Monday, February 28, 2011

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

When we think of history and history changers, we often think of people. Maybe laws, like Brown v. Board of Education, or devices, like the computer. Molecules generally are not the first thing that come to mind.

Maybe they should be.

Just as metals have changed the course of history (gold, bronze, iron, anyone?), so have molecules. In Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, authors and chemists Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson delve into seventeen groups of molecules, explaining their historical importance and chemical makeup.

Take spices like pepper, nutmeg, and cloves. They were so important to Europeans, and so expensive, that kingdoms launched fleets of ships searching for their source and new trade routes. What made them so desirable? In chapter one, Le Couteur and Burreson breakdown both the historical and chemical reasons for this, as well as how the world changed as a result.

One side effect of long journeys over the open ocean was scurvy. (Well, perhaps "side effect" is not a strong enough phrase, since scurvy could be lethal.) Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, ascorbic acid--the subject of chapter two. It turns out that most vertebrates produce ascorbic acid in the liver. Since primates--including humans--do not, we must ingest it in some way as part of our diet, whether from oranges or industrially manufactured pills.

(Let me tell you, as someone who used to watch James Burke's Connections2 and Connections3, and is a fan of microhistories, I love reading about these kinds of relationships.)

We are then introduced to rest of the molecules first by their historical context--why is it so important in terms of world history?--before Le Couteur and Burreson examine its chemistry. In addition to describing how different molecules are bonded, they include diagrams of chemical structures, which helps readers spot similarities between them. Considering each chapter is around 20 pages long, they pack a lot of information into the book while keeping it very readable. The historical sections clearly detail their rationale for inclusion, and while the chemical explanations are at times complex, overall, it's enough for laypeople to get the gist of the hows and the whys.

The authors acknowledge the choice of which molecules to include were personal ones and that the "book is not about the history of chemistry; rather it is about chemistry in history." As such, it omits major figures like Humphry Davy, who would certainly appear in books "about the history of chemistry." Depending on your personal interests, you may find some chapters more fascinating than others, and some chapters were heavier on the chemistry than the rest.

As for the title, it comes Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. One theory to explain the French army's failure is that tin buttons were used on their uniforms to fasten trousers, jackets, and greatcoats. In cold temperatures, tin disintegrates into powder, which obviously would not keep clothes fastened and therefore increased the soldiers' exposure to the cold. There are several problems with this theory, though, one of them being that “the disintegration of tin is a reasonably slow process.” (If it's elements that you're interested in, pick up Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon, recommended by another Guys Lit Wire blogger last year.)

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Secret Journeys of Jack London Blog Tour

Are you ready to take a journey into the wild?

Bestselling authors Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon have teamed up to create THE SECRET JOURNEYS OF JACK LONDON. Jack certainly lived a wild life, which inspired Golden & Lebbon to create this new book series based on his real-life travels. They've taken his true stories and his fiction and mixed in urban legends and myths of the time. While THE SECRET JOURNEYS series is fiction, not biography, the books are extremely well-researched, and spooky elements add another level of intrigue to the richly detailed stories.

The first book, THE WILD, will be released on Tuesday, March 1st. When seventeen-year-old Jack London travels to Alaska to join the Klondike Gold Rush, the path he treads is not at all what he expected. Along the way, he encounters kidnappers, traders, traitors, and a mysterious wolf. Jack must face the wild head-on in order to survive.

The buzz for THE SECRET JOURNEYS OF JACK LONDON just keeps getting louder. 20th Century Fox has acquired the film rights to the series. Garth Nix, author of the Abhorsen Trilogy, declared: "A masterful mix of gold, cold, supernatural creatures, and dread magic makes this a great action adventure story." Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, calls THE WILD "A great old-school adventure novel and the best use of the Wendigo legend I've ever read."

Authors Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon will launch a blog tour the day before the book's release, beginning at Bildungsroman http://slayground.livejournal.com on Monday, February 28th and traveling through the blogs of YA/kidlit bloggers who are also teachers, librarians, and/or adventurers through Tuesday, March 8th. Each tour stop will offer an exclusive piece of art from Greg Ruth, whose stunning illustrations give life to the characters, locations, and beasts throughout the book.

Being a fan of both Jack London's classic works and Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon's collaborations, I'm quite excited to be heading up this blog tour. Here's the full schedule:

Monday, February 28th
Little Willow at Bildungsroman

Tuesday, March 1st
Kiba Rika (Kimberly Hirsh) of Lectitans

Wednesday, March 2nd
Kim Baccellia from Si, Se Puede! and Young Adults Book Central

Thursday, March 3rd
Melissa Walker, author of Small Town Sinners

Friday, March 4th
Justin from Little Shop of Stories

Monday, March 7th
Rebecca's Book Blog

Tuesday, March 8th
Martha Brockenbrough, author of Things That Make Us [Sic]

Learn more about the book, the series, and the authors, and download the electronic press kit for THE SECRET JOURNEYS OF JACK LONDON.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

A Tale Dark & Grimm


Once upon a time, someone decided that fairy tales were just for babies, and everyone suffered as a result. Recently, thanks to writers and scholars like Neil Gaiman and Jack Zipes, we have had breakthroughs in getting fairy tales back to their morbid, non-cutesy beginnings.

In A Tale Dark and Grimm, Adam Gidwitz’s first book, readers are provided with a relatable guide through a macabre world that some guys might feel that they’ve outgrown since shedding their final pull-up diaper. Luckily, the Brothers Grimm had a few tricks up their sleeves all those years ago. Gidwitz replicates some of them here including an electrifying sense of creepiness and blood…lots of blood.

Of course you have the gingerbread house and the trail of bread crumbs, very well tread territory. But with each chapter, readers will be undoubtedly exposed to more obscure, though equally captivating tales with sinister figures and magical moments. Every chapter is a different story, but they all manage to create a single thread. The book kicks off with the tale “Faithful Johannes” where people turn into stone and a couple of severed heads lead to, believe it or not, a happy ending where everyone is safe and sound.

Those heads belong to the young Hansel and Gretel (of bizarre child culinary fame). Even though everything ended well for them post-decapitation in the first chapter, something does not sit right with the fact that they were the ones to lose their noggins. They travel the world looking for some responsible adults who will take good care of them. What they find, unfortunately, are a lot of horrid people who want to hunt them, murder them, cook them, eat them…not always in that order though.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand


I read a lot of history. I have a passionate desire to know the past. When you read about our history as a country, a world, and a species, you get a sense of many things. I gain a better understanding of how we got here, how the world works and doesn’t work, historical empathy for the past and its people, and a better appreciation for my own fortunate life. I also see this: the world has been filled with many extraordinary people, and that human beings have the capacity to commit unimaginable acts of horror on other people.

Specific parts and images of these books remain inside me, silently haunting deep recesses of my brain. I read Philip Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families; I read Jonathan Glover’s “Moral History of the Twentieth Century,” Humanity; I read Dee Brown’s classic of Native American history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; and I have read young adult novels, such as Ben Mikelson’s Tree Girl, about the brutal Guatemalan Civil War. And now I have read Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken. You should too.

As a kid, Louis Zamperini was trouble. He had trouble with his parents, the police, and his neighbors. His brother saved him. He convinced Louie to take up running and eventually Zamperini became a world-class runner. At 19 years old he ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He didn’t win – he didn’t really expect to win being so young – but he ran the last lap of the 5000 meter in such an astonishing 56 seconds, that Hitler called him over and shook his hand. Little did Zamperini know how ironic that handshake would turn out to be.

Zamperini’s best race was the 1500 meter, and he expected to run it and win it at the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. Needless to say, a World War got in the way. Louie joined the Air Force and became a bombardier on a B-26. Hillenbrand’s account of one his bombing missions will leave you breathless and full of wonder: How could they possibly survive that? When their plane landed it had 594 holes in it.

Another one of their flights did not end so well. In fact, they went down in the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini and two other crewmembers survived. The three of them were in two plastic life rafts in the middle of the Pacific. They had very little water and a few chocolate bars. They survived in those rafts for an unbelievable 47 days. How they did it, and what they encountered, has become the stuff of legend. But Louie’s story does not end there.

They were rescued near the Marshall Islands, then occupied by the Japanese, and became prisoners of war. Most people know of the inconceivable madness and terror the Nazis perpetrated in their concentration camps. But most people have no idea of the brutality of the Japanese during World War II. (You can get the horrifying picture of that in Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking). Being a prisoner of war under the Japanese in the Pacific was nearly a death sentence. Hillenbrand offers this statistic near the end of her book: during World War II about one percent of Americans in German and Italian POW camps died, but in Japanese POW camps 37 percent died. Being a famous Olympic athlete meant Louie was singled out by his Japanese overseers. He received years of beatings, torture, starvation, and humiliation. Nothing I write here can come close to expressing what Louie endured as a POW. Yet, he survived. Louie is alive and well at 94.

Hillenbrand’s book is not without fault. The story is amazing, and once you are inside it, you will be sucked along. Her writing, however, gave me some pause. The book is very well written, but in a very “just the facts” manner. In the entire 400 pages she quotes Louie exactly once. For some reason, Hillenbrand chose to not include Louie’s voice in the book. And while it has been widely reported that she interviewed Zamperini 75 times, Hillenbrand (who also wrote the best-selling Seabiscuit) suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and rarely leaves the house. In fact, Hillenbrand and Zamperini have never met face to face. Another reviewer of this book made a very salient point: you learn more about a person when they are sitting in front of you than when they are on the other end of a telephone or computer. Because of this there is a certain odd distance in the writing of Unbroken and along with it an uncritical perspective from author to subject.

But let’s be crystal clear: Unbroken is a great and important book. I will add it to my list of books that opened up the past, helped me to appreciate my present, and really do make me a better person. Reading history – and this remarkable story of the perseverance of Louie Zamperini -- can aid us all in shaping a more humane world.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

High Literature meets Graphic Novels: Kill Shakespeare and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Graphic novels are a great format for exploring mash-ups and re-worked classic stories. Here are a couple of interesting examples of recently released graphic novels based on classics.

Kill Shakespeare by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col is an inventive comic in the vein of Bill Willingham's Fables. It is centered initially around Hamlet who mistakenly kills Polonius while attempting to avenge his father's death. As he flees his homeland, a pirate attack results in Hamlet being the "guest" of King Richard III. Richard is imploring Hamlet to join with him find and destroy the powerful wizard or god named William Shakespeare.

Richard and his men think Hamlet may be the Shadow King that is fated to kill Shakespeare. Shakespeare, however, has a horde of fanatical followers and there is much more at stake here than Hamlet realizes. Kill Shakespeare gathers some of the bard's most popular heroes like Othello and Juliet and faces them off against Richard III, Lady Macbeth and others.

Readers of Shakespeare will enjoy a lot of the literary references and the flurry of alliances, backstabbing and dramatic turns, but you don't have to be a fan of the source material to enjoy this. Kill Shakespeare is heavy on the action and Anthony Belanger's illustrations are as vibrant and colorful as the plot.

Fans of the graphic novels Castle Waiting and Fables will also enjoy this title.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: the graphic novel is a new version of Seth Grahame-Smith's take on the Jane Austen classic. There has been a lot of talk about these classics being re-worked to include zombies, androids, sea monsters, vampires and other fun oddities. Last year, the author released his second such novel with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

I love it when comic versions of novels that I should read, but will probably never fit in my reading schedule, are released. In this work, England is being overrun by zombies, or "unmentionables" as they are known, and it is up to citizens like Elizabeth Bennet to become warriors. As in the classic, Elizabeth and the pretentious Mr. Darcy flirt and banter continually with each other, though they also they fight zombies.

I haven't read Graham-Smith's novel, but Tony Lee's version of the plot seems to flow well without the awkward transitions you sometimes find in adaptations. The illustrations by Cliff Richards are in a different style than I expected and I would appreciate more detail, but the sketchy, black and white style works fairly well in this context. I grew a bit tired of the pattern of some romance then some zombie attacks which repeated over and over, but I imagine fans of the novel expect exactly this. I found it a light, enjoyable read, which was not really special in any way.

Besides the obvious zombie and Jane Austen books, I would recommend this to fans of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

The Dead-Tossed Waves

The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan may not at first glance seem the ideal book to be reading in the dread middle of February, when everything is grey and dark and cold and the snow (if you've got any) has turned black with grit. Like you need any more bleak right now, right? As it turns out, Ryan's novel is a love story and a survival story, and really, what else is February about? If love and survival don't interest you, I'll just add one more thing that might convince you: zombies.

This novel is a companion to Ryan's hugely popular debut, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. (Such a great title, yes?) If you haven't read that one yet, you do want to start there, because a great part of the impact of The Dead-Tossed Waves comes from the way that Ryan continues to add richness to the world she began developing in her first book. You can read a review of her debut right here at Guys Lit Wire). The Dead-Tossed Waves begins years after where things left off at the end of The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Gabry lives with her mother in Vista, a seaside town kept safe behind the Barrier. They live in a lighthouse and it is Gabry's mother's role to go down to the beach at high tide and kill any Mudo (zombies) that wash up onto the beach. Gabry knows little of her mother's past, but she knows that the Forest was part of it. While Gabry is curious about the past, and wonders about the precariousness of the future, she is mostly happy to live safely inside her protected town. Then one night she sneaks over the Barrier with a bunch of her friends and disaster strikes. Her mother disappears into the Forest and Gabry must follow her. One reckless choice changes her future forever and forces Gabry to do things she never imagined.

While I don't think that this companion novel is ultimately as successful as Ryan's debut, I think that it will satisfy most of the fans of the first book. In my opinion, Gabry is not as complex and believable a character as Mary (her mother in this book / the main character in Forest of Hands and Teeth). I thought Gabry's reactions to her situation were predictable and not particularly well-explored. I'd have liked more detail on the Soulers (freaky zombie worshippers) and a lot more related to the Recruiters, the military force responsible for keeping the Mudo (and disobedient citizens) in line. The love triangle didn't fully work for me. I kept feeling that Ryan was going for a Katniss - Peeta - Gale thing, and not quite making it work. In places I found it a little over the top and unbelievable that there would be quite so much lusting going on in the midst of all those moaning zombies.

There are many great aspects to the novel. Ryan has a strong sense of pacing. Things happen and keep on happening. Things get worse and then even worse. On her website, Ryan describes her writing process this way: "I sit down and think: "what's the worst thing that can happen?" Well obviously she's pretty good at this, because that method leads Ryan to a compelling story. The themes around hope, loss, and self-discovery interweave nicely and are presented with enough depth to inspire some discussion. The writing is often vivid but isn't heavy or overdone.

Carrie Ryan's third book in this collection, The Dark and Hollow Places, will be out in March, so you won't have long to wait to find out what happens next in this dark, well-crafted series.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

B.P.R.D.-- a team of heroes against mythical horrors


Many readers may be familiar with Hellboy, Mike Mignola’s cigar-chomping, son-of-the-devil supernatural detective. There have been two Hellboy movies and nearly a dozen volumes of his self-titled comics—not to mention novels and resource guides and art books. There’s even been a review here on guyslitwire not too long ago. There was also a review of the Lobster Johnson novel, and that points to a lesser-known aspect to what is informally known as the “Mignola-verse”—Hellboy may be the biggest character in his world, but he’s by no means alone. He occupies an entire history or mythology of human (and otherwise) contact with the mysterious, the horrific, and the unknown.

In the world of Hellboy, Lobster Johnson was a 1930s pulp-hero, similar to Doc Samson or the Shadow. There’s also the Victorian-era supernatural detective Edward Grey, also known as the Witchfinder, a title he shares with the Puritan era Witchfinder Henry Hood. Each of these characters has fought demons and monsters in the pages of Hellboy, but there is one set of characters that have as many volumes of comics out as Hellboy: the brave heroes of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, or the B.P.R.D.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The curse of Macbeth

Most Guys' Lit Wire posts focus on books you don't know about but might enjoy. This one is a little different. This post is about a play thousands of guys read in English class every year, Macbeth, without knowing the strange happenings and bad luck that have followed it down through the centuries:

During a 1672 production of Macbeth, the actor playing Macbeth got into an argument with the actor playing Duncan. During the play, switching a real dagger for the prop one, he killed him on-stage.

Drunk audience members heckled the actors during a 1721 performance. Finally fed up, the actors leapt off the stage and attacked the hecklers with their swords.

In 1849, a performance of Macbeth in New York ended in a riot. 31 people were trampled to death.

In 1937, Laurence Olivier's sword broke. A piece flew out and killed a man in the audience.

Over the course of a 1942 production, three actors (Duncan and two witches) died. The costume designer committed suicide surrounded by costumes of witches and demons.

In 1948, Diana Wynyard, playing Lady Macbeth sleepwalking through the castle, accidently walked off the stage and died.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Core" of Discovery: Nick Bertozzi's graphical Lewis & Clark

Nick Bertozzi is out with a splendid graphical overview of the journey of Lewis & Clark, fresh from First Second. That'd be "Meriwether" and "William," of course, those plucky adventurers sent by Thomas Jefferson to explore the then-unknown (to most European-Americans) West, along with their handpicked Corps of Discovery.

Of course, not everyone had a choice in the matter: Clark's slave York, though treated more "equally" out on the trail than he would be "back home," didn't actually "sign up" for the adventure. So too the fabled Sacagawea, encountered that first winter in the Dakotas as a pregnant teenage mom. She'd been sold/traded to her older husband, Charbonneau, by the tribe that had originally captured and enslaved her.

So -- somewhat fittingly -- this first great domestic American adventure had two slaves in it. And if not for Sacagawea, it might not have succeeded, since her presence allowed successful (and literal) horse-trading with the Shoshone tribe -- the very one from which Sacagawea had been kidnapped when she was 13. Those horses allowed the Corps to make it to Pacific Coast (and back to their boats, parked in the inter-mountain west, the next spring).

If I go on about this particular Exploration, it's because I'm one of its "fans," from a history buff's perspective. So much that is essential to the American experiment -- and its present, clearly faltering state -- is contained in that journey: the high hopes, the contradictions between aspirations and eventual fall-out (Lewis is shown ruminating the fate of Native Americans, now that the "West" had been opened up, perhaps mindful of his role in the coming, inexorable atrocities).

The book even touches on the failure of the Corps' worldly success to quell inner demons -- certainly those of Lewis. The Corps had become the early 19th century versions of "media stars" upon their return, thanks to the copious journals the group kept.

My third "Danger Boy" book was about Lewis, Clark, Jefferson, and many of those contradictions. Of course, I insert a 21st century boy into the mix (along with a dinosaur and teenage girl from Alexandria -- Egypt, that is, not Virginia) to ratchet up those contractions. But I spent about a year steeped in Lewis/Clark-iana, and I never tire of learning new facets about that particular odyssey.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Home, Away by Jeff Gillenkirk

Jeff Gillenkirk takes the classic saga of a father's love for his son and updates it with a major league baseball setting in Home, Away. It's a pretty straightforward tale - young father who desperately loves his son gets caught in the mother of all custody battles and finds himself forced to prove, among other things, that he is not abusive (proving a negative is always fun) and ends up losing very nearly everything. Then, just as Jason claws his way to the top of the pack (and a huge contract with the Colorado Rockies), his son shows up in trouble and he has to make a choice about how to save him - and then the long hard road to fixing their relationship begins.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Art of Tron: Legacy reviewed by Adam L.

An introduction from Little Willow: I'm pleased to be posting a review from one of my regular customers, a high school sophomore named Adam. He was hanging out in the store when The Art of Tron: Legacy and Tron: Betrayal arrived. The items jumped into in his hands immediately. (Too bad they didn't glow!)

Without further ado, here is Adam's review of The Art of Tron: Legacy, which has text by Justin Springer and art by the amazing artists who worked on the movie.


Just by glancing at the cover, one can see what really makes Tron unique: shown is a black-and-silver picture of a light cycle. The art is done in such a way that even the simplistic circles and lines have an underlying beauty that catches the eye.

Then, the read begins. The foreword, written by Tron Legacy's Production Designer Darren Gilford, lets the reader see his mindset throughout the project. Gilford talks about seeing the first Tron movie and being amazed at its groundbreaking new visual effects, a media technique that, at the time, had never been seen in such a daring and intriguing way as was used in Tron.

The art in the book ranges from simple sketches to full-blown digital computer images; one can see by the contrast between the two just how difficult it was to establish the artistic guidelines for the film, even with those already put in place by the 1982 classic.

In short, the book illustrates the journey it took to produce Tron Legacy, a feat which stays true to its original while at the same time incorporates new special effects that add to the simplistic beauty of Tron. - Adam L.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

The Gawgon and The Boy


Lloyd Alexander is best known for his Chronicles of Prydain series, full of medieval magic, horned kings, and black cauldrons. But he was able to find the fantastic even within more familiar settings, as with The Gawgon and The Boy.

Our narrator, David, is boy bursting with imagination and an overriding sense of adventure in 1920s Philadelphia. Out of school after a bout of pneumonia, adventure eventually leads him into trouble and he is placed under the tutelage of his Aunt Annie, or as he first knows her, the fearsome Gawgon.

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I Beat the Odds by Michael Oher

From Doret's interview with Michael Oher:

1. Many people read Michael Lewis's book The Blind Side, in which your story was depicted. Even more saw the movie. When I first heard about I Beat the Odds, I was very excited you were telling your story since Hollywood tends to distort everything.

When did you decide to write I Beat the Odds?


As the movie took off, I started to get a huge flood of mail from people wanting to know what I thought of it and if my life was really the way it looked on screen. I also started getting letters from kids in foster care or from families who had taken in troubled kids, and they all thanked me for being a voice for them. That really made me start to realize the need for someone to step up and speak out about the reality of life for too many kids in America. It seemed to me that maybe God was giving me the opportunity to help people by sharing not just my perspective on the story, but also to try to become the kind of role model I wish I’d had when I was growing up.

2 This is a very personal look at your early years in Memphis and growing up in foster care system. What gave you the strength to remember?

I had gotten as far as I did by trying not to remember – by putting everything behind me and not dwelling on the past. Sometimes, it’s scary to think about looking back because you’re afraid that you might get pulled back into the world you’ve fought so hard to try to escape. But if I was going to write a book about my story, it needed to be as honest as possible. I wasn’t doing this for me; I was doing it for all the other kids out there who were like me, and I wanted to give them something real.

There is also mention of poetry, Cinderella and Don Yaeger. Check it out and get a glimpse of who Oher is, in his own words.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guys Write for Guys Read


The Guys Read website (guysread.com) "offers a list of books recommended by the webmaster, children's author Jon Sczieska..." Part of the site's funding comes from sales of this book, edited by Scieszka: Guys Write for Guys Read. It is filled with stories by guys who know what being a guy is like: Pinkwater, Paulsen, Paolini. And that's not even all of the "P" contributors. Matt Groening. Eoin Colfer. Anthony Horowitz, whose piece, "My French Teacher Tried to Kill Me," ends - "But if you ask me what it was like to be a guy... well, for me, doing badly at school was part of the answer.

"I hated school. But I still enjoy the dreams...

"Random Fact: Had a dog called Lucky but accidentally ran it over, so he changed the dog's name to Unlucky"

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Atlas of Remote Islands

In this age of GPS tracking satellites and Google Earth it might seem like books of maps and atlases are little more than quaint collections of geological and political demarcations painted in dusky tones from some other era. How much fascination can there be in looking at a collection of remote islands, their contours shaded by pointelest dots against gray and white surrounded by seas of pale blue, each facing a page of text that gives their location, their distance from nearby land masses, their size, and a bit of history?

Plenty.

Judith Schalansky, in her introductory essay to Atlas of Remote Islands, was born in East Germany and calls herself "a child of the atlas," a person who never imagined going beyond the limitations of her country's borders much less see the exotic lands that peppered her schoolroom maps.  Looking at maps was her way of escaping, of grounding daydreams. As the political lines on her world map changed radically with the fall of the Berlin wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union what remained unchanged were the islands, and each of those lonely places had their own stories to tell.


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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

CAKE POPS by Bakerella

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, and it occurred to me that (1) some guys really like to cook and (2) some guys really want to impress their significant other, and (3) MANY guys need a Valentine's Day gift, and CAKE POPS is the answer for a bunch of those guys. And it turns out that they're not all that hard to make.

Seriously. If I can make them, anyone can.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Donald Goines and the Low Road


Make no mistake, Donald Goines' books aren't for kids. Yet his vividly-titled novels--Whoreson, Black Gangster, Swamp Man and White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief, for example--are read by teens as much as by adults. The reason for this is partly in their "forbidden" subject matter of addiction, prostitution, and gangster life, and partly in their undeniable authenticity. Goines lived what he wrote.

Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines is an attempt to put his accomplishments into the context of their specific times. Allen describes the Detroit in which Goines grew up, as well as the racial situation throughout the country. Goines, son of a successful middle-class black family, faked his way into the air force at fifteen, served in Korea and returned at seventeen a veteran and heroin addict. He tried careers as pimp and hustler, served time in prison and then, inspired by former pimp turned literary darling Iceberg Slim, decided to pursue writing.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Jack: Secret Vengeance -- F. Paul Wilson


As usual, F. Paul Wilson begins Secret Vengeance with an excellent hook:

Weezy was attacked on a Saturday night.

On the surface, Secret Vengeance is about the aftermath of popular senior Carson Toliver's attempted date rape of Jack's best friend, Weezy Connell. Weezy refuses to report him, and Jack keeps her secret, as it's hers to tell. But when rumors start to spread about Weezy, Jack secretly (of course!) takes matters into his own hands. Because not only does he feel that Carson deserves payback, he figures that since Weezy won't -- maybe even can't -- stand up for herself, he will.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Subject Seven by James A. Moore


Subject Seven by James A. Moore
"Years ago, scientists began developing the ultimate military weapon: deadly sleeper assassins housed within the bodies of teenagers. Now, Subject Seven, the dangerous alter-ego living inside a 16-year-old boy, has escaped the lab and is on a mission. His objective? To seek out others like him and build an army capable of destroying their creators.

Hunter, Cody, Gene, Tina, and Kylie: five teenagers leading typical lives, until the day they each receive a call from a mysterious stranger and learn that their destinies are intertwined. Subject Seven holds the key that connects them all. And a vicious, bloody battle for their lives is just beginning."- summary from Amazon

Wow, this was a rollercoaster ride of a book, full of suspense, mystery and action with a bit of sci-fi/futuristic thrown in. Moore's YA debut is pretty original and he handles the multiple perspectives well, though in the beginning, it can be a bit confusing (which may be the point). The characterization is okay, as it tends to be with multiple narration, and a lot of it is more telling than showing.

The first half of the book is a bit slow because everything's being set up, but once the second half starts and the characters all meet up, things really heat up and the pages fly by. I do also think that even though there are several girl narration parts throughout the book, teen boys will enjoy this book. It just fits right up their alley- there are huge action scenes here that go on for pages and it's pretty awesome.

Overall, I really enjoyed this first book of a planned series and can't wait to read more. Also, it's a paperback original, so it's cheap!

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Flash: Rebirth by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver




Ever since childhood I've always been fascinated with the Flash. There's just something appealing about the Flash as a character - or as a myth, since DC characters lend themselves more readily to operatic, iconic and mythical storytelling. Certainly the idea of instantaneous, high-speed travel has a lot to do with my childhood fascination, but there was also something else, some working class ethic and overarching sense of rightness that was present in the character of Barry Allen that wasn't in Hal Jordan, Bruce Wayne or even Clark Kent. It's that core, almost indefinable motivation of the Flash that writer Geoff Johns and artist Ethan Van Sciver have tapped into in their effort to bring Barry Allen back from the dead and back into the living pantheon of DC characters.

If you haven't followed the Flash comics for a while, you might be in for a surprise. A LOT has changed, and the introduction of a wealth of supporting characters can be daunting for new readers. Barry Allen, probably the most iconic of those who have worn the mantle of the Flash, has been "dead," inasmuch as any comic book character CAN be dead, since around 1985, when he gave his life to save the universe. Since his death, Barry's Kid Flash apprentice, Wally West, has been the Flash, and I suppose there's a generation of comic book readers out there who have known no other Flash but Wally. To add to the confusion, there is a "Golden Age" Flash (Jay Garrick) who is miraculously still around, and another Kid Flash (who WAS the Flash briefly, then was murdered, but now is back.....oh, you get the idea). With this many Flashes running around, you'd think Johns would have a heck of a time making any sort of narrative sense out of this mess. However, the opposite is true.

What writer Geoff Johns does is what so many other writers for the Flash have avoided. Rather than streamline characters, plot lines and conflicts, Johns embraces them all and in doing so creates a sort of "Flash Family" that exists around Barry Allen. There's no confusion...no muddled narrative...just a living, breathing family of characters who have more depth than you might expect. Heck, Johns even dives headlong into Barry Allen's own backstory, which has never been developed or plumbed appropriately. What he creates in Barry's past is a motivation for the character's actions, something that even DC's mythic characters need. After all, what is Bruce Wayne without his parents' murder, and what is Clark Kent without his childhood in Smallville? To this, add the unsolved murder of Barry Allen's mother and his undying love of Iris West. These are the touchstones of Barry Allen's life, and they are the kind of stuff that finally fleshes out an all-too-often two-dimensional character.

On top of all of this psychological depth lies a rollicking good action story, complete with a distinctly dangerous villain. There's melodrama a-plenty, don't you worry; it's just more sophisticated and engaging.

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Hard-boiled High School


In Sean Beaudoin's You Killed Wesley Payne Dalton Rev is a teenaged private dick, gone undercover through an arranged transfer to Salt River High in order to investigate a students' death. The student, Wesley Payne, was found hanging from a goalpost , and his death has been declared a suicide by the police, the school faculty, and the student body. But Wesley's sister Macy doesn't think it was a suicide and hires Dalton through his website to solve the case. There's also the matter of $100,000 missing from the principal's safe, and while he's at it, Dalton figures he can find that to, for a suitable percentage.

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