Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten

When Robyn Plummer walks into Room 13B, Adam falls in love at first sight. That may sound like a typical boy-meets-girl story, but, thankfully, this book is anything but cliché. The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten is refreshingly honest, anchored by a memorable main character.

Adam, age 15, is vulnerable, loyal, and sometimes confused by his feelings and by the actions of those around him. He is quieter than some, a little more in his thoughts, which are expressed in limited third-person narrative. His parents are divorced, and he lives with his mom most of the time. She pretends everything is okay while enduring her own private struggle, something Adam tries to both respect and understand. Meanwhile, his father has remarried, and while Adam gets along all right with his dad and his stepmom, the member of that household that undoubtedly enjoys his visits the most is his little brother, Sweetie, who is full of life and full of love. (Kudos to Toten for creating a young, vibrant character that sounds and acts his age. Absolutely spot-on depiction of a preschooler.) It is interesting to note what (and who) each member of Adam's family clings to, and what they're willing to fight for when the going gets tough.

When Adam isn't in one of his two homes, he is usually in Room 13B. Room 13B isn't a classroom; it's a meeting place for a young adult OCD support group. This book gave me what I wanted but didn't get from the TV show Red Band Society: a realistic look at a diverse group of kids who meet due to a medical diagnosis but are not defined by their condition; people who are not the "worst" examples of their condition nor the "best"; characters who are relatable but not cookie-cutter. Each teen has a distinct personality, appearance, and medical history. Their bonding sessions both inside and outside of Room 13B are wonderful. They honestly try to help one another rather than sabotage or one-up each other. When Chuck, the friendly, caring doctor who oversees the group, asks the kids to adopt nom de guerres, almost all of them select superhero names. Robyn picks Robin, prompting Adam to immediately declare himself Batman.

Adam is determined to win Robyn's heart. He has never been in love before, never had a girlfriend, but he falls head over heels for Robyn. He is not simply on a quest for love, but actually fascinated by this specific girl. As the story continues, their friendship develops and deepens. Adam's unconscious need to protect others extends easily to Robyn as he learns more about her, and he tries to be a better person (and taller) so he can be worthy of her. His OCD rituals are both aided and exacerbated by his new goals and his growing awareness that things aren't entirely right at either of his homes.

This book is good. It's solid and it's interesting and it's realistic and it's good. It sheds light on a condition that many people suffer from in silence and shame, and instead of reducing OCD to a punchline or over-dramatizing it, Toten offers believable characters with various rituals and paths to healing. The story moves at an easygoing pace with decent plotting. And most of all, it has a realistic protagonist who is a truly good egg. Adam is dealing with that wonderful, frustrating time when you don't want to be treated like a child but you sometimes wish you were still a carefree little kid, when you want to be independent but you can't drive yet, when you realize your parents are people with their own histories and bad habits and secrets. Just as the author does with his little brother, Toten is also able to capture the appropriate tone for Adam's age and situation. Adam sits at neither hero-with-a-burden character extreme, not wallowing in unbearable darkness and cursing the weight of the world that sits upon his shoulders, nor grinning from ear to ear and boasting that everything's going to be fine. He's simply trying to live his life. As his heart gets broken and mended, so will the hearts of readers.

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten is a beautifully simple, steady coming-of-age story that I highly recommend, especially to fans of Jordan Sonnenblick and David Levithan.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Spare Parts by Joshua Davis

Oscar, Lorenzo, Cristian, and Luis didn’t have much in common, other than being born in Mexico and entering the US illegally as children. Each had his own reasons for joining the robotics team at their high school, located in a poor area of Phoenix, AZ. Cristian was the only one actually interested in robotics.

But together, the four students built a robot they called Stinky. At a national underwater robotics competition, sponsored by NASA and the US Navy, their team defeated teams representing colleges and universities, winning first place in spite of their inexperience, their extremely limited budget, and all the obstacles associated with poverty and low expectations.

In 2005, Wired magazine published an article about their victory. But there’s more to this story than a single competition. In Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream, Joshua Davis expands on his original article, introducing readers to four teens, two teachers, their paths to the robotics team, and the difficulties they have already overcome, as well as those they still face today.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi

Alix Banks lives the good life, she's rich, smart, athletic and attractive. She attends a private prep school where she gets good grades and is a member of the track team. Her parents trust her completely to be where she is supposed to be, to do what she is supposed to do and believe what she is supposed to believe. That is until there is an attack on her school. Alix is cornered by Moses, the leader of the attacking group, who tells her that the whole event is for her. To get her thinking about what exactly it is that her dad does for a living - what Simon Banks and his public relations firm Banks Strategy Partners really do. "When you absolutely, positively have to confuse the hell out of an issue, call Banks Strategy Partners." aka The Doubt Factory.
Alix starts to question everything. Who should she believe? What is the truth? Does truth exist?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Way Back From Broken by Amber Keyser

Rakmen Cannon's family has suffered a terrible loss: the death of his baby sister. His parents are struggling to stay together as he and his mother attend counseling at a neighborhood center. His mother sits with all the other mothers who have lost a child and Rakmen hangs out in the basement with the other siblings who are supposed to be learning how to cope through some rather lame art therapy. They are good kids and they understand each other better than anyone else can. And then 10-year old Jacey shows up and doesn't know the rules about what you should and should not ask; she's a pushy kid and she pushes Rakmen hard. Whether or not that is a good thing is part of what the reader has to find out.

The Way Back From Broken is, surprisingly, also a bit of an adventure novel, in that way that kids-in-the-wild books can be. Rakmen ends up spending the summer with Jacey and her mother while his parents try to get it together. As Jacey's mother is one step away from losing it herself this ends up being a dubious decision at best on the part of Mr. & Mrs. Cannon. (Adults make a lot of less than brilliant decisions in this book, something that most teenagers are going to likely find extremely enjoyable.)

Things at the idyllic cabin by the lake are not as idyllic as Jacey's mom described, it all goes to hell in a handbasket and Rakmen and Jacey end up having to make a bit of an epic journey (with a canoe - hence the cover illustration) to save the day. All of this provides a lot of time for sorting out feelings, getting to a better emotional place and finding one's inner strength for the two kids. (As many books have taught us, wilderness treks make for killer bonding experiences.)

By then end, Rakmen gets his act together and finds a way to live with his loss which is important. What makes The Way Back From Broken better than most great loss title for teen however is that the getting better is a messy process. Keyser shows how painful it is to lose someone for all of her characters, how they each handle it different ways and that there is no right or wrong way - it's a process that must be navigated on your own. There is nothing romantic or noble about these losses; it's just some tragic death and some grieving people who want to find out how to get past being sad. That might sound like a downer of a book but it's not, it's just realistic.

(It's also about sleeping in a cabin overrun by mice, so don't worry that the laughs are totally absent.)

"Hope is like a road in the country: there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence" reads the quote (from a translation of The Epigrams of Lusin by Lin Yutang), that opens The Way Back From Broken. We could all use a few more books about hope, I think and Keyser gives that to readers here, in all its awkward, complicated beauty.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Happy Endings Are All Alike by Sandra Scoppettone

Happy Endings Are All Alike might seem like an odd choice for Guys Lit Wire, where we aim to recommend books for primarily teenage boys, but this is a really interesting historical novel that provides a unique peek at life for GBLTQ teens in the 1970s. Any teen interested in life for this minority group in the recent past is going to be fascinated by this novel and likely also horrified by the events that take place in the course of the story.

The plot is fairly straightforward: high school seniors Jaret and Peggy have fallen in love and are looking forward to spending the summer together before they each go away to different colleges. In small town Gardener's Point, 100 mile north of NYC, their relationship is new and not celebrated by everyone. The girls are lowkey and largely preoccupied with coming out to their families, each of which has its own domestic concerns.

Peggy's family in particular is struggling as her mother recently died and her older sister has returned home from college to take on a motherly role which is more self-serving than generous. Claire is on a serious martyr trip and Peggy would just as soon she leave, but her father is too consumed by grief to resume his parental role. Peggy is stuck with Claire's nosy attention and her sister, having discovered Peggy's relationship with Jaret, is holding it over her head. There is little love lost between the sisters, with jealousy, primarily over their mother's love, the root of a longheld anger on the part of Claire. Now that she knows about Peggy & Jaret, here's some of what Claire thinks:  

She could have killed them. They were disgusting. So smug, self-satisfied. So sure of themselves all the time. And what were they anyway? Queers. Dykes. Perverts. She'd learned in her psychology classes they were sexually immature, retarded. It was sick. And it made her want to vomit.

Yeah, nothing good going to come from that sibling relationship.
The bigger problem, is one of their classmates who is even more jealous and more disgusted by the two girls. Fueled by anger, he violently attacks Jaret, determined to teach her what "a real man is like". The attack, and subsequent criminal investigation, forces Jaret to go public about her attacker's motivations if she wants to find justice. She makes the decision to embrace her sexual orientation which means Peggy is forced out of the closet as well, unless she calls Jaret a liar to protect her reputation. Again, here's Claire practicing some Psch 101 on her sister:

It's clear to me that what you've done is to make Jaret a surrogate mother. It's a dependency problem at the root. Still, it's revolting." Claire chewed her lip. 

You can't stand it that two people might just love each other, can you?" 

Claire flinched. "Lesbianism is immature, Peggy."

 There is also some eye-opening discussion about how allegations of rape were handled by the police 35 years ago:

 Mr. Tyler, sir," said the chief, full of condescension, "I have experience in these matters. A boy, a girl, a little kissing, maybe some petting, naturally a boy gets excited and then the girl says no. The poor boy goes crazy with frustration and—"

The whole story is eyebrow raising on multiple fronts and although the narrative can be a bit confusing when the different points-of-view are first introduced, soon enough readers will find themselves unable to look away as the would-be attacker becomes bolder and bolder.

I wish Happy Endings Are All Alike could be dismissed as sheer fantasy but as any student of social history knows, there is a lot of truth to this novel. Read it to know what life was like not too long ago for far too many teens, and then be eternally grateful that you are coming-of-age today when someone like Claire, and the attacker, are more clearly the deviant and monster.

[The upper cover is of the new rerelease of Happy Endings Are All Alike from the wonderful imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books. The more lurid cover is from its late 1970s/early 1980s heyday.]

Friday, September 18, 2015

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming is the second novel in the series featuring British Secret Ser­vice agent James Bond 007. I re-read this book (here is my original review) and found it to be just as exciting as the first time.

After almost being assassinated by S.M.E.R.S.H Bond wants revenge and M has the assignment for him. Gold coins are appearing in America, maybe from the pirate Bloody Morgan’s treasure; the government thinks Soviet agents are using them to further their nefarious cause.

Mr. Big, a notorious crime lord, uses voodoo as part of an elaborate plan to control his crime cartel. Mr. Big also works for S.M.E.R.S.H which gets Bond’s attention.

When one reads Live and Let Die, one must keep in his or hers mind the time it was written in. In today’s society this novel might be considered racist, but one can see how Fleming goes out of his way, most of the time, to compliment African-Americans and point out, through narrative, that they are in no way inferior to the white humans.

I believe that if the novel was updated to today’s sensitivities, very little would have to be changed (a few words here and there which are no longer acceptable). The novel, however, does give a picture of the race relations within the United States after World War II.

Mr. Fleming’s descriptions of Harlem, voodoo and thrilling adventures are as exciting as ever. The tone in this novel is grittier than its predecessor, with more action moving the story forward.
And a fight with a giant octopus.

As is in every series, we learn more about the protagonist (Bond) but reading the previous book, Casino Royale, is not necessary to enjoy this one. I thought the star of the book was Solitaire who was heroic and charming. There are several great moments from the “Bond lore” in this book, Felix Leiter saving himself by talking jazz and getting eaten by a shark afterwards, to name a few.

This short book, is fast paced, enjoyable, easy to read and showcases Fleming’s famous dark humor despite the dialogue. The narrative is entertaining and action packed but more or less pointless – however, Mr. Big’s character is fantastic, a strong African-American crime lord who steals the book.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Stand by Stephen King

I've come to The Stand late in the game. The original was written before I was born, this copy, the 1,200 page behemoth I just put down, is the version King intended to put out, uncut and without alterations. 

I know what you're saying: "1,200 pages?! You're mad!" At least, that's what I assume you're saying. But don't worry, as they say in The Stand: "Even the company of the mad is better than the company of the dead."

I'll start where King does, with Captain Trips. Captain Trips is the nickname given to the flu. This isn't your chicken noodle soup, stay home from work kind of flu. No, this is the turns your insides to jelly and wipes out 99.4% of the world's population kind. 

The detail that King devotes to Captain Trips' decimation of everyday peoples' lives is one of the most horrifying things I've ever read, and it's easy to figure out why: We've all had the flu, it's one of life's guarantees, like stubbing your toe or being disappointed by the 2nd season of True Detective. 

Let me tell you something, after reading the first chapters of The Stand, you'll be squeezing Purell over your Apple Jacks. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The National Book Awards for Young People's Literature: the Long List

The National Book Awards for Young People's Literature has announced its long list of candidates for this year. Next month, the panel will announce its short list, and in November, the winner will be announced from among the following candidates. We here at Guys Lit Wire are pretty chuffed at having already reviewed four of the ten candidates - you can find links to our reviews below, but do check out all the books on the list.

Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Children’s Books
Reviewed by Trisha in May

M. T. Anderson, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad
Candlewick Press
Reviewed by Colleen in July

Ali Benjamin, The Thing About Jellyfish
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers/Hachette Book Group

Rae Carson, Walk on Earth a Stranger
Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Children’s Books

Gary Paulsen, This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs
Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing

Laura Ruby, Bone Gap
Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Children’s Books

Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon, X: A Novel
Candlewick Press
Reviewed by Kelly in February

Steve Sheinkin, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group

Neal Shusterman, Challenger Deep
HarperTeen/HarperCollins Children’s Books
Reviewed by William in June

Noelle Stevenson, Nimona
HarperTeen/HarperCollins Children’s Books

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer Nielsen

Ancient Rome was an incredible place; but not if you were a slave as is the case with Nic. He works in mines ceaselessly and has never even taken a bath, Luck is when preparation meets opportunity though and when Nic is ordered by his cruel boss Sal to go into an underground chamber, his life changes suddenly and completely. In an underground cavern he meets two things that are going to forever be a part of his life- a griffin which he names Caela and a bulla that belonged to Julius Caesar.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Denton Little's Death Date by Lance Rubin

Featuring 1) the most eventful prom since Carrie, with less blood and more choreographed dancing to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; 2) the use of “STD” as a verb (as in “Maybe Taryn did STD you”); 3) the most anxiety-fraught eulogy since Julius Caesar, delivered by the subject of the eulogy himself; and 4) hilariously inappropriate best friend boy banter, Denton Little’s Death Date by Lance Rubin is not the book I expected to be.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How We'll Live on Mars

We're going to Mars. We'll be there within 20 years. The technology is there and NASA is training for it. The question is, once we're there, how will we survivie? This isn't merely a question of figuring out how astronauts can maximize their stay for research purposes but how we will expand our human footprint beyond the Earth once we've exhausted the resources of this planet. Or in the event of a galactic calamity.

Unlike the last great space race this isn't about Cold War enemies flexing their muscle, there are plenty of private citizens with more funds than NASA funding research and development to get us there. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Richard Branson all have their multi-billion dollar fingers in this pie, and the technology is there. Tereforming a new planet is possible right now, the technology is already available, we just have to get there.

In under 100 pages How We'll Live on Mars lays how we'll probably get there, what we'll face in terms of establishing an initial base, and how efforts are already underway to colonize Mars within 50 years. And the numbers are staggering: Elon Musk is talking about getting 10's of thousands of people there by the mid-century mark. What seems crazy at first Petranek makes feel very real in a clear and factual tone. A solid, quick read that at the end will leave you believing the inevitable.

We're going to Mars.

How We'll Live on Mars
by Stephan L. Petranek
TED books, Simon & Schuster 2015

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

&#8195 All along Joe Rantz had figured that he was the wake link in the crew. He'd been added to the boat last, he'd often struggled to master the technical side of the sport, and he still tended to row erratically. But what Joe didn't yet know--what he wouldn't, in fact fully realize until much later, when he and the other boys were becoming old men--was that every boy in the boat felt exactly the same that summer. Every one of them believed he was simply lucky to be rowing in the boat, that he didn't really measure up to the obvious greatness of the other boys, and that he might fail the others at any moment. Every one of them was fiercely determined not to let that happen. [p. 326]
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics sets its sights high on the cover with what in many cases would be an overblown phrase: "Epic Quest". It begins small, with the author's meeting with a dying Joe Rantz in the prologue, followed by other small introductions, to the rowing program at the University of Washington in Seattle, the Seattle sports reporter who wanted his city to take a higher place in public opinion, the men who worked for the program, the boys seeking a place on the freshman rowing team in the fall of 1933, and the goings-on in Germany, where Hitler was secretly building weapons and overtly building an enormous new stadium for the 1936 Olympics.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

BENEATH by Roland Smith

Beneath   *WARNING!  If the very thought of crawling in tight spaces has you hyperventilating or induces nightmares, then read BENEATH by Roland Smith with caution.  Really!  Seriously!

Pat and Coop O'Toole have lived adventurous lives.  Having parents who are both scientists wrapped up in their careers, left the two brothers with time to play and experiment freely.  One of Coop's ideas ended with a hand-dug mile long tunnel through their neighborhood.  An explosion in the tunnel resulted in the involvement of the FBI and left poor Pat with a severe case of claustrophobia.