Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Cyber Monday means Round #2 for the Ballou Book Fair!

We are getting ready to send more books to the library at Ballou Sr High School in Washington DC!

In two weeks last month you purchased over 135 books off the wish list for Ballou as part of our annual book fair. They included everything from novels to biographies to history to a couple of MCAT study guides that were particularly appreciated by this student:

With millions of people getting ready to shop this weekend, we are hoping to take advantage of your generosity one last time in 2017 and send even more books to Ballou. As you may know, students at the school suffer far too much from poverty and all its accompanying factors. They struggle to stay in school, to stay engaged in their studies and to persevere in the face of the area's violence.  They deserve every chance that we can give them and their librarian, Melissa Jackson, is an absolute powerhouse when it comes to going the extra mile for her students. We want to make it easier for her to do her job and the best way we can do that is to buy the books that those students want and need, (and in some cases positively pine for), to fill her library's shelves.

We buy books for Ballou!

There are several hundred books on the list at Amazon and for those folks who shopped last month, you will see that several titles have been added in the past few days. They are courtesy the most recent email from Ballou — books the students are excited about and asked if we would add. (And of course we did!) We also moved several books that are on sale to the top of the list as they are excellent bargains right now. We hope that you will take advantage of the low prices and buy one or more of these titles.

If you can't shop off the list, please help spread the word on social media. Here is the direct link: http://tinyurl.com/BookFairBallouHSAlso follow me (@chasingray) and Melissa Jackson (@Balloulibrary) on twitter for updates.

Have a great Thanksgiving and we look forward to an amazing next week of book buying for Ballou!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Collected Brevity: Anthologies and Short Story Collections

When my friend Christopher Golden announced the forthcoming The Twisted Book of Shadows anthology - which will start accepting submissions in February 2018, so mark your calendars! - I started considering what I could write and submit. That led to thinking about my favorite short stories, which is a pretty short list (no pun intended) as I tend to gravitate towards longer stories, full-length novels and serialized television. I started asking friends, colleagues, and patrons of all ages about their favorite anthologies and short story collections, and here's what we've got!

Jules, who runs the fantastic blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, loves Naomi Shihab Nye's Honeybee, which offers both poems and prose. She calls it "a rewarding read" - "the results are both striking and moving, yet she manages to throw some humor in there, too." Check out her review of the collection, which includes quotes from the text, with the author's permission. (I love this note from the author: "If I see a lone bee hovering in a flower, I wish it well.")

Allison seconds the recommendation for Naomi Shihab Nye, saying her work is "off all charts. I’ve never read anything by her that didn't have at least a touch of honeyed language. One of my other favorite short story/essayists is Bailey White who used to read her short stories and essays on All Things Considered. Her first book was Mama Makes Up Her Mind. Barbara Kingsolver and bell hooks are two others I love."

Author and artist Sarah Jamila Stevenson, whose novels include The Truth Against the World and The Latte Rebellion, enjoyed the anthology Slasher Boys and Monster Girls edited by April Tucholke. "This 2015 anthology featuring some big names in YA literature brings a fresh perspective to classic horror tropes - and it's not for the faint-hearted. I'll never think of the Mad Tea Party in the same way again, that's for sure..."

Rachel's favorite anthology is The Best Science Fiction of the Year 3 edited by Terry Carr. "This anthology got me hooked on science fiction and fantasy when I was around 12 or 13, and I have been hooked ever since," she said. It contains two of her favorite short stories, Of Mist, Grass and Sand by Vonda N. McIntyre and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin, both of which she considers "still incredibly relevant today." Prompted by our conversation, she looked up the full table of contents and added, "One of the ones I'd forgotten about, that hits me in a completely different way now, is The Women Men Don’t See, written by Alice Bradley Sheldon under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr." 

When I asked the aforementioned Christopher Golden to list some of his favorite anthologies, he included "all of Charles L. Grant's legendary Shadows volumes and Kirby McAuley's Dark Forces, which were all hugely influential on me as a teenager and into my twenties. The horror stories in those books inspired me as a writer and as a reader…and later as an anthologist in my own right."

As for collections, he said, "The easiest and truest answer is that Stephen King set the bar with Night Shift and Different Seasons. If you go back and read those today - the former a collection of short stories and the latter a quartet of novellas - you'll see the master at work. King didn’t realize it at the time, but those were STATEMENTS, establishing the benchmark for weird fiction. Years later, I wrote the introduction for Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts and I had no idea of his parentage. I should have known, reading those stories, because that set a bar for a new generation. Others that should absolutely be on your weird or horror fiction collection list include all six volumes of Clive Barker's groundbreaking Books of Blood, Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Other Stories, and Robert Shearman's Remember Why You Fear Me. On the fantasy side, Robert Holdstock's The Bone Forest is an overlooked marvel, and Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen is remarkable."

Thanks to Chris for giving us so many recommendations -- and for giving me a segue to share my own! I really enjoyed Golden's fantastic short story collections The Secret Backs of Things and Tell My Sorrows to the Stones. The titles are fantastic and the collections fully deliver. He recently released Don't Go Alone, a collection of collaborations, which includes Joe Golem and the Copper Girl (co-written with Mike Mignola and part of their series of Joe Golem novels and comics), Ghosts of Albion animated films and books), and Wellness Check (co-written with Thomas E. Sniegoski and part of their fantastic dark fantasy series The Menagerie, which I really love).

Looking for books for younger readers and/or more classic fare? As a kid, there were collections of myths and scary stories that I read multiple times. Check out my booklist packed with short story collections and quick reads for elementary through high school readers. Have fun adding titles to your to-read pile, and feel free to leave your short story recommendations in the comments below!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Extinction Trials by S.M. Wilson

Stormchaser is a teen who lives in a world ravaged by hunger and disease. Food is scarce, and an illness that starts with the blistering and peeling of one's skin soon leads to death.

In her world, a few dinosaurs still exist. Stormchaser has befriended a plesiosaur she's named Milo. This is a secret she must guard closely because dinosaurs are universally hated.

When the Trials are announced, Stormchaser enters on a whim; she doesn't have a family, doesn't have anyone dying from the plague like the others.

The contest is a deadly one: enter the area of the world known as Piloria, where the dinosaurs are abundant, and retrieve as many dinosaur eggs as possible. The winner will receive health care and food, two things essential in order to survive their daily nightmare.

She's joined on the Trials by Lincoln and Leif, two boys with a lot on the line. As the competition heats up, they must learn to trust each other if they're going to avoid being eaten alive. But as Stormchaser soon learns, you can't really trust anyone in the Extinction Trials and what she finds hiding under the surface of Piloria will change her life forever.

The Extinction Trials is a super fast action adventure that anyone looking for a strong female hero will love. It's got elements of The Hunger Games without a doubt, and that's a good thing because it means it will make my job as a School Librarian all the easier when I promote this book in the coming weeks. And promote it I shall, because it's got some great scenes, fully realised characters and a ton of action. Highly recommended, can't wait for the sequel!

Nyxia by Scott Reintgen

27426044.jpg (316×475)Emmett is a humble teen from Detroit. His family has been downtrodden for generations, working menial jobs after menial jobs and he isn't showing much to prove that he can break the cycle that has plagued his family.

One day however, he gets a chance to go to a strange planet to work with an alien people called Adamites. However, there's a catch- he is going to have to compete for his spot against teens from around the world each as hungry as he is to make the cut. Babel, the company who is sponsoring the trip promises a big payout if they can succeed.

Thus begins a gauntlet of events in groups and alone that sees the teens become hardened and their skills improve. The group has many distinct personalities some of which don't mesh and the inevitable conflicts arise.

The tasks the kids are asked to do test their limits in many ways but perhaps the most difficult is manipulating the alien substance, nyxia. For some reason the substance also reminded me of the alien symbiote that Spiderman encountered in his whole Venom story arc because soon the line between manipulator and that which is being manipulated becomes blurred.

Babel is a mysterious company and the folks in charge seem to have a ton of secrets themselves. There definitely seems to be some larger plan in place-the reason the kids have been recruited is because the Adamites like children. I can't wait to see what else is in store for Emmett on Eden. Some read alikes to this book are the Maze Runner series and Philip Reeve's Railhead.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Mark Twain famously said (or, more likely, famously didn’t say), “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” This truth is made clear in Jennifer Latham’s searing young adult novel, Dreamland. What rhymes with all too much clarity in Latham’s story is how our nation continues to fall far short of its aspirational tale of freedom and justice for all. Dreamland is the tale of one city in two different time periods, one historical and one present-day. That city is Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the historical time period is one that has been whitewashed out of too many history books.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Onion John

Well, I was reminded of the song, "Catfish John," when I read Joseph Krumgold's Newbery Medal-winning Onion John:

Mama said: 'Don't go near that river
'Don't be hanging around old Catfish John'
Come the morning, I'd always be there
Walking in his footsteps in the sweet Delta dawn.
Catfish John was a river hobo who lived and died by the river bed
Thinking back, I still remember I was proud to be his friend. (Alison Krauss does it well, but I really like Jerry Garcia's version.)

"Onion John" is what the locals call the strange, sort of derelict man who hardly talks. "The way John spoke was his own secret. Most of the words he used were full of x's and z's and noises like ptchky and grvtch. It was a high speed language full of jokes, from the way he carried on. Every so often, talking away, he'd get too much for himself and bust out. There was no way of telling whether the jokes were that good or not. The only part of his conversation I ever understood was the end of it. He said, "Well, good day," each word separate and clear and then you knew he was finished with whatever he was telling you."

The story is narrated by Andy, a young teen. His folks don't forbid him to befriend Onion John, but they think Andy should focus on his studies, go to M.I.T., become an engineer, and/or be an astronaut.

I don't want to give away the plot, but will say this: The author won the Newbery Medal twice, which doesn't happen a lot. This one was good enough that I look forward to reading more Joseph Krumgold stories.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

This book. This book is grounded inside its main character's mind and body in an almost visceral way, and if you've ever had a "crazy" friend--and who hasn't, but I mean one who is actually diagnosed with anxiety disorder and/or OCD--even though this book is entertaining and wonderful and all the things good fiction should be, it will help you to "get" them in a way they might not have been able to articulate to you.

Aza is the star of the show. Or maybe she's not. She's so stuck inside her head, where twisty thoughts and logic have her spinning about the bacteria in her body and how it might just take over and kill her, that maybe she's the victim. Worse, maybe she is the bad guy. And the victim. And the star.

Life is complicated.

Aza is lucky in that she has a best friend, Daisy. Daisy, who talks all. the. time. but who sticks by Aza even though Aza isn't easy to stick by. So when Daisy suggests that she and Aza make like Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden to solve the mystery of the missing billionaire, Aza goes along with it.

Things happen. So many things. And I don't want to talk about any of them, really, because it would spoil this book, which unspools almost magically. It starts from a very clenched place and almost literally unwinds to a a better stasis.

Read it. Read it to find out what role Aza plays in her own life. To see if she can find her way out of her own head, at least a little. And to find out what the title means: "turtles all the way down."

So yeah - consider this review the equivalent of me standing next to you, shoving this book into your hands, making almost uncomfortable levels of eye contact while imploring you to read it.

But really. Read it.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Backbiters by Debra Leea Glasheen

Guiluli is a Red Mighty, a mutation of humans born from the Corporate World War. After 54 years of existence, Pre-ev (non mutated) humans still don't much like the Red Mighties and as a result, the Red Mighties have created their own Nationland.

Despite all of the world's natural resources being either consumed or poisoned by the war, the Nationland has cleaned up its land, so they have pure water and soil free of contaminants in which to grow food. Yet another reason for those off the Nationland to dislike the Red Mighties.

I like the idea of the evolved/mutated species emerging from a human race destroyed by its own vices and desires. It seems that hominids may be ripe for another evolutionary step, after all we have been homo sapiens for a while now. Maybe this is the next step.

This is an interesting twist on a typical dystopian novel in that I feel there is way more hope of a future that isn't just trying to exist day to day but actually thrive as a civilization. The possibility of cleaning up what we have destroyed. Backbiters is a great read for those that enjoyed the Hunger Games, Divergent, Not a Drop to Drink.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The first books have arrived at Ballou High School in DC!

The first books from the wish list have arrived at Ballou High School in Washington DC and are front and center for students to check out! 

We are very excited by how the Annual Book Fair for Ballou Library is going — over 80 books have already been purchased. Our hope is to send 150 books to Ballou from their amazon list this month and we would be delighted to surpass that goal. There are still over 200 books on the list, covering many topics and genres. (Especially 2 MCAT study guides for one student who hopes to be a neurosurgeon & wants to get a head start on what she will need to know for medical school.) 

We hope you will take a look at the list (http://tinyurl.com/BookFairBallouHS) and help spread the word. Be sure to follow @BallouLibrary & my twitter feed, @chasingray, for updates as the books arrive and, if you have any questions, check out the original post on book fair or email me at colleenATchasingrayDOTcom.


Friday, October 20, 2017


Poetry can be loud, it can be quiet, it can be musical, it can be classic, it can be modern, it can be freestyle, it can be metered, it can be anything you want it to be.

Poetry is not all old-fashioned and stodgy - and it isn't limited to sonnets and haikus, either. Poetry comes in all different forms and touches on a wide variety of topics and genres. There are verses and vows and limericks and lyrics. There's epic poetry, lyric poetry, speculative poetry (yep, sci-fi/fantasy/horror themes can creep into poems, too!) Poems pop up in greeting cards and commercials. They are shared in verse novels and at poetry slams.

Like plays, many poems are meant to be heard. Read a poem out loud, or listen to it being read by the author or another brilliant performer, and you might find yourself transfixed and transformed.

Think of a song with lyrics that you really like. Those lyrics just might be poetry, set to music. Check out some performance poetry. Consider Lin-Manuel Miranda's mind-blowing award-winning musical Hamilton. See what I mean? Rhythm and rhymes.

I had a lovely conversation with someone who translates poetry. She is fluent in multiple languages and loves melodic, meaningful words. She spoke of the challenge of keeping the original intention of the poem and being aware of both the connotations and the denotations of words used. When poems have a certain meter, feeling, or flavor,  it can be more important to use words that capture those feelings and rhythms than having a perfectly exact word-for-word translation, she said. Some words don't translate so precisely, she added, especially if it's a colloquialism or a turn of phrase.

Why am I posting about poetry today? Every Friday, bloggers around the world participate in Poetry Friday. This weekly event has roots in the world of academic blogs. I learned of it nearly ten years ago through the book blogging community and have been participating at my blog, Bildungsroman, every week since. Anyone may participate, and different blogs host the roundup each week.

Do you have any poets or poems you really enjoy? Feel free to leave them in the comments below!

If you're so inclined, donate some poetry collections and verse novels for the Ballou Book Fair!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

 When her big chance comes, however, she throws it all away to rescue a teenager drowning off the coast of her island home.
Interacting with a human is strictly forbidden in Diana's culture, let alone saving one and hiding them in a cave.

This, however is no ordinary human. Her name is Alia and unbeknownst to her she is a Warbringer, someone who may be responsible for the greatest war ever to befall the human race.

Using a controversial myth as a guide, Alia and Diana set off to end the curse that Alia has become convinced she carries.

she does her best to stand out.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Annual Book Fair for Ballou Sr High School Is On!

It's Time to Send More Books to Washington D.C.

Welcome to the annual Book Fair for Ballou Sr High School!

For the 8th year, Guys Lit Wire is delighted to invite readers to help this school fill its library shelves by shopping their Amazon wish list. There are hundreds of books to choose from covering every topic you can think of and we hope you will buy a book or two for this worthy school and help its students and wonderful librarian, Melissa Jackson, gain greater access to more titles. The school depends on this annual book fair and we are happy to host it. This is our chance to help the students obtain books they want to read and we can't do it without your help!

Ballou Sr High School's students face many obstacles; all of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch and last year its graduation rate was 57%. But in 2017 every member of the senior class applied to college — a first for the school — and we certainly believe that the library was a huge support to them in their efforts.

Our Goal

We hope to send at least 150 books to Ballou this year and there are plenty of titles at a wide variety of prices to choose from. It's important to stress that this is a list that is reviewed and approved by Ballou students and includes many many books that they have requested. There are poetry and novels, biographies and cookbooks, graphic novels, science, travel and more. There is literally something for everyone on this list and we are sure that you will find a book (or more!) that you want to gift to these worthy students. 

We know 2017 has given us all so many things to worry about and, sadly, so many people who are in need of assistance. With Ballou the need is ever present however and, we believe, critically important. Libraries are the heart of every school and every community; they are part of the long game that can positively transform a community and are especially critical to the hearts of young people. Books can be game changers in the life of a teenager — heck, books ARE game changers and we want to get as many as we can into the hands of Ballou's students. 

The Details

The Amazon wish list can be found here. It is also easily searchable at Amazon under "Ballou High School". If you would like to embed a link in a post or tweet (and PLEASE DO!!), use this one: http://tinyurl.com/BookFairBallouHS

And here is the url in case the links are not working for you:

The mailing address is already set-up for checkout and there are nearly 500 books to choose from with a wide price range. We do hope you will find a book that you want to send to Ballou and help us make life a little better for a great bunch of a kids.

The Book Fair for Ballou High School Library will stay open for 2 weeks and we will keep you posted here on how things go. Be sure to follow @chasingray (GLW moderator Colleen Mondor's twitter feed) and watch the Ballou Library feed for shoutouts from Melissa (@BallouLibrary) as books show up.

Just one book will make a huge difference.

You can learn a bit more about Ballou by watching this short video from the Washington Post. We certainly hope it will persuade you to support the book fair and all efforts for these most worthy students.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years

Carl Sandburg wrote, in his preface to Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, "For thirty years and more I have planned to make a certain portrait of Abraham Lincoln. It would sketch the country lawyer and prairie politician who was intimate with the settlers of the Knox County neighborhood where I grew up as a boy, and where I heard the talk of men and women who had eaten with Lincoln, given him a bed overnight, heard his jokes and lingo, remembered his silences and his mobile face.

"The Mayor of Galesburg in 1858, Henry Sanderson, is the only individual of casual record who carried warm cistern water to a bathtub for Lincoln and saw Lincoln taking a bath. There in Galesburg Clark E. Carr, author of "The Illini," repeated Bill Green's remark about Lincoln, "He can make a cat laugh." And there Lincoln when bantered about his backwardness with women, answered, "A woman is the only thing I am afraid of that I know will not hurt me."

"The folk-lore Lincoln, the maker of stories, the stalking and elusive Lincoln is a challenge for any artist. He has enough outline and lights and shadows and changing tints to call out portraits of him in his Illinois backgrounds and settings -- even had he never been elected President.

"Perhaps poetry, art, human behavior in this country, which has need to build on its own traditions, would be served by a life of Lincoln stressing the fifty-two years previous to his Presidency. Such a book would imply that if he was what he was during those first fifty-two years of his life it was nearly inevitable that he would be what he proved to be in the last four."

So a challenge: Try it. If you think that a six-volume biography of Lincoln is too much, I understand (The first two volumes are "The Prairie Years," followed by four of "The War Years."). There are shortened versions available, a three-volume paperback set, or a one-volume abridged version. I read the three-volume set many years ago. And I wondered if I would ever try to read the entire six volumes. Well, I am. I got through The Prairie Years pretty easily. Volume 1 of The War Years took a bit longer (I kept getting interrupted.) And I have just started volume 2. I love that Sandburg grew up knowing people who knew Lincoln. And he was a great storyteller. That is what sets his Lincoln biography apart, for me, and why I intend to keep reading.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Freefall by Joshua Bellin

When I give a genre talk about science fiction to my students, my main claim is that all good science fiction, no matter how apparently “alien” (literally and figuratively), is actually saying something important about the world in which we live (or at least the world that existed when the work first appeared). Not necessarily in an allegorical way, but in a way that makes the narrative more than just a story. With Joshua Bellin’s Freefall, I now have another title to share as evidence for this claim.

Bellin's young adult science fiction novel begins with Cam waking up from "deepsleep" on a distant planet, confused, alone, and frightened. This is not where he was supposed to wake up, not how the colonization of a new planet was supposed to begin. This is not why he endured a thousand-year induced coma, and this is not why he and the other Upperworlders fled a dying Earth.

Flash back a thousand years, as Bellin's novel does in alternating chapters throughout most of the book, and we discover Cam becoming "woke." A young man waking up to the costs of his privilege, a young man learning to question a world where a minority control nearly all of the wealth and power. A young man who learns some truths about the Lowerworld and about himself, truths tied to his growing devotion and love for a beautiful and mysterious Lowerworld leader named Sofie.

Sofie and her movement want justice for those born in the Lowerworld, a justice denied them by the social stratification the Upperworlders have used to plunder Earth until the planet can no longer sustain human life. Now Sofie and her movement want representation among those privileged enough to be able to flee to a new world and a new life. Cam, raised by Upperworld society and media to believe those in the Lowerworld deserve their fate, rebels against this worldview as the race intensifies to find a world worth viewing.

Bellin leaves plenty of truths for the reader and Cam to discover in the intense action of the final section, as Cam struggles to survive on "Otherworld," truths that reveal the sacrifices necessary for justice. With clear and disturbing parallels to our current political and environmental realities, Freefall uses the darkness of space to do what all good science fiction should: shine a light on what it means to be human.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

I admit, I like it when things fit into nice, neat categories. The satisfaction I get when I can categorize and label things according to how I perceive or interpret them is immense. Well, sometimes, not everything can be sorted out and categorized all nice and neat.

From page one as Riley started to write the initial therapeutic blog post as assigned by Riley's therapist, I wanted to figure it out. I wanted to know what gender Riley was assigned at birth. I felt guilty about trying to use a label, but I wanted to be able to categorize Riley as male or female, cisgender or transgender, homosexual or heterosexual. I get all of those things, they make sense to me - they are categories. I had heard the term gender fluid before but I hadn't really thought about it, at least not in a concrete way - more theoretically. I really appreciate how Garvin described Riley's gender fluidity (AND that this is not how every gender fluid individual experiences it) as a dial from female on one extreme to male on the other. That makes sense to me.

The fact that as Riley meets people both at school and at the LGBTQ support group assumptions are made and genders assigned based on looks and or a few actions without consideration for how an individual might identify their own gender is oddly comforting to me. As I said before, I admit I try to label people I meet. I try not to, but I know I do. So, to see Riley trying as well helps my guilt factor for wanting to label Riley, but also reiterates how deep the gender normative labels run in our society. We can do better, we need to do better. Gender is only a part of who a person is, it doesn't really encompass the depth and breadth of who and/or what an individual is.

I will definitely be recommending this book to my students, AND their parents! There is a lot in here for both age groups to draw on and learn from.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Before and Afterlives by Christopher Barzack and The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

It's my favorite time of year! In celebration of fall, here are a couple of reviews from a few years ago of perfect Halloween season reads.

Christopher Barzak has a riveting take on Alice in Wonderland in his short story collection Before and Afterlives. "The Mad Tea Party" is brief and lacerating, a tale that delivers a clear message on the perils of madness. Grown-up Alice returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother. Upon arriving, she takes on a porcelain Cheshire Cat, recalls a flight attendant dressed in white and sporting a pocket watch who hastened her on her way, craves tea, and dreams of playing cards. This Alice is wounded and angry, destructive and broken. She is the girl who will prompt readers to ask why Carroll's Alice felt compelled to follow the white rabbit in the first place, and what she might have been running from. If Howard writes a fantastical version of Alice's mental health legacy, Barzak plumbs even deeper depths and goes full-on reality. I'm still thinking about the eight pages of "The Mad Tea Party."

 Elsewhere in Before and Afterlives, Barzak shares the history of the scariest haunted house ever in "What We Know About the Lost Families of -- House," reveals a bitter emotional legacy for the parents of a runaway teenager in "The Drowned Mermaid," and reaches deep into the heart of a living boy who finds solace in the resting place of a dead one in "Dead Boy Found." Throughout this collection, Barzak effectively writes people contending with their fears and doubts but most especially he writes about loneliness, and it is this writerly radar for alienation that perhaps makes him so perceptive when it comes to his teen characters. The boy in "Dead Boy Found" is like any other, but Barzak teases out his sorrow page by page, paragraph by paragraph, giving readers a peek at teen humanity that will ring all too true for many high schoolers. He achieves similar results with a sister coming to turns with her older brother's sexuality and unorthodox romance in "Map of Seventeen" (this has to include one of the best portrayals of truly great parents I have read in ages), and further with a daughter forced to confront her father over the effect of his paranormal profession in "The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter."

The tour-de-force, however, is "The Language of Moths," in which a brother learns to appreciate his autistic sister and together they weather a challenging summer and come to an unexpected understanding that, really, makes everything all better. Barzak makes it all seem so easy, these gentle glimpses into his characters' lives, and even though these lives might include mermaids or ghostly parents or talking fireflies, the extraordinary aspects are not what make his tales so magical. It's the way he sees plain ordinary people that gives his stories such power; the way he sees us and yet loves us anyway. Bravo.

Margo Lanagan wanders yet again into the territory of dark myth she travels so well with her multi-generational look at seal wives (selkies) and the land men who claim them in The Brides of Rollrock Island. From the young girl with a stark and frightening seal kinship whose unforgiving childhood leads her down a path to cold and cruel witchery to the boy who challenges a lifetime's worth of social mores to save his mother, Rollrock takes readers into the hearts of its island residents and the subtle way in which rape can affect a society.

Generations of disappointment weigh down Rollrock Island, and even those who are bewitched cannot deny their own responsibility in the sorrow of others (or that they sought out the bewitching in the first place). As one seal wife is driven by abject despair to suicide, the families gather to witness her sad end and know that the same possibility haunts each of their homes as well. Real love -- honest love -- is not easy, but at least it is true and fair, something the men of Rollrock have willfully forgotten and the women are lost without. Lanagan is a master at sparing her characters no quarter, at forcing readers to recognize every moment of weakness that propels her narratives. But with Rollrock, she shows how complicated love and longing can be, how emotions can be manipulated and harsh family dynamics can destroy far easier than love can mend. By every measure, this novel is the very definition of tortured romance and the author never lets you forget that.

Margo Lanagan has rightfully received praise for her previous titles and The Brides of Rollrock Island is worthy of equal measure. I was struck while reading it, however, by how adult it is. This is a novel for teens, and many of the characters in the shifting points of view are quite young, but it has an adult sensibility and awareness of the serious choices we make in the world. Margo Lanagan understands teens like few other authors today; she grants her audience a literary respect more often seen in the pages of The New Yorker than the exhaustive paranormal section of the local bookstore. Kidlit, my ass. Read her pages and see yourself as the serious reader Lanagan knows you to be while gaining a newfound respect for the always complicated world of teenagers.

These reviews were previously published (several years ago) in my column for Bookslut.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Miles Morales: Spider Man by Jason Reynolds

51+N5foXMFL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg (331×499)I was browsing School Library Journal's site under the Diversity tab and I came across an interview with Jason Reynolds in which he talked about how pleasantly surprised he was when he was approached by Marvel to write a yfic adaptation of the new incarnation of Spiderman, Miles Morales. This fact alone made me search out this book.

In case you hadn't heard about this new reboot. Miles is half African-American, half Puerto Rican and lives in Brooklyn. He is still coming to terms with his powers and whether or not he should use them. He has more pressing concerns namely trying to keep his grades up at school, the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy.

He and his father are close-his dad is the only other person besides his best friend Ganke who knows about Miles' alter ego-so father son talks between the two are interesting to say the least. Miles' father is intent on seeing his son do well and to avoid the many pitfalls that could befall him. Miles' dad wasn't exactly an angel in his younger days.

Miles' financial situation at home is precarious at best which is why when a silly lapse in judgment leads to serious consequences at school he finds himself having to make some hard decisions.
Miles is a teenager after all and peer pressure is a huge part of a teen's existence. In a few scenes Miles succumbs to peer pressure and uses his powers to get the upper hand on unsuspecting folks. One scene in particular seems like it could have occurred in any one of those old hip-hop movies from the 80s.

The villain in this book isn't exactly like the Vulture, Green Goblin or Doc Ock in terms of costumes and over the top garb. Reynolds puts a great spin on the teacher student dynamic and the power dynamic that exists in the classroom.  This was a great read, highly recommended, hopefully there are a few more books in the works. This would be an awesome series.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We See Everything by William Sutcliffe

The future sound of London is an air raid siren.
Lex lives on The Strip. No not the area of Las Vegas which according to everyone who goes there "has been ruined since the mob left".

The Strip is what's left of London after a series of brutal wars between the government and an organisation known as The Corps.

To the government, The Corps are terrorists, plain and simple. To those in The Corps, the government's 24-hour drone surveillance, lies and disorder has left them no choice but to fight back.

Lex's father is a member of The Corps, and therefore a target. Their family does their best to survive in an anxious, bombed-out reality

Friday, September 15, 2017

Midnighters trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

When Jessica Day moves to the seemingly sleepy town of Bixby, Oklahoma, she has no inkling that she'll learn the town's supernatural secrets one sleepy night. When she wakes up at exactly midnight, she sees raindrops outside which appear to be frozen - not made of ice, but rather, suspended in mid-air. She cautiously, carefully treads outside and takes in all of the quiet beauty of the night. She thinks it's all a dream . . .

. . . until her new classmates tell her otherwise. Dess, Rex, Melissa, and Jonathan are connected by the time they were born: the stroke of midnight. This is a stroke of luck, for better or for worse, for it permits them to move around the town during the Secret Hour that starts at midnight, when everyone and everything else freezes. Each teenager has a cool ability which is truly unique. Thanks to Scott Westerfeld's creative mind, even those powers you may think are typical of sci-fi stories, such as flying, have a new spin. He also makes math a superpower. Woo hoo! These powers are tested when the group has to fight the Darklings, creepy creatures literally from another time, creatures that can ONLY move around during the Secret Hour. Research, plans, patterns, steel, and thirteen-letter words must be prepared, and sacrifices must be made.

Read the Midnighters trilogy
in order:
The Secret Hour
Touching Darkness
Blue Noon

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

To read or not to read: Hamlet, illustrated three ways

I'm not certain that anyone reads Hamlet in high school anymore (at least as an assignment). I can think of many reasons why they should, including it being, hands-down, one of the best pieces of work written in the English language. Moody Danish Prince comes home from college because his father died, only to find out that his mom has married his dad's brother. I mean, that set-up alone is full of drama. But when Hamlet meets his father's ghost, and the ghost tells him that he didn't die of natural causes, but was murdered by the same dude who married his widow and took his throne? Well.

Throw in some additional plots - the uncle scheming to get rid of Hamlet, Hamlet meeting up with his girlfriend, whose father is a counselor to the king, a few additional murders (SO MANY MURDERS), and the plot is crazy good. As are so very many of the lines in the play. It's not limited to Hamlet's most famous soliloquy, which begins "To be or not to be, that is the question."

Now, I get that Shakespearean texts aren't always super easy to understand. And hey, these were supposed to be plays, acted out on stage in front of live audiences. Sure, you can watch movie versions -- the most faithful is probably Kenneth Branagh's version, which includes pretty much the full text, where other versions edit a bit, though my daughter especially likes the versions with David Tennant or Ethan Hawke, both of which are set in modern times (the latter being in New York City).

But if you need to read the play and think you might like some help in understanding it, may I recommend reading either the No Fear Shakespeare graphic novel or the Manga Shakespeare edition?

I'll explain the pros and cons of each version in the remainder of this post.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

For Matt, eating is about control. And not eating is the ultimate exercise of that control. Because if you can control this elemental need, you might be able to control other elements of your life as well, including the disappearance of your older sister, the economic and emotional traumas affecting your mother, and your sexual attraction to the boy you are convinced is involved in your sister’s disappearance. An eating disorder as the means of creating order in a disordered universe.

You might even be able to control your very senses. Like a fasting anchorite using his hunger to fuel an insight into God, Matt believes his hunger can heighten his sense of smell, his hearing, even his physical dexterity. His mind can become a weapon against the bullies who plague his high school existence and the doubts that lurk in every silence within his home and his mind. He can be the one in control. He hungers for it.

Sam J. Miller’s debut novel The Art of Starving structures its story to reflect The Art of War, Sun-Tzu’s famed Chinese guide to fighting. Each chapter presents another “rule” about survival. Surviving not eating, surviving bullying, surviving poverty, surviving emotional isolation. What begins as a mystery involving what role sometime bully and full-time soccer star Tariq plays in the disappearance of Matt's sister Maya evolves into a moving presentation of Matt’s struggle to have others accept his sexual identity and his own struggle to accept his physical identity.

The Art of Starving challenges the reader with its raw portrayal of Matt’s eating disorder and its steadfast refusal to acknowledge whether Matt’s “powers” serve as powerful metaphor or supernatural manifestation. With its aching honesty and elegant writing, The Art of Starving makes me wish this book had existed for former students and glad that it does for current and future ones.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow has done it again, my mind is blown. The futuristic world he has created hits close enough to home to really make a reader think about what is in store for this world we insist on destroying.

Hubert Etc, Seth, and Natalie are pretty tired of the same old same old. Because really, how many anti-establishment parties can one go to and still look yourself in the eye in the mirror - even if they are printing food, shelter, meds or some other necessity for the downtrodden of the world?

The government in collaboration with, or under the direction of, the ultra rich have control of everything and aren't making things better. The anti-establishment movement in the "real world," or  Default, is not changing anything either. Why not just walkaway? Follow the pioneers of walkaway and leave Default behind.

Walkaway has been flourishing. Society has evolved to the point where individuals work for the benefit of all. There is enough clothing, food and shelter for everyone. More resources can always be scavenged and printed into whatever is needed. Science too has advanced, making the government and ultra rich in Default take notice. I mean, who doesn't want to live forever - even if it is as only a consciousness inside a machine.

I would recommend this book to older teens as there is a fair bit of profanity, sex and drugs. Despite that, I think that they will relate to the amazing characters and crazy world Doctorow has created.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Read this book now: In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

My review of In Other Lands was in the August issue of Locus magazine so I can finally talk about why I think this is one of the best books of 2017. Here's a bit of my review:

I have rewritten the first paragraph of this review a half dozen times, trying to find some way to make clear that Sarah Rees Brennan has created a nearly perfect YA fantasy  without gushing. I can’t do it. In Other Lands is brilliantly subversive, assuredly smart and often laugh-out-loud funny. It combines a magic world school setting with heaps of snark about everything from teen romance to gender roles, educational systems and serious world diplomacy. The protagonist, Elliot, directs his often peevish analysis and jaded perspective on everyone he meets and everything he sees, but his evolution from bratty thirteen-year old to soulful seventeen-year old is a thing of beauty to witness. Elliot’s transformation, along with his deepening relationships with friends Serene (Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle!) and Luke, is the book’s heartbeat. As you can tell from my gushing, the characters are impossible to resist and combined with the engaging plot Brennan has worked a miracle with In Other Lands. Mark my words, folks; this author has  written what must be considered one of the best books of the year.

This is a fantasy that begins in our world when Elliot finds out (in the very first pages) that he is just magical enough to be offered a chance to study in the Borderlands at Border camp. Unlike the wonder that is Hogwarts however, (and the giddy way every student adores Hogwarts), Elliot is less than impressed with the place he ends up. He agrees to stay there because his mother left when he was a baby and his father has been disappointed ever since; in other words, no one will miss him back home. (An appropriate "your son has been offered a full scholarship to an excellent private school" story is easily accepted by his father.)

But Elliot is a bit of a smart ass, (actually a lot of a smart ass), and he gets pissed that there are no microwaves or computers or, for the love of God, post-it notes! He misses pens and pencils (what is the deal with quills?????) and he thinks a lot of what the Borderlands folks embrace is a bit nuts. So while he's there for the relief from endless boredom back home, the killer library and the potential to one day meet mermaids (hence the book's cover), he is not one to gloss over the shortcomings of the full-time fantasyland he is living in. This makes Elliot a bit of a grump but also also entirely relatable and from the very first few pages readers are going to love him.

Far more than just a story about a kid fitting into a magical world though, In Other Lands tackles a ton of other issues. Elliot makes friends with Serene, an elf who has her own issues with fitting in as elves don't typically attend the human training camp, and Luke who is the all-around gorgeous golden boy who everyone loves and comes from a great heroic family and is good at everything he does and ought to be a complete entitled ass but quickly bonds with Serene as warrior buddies in training and thus becomes friend with Elliot as well. (Even though Elliot tries really hard not to like Luke and is jealous of his every moment with Serene.)

Then there are the other classmates all of whom are interesting and carrying varying degrees of their own baggage and some interesting parents (especially Luke's) and teachers (some less appealing than others) and the biggest thing which is the Borderlands society that is a whole lot more focused on fighting and training to fight and preparing to fight then Elliot thinks makes sense. In  fact, as he trains to be a diplomat, (in the woefully under appreciated diplomats program), he gets to take a long look at what business as usual looks like in the Borderlands and that leads him to a few conclusions. Here's a bit of what he thinks as he works on a peace treaty:

He tried to put in things that would please the elves without hurting the humans, and vice versa. He argued with people who believed nothing should ever change, as if fixing something broken was sacrilege. Surely there was a better way to do things, out in his world, in the civilized world. 
Except there were still wars in his world. It was only in stories that there was one clear evil to be defeated, and peace forever after. That was the dream of magic land: that was what could never have been real. 
Everyone imagined a battle that would bring peace, and the only that ever worked, ever brought peace for even a heartbreakingly short time, in any world, were words.

And boom—Brennan treats her readers like adults and gives them smart tough things to think about and says out loud what a ton of folks think deeply about and man, she just nails the whole power of diplomacy.

Seriously, someone should gift every member of the State Department with this book.

Beyond the fitting in and war and peace there is also, of course, a lot of romance happening. It's high school after all and crushing and dating and sex happens. (Yes, sex happens. Thank you Ms. Brennan for not pretending that it doesn't!) Some predictable dating takes place and some very unpredictable dating takes place. There are straight romances and GBLTQ romances. And the big romance, the one the book builds up to in tiny little increments with each turning page, is WONDERFUL.

I mean it, this might be the best couple in YA fiction that any of us have read in AGES. (I won't spoil with names but man, will you ever cheer when they get together!!!!)

Also, Serene is the greatest feminist warrior badass in the history of teen fiction and the matter of fact way in which she addresses differences between the sexes sparks so many hilarious moments that I can't even pick just one to share. (Let's just say her take on getting your period is all the rainbow- sparkly-thank-you-patron-saints-of-all-women-everywhere goodness every teenage girl ever wanted.)

To sum up: great, unique characters, a traditional fantasy setting that is reinvented in an entirely fresh way, witty conversation that comes straight out of a Hepburn & Tracy movie, dazzling romance that does not overshadow the plot or involve the characters being stupid in the name of love, and a unicorn who scares the living shit out of everyone! (Not that unicorns must be scary, but this one is just so cool!)

When I finished In Other Lands it was with an enormous amount of respect for what Sarah Rees Brennan has accomplished. This brilliant novel becomes more and more intense and funny and engaging with each page and is so utterly enjoyable that it was the easiest thing in the world for me to fall in love with it. This is what we need more of in YA fantasy, this is what we need more of in YA fiction. Buy the book, read the book, recommend the book. In Other Lands is the real deal and by far what everyone needs to be reading this year.

I loved it. I loved every damn minute of this book and I'm so glad it is out in the world.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman

While wondering what to share at Guys Lit Wire today, I browsed my bookshelves and remembered how happy I was when Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman came out. I've always enjoyed classic fairy tales, and I thoroughly enjoyed Pullman's His Dark Materials series, so I couldn't wait to dig into this collection. Pullman selected fifty Grimm tales to retell, ranging from the well-known (Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White) to those perhaps not as well known to the general populace (Hans-my-Hedgehog, Lazy Heinz).

Pullman doesn't shy away from the violent aspects of stories, but he doesn't purposely make them overly gory either. For example, those familiar with the origin stories of Cinderella won't be surprised by what happens to the stepsisters' feet and eyes, but it shouldn't cause nightmares for those who shy away from horror movies. Pullman also keeps the light stories light, and retains the humor in stories with sassy scoundrels and silly sorts.

At the end of each story, Pullman notes the 'tale type' and the source of the story, lists similar stories, and often adds a few additional thoughts. It made me glad to see other storytellers named, including published authors and lesser known folks that the Grimms interviewed when they were collecting stories. If they hadn't shared those stories and the Grimms hadn't committed them to paper, they may have been lost through time. There's also a lovely introduction and a bibliography at the front of the book.

The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich is not one of my favorite Grimm tales, nor one of my least favorites. I've read it and seen it in many different forms. Somehow, though, I never encountered a version with Iron Heinrich, the loyal servant who had three iron bands placed around his heart to contain his grief when the prince disappeared, "for iron is stronger than grief." Upon the prince's return with his new princess, the bands on Heinrich's heart break, because "love is stronger than iron." That explanation and that image struck me deeply, and I'll never forget where and when I first read it.

Another fun discovery was Gambling Hans, which ends up being an origin story for "every gambler who's alive today."

Like I said, I've always liked fairy tales - but not necessarily for the typical reasons, for the "happily ever after" endings and the weddings and whatnot. I always have been and always will be surprised when characters up and marry other characters after knowing each other for five seconds! I prefer the journeys the characters take, the lessons they learn along the way, especially when they include twists, surprises, and talking animals.

If you enjoy TV series like Once Upon a Time and Grimm and feel the urge to re-read some of the original stories, pick up Philip Pullman's collection. Whether you pick at it little by little, story by story, or read it all over the course of one stormy night or one long weekend, if you like fairy tales, you're sure to enjoy it - and it may prompt you to pick up additional books related to the original stories or their tellers!