Friday, February 27, 2015

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

On the island of Here, everything is neat and tidy and orderly. It's a calm, Stepfordian community where no one ever asks questions and no one ever deviates from the norm.

Dave fits in to Here pretty well. Like everyone else, he keeps his little nonconformities in check, covering his baldness with a toupee and keeping his mouth shut about his uncertainty about his employer. But there is a single hair on Dave's body that resists his efforts to be orderly: a single, stubborn upper-lip hair that refuses to be plucked, waxed, shaved, or trimmed. No matter what he does to that hair, it regrows in exactly the same place and size. The doctors can't figure it out -- but then again, it's only one hair, so Dave does his best to ignore it and carry on with his perfectly orderly life.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Brotherhood by Anne Westrick

The South during Reconstruction was not a very pleasant place to be - as a southerner. The South  was occupied by  U.S. soldiers (formerly Union soldiers) who were not very interested in making life any easier for the "rebels" they were supervising as they rebuilt their cities, businesses, and homes after the Civil War. Brotherhood is an interesting read as a story told from the view of a young southern boy. Westrick provides  descriptions of what life was like during that time period as a southerner and how difficult life was under the occupation of the conquering Union Army.
With his father dead, the "Yankees" occupying his city, and the newly freed African American men taking the  jobs created by Reconstruction, life is difficult for Shad and his family. The discontent of the community is palpable and gives rise to the Ku Klux Klan as an organization "dedicated to supporting the needs of the widows and families of fallen Confederate soldiers." Shad and his brother join up, Shad thinking it a good thing to take care of those around him. As things get out of control, Shad starts to realize that the Klan is dangerous and he must decide where his loyalties lie - family, Klan, or what  he feels is right in his own heart. I highly recommend this read!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Looking for Jack Kerouac by Barbara Shoup

There are many different ways to write about Jack Kerouac and I was beginning to think the world has very nearly seen all of them. But Barbara Shoup is one of my favorite YA writers, she has surprised me many times in the past, so when her new book Looking for Jack Kerouac came across my radar, I very much wanted to give it a look. As it turns out, in the hands of the right author, the Kerouac story still has some legs.

In 1964 Paul Carpetti is on a senior class trip to Washington DC when he picks up a copy of On the Road at a used bookstore. He reads it almost obsessively while in the city and all the way back to Indiana. Kerouac blows open everything Paul has thought about his future. As he graduates and gets a job at the local mill and his longtime girlfriend raises expectations about a pending engagement and marriage, the dream of the road becomes bigger and bigger. When a co-worker suggests they go find Kerouac in Florida, Paul jumps at the chance and they are off.

Shoup does a good job of chronicling the adventure south, some of which is quite harrowing and other parts involve sexy mermaids ala Weeki Wachee (where I have been and is totally awesome) (although, of course, I did not enjoy the sexy mermaid bits when I was there with my father and brother).

When the guys arrive in St. Petersburg they get a room at the YMCA and set out to find Kerouac. He, of course, is not at all as he was during the days of On the Road and after a confrontation with this author and his disappointed companion leaves, Paul finally, no longer traveling, sets out find himself which was probably the point all along. (And what On the Road is all about as well.)

There is a lot in Looking for Jack Kerouac about growing up; it is probably one of the better books I have read about deciding the life you want to live as opposed to the one that you seem destined to have. Paul is lost like every other high school graduate and even though he comes from a loving home he has no idea what he really wants or how to find something different from what he has assumed he would always have. In Florida on his own, as he gets to know Kerouac through good moments and bad, he makes other friends and begins to embark on the unlikeliest of futures. It's not all laid out, in fact the book ends with him mostly just deciding where he wants to live and the people he wants to be around, but it's exceedingly hopeful. Shoup gives readers a real Kerouac and real confusion; she makes clear that On the Road, like every other novel is just a story and not at all the full life of the man who wrote it.

I should also add that Shoup has two intriguing female characters in Looking for Jack Kerouac: Paul's girlfriend Kathy and the girl who befriends him in Florida, Ginny. Kathy seems in many respects to be a caricature of the early 60s woman; she is still on the path to marriage and family that he mother walked before her and determined to build a perfect home for Paul that will, she firmly believes, satisfy both of them. She is bewildered by the change in him after the senior trip and Shoup takes special care here, not making her a joke. Kathy had no reason to think that Paul would want something different; he never led her to believe that he would and so when he leaves her so abruptly for his road trip it's a major blow and one he deservedly feels a lot of guilt for later.

As to Ginny, she is the girl of the tomorrow. Surrounded by a boisterous family in St. Pete, she spends much of free time out on the water in her father's old boat doing research as she pursues a marine biology degree. Ginny wants to change the world and while she likes Paul, Shoup does not sell them as a couple. His reasons for staying in Florida are his own and not because he has gone from one girl to another. Ginny is a possible future, but no guarantee and what comes next for them would be anyone's guess.

As historical fiction, Looking for Jack Kerouac is a great ride. It's an authentic look at an American author who fought his own demons until the end and a young man who chose another path to facing his.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

For roughly fifty years, the British Isles have been haunted by a Problem. Increasing numbers of ghosts are haunting homes and objects, with sometimes dangerous results. While adults might sense the ghosts, and can definitely be injured or even killed by them, they are unable to neutralize the ghosts. Children are the best at sensing ghosts, so psychic investigation agencies staffed by young people with strong Talents have sprung up to deal with the Problem.

Lucy Carlyle, who has been working as an operative since she was eight years old, is the newest employee at Lockwood & Co. in London. It's not the biggest agency, nor the best known, but its young founder, Anthony Lockwood, treasures the agency's independence. He and his employees have successfully dealt with difficult and tricky cases. They get the job donefor the most part, anyway. Still, Lockwood would like the agency to receive more acclaim, not to mention better, and more interesting, cases...

Unfortunately, the agency makes headlines for the wrong reasons after one job goes disastrously wrong. Even so, one of the richest men in the country makes Lockwood an offer that would significantly improve Lockwood & Co.'s reputation: investigateand survive a night inone of the most haunted private homes in England. It's a strange offer, but Lockwood agrees that he, Lucy, and Lockwood's only other employee, George, will spend a night at Combe Carey Hall, where strange and horrible deaths have occurred for centuries.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

American Neolithic by Terence Hawkins

Several years ago a I wrote a review for Lives of the Monster Dogs, an odd, wonderful book that exists somewhere at the corner of speculative fiction and social critique. As a strange coincidence, Terence Hawkins reached out to me with a copy of his book, American Neolithic, after having read that review. American Neolithic, he explained, was inspired in part by the writing of Kristin Bakis and her Monster Dogs book.

American Neolithic is equally peculiar and wonderful in its premise: in a near future police state where a theologically tinged Homeland Security has supreme control over civil liberties and the court system, Raleigh, a jaded lawyer with a cynical, old-school sensibility and an affinity for lost cause cases, gets drawn into a high-profile murder case involving hip hop artist Newton Galileo and the member of his entourage left holding the gun -- Blingbling, a guy everyone thinks of as a half-witted dupe.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Blingbling is really an honest-to-God Neanderthal, one of the last of a band of Neanderthals secretly surviving in hiding on the lower east side of Manhattan.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This is one of those books that comes on soft like a feather but as you flip through the pages it starts to carry the weight of a sledgehammer.

Charlie is someone who'd rather avoid contact with other humans in his school. He walks home instead of taking the bus, he doesn't know how to interact with girls or jocks or any of the other cliched crap that gets thrown at you when you're sixteen.

Worst of all, he's about to start high school, and the dread of that new beginning hangs over his head like a black zeppelin filled with manure.

The story itself is written in a series of letters from Charlie to an anonymous person he simply calls "friend." Through these letters we slowly begin to learn about Charlie's life, how he really likes one of his teachers, a guy named Bill that gives him extra reading. Charlie writes essays about these books and gives them to Bill to read because Charlie would like to be a writer, it's the one thing he knows he is good at.

Other than that, we don't know very much about him. We know that his best friend committed suicide and that Charlie gets angry, very angry, and has trouble breathing and even passes out when things get too rough. There is, however, a much darker reason for the mental problems that he is suffering from.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Soccer is unquestionably the world's game and its legions of fans experience the highs and lows of each game and discuss the team feverishly all week. Some of the biggest stars of today came from humble backgrounds but they have used their skill to create a better life for themselves and their families. The game is not immune to real life concerns however and sadly sometimes politics becomes entwined with sports as occurred recently. Wars have been fought over results in soccer games and people have been killed over the outcome of matches.

In Eugene Yelchin's book Arcady's Goal, the title character lives in a rough camp for orphans in the Soviet Union in 1945. His parents have been deemed enemies of the state and he has been sent to live in a camp, guarded by tough armed guards and under the rule of the despot Butterball who organizes soccer exhibitions for Arcady to show off his skill. It is in one of these exhibitions that Arcady is spotted by an inspector called Ivan Ivanych. To his surprise the inspector returns to the camp with papers to adopt the young boy.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan

Skin and Bones

When Jack agrees to spend six weeks in an Eating Disorder Unit, he expects it to be a waste of time. Calling himself Bones at the insistence of his Rachael Ray—obsessed roommate, Lard, Jack makes friends, falls in love, and tries to get over this whole anorexia thing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mort(e) by Robert Repino

Between this book and Grasshopper Jungle I feel I've discovered my true weak spot: humanity at the mercy of mutant animals and insects.

Underground, for thousands of years, a colony of intelligent ants has been slowly, silently plotting their revenge against mankind. To do this they have found a way to turn the humans own pets into an army that will help bring about the war to end all wars.

At the heart of this story is a house cat named Sebastian who, before his emancipation, sees himself as the protector of the house. His human "parents" seem to be going through some troubles, not the least of which include his mother sleeping with the neighbor who owns a dog named Sheba. Sebastian and Sheba eventually form a loving bond all their own, but it comes to a chaotic and abrupt end when the animals become sentient and the war with the humans becomes violent. Sebastian, now named Mort(e) becomes a hero of the war and takes on dangerous missions in the hopes of finding Sheba.

Repino has a way of crawling inside the heads of all these creatures that surround us and shows us the world like we've never imagined it. Just the thought of a super breed of ants breeding and plotting for thousands of years is enough to creep me out, but then to have it all be part of a long plot to lull mankind into a false sense of superiority so they can came come back and take what they've long felt was their world to begin with...

It's crazy. But brilliant-crazy, entertaining-crazy, and a whole lot of fun.

by Robert Repino
Soho Press 2014

Click on the link (attached to the title above) to read the first chapter at Powell's Books.
No, Powell's did not pay me to say that, or provide me with the book. They're just awesome.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

X: a novel by Ilyasah Shabaz with Kekla Magoon

Imagine that your father was murdered when you were six years old. Both of your parents are (or were) activists, fighting to end segregation, lynchings, and other racial injustices. The government man keeps coming around, making noise about how there are too many mouths for your mother to feed. You've been told by your parents that you can grow up to be almost anything you want - a preacher, a lawyer, whatever. Eventually only you learn that the only reason your mother can keep a job is that she can pass for white. After she loses her latest job, one day the government comes and takes you and puts you in another home. A while later, when you stop by the house to visit your mother and siblings, you find the government men there to haul your mother off to a mental hospital, and scatter your siblings.

That's the basic background of Malcolm Little's youth, although as the timeline in the back of the book explains, prior to his father being murdered, he'd been one to protest unfair discrimination. The family house had been set on fire and burnt to the ground because the Littles dared to live on property that was supposed to be reserved for white people. At the age of fifteen, Malcolm moves to Boston, where he works on the train between Boston. Later he moves to New York, where he's known as "Detroit Red".

Recounted in first person, this novel conveys the essentials of Malcolm X's early life. The earliest part of the book contains a number of jumps in time - always labeled, but not always as easy to follow as it could be, though nearly every single scene in the book is fraught with tension, so it pulls you right through.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds is having a well-deserved moment. He has won many accolades for his first novel, When I Was the Greatest, including the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award from the American Library Association. And his new novel, The Boy in the Black Suit, is a worthy follow-up that addresses one of life’s essential questions: How do we deal with grief?

Matt Miller is trying to navigate life without his mother. (As we learn of his mother’s death on page two, I do not consider this a spoiler.) Mr. Ray, who owns the local funeral home that held the services for Matt’s mother, offers Matt a job helping out. Though hesitant at first, Matt agrees and eventually comes to love the job. For one, Mr. Ray serves as a role model that Matt’s own father is failing to be, as Matt’s father deals with the loss of his wife in destructive ways. And Matt finds that attending the funerals of other people, which his work allows him to do with lessening levels of unease, helps him with his own grief. Matt slowly rebuilds himself and his life, with the help of his new girlfriend Lovey (yes, that’s her name), a girl with her own experiences of dealing with loss, experiences that connect to Matt’s own life in unexpected ways (see, I respect spoilers).

While reading Reynolds’ latest, I imagined it having the working title “When I Was the Saddest.” Hence the black suit, the one Matt wore to his own mother’s funeral, the one he wears to work at Mr. Ray’s, the one that symbolizes his own grief. Though Matt’s obsession with attending funerals at first seems creepy, we eventually understand along with Matt that although each experience of grief is personal, we are not alone in experiencing it. This understanding helps Matt bond with his wayward father, Lovey, and Mr. Ray.

Much as he did in When I Was the Greatest, Reynolds creates a powerful sense of place and community, and in creating nuanced adult characters like Mr. Ray, he succeeds where so many young adult novels fail. Its subject matter and themes lead to a softer story than When I Was the Greatest, but The Boy in the Black Suit is just as important and successful as Reynolds’ debut.

Friday, February 6, 2015

99 Jobs: Blood, Sweat & Houses by Joe Cottonwood

A few years ago there was a rush of interest in vocational classes and "hands-on" work experience in the wake of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft from Penguin Press. Crawford was all kinds of rugged and effectively espoused the very American idea that you find your best self by having a tool in your hand. From the NYT review of his book:

Mr. Crawford needed to hear things gurgle and roar, and so it is perhaps not a surprise to learn that he grew up to own his own motorcycle repair shop. And in “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” his passionate argument for a brand of hands-on self-reliance, and a plea for the dignity of the manual trades, he comes on like Ralph Waldo Emerson in a “Mad Max” get-up — leather jacket, fingerless gloves, sawed-off shotgun, the works. It’s an appealing combination.

Pretty hard not to love the guy, right?

I actually agree with a lot of Crawford's ideas and think everyone should have a good shop class, auto shop, cooking class, etc. behind them. (Add basic plumbing also!) The problem for me was that Shop Class was a pretty dull book to read. In the midst of all the gushing about Crawford's ideas, most reviewers failed to mention that it took a major effort to slog through the dense prose. The author might have a great idea but witty writer he was not. I couldn't finish the thing.

Enter Joe Cottonwood's 99 Jobs: Blood Sweat and Houses. First, it's self-published but get past your fears on that score. This is a highly readable, enjoyable, often funny and sometimes wry look at life as an independent carpenter. It's the story of how job-by-job, one man has supported himself and his family by working with his hands. Basically, Cottonwood's real life shows you how Crawford's ideas actually work. Then he goes one better and writes about it all as well.

The chapters are very short—usually only a couple of pages—and the jobs range from completely redoing a kitchen to a quick fix of a leak or two. His clients are sometimes rude, sometimes pushy, sometimes flirty, sometimes scary and, happily, sometimes delightful, funny and friendly. Cottonwood pulls no punches, telling readers how some folks refused to pay for his hard day's work and others wanted him to do a job they could not and then spent way too much time telling him how to do his work. It's clear that he was often frustrated on the job, but also that he met a lot of fantastic folks as well and did a lot wonderful work. And that is the point of 99 Jobs: the work and how it was done.

I like Joe Cottonwood's writing a lot; he's a genial author, someone who makes you think while remaining clear and concise in his prose. 99 Jobs is exactly the kind of book that many teens should be reading as they find their ways forward into adulthood. It's about getting the job and then getting the job done while listening to the people and the places around you. It's also about learning on the job which is perhaps the most misunderstood skill of all.

Crawford had nothing to say on listening to people; perhaps that is why I tired of him so fast and found so much more to learn from Joe Cottonwood.

For more info, check out his website.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell

When one is offered something as gorgeous as The Art of Neil Gaiman: A Visual Biography, one does not dither long wondering if it will be worth their time or not. Rather, you fire off an affirmative email as quickly as possible and then settle into tapping your toes until the book arrives whereupon you tear open the packaging and flip through the pages and utter a sigh of relief that it is just as lushly designed and full of color and life as you hoped.

Just take a look at some of these spreads:

So what can I say? The Art of Neil Gaiman follows his entire career in a collage-format that includes illustrations and photos and notes on every single page. It is exactly as it is supposed to be, a visual biography of a life. Anyone could have a visual biography created about them but when you have an immensely creative person like Gaiman as your subject and he has kept heaps and heaps of the sort of ephemera from his career around him for ages, well, then you really end up with something special.

There are chapters on everything here: the comic books, the novels, the short stories, the movies, the television specials, the collaborations with Dave McKean and Amanda Palmer and Henry Selick and so many more creative and interesting people that make it seem like his Gaiman's whole life is just one delirious party of making cool stuff that you might want to scream. (I'm sure it's all hard work but it certainly seems like exceedingly fun work.)

The point is that Hayley Campbell, (whose father Eddie Campbell is also a wildly creative person and close friend of Gaiman's), had a very unique opportunity to go through all of Neil Gaiman's professional background and put together this book and she did a fantastic job. If you are a fan, you won't be able to get enough of what The Art of Neil Gaiman has to offer and if you aren't then this title will likely tempt you to start reading his work now. Either way, you'll likely sink into the pages for hours because it is so well done.

Some subjects are simply made for this sort of biographical treatment; nice to see that Gaiman had Hayley Campbell to put this lovely book together for him.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Swim That Rock by John Rocco & Jay Primiano

My father grew up in northern Rhode Island and I have long had affection for his home state. I love going back there, love the drive up the coast, the French Canadian history, minor league baseball and, of course, the fabulous seafood. But Rhode Island is not a place that inspires much literature and so it is rare that I read much of anything set there. This is why I was so happy when Swim That Rock by John Rocco an Jay Parmiano came my way.

Jake Cole is looking at the end of summer, the start of high school and losing everything he loves. His father went missing while out fishing three months earlier and he and his mother are barely hanging onto their family diner in the coastal town of Warren. Desperate to make the thousands of dollars necessary to pay off a loan shark who holds the diner's deed, Jake is willing to do practically anything including go out at night to help a local oyster pirate.

Over a couple of weeks as the summer winds down he nearly gets arrested, maimed and killed but also manages to prove himself on the water, work harder than he thought possible, make a lot of money (mostly legal) and kiss the best girl ever. It's a very eventful couple of weeks that force Jake to ask some necessary questions about what it means to be a man and—more importantly—a good man. He also has to accept the loss of his father which is very nearly more than he can bear, but sometimes that is what growing up requires of us; the hard stuff we wish would just go away.

Swim That Rock is one of those incredibly rare books about middle class people for whom work is a key part of their lives. For Jake and his mother and all of their friends, life is about work and filling your life with people you trust. It's also about loving the place where they live and Rocco and Primiano paint such vivid pictures of Rhode Island that readers will likely find themselves falling a bit in love with it as well. Mostly though, they will like Jake's adventures, his strong desire to do the right thing and the good people that make up his world. He's a tough kid in a tough spot that is impossible not to root for; we all hope we could be this brave in his position and dig deep enough to save the day like he does.