Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt: After graduating from high school, Boaz Katznelson joined the Marines. Two years later, he comes home - and he's not the same person he was when he left. Once, he was his little brother's idol and the star of his school; now, he's distant, a shadow of his former self. He refuses to travel in cars or talk about his experiences.

Levi, Bo's younger brother, is determined to find out what happened. There are those who may say they'd be willing to follow their loved ones to the ends of the Earth, but not everyone would actually do that. Levi would. It is from Levi's point of view that this story is told, as he joins his older brother on a walk that will take them far from home -- and closer to the truth.

This is the story of an Israeli-American family, of any American family with brothers, of soldiers and the civilians who love and support them, of broken heroes, of survivor's guilt, and of heritage. The Things a Brother Knows is not about whether or not we should be in this war we're in; it never encourages nor discourages readers to enlist. Instead of preaching or teaching about politics, Dana Reinhardt's powerful story discusses how and why we connect with others, and illustrates an unbreakable bond between two brothers who are striving to know each other - and themselves - better.

I recently updated the author's website at - Drop by to say hello to Dana and learn more about her other novels.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Batman... Scarecrow... does anything more need to be said?

Some guys are Jokers fans. Most, I suspect are Catwoman aficionados of course. There might even be a few who like that Ventriloquist fellow. Me, I love tales when my favorite superhero faces off against Prof. Jonathan Crane AKA the Scarecrow. And when I found this novel--Batman: Fear Itself--my heart shrieked with joy.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Another day of fast food drudgery is almost at an end when a stranger walks into Plumpy's. Okay, so Plumpy's is a fast food restaurant and lots of strangers walk in. But even college dropout fast food workers like Sam can recognize that there's something different about this guy. And it's not just his shoes (way more expensive than those of your typical Plumpy's customer) or the weird things the guy is saying (petitioned the Council? What Council?).

Turns out the guy is Douglas Montgomery, the scariest, most powerful necromancer in the Seattle area. Though Sam didn't know it, he's got some necromantic powers of his own. Unfortunately for Sam, Montgomery does not want any competition in the necromancy business (and it is a business—just ask the zoo), no matter how weak the competition may be. Now, even though he'd previously had no idea necromancers actually existed, Sam has only one week to figure out how to avoid Montgomery's clutches or Montgomery will kill Sam, his friends, and his family.

Friday, December 24, 2010

It's Never Too Early for a Life of Poverty and Loneliness: Three Good Writing Books

The biggest regret I have about my writing career -- so far, at least -- is that I started so late.

Of course I wrote little stories to read to my fourth grade class and performed puppet shows for my family and composed epic poems to woo girls at school, but I didn't sit down to write a real story with a beginning, middle, and end until my late teens. I didn't sell one until my twenties. I didn't sell a good one until my thirties.

Writing, like playing an instrument, benefits from daily practice and application...and it withers with every skipped day. You never quite lose it forever, thank God, but for every day you're away from the page, you'll probably have three or four of struggling to get your voice back and your neuroses subdued. There's a momentum required in writing, partly of confidence and partly of imagination.

The earlier you start that momentum, the better.

For years, I read and thought and talked about writing far more than doing it, and if there's one thing I can suggest to young readers who want to be writers, it would be to start writing immediately. Today. Even if it's a journal entry, a poem, a little story about someone you know, anything. And you do that every day, letting it seep into your skin and become natural.

That's really the key.

I could have learned that sooner if I'd read these three important books on writing when I was young.

Stephen King's On Writing is essential, really. Not only does King summarize the important mechanics of writing in only a few pages, he tells stories from his life of how he learned what he knows. He reminds us that writing is a process as much as a result.

Writers live a little differently than other folks, cultivating perception and commitment as they do, and King's anecdotes are instructive about just what it is going to take to do this right. Your path will be different, of course, and you'll make your own choices and mistakes. But following King's candid discussions of his career can remind you of how someone else made it through the treacherous forest...and believe me, you'll need that comfort more than a few times.

If I'd read The Modern Library Writers Workshop by Stephen Koch much sooner, I'd have saved a lot of money on writing books and a lot of time blundering around. In fact, if I had to settle for a single book on the craft, this would be it. Everything you need is here, written clearly and affirmatively. From beginning to end, from idea to completion, this book covers the essentials of writing publishable fiction (and non-fiction, come to think of it).

By quoting the masters and offering his own experience as a teacher, Koch approaches the subject with directness but also kindness; he tells you everything that can and will go wrong, but he reminds you that you're up to it. "You have no choice but to be wholly clueless of the perfect manner to tell a story until you do," he says.

Koch's advice is not so much about getting it right the first time but about refusing to quit until it is right.

His very first line is some of his best advice: "The only way to begin is to begin, and begin right now."

Not long ago, I'd have thought Heather Sellers's Chapter After Chapter was too dreamy and motivational to recommend to the serious writer. If you're serious, you shouldn't need to be told why you want to write, should you? Lately, though, I've come to discover that no serious writer should be without it.

In years of writing education, workshops, critique circles, and reviews, I have to say that the biggest failing I see in fiction tends to be a lack of feeling. We have ten thousand books about faking the structure and mechanics of a good story, but without something emotionally important to you behind it all, they fall flat. Sellers provides advice and inspiration for pursuing the work that is important to you one good sentence and one good chapter (or story) at a time.

"Writing is hard," she writes. "It takes so much willingness to be bad at something. It’s not fun to suck. And, if you are to write, suck you must." In Chapter After Chapter, she provides some of the intellectual tools you'll need to face that ambivalence, anxiety, and instability that comes in the early versions of all great things.
It's well worth reading and taking to heart.

As for grammar and structure and all of the things you should be learning in English class, my suggestion is to read, read, and read some more -- noticing what good fiction looks and sounds like.

Luckily for you, there's always Guys Lit Wire to help you find it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

TYRELL by Coe Booth

Name a young adult book with a main character that is homeless.

Still working on that?

Yes, that is a very short list indeed.

It is very good to know then, that we have Coe Booth’s Tyrell. With his dad in prison for selling drugs, 15 year-old Tyrell, his mom, and his seven year-old brother, Troy, lose their apartment and are forced to a homeless shelter. But with the shelter full, they are sent to a roach-infested motel room. Desperate to get his family into a new apartment, Tyrell comes up with a plan to make some quick money. Not wanting to follow his father’s footsteps – and repeatedly refusing to bow to his mom’s pressure to do exactly that and sell drugs to make the family some money – Tyrell’s plan is to host a big party. While the party is basically legal, he needs the help of other men in the ‘hood who make their living illegally.

The real power of this terrific and important book is a glimpse into American society that very few of us who were raised in the suburbs (like me) ever experience or see from the inside. Sure, I live in Chicago and drive through neighborhoods like Tyrell’s, and have done work inside schools in those neighborhoods. But I leave. Tyrell stays. And with Tyrell, Coe Booth has created a complete character whose frustrations leap off the page.

One of the fascinating aspects of the story is the gender relationships. Tyrell has a girlfriend, Novisha, but as the book opens he meets another girl, Jasmine, who is staying at the same motel. While he keeps saying he’s staying faithful to Novisha, he’s also sleeping with Jasmine and justifies it by saying they’re not having sex. Is it fair to call Tyrell sexist? Maybe. But most of girls and women in the story have their own issues when it comes to men. Tyrell’s mom refuses to work and relies on the men in her life – first her husband and then Tyrell – to support the family.

Is Tyrell a good guy stuck in a broken society? Or is he more a bad guy perpetuating a broken society? He’s dropped out of school and seems lost. But looking around his life, he sees little hope, just like the Tyrells all over our country, from the big cities to the dying rural towns. There are no simple answers in Tyrell; the characters and issues are complex, just like they are in life. I recently read and reviewed John Barnes’s outstanding YA novel, Tales of the Madman Underground. These stories take place in different times and widely different settings, but they have much in common. People adrift in our communities, dealing with abuse and neglect and poverty, struggling to survive. This book also reminded me of Nicole LeBlanc’s brilliant and devastating work of non-fiction, Random Family.

Tyrell is really a different kind of coming-of-age story. Slowly, as he weaves his way through the literal and metaphorical web of life in urban America, Tyrell confronts the notion that sometimes family does not come first. Maybe his first priority is to that kid in the mirror.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Graphic Novels -- notes from a Top 10 List

In addition to the prose and ruminations I contribute here in monthly installments, as some of you know I also review graphic novels for SF Site, in the Nexus Graphica column.

I share that column with Austin-based writer/editor Rick Klaw, and as is our custom, we close out the year with a "Top Ten" list, each of us devising our ten favorites among the things we've read and written about (with the acknowledgement that you could spend the year reading, or coming across, other books, and have an entirely different, and equally worthwhile, Top Ten list as well).

The list runs in two parts -- two weeks apart -- in its original form, but here is a redaction of finalists of piqued-interest to GLW readers, all of which were plucked from the top five of the top ten:

In the fifth spot, Rick liked DC Comics' superhero collection, Wednesday Comics, edited by Mark Chiarello, writing that "throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, adventure strips dominated the Sunday newspaper comics pages. Oversized, full color pages featured the thrilling tales of Prince Valiant, Tarzan,Flash Gordon, and countless others. Under the guidance of DC art director Mark Chiarello, Wednesday Comics successfully re-captured this lost era with a series of oversized weeklies à la the Sunday funnies (dubbed Wednesday rather than Sunday in honor of the day new comics arrive in stores). This beautiful 11"x17" 200-page hardcover volume collects all the tales from the incredible 12-week run. While each featured A-list talent, some stories work better than others. Jack Kirby's creation Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (expertly rendered by writer Dave Gibbons and artist Ryan Sook); Paul Pope's unique take on Adam Strange; and especially Hawkman as delightfully envisioned by Kyle Baker lovingly embracing the format and lessons of their antecedents. Other excellent tales excel under the contributions of Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, Kurt Busiek, Joe Quiñones, Karl Kerschi, Brenden Fletcher, Walt Simonson and Brian Stelfreeze. Regardless of the story, one mood permeates the entire volume: fun. Combine all this with previously unpublished strips starring Plastic Man and Creeper, original sketches, and Chiarello's impressive book design, and Wednesday Comics quickly emerges as must-experience for all classic comic book fans."

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Crack in the Sky by Mark Peter Hughes

In the near future the earth is falling apart. Due to the unwillingness of humans to deal with the warming climate the polar icecaps are melted, the oceans are ruined and cities like Los Angeles and New York are destroyed. To save themselves, humans have created domed cities to keep their standard of living while the storms rage in the Outside.

The hero of the country is Eli Papadopoulos' Grandfather. Grandfather, as he is known to the world, devised the domes and the carefully crafted world within them. Without the domes, many would have died and the survivors would have nowhere safe to wait while the earth recovers.

As part of the Papadopoulos family, Eli is expected to do well in his school work, and then join the family business of running InfiniCorp, the company that provides and oversees everything in the domed cities. Eli, though, thinks the strange things he is seeing must mean that the domes are falling apart and something is really wrong. In A Crack in the Sky, the future could be determined by the decisions of 13-year old Eli.

Eli's family assures him everything is okay, but he starts to meet with a dangerous group called, The Friends of Gustavo, who believe the earth is still getting worse and that InfiniCorp cannot provide safety for much longer.

This really is a grand adventure as Eli struggles to believe that his grandfather and his family might be part of a devious plan to keep people from realizing what is happening or even thinking for themselves. Hughes, the author of the very good Lemonade Mouth, has written a wonderful post-apocalyptic adventure. I'm assuming, and hoping, that there are more of these to come. Fans of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies or Claire Dunkle's The Sky Inside will enjoy A Crack in the Sky.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Here's What I Want

A lot of years ago, someone asked me what I was asking for for Christmas, and I said, "All I want is books. Just books." Let's just say, not much has changed since then, even in spite of sagging bookshelves. Books. If I get "just books," I'll be content. So I thought I'd share a bunch of titles that will make it onto my wish list this year. Maybe they'll make it onto yours.

by Sharon Dogar is a companion text to Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. Dogar imagines the story that Peter van Pels, one of Anne's companions in the secret annex, might have told.

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares brings together Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist fame, with another quirky, dual-voiced narrative. I love the sound of this premise. Lily leaves a notebook full of dares on a bookstore shelf, hoping that the right guy will find it and rise to her challenges. This starts an adventure all over the Big Apple. Plus some romance. Plus no doubt plenty of uber-clever dialogue.

Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Labalestier, brings together many of the coolest kids in the YA author club, including Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Maureen Johnson, Meg Cabot, and Scott Westerfeld. It's full of stories, some about unicorns and some about, you guessed it... zombies. The idea is that by the end, readers will be ready to choose a team. Unicorn or zombie? Sounds like a fun trip.

You'll have to wait for January for this one (maybe for the New Year's Wish List?). The Big Crunch sounds like a love story that isn't super sappy. Guy meets girl. They're not perfect or perfect-looking but they find each other and fall for each other, but they don't believe in soul mates, or swoony love. It's by Pete Hautman, and he knows what he's doing. It sounds like it would make a good indie movie. Every new year should start with a love story, right?

Whatever's on your wish list this year, I hope you get in some good reading this holiday.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hidden Finds: Westerns

I’m so excited to see True Grit coming back to the big screen, especially as envisioned by the Coen brothers. Not because I think the movie will be good, which I do, or because I think the Coens will be able to capture what makes the book great, which I don’t, but because it brings renewed attention to one of the most underappreciated writers around, Charles Portis, and the literary possibilities of the western in general. True Grit is a fantastic book, dominated by the voice of its narrator, the elderly spinster Mattie Ross as she recounts her quest as a fourteen year old to enact retribution on her father’s killer.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Interview with Scott Oden

Scott Oden is a bestselling author of swashbuckling historical fantasy, including his latest, Lion of Cairo. I recently got to ask him about Lion, history, and advice for young writers.

Q: What do you want to tell us about Lion of Cairo?

The Lion of Cairo is an adventure story, part fantasy and part historical, set during the turbulent years between the Second and Third Crusades . . . roughly 1170 AD. Its cast of characters includes shadowy assassins, seductive courtesans, wily thieves, barbarian Turks, a foul necromancer, and a fierce hero who is “known from Seville to Samarkand as the Emir of the Knife”.

It’s a little dark, a little grim, but filled with rousing battle scenes and moments of daring—perfect for a story which takes its cues from Robert E. Howard and the Arabian Nights.

POETRY ROCKS! Modern American Poetry "Echoes & Shadows"

Sheila Griffin Llanas has written a great resource for modern teens interested in poetry and, more particularly, in its history with POETRY ROCKS! Modern American Poetry "Echoes & Shadows". The book contains information about twelve great American poets, beginning with Robert Frost and concluding with Langston Hughes. The poets are arranged in birth order, and each chapter begins with their biography (in brief), then provides sample poems - the first of which is accompanied by a summary and explanation. The themes and poetic techniques used by each poet are discussed, as well as their critical reception. Additionally, there's a bibliography.

The manner in which poems are discussed is conversational, staying away from too much jargon and explaining any technical terms as they arise. The poets included in this particular volume are:

Robert Frost
Carl Sandburg
Wallace Stevens
William Carlos Williams
Ezra Pound
H.D. (Hilda Dolittle)
Marianne Moore
T.S. Eliot
Edna St. Vincent Millay
E.E. Cummings
Louise Bogan
Langston Hughes

This book is probably not the sort of thing most teens will want to own themselves, but to my way of thinking, it should be a must-buy for libraries and writing programs because of how it deals with the history of modern poetry and the lives and work of the included poets.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Aikido Kid

I don’t know of any kid who at some time before they traded in their comic book collection for rent money didn’t want to grow up and be some kind of hero. A super hero, an action hero, a kung fu hero. And of course, we all got into debates about whether or not our heroes could exist in the real world. I remember a buddy of mine reasoned that Batman might be able to exist if he was three people: a professional engineer and inventor and computer guru, a trained forensics expert, and a life-time-dedicated martial arts freak. You couldn’t be all three. Each would require a lifetime of focus to be as good as the Batman was. So, if you had to pick one, which would it be?

I was thinking about this question when I devoured Robert Twigger’s memoir of becoming an Aikido expert, ANGRY WHITE PAJAMAS. Twigger was a young poet and rambling soul who ended up in Japan, teaching English, and basically being alive without too much thought as to how to live. But when his roommates decide to take up with the world famous Akido school that teaches the Japanese Riot Squad how to kick ass, Twigger signs himself up and dedicates his life to the eleven month agony and ecstasy of martial training.

Brutal would be putting it mildly. Twigger and his mates endure endless sessions of painful exercises, demonstrations, and forms. Some of the sessions are so brutal students pass out, puke, or worse. Relentless forms are practiced, flips performed, strikes unleashed. They’d lose gallons of sweat, drink three large Pepsi bottles of water to replenish, and not have to pee once! Some students fell by the way side, from injury or exhaustion, and were treated as ghosts who didn’t deserve to haunt the school. But Twigger held on to the end by the skin of his teeth, learning to show the guts required to endure the endless strains, wounds, and injuries he’d accumulated, hopefully demonstrating that he had the “Spirit that conquerors imaginary ghosts.”

Along the way, Twigger gives us the alien eye on Japanese culture, the politics of the teaching world, and his attempts at romance that are sometimes as comical as the screw ups at the academy. We’re introduced to all the strange domestic and foreign die hards, from loud mouths and tough guys to geeks and freaks and loners, who soon realize that completing the course means surviving as much as learning. This is not the karate class you get at the YMCA with old grannies and kids with ADD. Students get hurt, for real, and a lot. A fight on the real streets could mean death, the teachers expect you to treat every fight as if it could be your last one. No weakness, no remorse. The teachers are tough and often colder than an ice pick to the skull. They don’t care if you get hurt, and only the severest injuries are an excuse to not show up. The life of the students is nasty, brutish, and, for many of them, short.

Twigger’s journey is filled with colorful characters, crippling training sequences, and a crazy lesson on finding one’s identity in the most unlikely of places. If you like the Karate Kid with an extra dose of brutality that would make Mr. Mygagi shake his head, then check out ANGRY WHITE PAJAMAS. It might help you decide which route to heroism is for you .

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Pharaoh's Secret

In retrospect, some of the most influential books I read as a teenage guy were about young women. Specifically, they were books about strong, smart, independent young women. A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg Murray, The Golden Compass’s Lyra, and The Westing Game’s Turtle all grabbed my attention as protagonists who took hold of their situations, while causing me to examine the unique perspective their authors allowed them to provide as female characters. Most of all, though, they were cool. They made me excited to read and follow their adventures. They faced questions that made me think about the world. And they led to me search out these qualities in friends. The brilliant and interesting women I am friends with today, I know, in a roundabout way, because of the fictional young women I met when younger. With Talibah’s adventures through Egypt and its history in The Pharaoh’s Secret, Marissa Moss adds another character to this tradition.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

His Mom Saw No Promise in Him

I'm a big fan of Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens. I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer several times, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn three or so times. When I became a fan of Finnegans Wake, I discovered James Joyce expressing appreciation of Twain's work in that book.

I'm also a fan of Sid Fleischman. Our kids enjoyed his McBroom stories that we read to them. Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini is an excellent biography. So I was pretty sure I'd like The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West.

I was right.

Now if you haven't read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, I'd say wait. Don't read the biography until you've read at least one of those.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Arnold Murphy’s Bologna Dare

There is no phrase that jolts my skeptical meter into the red faster than "laugh-out-loud funny." When a movie is described this way its almost guaranteed not to make me laugh, but it's worse when this line is used in books because it's so rare that I laugh out loud even when something is truly funny.  For something to be funny enough that I laugh out loud while reading it I have to be caught off guard, I have to not see the joke coming.

I actually found myself laughing out loud more than a couple times while reading Beat the Band, Don Calame's follow-up to last year's Swim the Fly.

As part of a semester-long project in Health class, Cooper is paired up with the notorious "Hot Dog" Helen which instantly lowers his cool cred at school. Worse, their topic is on contraceptives and STDs.  Coop's brilliant solution: enter the school's Battle of the Bands competition so he can rock his way back to cool and bury his lowered social standing. Problem: he hasn't told his buddies he's entered them into the competition, never mind that none of them can play an instrument.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Luke Cage Noir: The Power Man returns in style

I was an avid comics reader when I was a kid, though my loyalties went to DC and its stand-alone issues more than Marvel's serializations that jumped titles with no warning. Still, I kept up with Marvel just to be on the safe side, so I remember the original incarnation of "Luke Cage, Power Man." Created by Archie Goodwin, he was a blaxploitation figure dropped among Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc. as (it seemed to me) a pandering attempt to stay "hip." I had no particular beef with the character, he just always seemed to jar against the rest of the Marvel universe: his services were for sale, he wore no mask, and even used his own name. His exaggerated "street language" only added to that.

Which is why this particular reboot, Luke Cage Noir--part of Marvel's "Noir" series that places its heroes in pulp settings--seems to me a much better use of a character who broke ground without necessarily being handled well. Instead of working to fit him into an existing universe, writers Mike Benson and Adam Glass create an appropriate place for him: Prohibition-era Harlem.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Brain Jack -- Brian Falkner

When this book came in the mail, I remember pulling it out of its wrapper and saying, "Well, that's awfully... shiny" before setting it aside. And then I forgot about it until it was nominated for the Cybils.

When I finally picked it up, I was hooked from page one. Brain Jack begins:

On Friday, on his way to school, Sam Wilson brought the United States of America to its knees.

He didn't mean to. He was actually just trying to score a new computer and some other cool stuff, and in any case, the words "to its knees" were the New York Times', not his--and were way over the top, in Sam's view. Not as bad, though, as the Washington Post's. Their headline writers must have been on a coffee binge, because they screamed

National Disaster

in size-40 type when their presses finally came back online.

Anyway, it was only for a few days, and it really wasn't a disaster at all. At least not compared to what was still to come.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Freefall by Mindi Scott

Freefall by Mindi Scott
"Seth McCoy was the last person to see his best friend, Isaac, alive, and the first to find him dead. It was just another night, just another party, just another time when Isaac drank too much and passed out on the lawn. Only this time, Isaac didn't wake up.

Convinced that his own actions led to his friend's death, Seth is torn between turning his life around . . . or losing himself completely.

Then he meets Rosetta: so beautiful and so different from everything and everyone he's ever known. But Rosetta has secrets of her own, and Seth soon realizes he isn't the only one who needs saving . . ."- summary from Amazon

I really enjoyed this book. It was just executed so well and had so many different layers to it and it was just awesome. Seth did get on my nerves sometimes for being mopey, but for the most part, it all made sense. His best friend Isaac had died fairly recently, just like two months before the book started, so he does have a reason. I do also get his anger at others. He's a good protagonist with some glaring flaws but you can't help but feel for him.

I want to go on the record and say that I hate Carr and wanted a bunch of people to just beat him up. I knew he was trouble from the beginning. It was funny though because just the other day, I was complaining about how I feel so powerless when it comes to evil people winning and not being reprimanded. Then I read this book and everything turns out awesome; that's why I love books, they're so much better than real life.

The romance in the book is handled really well. Seth and Rosetta's interactions are realistic and so is their journey toward being together. Also, when they first realize that the other does like them in that way, it's the cutest scene ever. Those two are adorable. Also, funny. I loved them joking around. Kendall was a wonderful character too and I really enjoyed her when she was in the book.

Overall, a really wonderful, well-written debut and is definitely a book to check out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

It's almost a week since Thanksgiving, and the early Pilgrims are still on my mind. That's particularly amazing, given America's collective tendency to enjoy the one day off before rushing into the hellish pit of consumerism that is Black Friday. Who are we, awash in food and material goods, in relation to this ragged group of settlers? How can we understand the hardships they faced when we cannot even give thanks before rushing to pitch a tent in front of Best Buy?

Fortunately, authors such as Sarah Vowell are interested in pursuing these sorts of questions, and she does so with great aplomb in The Wordy Shipmates. Trying to describe the book is difficult, as it is an amalgam: part history, part biography, part commentary, part editorial, part get the idea. Vowell has opinions, and is certainly not hesitant about sharing them. You may not agree with her comparisons of the Massachusetts Bay Colony founders to modern political and religious movements, but you'll never be bored and you'll always be kept thinking.

Vowell takes as her main subject John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the creator of the famous "city on a hill" phrase. Winthrop is not an easy subject, and fortunately Vowell does not take the easy road of mythologizing him in her work. Instead, his faults and foibles are laid bare along with the rationale for his decisions which, by our modern estimation, might seem at the least harsh and at the worst tyrannical. In other words, she presents the complicated picture of a man who lived in even more complicated times.

If you're unfamiliar with Vowell's writing style, you're in for a treat. It's casual and never pedantic. This is not a lecture delivered by a stodgy history professor. She doesn't mind mingling the past with the present, so there are frequent allusions to events throughout pop culture, some more apt than others, but all work to make the book more engaging. This so-called "armchair history" is just the sort of narrative that can engage those who cannot identify with people who seem so distant, so far removed from themselves. It is a light form of history text, to be sure, but it's also the kind of work that can reconnect us to our country's origins without the "fair and balanced" spin of those wishing to co-opt the political history of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to finish off that last remaining turkey before it gives in to salmonella....

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Rise of Renegade X

In a world of superpowers, if you could choose to be hero or villain, which would you pick? Or is this a question with no easy answer... can we be both heroic and villainous, kind and mean spirited? Wouldn't surviving high school make us both?

Monday, November 29, 2010

He Said, She Said: Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

Welcome to He Said, She Said, a feature for GuysLitWire in which a guy (Book Chic, a recent college graduate) and a gal (Little Willow, a bookseller) discuss books that will appeal to both genders.

Today, we'll be discussing Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. This collaborative novel is a perfect fit for He Said, She Said. Levithan and Cohn wrote alternating chapters, each from his or her main character's point of view, following the model they set up in previous bestselling novels Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist and Naomi & Ely's No-Kiss List. (Little Willow adds: I found Dash & Lily to be just as amazing as Nick & Norah. This novel is absolutely delightful - a true holiday treat!)

When Dash discovers a red Moleskine notebook on the shelf of The Strand bookstore, he opens it and finds questions and challenges inside. Lily, the girl who left the notebook, wants to liven up her holiday break. The two teenagers start a lively game of dares, each writing in the notebook and leaving it in designated locations for the other person to discover. Along the way, they challenge themselves just as much as they challenge each other. Will they ever dare to meet in person? You have to read the book to find out!

Now we challenge you to read our roundtable. It's simple, really. Just keep going...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hey, Ma, Pass the Sliced Manflesh: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

Somehow, the holiday season tends to turn my mind to the subject of zombies. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the hordes of blank-eyed people shuffling through stores for products that television has told them to buy.

One thing we've been told to buy recently are zombie and vampire stories. They're "bigger than ever" according to film and publishing executives -- some of whom seem a little like zombies themselves for pursuing the fad with a grim mindlessness: The Walking Dead, 30 Days of Night, Twilight, 28 Days Later, The Crazies, Resident Evil, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z. Some of these are excellent explorations of what undeath might mean, and others...aren't so much.

Regardless of the "quality," there's no denying that stories in which sentience must contend with instinct appeal to many of us at a base level -- maybe as some kind of primal memory from the time not so long ago when we fought that battle a lot more often. They're also reminders of the price of surrendering that sentience for consumer culture or jingoism or rage or love any of the other forces that appeal more to our brain stem than to our frontal lobe.

It's no coincidence that zombies want our brains, the one thing that differentiates us from them. And it's no coincidence that our politicians want them, too.

Perhaps one of the better novels of the undead is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. It is often thought of as a vampire novel given the biological constraints of the undead depicted in it (only emerging at night, susceptible to religious icons, and so on), but I think it may well be the clearest and most compelling performance of the zombie myth.

In the novel (not to be confused with ANY of the terrible adaptations of it), Robert Neville finds himself struggling to survive long after human civilization has collapsed. By night, he barricades himself in his home from a siege of zombie-like creatures, many of them calling his name, all of them desperate for his flesh. By day, he patrols the neighborhood, looking for the creatures as they repose during the day to stake them through the heart.

At its simplest, I Am Legend is a handbook for comporting yourself after a zombie apocalypse. There are handy tips here for growing your own food, providing your own power, sealing off those pesky windows and doors, and pursuing scientific experiments to eradicate the plague or those who suffer it.

In fact, Neville's scientific bent may be most instructive of all. He reminds us that calm reason is often our only hope in any disaster -- the calm reason required for isolating variables, testing hypotheses, and proceeding with new information.

But the vampire/zombie/undead metaphor is at its best in this book when we're thinking about the role of an individual on the edges of society. Is it okay to do as the Romans (or zombies) do when in Rome? What do you do when you're a minority of one? What becomes of your culture or your morality? For all its adventuresome coolness, I Am Legend addresses heady questions like these, too.

If you're hungry for brains during the zombie holiday season, you may find I Am Legend to be a feast.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dust City

There have been a lot of urban fantasy novels published lately. It is possible that some readers may be just a teensy bit done with them for a while. I promise you that Dust City, by Robert Paul Weston, is special. I also promise that there are no werewolves in this book. Honest. You should read it, and not just because the cover is so awesome which will make you want to carry it around, facing out, as you walk down the street, stopping every so often to spend a little time staring into the spooky wolf eyes. You should read it because it is gripping, clever, richly imagined and thematically complex.

Henry Whelp isn't just any wolf. His father is the wolf who killed Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother. It's hard enough to be a wolf in Dust City to begin with, but it's way harder when everyone expects you have murder in your blood, and they're just waiting for you to lose it, like your dad. For a while, Henry has been keeping quiet in a Home for Wayward Wolves outside the city, but after a murder in the home he breaks out. He's looking for answers. He wants to find out once and for all what really happened the night his father became a murderer, and he thinks it may have something to do with Dust, a mind-altering drug sold on the black-market in the city. He also hopes he might discover what happened to the fairies, who disappeared and took their powerful fairy dust with them, inspiring thaumaturgical companies to create an entire industry to provide synthetic dust to an increasingly addicted populace.

I will read just about any reworking of a fairy tale. Love 'em. I was extra excited about Dust City because Robert Paul Weston is uber-creative and accomplished. (His debut verse novel, Zorgamazoo was phenomenal and so much fun. Anyone who can write in iambic pentameter for close to 300 pages without a misstep is a rockstar in my books). The Big Bad Wolf is not the only fairy tale character who makes an appearance here. Henry's best friend is Jack, a notorious thief with a bag of beans. The gutsy, ass-kicking detective on Henry's tail is Inspector White, with cherry-red lips and skin white as snow. There are more clever surprises, but I'll let you discover those yourself. I was prepared for dark, and it was.

Monday, November 22, 2010

POD by Stephen Wallenfels

Dropping down through the clouds, silent like a spider on a web, is a massive black sphere.

It's a mile away, at least, but even from this distance it dwarfs the neighborhoods below. I brace myself for the horror of watching houses crushed with people inside. But it stops well above the trees, maybe five hundred feet off the ground. It hovers soundlessly. (p. 14)
At 5:00 in the morning, just days from his sixteenth birthday, a painfully loud metallic noise jarred Josh from his sleep. Hundreds of miles to the south, twelve-year-old Megs was already awake, waiting in a car for her mother to return from a job interview. The noise that shook them both, as well as millions of other people, announced the arrival of giant spaceships capable of making people and cars on the street disappear in a second.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Foundling's Tale, Part Three: Factotum...and a Contest

If you're a fan of D.M. Cornish's unique and astoundingly detailed world of the Half Continent, as portrayed in the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy—now known as The Foundling's Tale—you'll be pleased to know that A) the third book, Factotum, is out THIS MONTH, and B) it's a truly satisfying end to the tale of foundling-turned-lamplighter-turned-monster-fighter's-assistant Rossamünd Bookchild.

One of my favorite aspects of this trilogy is the fact that the world Cornish has created is so rich and so utterly unlike anything else, down to the use of language at the individual word level. It's not just that characters and places are named in an unusual way (like J.K. Rowling, he's got a talent for naming people), but even the terminology for technology and social structures in this semi-industrialized setting is unique to this book. Words are put to use in new and connotative ways, related to the meanings we might already be familiar with, but not quite the same, with a pure enjoyment of the very sounds of the words themselves. The words are decontextualized, but somehow all of this adds to the feeling of atmosphere in these books—and, as an unrepentant word nerd, you'd think that would annoy me, but instead, I'm happy to go along for the ride.

I don't want to give too much away about this book, but the one of the central themes revolves around the definition of what is, in fact, a monster—and whether in fact all monsters are nefarious and to be universally reviled, or if there may be some (as we learned in book 2) that help humankind and coexist peacefully.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hard Science Space Pirates

In a speech at a convention on open source last year, Karl Schroeder mentioned the idea, discovered by cognitive scientists studying ship navigation, that there are some cognitive activities that cannot be accomplished by a single cognitive entity. What does that mean?

Put another way, sometimes humans act as a hive mind, rather than a collection of individual thinkers. Hearing that blew my mind. You can find out more about this on his website, where you'll also see that he's a writer. As you may guess, he's a Science Fiction writer, with a heavy emphasis on the science.

It's his love of trippy science, and of following a single scientific idea down the rabbit hole, that lead to one of the coolest sf fictional worlds to come along in a long, long time.

Sun of Suns, the first book in Schroeder's Virga series, is as bizarre as it is scientifically accurate. Imagine a five thousand mile diameter sphere orbiting a star, and the inside is filled with air, water, and chunks of rock big and small. Now populate that space with people. Give them early 20th century technology. What you get is mindbending physics jammed into a swashbuckling adventure: inhabitants experience atmosphere but not gravity, so they create spinning city states and miniature fusion suns and do battle like it's 1799 in wooden space ships.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Adventures in digital publishing

With the recent popularity of e-readers and smartphone reading apps, some writers have been having a lot of fun with the freedom and interactivity provided by the new technology. Here's three writers pushing the envelope on how books are published and how they're experienced.

I reviewed Reinhard Kleist's fantastic graphic novel biography of Johnny Cash, I See a Darkness, last month. Now Ave! Comics has put out a downloadable "soundtrack" edition for the iPhone and iPad. Along with the full novel, the app has a soundtrack feature which will search your music library for appropriate songs to fit the section you're reading. (And if you don't have the songs in your library already, it gives you the option of buying them through iTunes.) This is a really simple integration of words, pictures, and music that makes all three much more vivid.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Build a Fire by Jack London

I’m suddenly reconsidering, and re-exploring the short story. I haven’t put aside my big-ass (they are always big-ass when you’re writing them) novel that I posted about over the summer; in fact, I’m between drafts, as they say.

But I was asked to write a short story for a holiday-themed YA collection, locally produced here in SoCal (about which, more later, but it’s not really my project to announce. Yet), and that became the first short story I’d written... in years. There've blog posts and articles on the short side, and books on the storytelling side. But no short stories. I didn't realize how much I missed them.

So while I’m conjuring my own 2,500-word Yuletide apocalypse, reminding myself I’m not writing a “first chapter” but an entire arc, beginning to end, I come across a downloadable novella from Fantasy & Science Fiction about our grim globally-warmed future. I spend part of a morning with it, and was brought back to a type of reading I did much more frequently in my own YA days.

And then, concurrent to all this, I’m collaborating on with “Vampire High” author Douglas Rees on a longer project, which calls for us to, among other things, bone up on our Jack London.

So -- also for the first time in many many moons (in this case, the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma, eh?), I’m working my way through part’s of Jack’s canon (on which note, we have references to canons, and London’s near-contemporary, Eugene O’Neill, just a couple of posts below. Get ready to blast your way through than English syllabus!) and before I get to the "Iron Heel" -- there’s some politics in Doug’s and my genre work -- I’ve started with short stories.

I started with one I’d heard about, but never gotten to -- the stripped down, unrelenting “To Build a Fire.” It’s a simple tale -- a man in the Yukon, turn of the last century, is on his way back to camp. It’s cold and getting colder. He’s hiking with a dog -- who, we find, regards him somewhat skeptically (in dog terms) -- and makes one or two bad decisions. Which very quickly gets him in a position where a fire, a simple fire, will save his life. Or not.

It should be pointed out there are two versions of this iconic story -- the first, written around ‘aught two (and I don’t mean “2002,”) appeared a periodical known as “Youth’s Companion.” It was kind of like “Boy’s Life,” full of adventure for young lads (I’m not sure anyone thought that young lassies would be reading these compendia, too), though imagining yourself in a wild place, away from a cityscape, wasn’t nearly so difficult in that earlier ‘aught two.

In the first version, the walk isn’t nearly as harrowing, nor is the outcome. It’s written more as a cautionary tale (don’t walk alone when it’s freezing cold!), in a generally amiable, if somewhat stiff, 19th-century way. You can see London’s growth as a writer between the two versions, the first opening with some telling, instead of showing: “For land travel or seafaring, the world over, a companion is usually considered desirable. In the Klondike, as Tom Vincent found out, such a companion is absolutely essential. But he found it out, not by precept, but through bitter experience.”

By the time he got to to the second, darker, more renowned version of the story, a few short years later, he got right to it: “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland,” and then later, when assaying the character of his once-likeable protagonist, “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.”

Sounds like our current crop of politicians!

In any case, even though stories aren’t structured this way anymore-- it’s all description, with no dialogue (though a little internal monologuing) -- the thing really moves. There’s scarcely an ounce of fat in it, and it’s a marvel of relentless writing an inexorable plotting. At one point -- as jaded a reader as I fear I’ve become-- I nearly gasped, sitting in the coffee shop where I read it, when a sudden reversal-of-fortune affects our ill-fated traveler. For that alone, I’m in Jack London’s debt.

Where’s that open-source audiobook version of "Iron Heel!?"

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Unidentified by Rae Mariz

It sounds so grab to go to school in a mall. But what would you say if your every move is watched by the marketing executives that run the school? In Rae Mariz's The Unidentified, there is no funding for schools, so a group of corporations are happy to run them in order to get the inside track on trends of music, fashion and more.

Katey, who goes by Kid, is getting average grades, average hits on her profile and has just a few followers on her intouch. At this rate she is never going to be branded and receive all of the perks of being a trendsetter and worshiped by the other teens. Really though, she isn't certain that she even cares.

Things change when a stunt takes place in the lunchroom. In a simulated suicide, a dummy is pushed over the balcony. The note pinned to it says, "UNIDENTIFIED. CHOOSE YOUR SUICIDE." Kid is stunned, shaken and wonders what in the Google this is all about, but no one else seems to care. She is now driven to find out who the Unidentified are and what they are trying to say.

This novel is very much in the vein of Cory Doctorow's books and stories. Though fashion and popularity are a big part of this book, there is a lot here for boys, including the technology of the near dystopian future, the rebellion against the marketers and strong male characters like the daring Mikey and the mysterious leader of the Unidentified.

This was an incredibly intriguing book and will appeal to those who enjoyed Jennifer Government by Max Barry, Rash by Pete Hautman and anything by Cory Doctorow.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Long Day's Journey Into Night

The canon is a problematic concept. Its attendant implications of an homogenous heritage and dominant cultural norms tend to legitimate only a fairly narrow field of experience. But there can be canons cultural and personal. My high school English class reading lists featured the occasional play, always Shakespeare or Miller. For the most part, I was on my own to explore the rich history of the form, sometimes latching onto famous titles and but open to anything that looked interesting. The core requirement as my personal canon formed was that a work resonated in such a way that it became essential to my understanding of the form, resulting in a list that encompassed everyone from Ibsen to Joe Orton and Christopher Durang. And of course, there were the plays that bridged between the personal and common canons. Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an undisputed monument of American drama, but it was just another play when I first encountered it.

One of the most valuable services provided by a cultural canon is the expectation of a shared familiarity with a given body of works. Knowledge of a certain set of material provides a necessary basis for approaching new works. It would be impossible to pass judgment on where within the form a contemporary play about strained families falls without grounding in Long Day’s Journey. O’Neill is as essential to understanding works like Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County—laden as both plays are with concerns about parents, siblings, addiction, and secrets—as Howard’s End is to reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

But there’s a more personal value to works of literature, too.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Fate That Sometimes Protects Idiots

I don't know... this book doesn't have any vampires or werewolves or zombies. Who'd want to read a book like that?

Well, YOU might. How Angel Peterson Got His Name, by Gary Paulsen, is dedicated by the author "to all boys in their thirteenth year; the miracle is that we live through it."

Paulsen writes about some of the stunts he and his friends tried at that young age: shooting a waterfall in a barrel (He would have drowned, but the barrel hit a sharp rock and shattered.), breaking the world speed record on skis (pulled behind a car), hang gliding with an army surplus kite, inventing the skateboard, jumping a bike through a hoop of fire, and, well, you get the picture, right?

His buddy, Wayne, received a shock from the family's new television, which "slammed him back into the wall and left him unconscious for several minutes. He later claimed that the incident was what made him the only one in our group who could actually talk to girls."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Politics of Life With Zombies

The zombie apocalypse has happened.  Never mind how, it just did, fourteen years ago when Benny was eighteen months old and was spirited away from his parents by his half-brother Tom before they became victims themselves.  Since then, the living have taken to enclosed cities and let the undead roam in what is now called the Rot and Ruin.

Fifteen is the age of maturity, and that means getting a part-time job in order to continue receiving rations. Benny, like many teens, doesn't really want to work, and he certainly doesn't want to take up the family business of becoming a bounty hunter of the undead.  Worse, his brother Tom is legendary, but all Benny knows and remembers of his much-older brother is that he was a coward who ran away and left their parents to become zombies.

There are plenty of other bounty hunters though, guys like Charlie and The Hammer who told war stories of their times in the Rot and Ruin and talked up their kills in ways Tom never did. Benny could never understand why his brother never talked about work, or why Tom was so revered by town elders, but he finds out quick enough when he finally agrees to become his brother's apprentice after failing at pretty much every other job he attempts.  One trip into the Rot and Ruin changes everything Benny ever knew, or thought he knew, about what it means to be human, both living and undead.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Remember ZOMBIE HAIKU, with all its humor and gorey details? Well, Ryan Mecum returns to that particular form with WEREWOLF HAIKU, in which a mild-mannered mailman is bitten by a (not) dog while on his daily rounds and finds himself a werewolf.

Turns out there are pros and cons to being a werewolf:

I can hear better,
even though both my ear holes
are clogged with whiskers.

Spiders have eight legs,
each of which I hear stomping
on my hardwood floors.

With heightened hearing,
current pop songs hurt my ears
more than they used to.
The poor mailman develops a unibrow and a lot of other hairy areas - ears, chest, tongue. And a tendency to chase cars and rabbits, howl at sirens, and hump legs. He's also become more of an attraction for dogs, which now follow him like the pied piper.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Novel Approach to Cinema - starring Charles Bronson & "Rowdy" Roddy Piper

Soft Skull just sent me a couple of very cool little books: THEY LIVE by Jonathan Lethem and DEATH WISH by Christopher Sorrentino. These are the first two books in the new "Deep Focus" series which takes self-defined "hip" authors and gives them carte blanche to write about any film they want. Lethem talked to NYMag recently about his choice and how delighted he was to get the go-ahead on writing about the B-movie classic:

It's a great movie — we're talking about it, and not just because I wrote this book. Go and look at its cultural life as traceable on Google. Look at what it does to people, look at how it emboldens and provokes. It's just not a classy or comfortable or ennobling experience to watch it. It's disturbing and ridiculous and outrageous and uncomfortable, but I think it's the kind of great movie that doesn't really need defense, it just needs to be given the air.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cover Question: WIll teen boys pick this one up...

...or has the publisher just released a book with a male teen protagonist that is really aimed at female readers? Here's the description from the pub:

Across four sun-kissed drama-drenched summers at his family's beach house, Chase tries to come to grips with his family's slow dissolution while also finding himself in a chaotic love triangle, pitted against his own brother in pursuit of the girl next door. Invincible Summer is a gritty, sexy, page-turning read from a talented teenaged author that readers won't want to miss.

Or is this a cover that boys will actually love?

[Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz, due from S&S on April 19, 2011.]

Black Hole Sun -- David Macinnis Gill

Other than his own admittedly impressive¹ combat skills, his even-more-impressively-skilled partner and a cheerful obnoxious poetry-spouting AI implant in his brain, 17-year-old Durango (that would be his age in Earth years, in Mars, it's calculated differently) doesn't have a lot going for him. His father is in prison, he doesn't have enough money to eat regularly, and his status as a dalit marks him as the lowest of the low.

Despite that, he holds firm to the Regulator tenets of honor. He protects the weak even if they can't pay well, he is loyal to his crew, he always fights fair.

Well... he mostly holds firm. After all, one isn't made dalit for a minor deviation from the Regulator code.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Adios, Nirvana by Conrad Wesselhoeft

Adios, Nirvana by Conrad Wesselhoeft
"When you piss off a bridge into a snowstorm, it feels like you’re connecting with eternal things. Paying homage to something or someone. But who? The Druids? Walt Whitman? No, I pay homage to one person only, my brother, my twin.
In life. In death.

Since the death of his brother, Jonathan’s been losing his grip on reality. Last year’s Best Young Poet and gifted guitarist is now Taft High School’s resident tortured artist, when he bothers to show up. He's on track to repeat eleventh grade, but his English teacher, his principal, and his crew of Thicks (who refuse to be seniors without him) won’t sit back and let him fail."- summary from Amazon

Before I start to get in too deep, the last sentence of the summary makes this book sound much more after-school special than it really is. This is a thoroughly realistic debut that doesn't sugarcoat anything and does a great job of dealing with Jonathan's emotions regarding his twin brother's death and the pressure he feels from everyone around him.

However, I will say there were times where I was thinking to myself "Oh my god, just get over it already and stop moping around!" but having not lost someone that close to me, I feel like I have no place to say anything.

I really loved the musical and poetic aspects of the novel because it made the character richer and more three-dimensional. But at the same time, Jonathan was so wrapped up in himself and his problems that the people most important to him (his friends and mother) kind of fell by the wayside, which meant way less characterization of them. The new people he meets at Delphi, a hospice, are given more room to be fleshed out.

The climax of the book seemed to be written almost stream-of-consciously and it just flowed so well. That's one thing I loved about the prose in the book- it was accessible but philosphical and just superb.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Incorruptible by Mark Waid and Jean Diaz

Way back in February I wrote about Mark Waid's Irredeemable, a twist on the classic Superman-style superhero comic where the pristine, nigh-indestructible good guy (called The Plutonian) finally gets fed up with the world and unleashes all of his pent up demons upon it. Irredeemable is an object lesson in the old adage, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," and it works because of its willingness to pervert our notions of good and evil.

While Incorruptible continues as a monthly series (and a nice back library of collected trade paperbacks) Waid has added another title and storyline to the mix with Incorruptible. Occurring at the same time and same continuity as Irredeemable, Incorruptible tells the story of Max Damage (where does he get these character names?) another indestructible, super-strong character who has devoted his life to debauchery, crime and a general maladjusted sense of self. At least, Max DID live a life of crime, until The Plutonian nutted up and destroyed an entire city. Max disappears following the disaster, only to return a significantly changed man - no more illicit sex (with his underaged sidekick, no less), drugs or crime of any kind. In most respects, Max undergoes a religious transformation, minus the religion (Waid may eventually take the series in this direction, but don't look for it in the first collected trade). He returns, in essence, as a super powered monk.

Never one to let a character off the hook easily, Waid challenges Max's transformation over and over again with multiple temptations. Turning good, it seems, has as many negative implications as suddenly becoming evil, and there are few, if any, who accept or believe in Max as a newly-incarnated super-savior. Thus, this new series allows Waid to further explore the odd, often unstable line between what we consider good and bad, right and wrong, and our own willingness to accept change in others.

It's not a perfect series, and in many ways it is inferior to Irredeemable - most notably because it all but requires that you have read the other series - but it is intriguing to see Waid play out a "Saul of Tarsus"-like conversion in a landscape filled with comic book conventions. Can we accept that someone so bad can suddenly embrace goodness? If we can't, what does that say about us?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Through a Mirror, Darkly

In the opening scene of Reckless, the first volume in Cornelia Funke’s new series, we are introduced to Jacob Reckless whose father has disappeared. Jacob, feeling abandoned and angry, searches his father’s room for clues as to what might have happened to him. What he finds instead is a mirror which serves as a portal to another world. As soon as crosses into this world, he is attacked by a grotesque spider like being. He barely escapes and finds his younger brother, Will, afraid, searching for him back in his own world.

The story then jumps ahead twelve years. Jacob, not deterred by the violence he met in the Mirror world has, over the years, spent more and more time there. The Mirrorworld is a place full of dangerous and enticing magic. In his time behind the mirror Jacob has become a successful, even famous, hunter of magical treasures and, like his father before him, has largely abandoned his family in his home world, forever making excuses for his long absences. But one mistake has allowed his brother to follow him through the mirror and tragedy has struck. A race of stone-skinned people called Goyl, at war with various human nations, has attacked the Reckless brothers and, because of the curse of a dark fairy that the Goyl use as a weapon of war, Will is slowly growing stone skin himself, turning into one of the creatures out to destroy the Mirrorworld’s humans. Jacob is certain he can find a cure for his brother, but the skin is changing quickly and with it Will is losing his human mind and soul.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Pirates! Murder! And Light Romance! The Bird of the River by Kage Baker

I hadn't heard of fantasy author Kage Baker until a friend mentioned her latest book to me, The Bird of the River. I borrowed it, and liked it—a lot more than I expected to. It's one of those books that kind of grows on you after you've put it down and thought about it a while.

Which makes it a cryin' shame that the author died this year. On a more positive note, she's written quite a few books, including a few I've even heard of (by title if not by author's name)--The Anvil of the World, The Empress of Mars. I, for one, will be looking for more of her work.

The Bird of the River was, I believe, released posthumously. It was her newest fantasy work, set in the same universe as The Anvil of the World. As this was my first entry into that universe, I wasn't sure if I'd be at a disadvantage for not having read the other books. However, I didn't feel lost at all; the book works well as a stand-alone. Baker provides a measured introduction to the world through the eyes of its characters, specifically the main protagonist, the teenaged Eliss.

We start with Eliss and her family—her mother, Falena, and her half-brother, Alder—in an unfortunate situation: Falena is a drug addict, and she's using again. Hoping to help her mother get clean, Eliss finds Falena a job as a diver on a river cleanup barge, the Bird of the River.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

What do you do when you're a second grader who is scared of pretty much everything? You pack up your PDK (short for Personal Disaster Kit) and carry it with you everywhere. You try to stay away from things that are creepy, creaky, or sticky. You ask your older brother for advice (he's NINE, which makes him incredibly wise!) and occasionally hang out with your four-year-old little sister, even though she's little and she's a girl, because she's the sweetest, happiest person you know. But what do you do when you're a second-grade boy and you get invited to your classmate's party -- and that classmate is a GIRL, and your brother tells you that you're the ONLY BOY who was invited???

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

Growing up I hated science. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that growing up I was oblivious to science. How tragic is it that we can be so unaware to something that is all around us, that is fundamental to life, from the oxygen we breathe to the ants crawling on the sidewalk to the water boiling on the stove for tonight’s pasta? And school did nothing to help me out of my scientific ignorance and apathy; in fact, it did the complete opposite -- as school is so very good at doing -- it made me see no value in science and taught me that science is irrelevant to my life. My story of science is not unique; our nation is drowning in scientific illiteracy.

It does not need to be this way. School should help us to see the wonder and power and limits of science. Going to science class should be an experience of fascination and understanding and insight and some humility. But if school science failed you, like it failed me – or if you just love science as I do now -- the good news is that there is some terrific reading on science, and one of them is Sam Kean’s new book on the periodic table of the elements, The Disappearing Spoon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A werewolf addicted to laudanum, a usurper for the throne, some high fashion, drunken pop stars and arm ripping with abandon. Seriously.

Martin Millar successfully returns to the world of werewolves, mayhem and fashion crises in Curse of the Wolf Girl, a sequel to his earlier title, Lonely Werewolf Girl. Readers must -- must -- read the books in order to have a clue what is going on, but with that caveat, you can sit back and enjoy the ongoing trials and tribulations of the MacRinnach werewolf clan with glee. There is also a lot here about remedial college, comic books, opera, pop music, and how to get your fashion line reviewed by very popular couture bloggers. That all these disparate storylines are cohesively held together is something any writer would find difficult to accomplish, but Millar does it, and he provides a very powerful narrative that never strays from its thriller roots.

And guys don’t let the fashion bits scare you -- this is a werewolf story where people get their arms torn off with abandon, promise.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fear: 13 Stories of Suspense and Horror edited by R.L. Stine

Looking for something fast-paced, twisty, and suspenseful, just in time for Halloween? Try Fear: 13 Stories of Suspense and Horror. You've probably heard of many of the contributors:
  • Jennifer Allison
  • Heather Brewer
  • Ryan Brown
  • Meg Cabot
  • Alane Ferguson
  • Heather Graham
  • Peg Kehret
  • Tim Maleeny
  • James Rollins
  • Walter Sorrells
  • R.L. Stine
  • Suzanne Weyn
  • F. Paul Wilson
All the stories in this collection edited by R.L. Stine are short—the longest is James Rollins' "Tagged," at 33 pages—yet the majority are sufficiently intriguing and satisfying. Additionally, there is a nice variety to the stories. Suzanne Weyn's "Suckers" is set in the year 2060 on a planet called Lectus. The fear in some stories comes from supernatural creature or powers, like the boy who discovers that there really are dangerous creatures lurking in shadows or the babysitter whose new charge sees terrifying beasts. In others, there are only humans committing crimes providing the tension.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Lies That Are Our Lives: Patricia Highsmith's This Sweet Sickness

In AMC's television show Mad Men, Don Draper lives in a world of precarious reality. It is his job to manufacture the consumer culture of the 1960s through his work in advertising, and his identity as a husband and father proves to be as flimsy and artificial as the slick ad copy he writes.

As he cracks under the strain of his secrets (affairs and alternate identities just for starters), Don Draper struggles with the idea of authentic identity. Is it something we find within ourselves or something we create? Is it permanent or malleable? What about us is real? What if it's nothing?

Don Draper has a dangerously psychotic and delusional ancestor in David Kelsey, the hero of Patricia Highsmith's novel This Sweet Sickness. Like Don Draper, David is living a life of appearances in the early 60s. He buys a beautiful home in the country for his wife Annabelle, he maintains a prestigious job to keep them in a well-appointed lifestyle, and he enjoys quiet dinners of steak and wine by candlelight with her on the weekends.

Unfortunately, there's a problem: Annabelle turned down his marriage proposal over a year ago, but David has chosen to pretend that she accepted -- to pretend he's leading the life he really wants.

David must carefully balance his comfortable delusion (Annabelle and their house in the country, which he's actually purchased) with a grim reality (living in a boarding house during the week while working for a chemical company), and the pressures of two lives prove to be more than he can withstand. Finally he must turn to fraud and violence to maintain the delicate illusion of happiness.

What's wonderful about This Sweet Sickness is that David Kelsey's imaginary life -- the house in the country, the pleasant job, the marriage to Annabelle -- is only slightly more imaginary than lots of middle class lives of the 50s and 60s...or 2010. He has chosen to see certain things around him and not see others despite all evidence, and it is terrifying to watch what he has to do to keep reality at bay. This novel is considered a thriller, and the source of its tension isn't just David's conflicts with other people, but his conflict with his own mental house of cards. Add one more lie or take one away, and everything collapses.

Patricia Highsmith is also the author of the Tom Ripley novels, including The Talented Mr. Ripley. Both David Kelsey and Tom Ripley possess an extraordinary talent for rationalization, Ripley for his sociopathic behavior and Kelsey for his delusions.

I think readers find the persistence of David's delusion so disturbing because it isn't all that different from the ones by which we all lead our lives. "If I do the right things, someone will love me," we think. "If I work hard, I'll have a good job," or so we hope. There's a certain fakery required for our modern existence, and the only difference between David and us is that he's not as adaptable. This failure to adapt eventually crushes David Kelsey's mind.

Reading this novel gives us cause to think of the reality we take for granted. Every time I read it, I find myself suffering a little of the sweetly sickness of the title: what are I imagining that just isn't true? How much of my life is a lie? How would I know?

David Kelsey finds out, and as we watching him finding out, we get both the thrill of his downfall and a sneaking worry about our own.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Politics of Reading and Recommending

(UPDATE: Corrected for errors)

In the past, once or twice a year, I've proposed my own ad-hoc short story collection, creating links to stories out there online that are great in one way or another. Recently, I thought it was a good time to do another. One of my go-to places for good short fiction is the winner of the Caine Prize, and this year's winner is Olufemi Terry's Stickfighting Days. What a great story this is!

It's epic, and speaks to how, even in our most cruel acts we often envision ourselves as heroes. It also speaks to a kind of brutality born of innocence. It's clean and crisp, and awesome.

Go to the link and read it now--skip the rest of what I have to say. But then, maybe, come back, because what is left is something that crushed my original impulse and forced me to question why some people, including myself, select the books, comics, and stories we recommend. And why I am only recommending this one story this month.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought to be a man in black."

It's hard to wrap your head around the facts and figures of Johnny Cash's career: He got his start at Sun Records with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the birth of modern popular music. He was the youngest inductee of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He racked up eleven gold and platinum records, won his first grammy in 1968, and his seventeenth posthumously in 2008. Through the years in between, Cash stood at the heart of popular American music while remaining one of it's great innovators.

Two books explore his incredible career and stormy personal life: Johnny Cash's own autobiography, Cash and Reinhard Kleist's graphic novel, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

American Vampire

American Vampire by Scott Snyder and Stephen King (writers) and Rafael Albuquerque (art) (Vertigo), arrives as a near-antitode to much of the current vampire lit, as Halloween comes just around the corner.

I hadn't caught up with this Vertigo title until its recent five-issue collection here. Those a bit weary of "lovelorn Southern gentlemen, anorexic teenage girls (and) boy-toys with big dewy eyes" (as King's intro has it) in their vampire books (and shows) might enjoy this parallel tale set in both the Old West and silent-movie era Los Angeles, as Snyder (with a scripting assist from King in the "western" parts) seek to create a uniquely "American" take on this particular night creature.

Which they do in the form of gunslinger Skinner Sweet, who -- in finest American fashion -- is both bloodthirsty and psychotic, in both living an undead incarnations. Though there's also a certain method to his madness as he takes on a cartel of "ruling class" vampires, themselves from "Old Europe," who see perfect bloodsucking opportunities (literal and otherwise) in America's nascent corporate plutocracy.

And hey, the Hollywood parts -- with its tales of "B-girls gone bad" -- almost get you thinking that Nathanael West must've written a vampire tale right before he tackled that all-time Hollywood novel (which also gave us the name "Homer Simpson"), Day of the Locust.

The traffic in the denouement(s) gets a tad cluttered, but it's a compelling ride all the way through, leaving you with a nice set-up for the next arc, when a teen girl comes calling for vengeance of her own -- just as the twenties give way to the depression-era 30's.

Good reading for Halloween in any decade!

(A different version of this review appeared on Nexus Graphica)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Friend is not a Verb by Daniel Ehrenhaft

I have a special place in heart for books that break a run of terrible or mediocre books that I'm reading. For me the latest book like that is Friend is not a Verb by Daniel Ehernhaft.

Hen is justifiably angry. His sister, Sarah, disappeared over a year ago without telling him why. His parents know, but won't tell him. His girlfriend, Petra, just kicked him out of her band and dumped him. He is barely processing that when he finds out that his sister is coming home. He doesn't know how he feels about all of this, especially the fact that Sarah is hiding from the law and still won't tell him anything.

Ehrenhaft does a wonderful job portraying Hen's anger and disappointment in a realistic way. As the story progresses Hen is able to grow through his friendly relationship with his neighbor, Emma, and bass lessons with his sister's fellow fugitive, Gabriel.

Hen humorously uses the style of VH1's Behind the Music to describe his life. Nothing comes easy, however. His parents are crazy and unpredictable, his sister is mysterious and he is driven to thievery in order to figure out what is going on with Sarah and Gabriel.

This is a good funny novel about a teenager growing among odd circumstances. I wasn't a big fan of Ehrenhaft's Dirty Laundry, but now I looking forward to more offerings from the author. This would be good for fans of As Easy as Falling off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins and Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray.