The Ramayana is the ancient epic story of the exiled prince Rama and his beautiful wife, Sita. When Sita is kidnapped by a love-struck demon king, her husband’s efforts to rescue her result in a war that eventually involves not only demons and mortals, but also gods, monsters, and even animals. This story has been told and retold, painted, performed and translated in every medium imaginable.
Clem was born premature, when his pregnant mother was startled by a heartbroken Nazi pilot shooting her chimney to pieces at the end of World War II in rural Norfolk, England.
Using this birth as a pivot point, Mal Peet tells us the story of Clem's family from the time his grandmother was a girl to nearly the present day. We see the twentieth century work its changes on this family, as wars take men away and bring them back, social movements carry Clem's family out of their indentured hovel and into estate housing and allow Clem to attend an exclusive school, and romantic love finds a foothold.
Providing reader advisory services to movie and TV stars may sound like it's all glamor and glitz - private screenings at Matt Damon's place, long walks with Taylor Kitsch, tequila shots with Cameron Diaz - but in reality, it's hard work. It's a year-round, always-on-call job that requires constant monitoring of tons of information sources. You should see my office - a dozen laptops and giant flatscreens feeding me 24-hour updates from Cynopsis Kids, Early Word, Rama's Screen, and the Hollywood Reporter.
But that's what it takes. What would happen if, out of the blue, Hailee Steinfeld chased you down in a hallway at NBC panting, "I have to read a science fiction novel for English but I hate science fiction!" It wouldn't do to flail around until you lamely suggest she reads Virus on Orbis 1. Nooo. That kid, she needs more action. Not so much character development. Black Hole Sun is the book for her. She'd be perfect as the voice of the AI that is the main character's advisor, conscience and best friend. Or she could be the kick-ass love interest Vienne.
Tune in to my wave as I provide book advice to the attendees of the 84th Annual Academy Awards from my perch by the bar at the Governor's Ball...
We are well shut of the twentieth century, I think. That was the first thing that crossed my mind as I closed Between Shades of Gray at about 1:30 in the morning last night. Good god. This is historical fiction that grabs you by the throat.
Where are we? We are in Lithuania in June of 1941. Stalin has annexed the country and part of his strategy for integrating it seamlessly into the Soviet Union is to round up anyone who might object and send them to Siberia.
Who are we? Fifteen-year-old Lina, upper middle class, a gifted artist, with a ten-year-old brother and a beautiful mother. Papa, a university administrator, has already disappeared when soldiers pound on the door and throw Lina's family into a truck.
What is happening to 17-year-old Briony Larkin and the miserable fenside village of Swampsea? Briony is beautiful and intelligent, neglected by her father after the death of her beloved stepmother. Possessed of a supernatural gift that allows her to see and converse with the nature spirits that surround her village, before she died, her stepmother commanded Briony to avoid the swamp where these spirits live lest something terrible happen.
To make an already joyless life considerably worse, Briony is responsible for her difficult twin sister Rose, who, due to a blow to the head when the girls were seven, exhibits symptoms and behaviors similar to those associated with autism spectrum disorder.
Then a handsome boy comes to the village, and with him progress: the swamp is to be drained and Swampsea to become the terminus of a London rail line. As Swampsea struggles to - belately - join the twentieth century, Briony struggles with new roles that she both fears and desires. I'm always looking for neat coming-of-age metaphors, and the advent of the modern age is a good one. Will Briony allow herself to fall in love? Will she learn to control her power? Will she figure out the deceptions that have been perpetrated upon her, leaving her full of frustrated, self-abasing rage?
Louise at thirteen is friendless and flat-chested. Bad luck and worse decisions have torn apart the cozy canyon life she shared with her parents, B-movie director Charlie Bat and starlet-turned-homemaker Brandy-Lynn, and now she lives in a courtyard condo down below the smog line. Instead of her tiny, hippie elementary school, she's attending a big public junior high where everything seems like a competition. And then, after one too many drunken arguments with Brandy-Lynn, her dad leaves.
Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie Bat is the prequel to Francesca Lia Block's popular Weetzie Bat stories - this is Weetzie before she becomes fully Weetzified: not yet blonde, only partially sparkly, showing barely a hint of the wistful siren to come. With some of the glitter swept away, the emphasis is on Louise's feelings and encounters, which have always been well-written, but can be overshadowed by the feathered, flowing, Mod Podge fabric of Weetzie's later life. Heartbroken, teased, neglected, and possibly hexed, Louise begins to learn about risks that are worth taking and people who are worth cherishing. She is a peaceful child who, when faced with cruelty and loss, develops into a young woman who is pliant but not wimpy, strong but not aggressive.
A fresh gem for Weetzie's fans, Pink Smog stands comfortably alone as well. It would serve as a Gateway to Francesca Lia Block (which is an arch a lot of us are happy to have passed through - Jezebel once called Weetzie Bat ""The Book for Girls Who Ended Up Taking a Gay Dude to Prom" - I myself took my best friend's much-older brother), and although marketed to grades 9 and up, this book could be wise comfort to a reader as young as 5th grade whose family has undergone sudden change.
A version of this review appeared in VOYA a few months ago.
I feel like Tony Shalhoub's character in Galaxy Quest: "Heh heh," he chuckles, mentally adding up the squad of enemy alien soldiers guarding the [whatever], the rock monster the crew had encountered on a recent visit to a desolate planet, and the ship's transporter mechanism. "I just had this really interesting idea."
I've just done a little idle internal arithmetic myself. I read a lot, right? Mostly kids' and YA books. It's ridiculous. And it's gotten to be I kind of feel like I'm cheating when I take time out for the essentials: Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue, September Vogue, and Go Fug Yourself. Your essentials may not be my essentials. There's room for all of us here.
But my consumption of gossipy fashiony stuff means that I do kind of keep an eye on the traffic at the intersection of these two interests of mine - namely, when YA (and sometimes kids') novels are made into movies. Like... Ooh there goes Oscar nominee Viola Davis again - she's going to be in the movie they're finally going to make of Ender's Game. Hm. I wonder just exactly where Viola Davis fits into Ender's Game. Ugh here's another mouth-breathing Hemsworth: which YA heartthrob part is he going to be panting all over this time? You know. Everybody does that.
And you can't help wondering, you know, if you somehow found yourself sharing a First Class row with say Brad Pitt (I could get bumped up, it could happen!), what would you end up talking about?
Here's a rare thing: a review of a bona fide adult book on Pink Me. Suitable for teenagers? You decide. (There's a breakdown at the bottom of this review.)
I wish I could write the review this book deserves, as Nick Harkaway (not his real name) wrote the review that Neal Stephenson's Reamde deserved - the one I was in the process of writing in my head. Stephenson's book was an action novel taken to absurd lengths, a nonstop global car/boat/bike chase firefight populated by real characters, most of whom you had to fall in love with. Ergo, I think it's no coincidence that Harkaway (still not his real name) felt he had some solid ground upon which to stand while surveying the fatness of Reamde.
Angelmaker is leaner, sprawls less, but is similarly packed with spies and murderers and gangsters who run and drive and use weapons, and they're all real people. Well. Some of them are not. A few of them are... but no, I'm not going to say.
Rules are for sissies. Yes, yes they are. Especially, I would say, in Young Adult fiction. All this hoo-ha and malarkey about people debating What is Young Adult lately - with so many grownups reading adventure fiction like The Hunger Games, why is one novel with a teen protagonist (let's just say Going Bovine) marketed to teens and why is another (call it Huge) marketed to adults - and as far as I'm concerned the fastest, funniest, most wrenching, most challenging stuff is YA and all the rest is non-age-specific genre fiction.
Mad at me yet? Read more!
Just a quick YA book review today, pumpkins - I am up to my [pick a body part you don't mention in polite company] in holiday crafting and carding and cocktail recipes.
What? Cocktail recipes are not part of everyone's year-end frenzy? Huh. What do you guys do?
Rosemary Clement-Moore delivers two things that have become the normal main features of YA books for girls: cold supernatural thrills and hot boy romance. What makes her hot boys and cold thrills stand out from all the rest are the girls that navigate the spaces between them: they are aggravated and amused, intrigued and insulted, cool but occasionally klutzy. They may find themselves covered in bat crap, but they will likely leave with an awesome exit line. Their narration conveys the knowing but self-conscious tone that is native to all teenage girls.
In Texas Gothic, strange doings are afoot at a big ol' cattle ranch in the west Texas Hill Country. Has an archaeological dig disturbed a centuries-old ghost? Or are nefarious humans taking advantage of local folklore to scare people away, and if so... why? Teenaged Amy Goodnight, the only intentionally "normal" member of a family of benign but powerful witches, seems to be the only one who can get to the bottom of The Mystery of the Mad Monk... but not only is she mortified at the Scooby Doo-ness of the whole "Mad Monk" thing, she is also nearly literally mortified by the ghost's overtures.
If you enjoyed Nancy Drew's The Secret of Shadow Ranch as a kid (yum, cowboys!) but are too self-aware to let yourself get caught up in silly stuff like The Ghost Whisperer, this is the book for you. Gotta love gothic.
I spent the weekend without Internet access. Yup. No service where we were staying, no bars on the phone, and a 3G indicator that winked in and out when the wind blew through the pines.
As it happens, I needed to get ahold of someone, and so I was a little infuriated by this lack of connectivity. But I was also reading The Future of Us, a sort of post-dated YA sci-fi novel set in 1996, so it was kind of apropos.
If success could be attained via charm and personality alone, Jarrett Krosoczka would have had this fame and fortune thing sewn up a long time ago. I'm admitting this right here - I love the guy. His books are a joy, and he's a born showman in person: at panel discussions, he sings, he draws, he engages the crowd and sometimes wears costumes. In the strange, airless space that is the online author visit or virtual storytime, he is responsive and enthusiastic and introduces his dog.
That's Jarrett in his red pleather suit at the Guys Read: Thriller panel at BEA last year, seated between Jack Gantos and Jon Scieszka (who is not wearing a wig) (for once).
But as important as enthusiasm and hard work are, they do not automatically translate to stardom in the demanding, puppy-eat-puppy world of children's lit. Jarrett's newest publication, From Monkey Boy to Lunch Lady: The Sketchbooks of Jarrett J. Krosoczka, tracks the ups and downs of his career as an author/illustrator and the sometimes crooked path along which an idea travels on its way to becoming a book.
Here is the trick with magic realism: if you're going to add a little magic to your realistic story, just drop it in there and don't futz with it. Like cold butter on warm bread, if you try to even it out you will just tear holes in your plot and make yucky little crumb-butter tumbleclots. In other words, if Grandpa can fly, he can just fly, ok? Don't start rattling off a long and involved explanation about curses or fairies or mitochlorions - people will get suspicious.
If your main character can see the date of a person's death when she looks into their eyes, you should just tiptoe out on stage, hand her that little piece of business, and then back off real nonchalant-like.
Like Rachel Ward does. Oh, Rachel Ward. Nicely done.
Ok, stop: the peaceful, rapturous expression on our girl scientist's face as she lets fly a slice of bologna in the school cafeteria would have sold me on this book even if I had not already been giggling, snorting, and cackling on almost every page prior.
I'm going to scan that page. Hold on.
Tsk. I can't fit the book on the scanner without breaking it in half, and it's a library book. I'm going to take a picture of that page. Hold on.
Look at that. That's a The-Hills-Are-Alive face. That's Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet crossing the finish line with a half-ton of wild but gifted racehorse under her butt. That face - you just know it - is going to get in soooo much trouble in about fifteen seconds, but for now, that is the face of scientific validation.
Just press play.
No, I mean it. You want to know what an iPad does, and why? Just hit the play button on that trailer for the new children's science app Bobo Explores Light up there.
What an iPad does, and why:
Misnomer. False advertising. NOT picture books for parents. This is NOT a review of Go the F**k to Sleep. What I think about that book was expressed quite soundly - and strongly - by Roger Sutton of The Horn Book. Roger Sutton is a modern-day hero.
No. These are picture books that are fully for children. Funny, sweet, colorful, devoid of swear words. BUT. They are books that grown-ups will legitimately enjoy themselves. It is one of the perks of having little kids - you have an excuse to consume picture books. Some picture books are insipid or tedious. But some are sly and sparkling.
Slipping into the boy-friendly spot between Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a new young adult novel by Rick Detorie, creator of One Big Happy, a strip you may have seen on your newspaper's comics page.
Not a graphic novel but in fact a liberally illustrated prose novel (with extremely short paragraphs), The accidental genius of Weasel High is about a 14-year-old boy named Larkin navigating his freshman year of high school. Larkin's not too bad off - he has a couple of good friends and nobody picks on him much. He has a dreadful sister who manages to throw things into sharp relief, when she's not actually throwing things, and parents who are basically ok even if they are generally clueless and embarrassing.
The scientist in Simon wished there was time to study the animals he was seeing and catalogue all the quirks of nature and environment that had driven their strange evolution. A herd of spotted marsupials, almost impossible to see, moved in shifting camouflage as they chased the shadows of clouds. A small, horselike animal with gigantic ears that swiveled like saucers was the first to hear him coming, and when it took off across the plains its drumming hooves alerted dozens of lumbering, slow-moving tortoises who vanished into their shells, leaving a sudden rock bed. Mice-like rodents leaped dozens of feet into a stand of cactus, fleeing from birds that veered away from the unforgiving spikes at the last second. Simon watched in fascination as these dramas unfolded around him.
We went to Costa Rica last summer, and now I think I understand where Nadia Aguiar's prose comes from. The ruby-red birds and flowers, the emerald landscapes, the fruit that is sweet but complex. The dark jungle, the bright hillsides. Roseate spoonbills and strawberry frogs. Honest-to-god toucans. It's all astonishing, but it's real.
The miraculous island of Tamarind, where siblings Simon, Maya and Penny washed up after a shipwreck in The Lost Island of Tamarind, reads like that. Deep in the Bermuda Triangle, its startling beauty is murky or brilliant, misted with cloud or sunlit, lush, decadent, fragile... and likely to twist into violence at any moment.
If I owned as many plastic bugs, letters, numbers, dice, marbles, dolls, blocks, dollhouse furniture, and Matchbox cars that Valorie Fisher does - and at times it feels like I do - those objects would be broken, tangled, mangled, and covered in dust, not bright and sweet and clean like the hundreds (thousands?) of little treasures in this book.
Not that this is important or will contribute to your enjoyment of Everything I Need to Know Before I'm Five, it's just an extra image to conjure. Valorie Fisher's living room, I bet, isn't carpeted with this toy mulch; nor are her plastic roosters living with their plastic kin in the bottom of a plastic bin that has not been excavated SINCE THESE KIDS WERE THREE I mean come on can't we get rid of SOME of this stuff?!
On the other hand, I will bet her house isn't some hyper-organized scrapbooker's heaven, either. I bet it's adorable. I used to know a couple who had decorated the rooms in their house in themes: there was the Maya Room, with frescoes and faux Pre-Columbian statues; and the Fresnel Room, papered in plastic Fresnel lenses. The fireplace in their kitchen was a mosaic of bottle caps, and the mantel was a parade of hundreds of salt and pepper shakers.
I'm a little distracted. We had an earthquake yesterday, it's possible you heard about it. Nobody was hurt, power and water stayed on, looks like we're going to have to have our chimney rebuilt la la la I'm not thinking about that right now... and as I walked around the house picking up framed photographs and art from the floor where they had fallen, I thought of my friends and their house full of knicknacks. What a mess I bet it is over there. My office is floor-to-ceiling books, and when the house started shaking I remember making a very specific wish that I not be buried under them. If Valorie Fisher keeps her doodad collections in her studio on shelves, she might have been buried under half a ton of particulated kitsch.
That's no way to go.
I love it when an author slaps a reference to another book into his or her own, especially in kids' or YA books. It's a sly way of suggesting to the reader, "If you are enjoying my book, here's what I like - you should try it!" Rebecca Stead not only drew inspiration from A Wrinkle in Time when she wrote When You Reach Me, but she wove the older book firmly into the narrative. I don't know anybody who finished that book and didn't at least consider re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's classic. If there's bookshelf in a picture book, I always squint to see what titles the illustrator has drawn.
Charlie Higson wrote a bookworm character into The Dead, and that kid's finest moment was when he defended himself from a mindless cannibal attacker using his copy of The Gormenghast Trilogy as a weapon. That's a great little glimpse into Charlie Higson's head.
The book that Tom Angleberger slides into Darth Paper Strikes Back is Robot Dreams, Sara Varon's nearly wordless graphic novel about a dog and a robot who are pals. That book is full of emotion without being mushy. It says a great deal about loyalty and love without embarrassing the reader.
Hm. Hmm, I say.
"You're listening to Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast on 88.1 WYPR, your NPR news station, good morning! I'm your host, Tom Hall... oh wait a minute, I can't be your host, Tom Hall - I'm only eight!"
That's right. I took my kids with me to the radio station yesterday when I taped a segment on you crazy, stunted adults who read Young Adult fiction. What's wrong with me? Didn't I know they would act like crazed monkeys and pull out all the wires and make fart noises into the microphones? (They were very well behaved, although there were fart noises, I admit.)
More to the point, what's wrong with you? Seriously, you're a full-on adult with a car payment and a job, and when you pick up a book, you're all looking for violence and mayhem, and allegory, and characters you can fall in love with, and dialogue peppered with witty insults and wordplay - what's that about? Why can't you just read your age-appropriate Literature or Fluff like you're supposed to? (This is also me being FACETIOUS.)
As I tried to organize my thoughts about what it is that adults see in YA literature - and it's a huge trend, believe me, you're not the only one - I remembered a recent conversation with a young woman looking for something to read. I asked what she'd enjoyed lately, and she said she'd really liked The Road (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature) and the The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris (winner of the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original and inspiration for Snoop Dogg's Oh, Sookie).
Now, these two items have more in common than you might initially think, but still, it would be a biiig Venn diagram that managed to include them both. Trying to imagine the sweet spot between Cormac McCarthy and Sookie Stackhouse, my gaze naturally drifted to the Young Adult section.
I am still on a brief break from the teen novels about serial killers and grave robbers and cannibals and cannibalistic grave-robbing serial killers. And Direct Instruction.
I swear, it's true. Along with all the war-torn future Earths and vicious madmen I've been reading about this summer was one novel the villain of which was nominally an unknown sneaky-Pete serial killer but structurally and actually? the villain was the (admittedly rather joyless) teaching model known as Direct Instruction. Specifically, the Slavin variant of DI, developed at Johns Hopkins University right here in the beautiful burg of Baltimore.
I read that and I was like, "Hey!" Slavin's approach, called Success For All, is a wholly scripted 90-minute intensive daily session of phonics instruction, and was designed for use in failing schools in this city. And believe you me, I spent some time in Baltimore City District Court this week, and this town could use a lot more reading instruction.
But it was just kind of weird. You've got a serial killer, perhaps two, running around town murdering cats, clearly working his or her way up to killing a human, and yet a huge amount of authorial energy was expended on describing and excoriating Direct Instruction. I'm not here to defend DI, but it was like having a character attend a Waldorf school and then spending half the book describing how oppressive and creepy it is to spend one's days in a classroom with no corners.
(These are terrible sentences I'm writing. Maybe I could use a little Slavin-style finger-snapping rote learning myself.)
Anyway. That book was called Deviant, and I think I'd like to read more by Adrian McKinty (go read his blog and I think you'll fall in love), but I'm not going to actually review this one - just note its weird little obsession with educational theory and then mentally catalog it as something to recommend to those kids slouching around the teen section who roll their eyes at paranormal horror because they Just. Want. Murderers! I should not forget to also tell those kids to read Seita Parkkola's evil school novel The School of Possibilities. And then Janne Teller's Nothing. Dan Wells's I Am Not A Serial Killer and its sequelae.
Aggh! I can't quit! BUT. I am reviewing a board book here - I need to get my head out of that trunk full of disarticulated body parts and get on with it.
Speaking of Baltimore. This bright, fun little board book counts as a Direct Instruction tool - our friends One through Ten appear on successive pages, printed in big Arabic numerals, along with objects to be counted that demonstrate the meaning of the numerals. None of your exploratory, inquiry-based learning going on here: this is an ordinal-number practicum.
I jest, of course. 123 Baltimore is blissfully free of dogma, but full of love. Every Baltimorean will recognize the colors used on page four, on which four footballs bounce around the page's edges; visitors will smile at page nine, which features Baltimore's unofficial city symbol, the pink flamingo; but it may take a true city nerd (me!) to identify the seven funky robots on page seven as the World's First Robot Family by DeVon Smith on permanent display at the American Visionary Art Museum.
I also believe quite firmly that the six row houses on page six are not, as noted in the key at the end, the "Painted Ladies" of Charles Village, but rather the two-storey bowfront rowhouses on Keswick Rd. My friend and colleague (and fellow city nerd) Mrs. McSweeney fingers the porch rowhouses on Abell Avenue as the illustration source. I bet when I get home Mr. Librarian (the ultimate city nerd!) will be able to cite what exact block of which street they are.
It's a souvenir of our gritty city, a reminder of our kitsch credentials, a fun way to learn to count to ten, and does not contain even one gouged-out eyeball.
I have been staring at this book for a while.
Thanks to Charlie Higson's The Enemy, I rescinded my No Zombies proclamation last year, and so, thinking Rotters was about zombies and emboldened by the Scott Westerfeld cover blurb, I brought it home.
Stared at it, thought the cover was bad, passed it off to my friend Chelsea to read. Chelsea is a fast reader and likes zombies just fine. When she finished it and passed it back to me, I asked her opinion. She said, "I don't know. I think you'd have to read it for yourself. It's not zombies though." Then I returned it to the library. Upon learning that I need to write a list of novels to suggest to readers who liked The Monstrumologist, I checked it back out.
And now I've read it. And I'm still staring at it.
Ok I have like, maybe, THREE things to say about this:
The novel begins as an intimate first-person narrative from Alex's point of view - she is worn down by sorrow and pain, and craves isolation. When two other campers appear on the scene, she is annoyed, but the reader is not surprised. When all of a sudden there is blood and pain, the reader is surprised. And then when she figures out...! and then meets up with...! and almost...! Like that. Every corner turned in this book was a surprise and sometimes a shock, but we never lose touch with Alex - she never turns into a superhero. The aches that sent her into the wilderness never go away, she just gets new ones.
Ilsa Bick writes her weapons and outdoor skills and scenic Michigan wilderness with authority. She has a real feel for timing, building tension to the point of crisis, then sometimes breaking off and picking up days later amid the consequences of the crisis. Her characters are convincing when they're being stubborn and whiny, convincing when they're in psychic or physical pain, convincing even when they're not convinced of their own selves at all.
In fact, I have made a folk song about this book. This doesn't happen very often, given that I hate poetry and I don't know how to play even the guitar... so you know this is going to be good. SING IT:
Here we are again,
It's the end of the world again,
I lost my gun I found my gun I lost my gun again.
Dontcha hate it when
You're just looking for a little privacy,
Just trying to scatter the ashes of your parents on the shores of Lake Superior and maybe come to terms with the inoperable brain tumor that's turned your life to shit,
I mean you're just out camping.
And whaddaya know...?
Here we are again,
It's the end of the world again,
I lost my gun I found my gun I lost my gun again.
It's a good thing I
Can stand a little physical pain
Cause I get beat up kind of a lot before I fall in love and find a truck and take care of a kid and then lose everything again and smack the crap out of a bunch of teenage cannibals,
And while the cannibals scare me
The Christians scare me worse.
(Which should come as no surprise because...)
Here we are again,
It's the end of the world again,
I lost my gun I found my gun I lost my gun again.
I lost my gun I found my gun I lost my gun I found my gun I lost - somebody give me a Winchester!
I found my gun again.
What do you think? Downright anthemic, I'd say. I can't decide whether I sing it like Woody Guthrie or Kurt Cobain or Gang of Four, though.
The dour child dressed like a vaudeville tap dancer does not belong in the muddy woods.
In her tiara and satin flapper dress, she frowns at you accusingly before a scabby-looking canvas backdrop. Just about the only consolation for this displeased moppet is that her shiny Mary Janes do not actually have to touch the scattered dead leaves and packed dirt beneath her feet.
She is, of course, merely a figure in an amateurishly faked photograph.
Or maybe she is Olive, a girl who can levitate.
Recently, I read a book written for grownups. It happens! Of course, the book I read was Nerd Do Well, the memoir of actor and comedian Simon Pegg, and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Star Trek) is nothing if not an overgrown eleven-year-old boy, so actually, the book didn't fall that far outside my usual purview.
It was a kind of so-so book, if you want to know. The fanboy confessional can often descend into aching self-importance (see also: Patton Oswalt), but there were some brilliant discussions of pop culture, criticism, and pop culture criticism (also see also: Patton Oswalt). Mostly about Star Wars. Simon Pegg has thought a lot about Star Wars.
As have we all, n'est-ce pas?
In my house, Star Wars is practically a family member. Storm troopers, clone troopers, Jedi, Sith, sand people - their costumes and powers find their way into every mode of imaginative play engaged in by my sons. I have fought my way to a grudging détente over what I still call the second three movies - we own them on DVD, but they cannot be watched while I am in the house.
(I mean, come on. In the second series of Star Wars movies, they named Leia's adoptive father "Bail." If that isn't telegraphing a certain abdication of commitment on the part of the filmmakers, I don't know what.)
Recently, I assembled all the Star Wars gimmick books in our house and got the boys to run 'em down. By 'gimmick books' I mean the engineered books - the DK Readers are not included in this review, nor are the nominally grown-up novels like The Thrawn Trilogy, The X-Wing Series, Jedi Academy Trilogy, The Han Solo Trilogy (I might read that), or The Bounty Hunter Wars.
Pressia's world is a scary world. Eight years after the bombs went off, food and water are in short supply. Many of the inhabitants are mutated cannibalistic beasts. Infection is prevalent, due to the fact that most people have had objects or creatures blasted into their bodies during the nuclear cataclysm. And if you make it to age sixteen, as Pressia has just done, the militia is going to come in a truck and capture you.
Partridge, who lives inside the spick-and-span Dome that was constructed in advance of such a catastrophe, has his own worries. His brother has committed suicide, his mother is missing, presumed dead, having not made it into the Dome on the day of the bombs; and his autocratic father, one of the architects of the Dome plan, seems to be coming a bit unglued. Partridge comes to believe that his mother is Out There, and resolves to leave the Dome in order to find her in the ruined outside world.
And here we go.
This is Pure by Julianna Baggott, who writes under a number of names. Readers of kidlit will know her as N.E. Bode, author of The Anybodies, a fun, imaginative trilogy for middle grade readers. Grownups who like funny books about relationships (excuse me if I borrow from Netflix's increasingly lowbrow genre labels) may know Ms. Baggott's Bridget Asher books, like The Pretend Wife and The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted
Pure is Ms. Baggott's first sci-fi novel. It is long. It is weird. Fox 2000 has already bought the film rights. This review will contain a ton of spoilers, because a) I write my reviews for grownups selecting books for children, so I don't shy away from spoilers generally and b) there is no way for me to critique this book without them. Because I have issues with this book.
Jon Scieszka has five brothers. Jon Scieszka is a funny writer. Ergo, Jon Scieszka's stories about growing up with his five brothers = funny. Oh, I laughed out loud, all right. I read bits aloud to the librarians in the workroom who wanted to know just what was so damn funny, and they laughed out loud. But we're moms. Moms of boys. We have to think boys are funny, or else go googoo and end up carted away in a van.
I first reviewed this book two years ago. I read it to myself while our house was undergoing extensive renovation. It was kind of a distracted review, touching on Peruvian hats, Luke Wilson and my great-cousin Margaret's nose.
But such a funny book. I really needed the laughs during those dark days - my kitchen was open to the outside world for about a week, making it less kitchen-y and more like, let's say, a shed.
We have revisited Knucklehead this summer, now that it is available on audio, read by Mr. Scieszka himself. I checked it out of the library specifically for the benefit of my husband and his multitude of siblings, many of whom were going to be in from out of town and spending copious hours in our minivan last week.
Librarian Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust, NPR personality, action figure and role model, once told me that I don't have to read the books that everyone is going to read anyway, unless I want to. We were talking about Twilight at the time, and it was a big relief to be let off the hook on that one.
Today's big book that it appears everyone is going to read is Divergent by 22-year-old Veronica Roth. Billed as "the next Hunger Games," it has been passed from hand to hand by aficionados of YA sci-fi action fiction with genuine fervor.
So I brought it home, but, as often happens with exciting-looking books, it got snagged off the coffee table by my man Milo* while I was busy reading something else. He read it in a day, which tells me something already, so I figured I'd get him to booktalk it to me, see if it was something I wanted to read.
In all the brouhaha over last week's Wall Street Journal article about the apparent excess of darkness in young adult literature, I didn't see a lot of people admitting the fact that some kids - and some adults - just like to read about dreadful stuff. The sweetest looking old lady in the library will come to me inquiring about Chelsea Cain's next book. The mom with a toddler on one hip and a five-year-old trailing behind is on a Jack the Ripper kick. The lacrosse goalie in her polo shirt and bouncy ponytail is looking for "something like Isaac's Storm."
Serial killers, natural disasters, industrial accidents - I should do a display or something: "Secretly Freaky Readers Recommend."
Oh, the pleasures of an old-fashioned Something Is Not Right in the Town of Stepford/Sandford/Antonio Bay/Milburn/Celebration novel. It's a premise that allows an author to explore themes of conformity and artifice while creating a claustrophobic, paranoid atmosphere in which the protagonist becomes increasingly convinced that the familiar, friendly fixtures of his or her youth might be harboring Terrible Secrets.
Not a bad metaphor for a teen novel, wouldn't you say? And perfect reading for a hot summer night.
Exclusive private school full of duplicitous bitches carrying designer bags!
Hot guys - gorgeous girls!
And you know, that's really all I need to do to booktalk this book to teen girls. Teen girls? Sure. Also tween girls, grownup girls, and a select few guys I know. We kind of love all those novels with fancy clothes and scheming.
There are some picture books that I gravitate to so strongly, it's like they are the Sun and I am a speck of planetary debris.
Hm. "Debris" sounds so drab. Brightly colored planetary debris. Planetary crayon shavings. Or... planetary confetti. I am wearing my calavera cowboy shirt today, and feeling not at all drab.
Plus I am looking at this orangey yellowy and bright white picture book, which is probably what made me think about the Sun, and that book is not making me feel drab either.
Craft books. So tempting, so cool! In my experience, no other type of book causes people to delude themselves quite so thoroughly.
The cute little R2-D2 hat? Oh My God I am SO going to learn to crochet so that I can make that hat! The AT-AT herb planter? Hey, that could happen - we have almost all those supplies laying around the house somewhere. And half the rest of this stuff is all cutting and glueing felt! Easy! Ok there's a little sewing if you want the Jar Jar Binks Voodoo Doll to look like Jar Jar Binks and not like Jabba the Hutt. And there's some embroidery. Paper mache. Hmm.
On the other hand - sticking pins into Jar Jar Binks? GENIUS.
You know what's great about comics? Trick question. Almost everything is great about comics. The bang zap pow action, the smartmouth dialogue and the smooth outfits, and the knowledge that when you pick one up, nobody in that thing is going to make you work too hard. Archie, Spidey, Scooby, and the Tiny Titans? They are just there to entertain you.
And here's some grown-up brain-development blither-blather, in case you're game for that kind of stuff (if not, scroll down a little, it'll pick right back up):
All that really has to happen here - if you're me, at least - is to see the words "Sloane Tanen."
"Samantha looked around the playground in amazement. Her mother had been right. She really was the smartest and the prettiest."
At least, that was all I had to see when my friend Sarah messaged me on Facebook: "Have you heard of my friend Sloane's new book? Do you want to?"
I have the coolest friends.
Piper's senior year of high school is not starting all that auspiciously. Her best friend Marissa has moved away. Her parents raided her college fund to pay for a cochlear implant for her baby sister Grace. And she the same social nonentity she always has been, a fact that is thrown into painful relief by the fact that her younger brother Finn, a freshman this year, already has more friends than she does. And as this novel begins, she somehow dares the rock band at her school to hire her as manager, regardless of the fact that she is deaf.
Piper's nominal challenge is to get this band a paying gig within a month, but her actual challenge is to build them into a team. Each member - smiling frontman Josh, his silent brother Will, growling lead guitarist Tash, virtuoso drummer Ed, and newly minted rhythm(less) guitarist Kallie - has his or her own motivation for being in the band, and I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that some of these motives prompt behavior that is, shall we say, in opposition to the cohesiveness of the group.
Ahem. We have all been there, I think.
So, I was mock-complaining last week about all the graphic novels cluttering up my hallway, so to speak. I can't possibly review each of them, so I'm rounding 'em up and running 'em down in a couple of portmanteau posts. Therefore:
Graphic Novels, April 2011, Part Deux: This Time it's Historical
This week I've grouped together a number of graphic novels set in the past. Or in an alternate past. Or... in places that people habitually wear hats, in the case of Dapper Men. Oh whatever, they just all go together and you're going to have to take my word.
Many of the items up for review today are adaptations of classic works. And, uh, I have kind of strong feelings about g/n adaptations of classic works. This is going to surprise you. Heck, it surprises me. My strong feelings are mostly along the lines of: why?
The number of graphic novels on my coffee table right now is a lot. It's a flock of graphic novels, a mountain of graphic novels, a herd, a murder, a gaggle. In fact, I am going to make up a collective noun for graphic novels RIGHT NOW.
What I have on my coffee table right now is a CATASTROPHE OF GRAPHIC NOVELS! It is so great a catastrophe that I have had to split this roundup blog post into more than one part. Today's entry:
Graphic Novels on My Coffee Table Early April 2011, Part One: The Early Years
One graphic novel that I don't have on my coffee table right now - but I'm going to fix that, even if I have to arm every mutual friend Dan Santat and I have with Peep guns and malted milk bombs and send them to (nicely) threaten his editor - is Sidekicks. It's a full-length kids' graphic novel from the man who illustrated the Barnett-penned Oh No! Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World and Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo by Milo and Inky's mom. Mutual friends, see?
There's a trailer. Even if you're not a book trailer person, watch this one. Dan Santat always has the best trailers.
"Look!" I said. And also "Awww!"
"This guy has the most delicate etchy line, but his shapes are bold and strong."
"I like the little details. Look at her with her heart-shaped glasses!"
Maybe I should save this one for the hot weather that is to come. Because right now I have heard that it's going to snow one last time in our neck of the woods before Spring (and, immediately on its heels, Summer) shows up for good. Sigh. Quit, already!
Meanwhile, I have the sunny skies and sepia tones of a new Arthur Geisert book to keep me warm. Arthur Geisert is an etcher of pigs, a devotee of hot-air sailing ships, a contraptionist if there ever was one, and yes I just made up that word in his honor. Hogwash and Oops and Lights Out delight kids and adults who enjoy cause-and-effect, who dream of a better mousetrap, who can't see a stream of water in a gutter without building a tiny dam.
Forgoing my usual Electronic Thursday post because I am just that excited about the U.S. debut of Australian teen services librarian Lili Wilkinson. Smart, funny, individual, open-hearted, uncontrived - Pink is like the Ferris Bueller of YA novels. Herewith, Pink:
I think, if my husband and I had girls instead of our two boys, I might be sorely tempted to move to Australia or New Zealand. If the girl protagonists of the last couple of YA novels I've read from those parts are any indication, girls down there are smart and strong and funny even when they screw up.
Which Ava, the star of Pink, does. Kind of a lot. Ava is not so sure where she fits in. Her hippie-intellectual parents are thrilled with her life: her subdued ungirly fashion choices, her good grades in public school, and especially her neo-Beatnik vintage-aggro Anais Nin-reading girlfriend Chloe. But Ava, as I say, is not so sure.
Ava thinks maybe she might like going to prom - with a boy, wearing a corsage. She thinks it might not be so bad to wear skirts. And she is absolutely sure that her favorite color, secretly, is pink.
So she transfers to an elite high-performing high school. She starts dressing girly. She cultivates friendships among the Pastels, the preppy, sure-of-themselves perfect people at her new school. But after bombing at the auditions for the school musical, she finds herself on stage crew, among the few black-clad misfits on campus.
And oh, the shenanigans that ensue. While trying to be a Pastel, she finds that she enjoys herself more among the stage crew. Even though she is pursuing a lacrosse-coifed jock at her new school, she tries to maintain her relationship with the beauteous and acerbic Chloe. How all this gets juggled and what happens when the balls drop to the floor and go bouncing all around the stage is a disaster that is just plain fun to watch.
There's so much to love here, but I think I'll have to adore the characters the most. The stage crew misfits, of course, are fun. Their banter alone makes this book a priceless addition to a short list of realistic YA fiction that also includes Paper Towns, Going Bovine, Audrey, Wait!, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and Fat Vampire.
Brittle Chloe is the personification of outrageous cool. I knew a girl just like her in high school - never knew what became of that girl but I always expected her to turn up as the owner of a cabaret-style nightclub in New York. Or an NPR overseas correspondent.
Even the glowing preps are given individual strengths and traits - they are more than just The Smart One, The Artistic One, The Slutty One. Ok The Slutty One is a bit one-dimensional, she doesn't have much dialogue.
Finally, I have a few random points to make. Yes the title of the book is Pink and the title of this blog is Pink Me, so I would naturally be expected to at least try this book out. But two separate editors at Harper urged me to read it, both saying, "BESIDES the fact that it's called Pink - you're just going to love it."
AND... any book that successfully integrates a rather involved joke from the Aristophanes play The Frogs - to the point that as soon as I finished the book I fished out my old copy of Aristophanes and found that scene and laughed myself silly over it - that is a book that seeks to share the love. Also there are references to the Hubble Space Telescope. And a sci-fi movie marathon. Pranks. Physics. More Greek.
Also, sigh. Sadly, I guess this is still a rare and great thing, and so it's probably important that I point it out. Wish it were not still rare: gay, lesbian, and questioning characters who are just gay, lesbian, and questioning people, and whose sexuality is not the point of the whole book or even the point of their characters. Although there is more than one interesting conversation about homosexuality and image and femininity. Nice stuff. Plus, one homophobic character who gets over it. It can happen.
For nerdy girls who like math and aren't ashamed of it. For non-nerdy girls who like a funny book. For anyone who has ever hoped that being a teenager can have a happy ending. A big box of chocolates and a bouquet of daffodils to Lili Wilkinson.
When an idea is so simple you can't believe nobody's thought of it before - and to my knowledge, IN the whole history of books, which is a pretty long damn history, nobody has - and when that idea works SO well that everyone who encounters it, from age 3 to, well so far I haven't discovered an upper limit, gasps at its cleverness... well, that's magic.
(Contrary to what the tag line of this video avers. Screw you guys, I know magic when I see it!)
Press Here is a book that's been compared to an iPad app. Simple instructions ("Press here." "Rub the dot on the left." "Clap once.") create the illusion that the reader is rearranging a series of dots, causing them to multiply, grow, change color, etc. But I'll tell you - don't worry about the iPad app comparison. I've shown this book to plenty of people who've never touched an iPad, and they are charmed and blown away, just as I was the first time I saw it, at ALA Midwinter in San Diego.
This is the rare picture book that I feel compelled to carry with me wherever I go. Delightful, simple, and everyone who sees it wants to show it to someone else, to share the magic. Best of all, it invites imitation. If it weren't French, I'd expect Hervé Tullet to win the Caldecott Medal for it. Bravo. And thank you to Chronicle Books for sending me a copy.
Here is a sumptuous iPad app, a well-organized reference database, an appropriate use of available technological tools. Here is a distillation of fact, a coherent representation of material that is often too overwhelming for our petty mortal minds to comprehend, a layout that informs and is pretty at the same time.
Here is a fun exercise in creativity:
Yay! You have made a simple version of the super-cool spreads that populate this masterful visual feast from Bob Staake.
Do you know what Shaun Tan is?
Yes, he's an artist and a graphic novelist, I know that. A muralist. An artistic polymath, one might say. But I was sitting here trying to review the three stories in this book, and when I tried to describe "The Red Tree," a quiet, sad story with a hopeful ending, the association that came most strongly to mind was "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Say what you like about Paul Simon, and believe me, I think he's been kind of a hack since before Graceland, that song is poetry.
How many trends can you cash in on with one slender book? I mean - sure, nobody'd much heard of Quirk Books before Seth Grahame-Smith audaciously armed Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy with samurai swords and rifles, and now the indie publisher is huge, able to make distribution deals with whomever they want, so who can blame 'em for trotting out as many sequels, t-shirts and ancillary works as they can? Heck, I'm surprised they haven't put out a series of branded Easy Readers.
So it is with perverse pleasure that I announce that my cynical preconceptions about this graphic novel adaptation of a mashup classic were WRONGGGG. WRONNNGG like the clock that bongs out the time in the Hotel Denouement. WRONNGGG like Bella and Edward. Like Bruce Willis and Nancy Botwin in Red (god, that actress will kiss anybody, won't she?). WRONGGG:
Oh I loved the first hundred pages of this book. Hundred-thirty, maybe. Paranoid and muffled, like a thriller in slow motion, like a ghost story set in the cement landscape of Roosevelt Island, it called to mind the frightened, frightening work of Philip K. Dick . Like Mulder's quieter, more desperate X-Files moments. The characters - and the reader - don't know what's going on, why everything around them keeps breaking and why everyone they encounter seems so hostile. The atmosphere is chilling and hopeless - magnetically written, it seeps into the reader's head like silence and inertia and entropy. Really good.
Aaaand... this is a different type of YA novel. Another type that I like. There are no superheroes coming to terms with their newfound powers in it (except metaphorically), we are not living in a dystopic landscape (except metaphorically - the setting is mostly Paris), and there is no grief (not even metaphorically).
Instead we have an introverted, buttoned-down teenage boy who meets a fierce, wild-eyed girl, falls instantly in love, and is swept along by her insane momentum until he finds himself dog-bit, tattooed, guilty of criminal trespass, and listening to unfamiliar music.