of going to jail than a normal person would going to Wal-Mart. He's desensitized, an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

His prison mentor Carmine does just that, teaching him the ropes and preparing him for life outside as a hit man. Upon his release, Wesley avenges Carmine on the mobsters who let him rot in prison. When that's accomplished, he decides to seek a more personal revenge, not against individuals but against an entire class of people. I won't give it away here, but what Vachss wrote about in 1973 came to pass in an almost identical event in 1999.

In the author's notes on his website, Vachss says publishers repeatedly told him, "the book was also 'too' hard-boiled, 'too' extreme, 'too' spare and violent. I heard endlessly about how an anti-hero was acceptable, but Wesley was just 'too' much."

And maybe, dare I say it, they were right about that last bit. Burke narrates his own stories; while the other characters see only his carefully-chosen front, we are privy to his thoughts, feelings and motives. Bomb is written in third person, so that the reader sees Wesley the same way the other characters do. There's very little sympathy for him, especially as he closes in on his greatest hit at the climax. In fact, if Bomb were written and published today, the outcry would probably be massive; Vachss might even disappear at the hands of Homeland Security for appearing to advocate (and describing in detail how to accomplish) such extreme acts.

But despite being a period piece in a sense, "Bomb" still resonates with the thing that makes all Vachss' books so powerful: the sense that there's reality in the details, no matter how outlandish the characters or plot might seem. Vachss has spent his life in the trenches, and if he says this is how something should be done, I wouldn't doubt him.

I'm not exactly "recommending" this book to teen boys; it's certainly not written for a YA audience and as I said, it could be misconstrued as advocating what it depicts, although that's truly not the case. But it does show how the juvenile justice "system" often does far more damage to those it's supposed to help. And I'm not saying Bomb is a "scared straight" work, either. I guess what I got from it, and what I hope teen boys would, is the sense of how those deprived of family will always seek one out. It happens in gangs all the time. But maybe here, writ large and in a sense absurd, readers can see the process in such sharp relief they'll be motivated, somehow, to break the chain. Before that same process produces a Wesley for real.

Download A Bomb Built in Hell for free here.

Read Andrew Vachss autobiographical essay here.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

The Morgue and Me -- John C. Ford


The Morgue and Me begins:

When you're eighteen years old and you shoot somebody in a public place at two in the morning, of course you expect some attention. Especially when it's the person I shot, and especially when you're found right there on the scene with that person at your feet, gasping away in a pool of blood that seeps around your shoes. Still, I find it really embarrassing.

The summer before his freshman year of college, photography enthusiast and aspiring spy Christopher Newell gets a summer job at the morgue. He was supposed to work at the NWMU astronomy department, but that fell through when... well, it's a long story.

Anyway, the morgue. While snooping (there's really no other word for it) in the coroner's office, he finds $15,000 in cash. Which is weird. But then when he realizes that the coroner falsified his most recent report... well, Christopher Newell is pretty good at math.

He teams up with Tina, a Trans Am driving, fishnet wearing, drinking, smoking, big mouthed (and extremely attractive) young journalist -- he wants to solve the mystery, she wants a big break -- and before the two of them know it, they're up to their ears in an investigation that seems to involve every single powerful person in their Michigan town.

And powerful people do not usually take kindly to being investigated: especially when that investigation is conducted by a couple of nobodies and involves corruption, blackmail and murder.

Christopher's narration definitely brings to mind a hard-boiled detective -- not because he is one (or acts like one), mind you, but because he wants to be one -- and it especially comes out in some of his descriptions of people:

I've heard that lots of movie stars have huge heads. I don't know about his acting skills, but Corbett was qualified in the head department. His giant helmet of black hair was gelled so thick I could almost see a reflection of the clouds in it. On his feet he wore tiny black loafers, equally shiny. In between, there was lots of tailored clothing.

His relationship with Tina is especially well done. He has to remind himself to stop drooling every time he looks at her even though he knows it is SO not going to happen -- and that attraction persists throughout the book, even as their working relationship develops into a genuine friendship. And, very importantly, they're rather hilarious:

"See?" Tina said. "You lurk a little, you get your answers."

"I'm not sure it was the lurking. I think it was more the asking."

"Whatever. We're lurking till I finish this drink."

And while Tina easily could have become a two-dimensional stock character (because it isn't like we haven't met the brash and brassy type many, many times before), she didn't. As the book progressed, as she and Christopher got to know each other, she became more and more real. By the end of the book, I felt like she was as much a main character as he was.

Big thumbs up here -- it's a strong mystery (minus one plot point that felt really, really wrong) that feels both classic and contemporary. It was suspenseful and twisty and funny with strong secondary characters and just good all around. I know I always say it when I find one, but here I go again: I'm so glad that we're starting to see more noir-ish crime novels written for and marketed to the teen audience. __________________________________________________________________

Book source: My local library.
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Cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Short History of Guys Lit Wire

Ever wondered how this site came to be? No, it didn't just appear fully-formed like Athena out of Zeus's forehead. There's a whole history behind it, and site mastermind Colleen has shared it with the readers of Crossed Genres magazine. Here's just a small sample of the article:

"The story of Guys Lit Wire and the notion of creating a blog solely to recommend books for teenage boys begins with the NEA Study on Reading released in November 2007. While much of the media focused on reduced reading numbers among adults, in a segment of the lit blogosphere we were fixated on the figures related to teen boys. While younger children show parity between the genders on reading tests, boys begin to noticeably lag behind girls as they grow older. A boisterous conversation ensued online as we discussed what this might mean..."

Read the rest of Colleen's post here, and find out for yourself how we got to where we are today. (And, go, Colleen! W00t!)

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Visit Stockholm, Sweden and you'll be entranced by cleanliness from the moment you arrive. Brightly-hued flowers mingle with the beauty of Old World brick and stonework while freshly-scrubbed Swedes wind their way to work. Even in this modern metropolis, you cannot but marvel at the effort taken to present such an immaculate, crisp image to the outside world.

But Stieg Larsson knows better.

First published in English a year ago, Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has garnered considerable praise for its deft characterization in service to a high tension mystery/thriller plot. Yet it's not the usual thriller trappings that enthrall readers entirely. This is no banal police procedural or run-of-the-mill locked room mystery (though elements of both figure prominently in the novel). Instead, there is something simply riveting about what Larsson reveals about his native Sweden - things which, I suppose, most Swedes already know, but which Americans could not even begin to fathom.

Calling Larsson's Sweden "seedy" just isn't the right term. Take the image of a 1970s-era Times Square completely out of your mind. Likewise, drop your noir-driven conceptions of cheesy first-person narrative. These are crimes, criminals and environments of an entirely different nature.

The plot is anything but simple, and readers may be initially put off by the complicated Vanger family tree that greets them inside the front cover. For what it's worth, I never needed to refer to the family tree, and I imagine most except the most retentive readers won't have to. Beyond this superfluous map, the novel begins with quite a paradox of reading conditions. I defy anyone to read the prologue and not be immediately captivated by the vague mystery presented. In contrast, the first few chapters past the prologue are enough to drive away all but the most devoted reader. It's an odd pairing, to be sure, but I encourage tenacity - the layers of this mystery may peel back slowly, but the payoff is worth the wait.

Any attempt at summarizing the novel runs the serious risk of spoiling all the fun, so suffice it to say that troubled journalist Mikael Blomkvist is offered an opportunity to solve a decades-old crime, and along the way teams up with a research assistant who is at once deeply troubled, yet undeniably brilliant. This is oversimplified, of course, but there is no way to effectively communicate the thematic depth of the novel without perverting the reading experience.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's raison d'etre is not only to scrape the white-washed veneer from the surface of Sweden's image, but also to explore the hidden malevolence directed at women from within the nation's bounds. At this, Larsson succeeds superbly by presenting a wide array of female figures. And while some of these may be physically and emotionally weak, most are intellectually and morally empowered to do something about the men who would subjugate them.

Long after the mystery at the heart of the novel had passed, I found myself not wanting to tear myself away from these strangely compelling characters. By deliberately standing aloof from his characters, and by presenting them in an almost simple, journalistic, fashion, Larsson imbues them with a psychological depth and realism they would never have otherwise. The mystery, it seems, has less to do with the enigma Blomkvist is hired to solve and more to do with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - or is that The Girl Who Played With Fire?

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Get Mechanistic


If you've read this site regularly, you've heard the term "steampunk" used here and there, but here's a little refresher if you need it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk

In Mainspring, Jay Lake has gone a bit beyond the typical steampunk world. His book is set in Victorian times, opening in America which here is still under English rule, but that's the least of what's unusual about the world compared to our own. The solar system in this book is purely mechanical, operating like an enormous clock. Each of the planets, including the Earth, rotates by means of gears and orbits the sun on a massive circular brass track hung somehow in space. The sun itself is a massive lamp in the center.


he story opens with Hethor, a clockmaker's apprentice, who is visited one night by a Brass angel calling itself Gabriel. Gabriel tells Hethor that the world's spring is in need of winding, and that he must find the Key Perilous which can wind up the world before everything grinds to a halt. As evidence of his visit Gabriel leaves Hethor with a silver feather. Despite some trouble in getting anyone to believe this tale and instead being accused of theft, Hethor takes it at his mortal duty to accept and carry out the task that God has apparently set before him. He commences a journey that will take him to the ends of his mechanical Earth.

Hethor's world is monumentally strange, full of odd men who form strange societies, bizarre and forgotten inventions, and everywhere, metal--springs and gears and plates and joints. But it is also a familiar one. For help, for instance, he visits the library at Harvard. He struggles with prosaic Victorian religious and sexual guilt. He finds his way often blocked by the simple class issues and politics so common to our world.

Driven on by both his faith in God and his empirical observations (Hethor is especially gifted at picking out the mechanical sounds that this wind-up Earth emits; he can hear its healthy ticking, as well as its painful groaning and grinding) he eventually finds his way aboard an airship, the Bassett, headed for the Wall, a massive structure wrapping the Earth's equator and meshing with the track upon which it circles the sun. On the other side of the Wall is an entirely different kind of world, one in which various humanoid creatures--some ape-like, some bird-like, and some really really tall--live more in tune with nature, both with its bounty and with its violence.

Mainspring is a great adventure. It's hero is anything but flashy, but he is stubbornly determined and you can't help but get behind him as he tries to do God's bidding even in the face of ridicule, imprisonment, mind-bending puzzles and deadly battles. But Mainspring is also an allegory which pits an intellectual, mechanistic, and puritanical view of the world against one which is organic, intuitive and magical. As Hethor negotiates these two extremes, his mind opens up to myriad possibilities of what God might be and how God might work.

It takes a bit of effort to get into Mainspring. The period-specific language is odd, a bit dense and distancing at times, but your effort will be paid off by fantastic imagery and enlightening ideas.

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