Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson

Black Hole Sun / Won't You Come / And Wash Away the Rain

Soundgarden's dark lyrics were floating around my mind while I read this thrilling sci-fi adventure from Kevin Emerson.

The year is 2213, but no one's really counting anymore because the Earth is dead, swallowed by the sun as it goes supernova.

Earth's population has gone to Mars, but it's only a short stay because Mars isn't safe from the sun's wrath either.

Mars is just a place for the Earthlings to get their act together before they embark on a 150 year journey to a new home.


Liam was born on Mars, and the thought of leaving it behind is crushing, but he goes along with it because leaving is better than being melted to nothing. Liam's friend Phoebe is also disappointed about leaving, together they reminisce about their time together and get ready to board the last starliner to leave the red planet.

As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds

Ernie and his brother Genie are from Brooklyn so they've seen it all and then some and they aren't afraid of nothing. That is until their parents pack them off to a small town in Virginia one summer to stay with their grandparents. Rural Virginia is a lot different from the big city for a lot of reasons, chief among them being that for one, they live out near woods where all kinds of critters (and snakes) live.

Genie, is younger and he looks up to his older brother Ernie. Ernie is cool, always wears sunglasses and unfailingly sticks up for Genie, especially when other kids call him names like Geenie Weenie. They share a close brotherly bond and they need that bond more than ever since their parents are going through a bit of a rough patch-the summer trip to their grandparents' is meant to be a chance for their parents to work out some issues.


26875552.jpg (318×474)Everyone is scared of something. For a kid like Genie this is a coming-of-age moment in his life since he isn't used to seeing grown ups have such visceral reactions to things that scare them. Grandpa for his part, although he is blind does not hesitate to do things around the house, the fact of which astounds the boys.

Reynolds deftly intertwines various topics in this novel, among them the complicated nature of family relations and the dichotomy between city life and country life.

Being brave in most books for this age group involves kids finding the strength to do (or say) things. Reynolds inverts that dynamic and shows us that it's ok not to do things that scare us. Some read alikes to this book are Shelley Pearsall's The Seventh Most Important Thing, Andrew Clements' The Jacket and Daphne Benedis-Grab's Army Brats.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Teen Survey: Nathaniel


School's out for summer! A recent high school graduate filled out our GuysLitWire Survey. Here's what he had to say:

Name: Nathaniel

Age:
18

Grade:
12th (just graduated)

Books recently read for fun:
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Books recently read for class:
The Iliad
by Homer
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
Hamlet by William Shakespeare (It's always been my favorite Shakespeare play!)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Books you read as a kid:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
by Eric Carle

Why you like to read:
I just do.

Favorite book genres/topics:
Dark thinky stuff and biographies.

Favorite books:
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Favorite playwrights and plays:
Shakespeare

Favorite type of music:
Classical

Anything else you want to say:
Hi!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

California Dreamin' by Pénélope Bagieu

All the leaves are brown
and the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
on a winter's day . . .


CALIFORNIA DREAMIN': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas is a graphic novel by Pénélope Bagieu, who also wrote and drew Exquisite Corpse, featured in this post last year. The book was originally published in French, then translated into the English by Nanette McGuinness.

This graphic novel tells the story of Ellen Cohen, known by most people as Cass Elliot (a stage name based on a reversal of her initials), known by still more as "Mama Cass", from her childhood in Baltimore to her 24th birthday, shortly after signing a record contract as part of The Mamas & the Papas. There are no color spreads inside the book, but the colorful story telling and clear identification of characters by image make it easy to follow.

Nearly every chapter is from the perspective of a different person in Cass's life, from her sister to her parents to high school friends to fellow musicians. And it totally works in conveying the essence of her persona - her charm and wit, her social consciousness, her insecurities, her desire for love - with its spare telling of incidents and chapters in Cass Elliot's life.

It's an honest portrayal, complete with drug use and language, and is a page-turner in the best sense. While many of the pages include frames and boxes for images, there is an interesting fluidity to Bagieu's style, as in the chapter entitled "Bess", which is named for her mother. While Bess is framed throughout, she finds Cass in the basement with Michelle and John Phillips and Denny Doherty, completely tripping on acid. Those pages are rather free-form (except for any appearance by Bess).



The book does not cover Cass's success with The Mamas & the Papas, or her later solo career, but it paints a clear picture of her childhood and early development. A truly clever biography.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Dan vs. Nature by Don Calame

Dan vs. Nature by Don Calame had me on page 2 with “uriniferous homunculi.” The young adult novel solidified its hold on page 190 with its description of a certain bodily function sounding like “a didgeridoo played into a pot of loose mashed potatoes.” And my affection for this hilarious tale was cemented on page 261 with a reference to Blood Meridian. Cormac McCarthy references AND virtuoso uses of figurative language to describe the sight, smell, and sound of human excretion? This is the book for me.

If you laughed at any or all of those examples, Dan vs. Nature is the book for you as well, a tour de force mash-up of juvenile humor and SAT vocabulary in the season of Survivor that will never air. The novel starts tamely enough: Teenage nebbishes Dan and Charlie are accosted by what Charlie describes as the aforementioned “homunculi.” Dan’s life only gets worse when his mother reveals that she is engaged to manly man Hank, who Dan can only see as the latest in a series of bad choices his mother has made since his birth father ran off years ago. And Dan’s life seems to bottom out when his well-meaning mother reveals that Dan’s birthday present is a male-bonding survival wilderness trip with Hank.

Charlie, however, has the brilliant/deranged idea to use the trip to torment Hank and convince him to abandon the relationship with Dan’s mother. I do not want to spoil the particulars, but the plans involve hacking a “practice baby” from Dan’s high school and turning it into a liquid-spewing demon, a copious amount of doe urine, and doctoring various substances so Dan spends a lot of time with his “sluices” opened at both ends.

Zany and gloriously debauched, the deterioration of the wilderness trip in Dan vs. Nature more than compensates for the general predictability of the overall plot resolution. It’s not so much the fluidity of the plot as the fluids in the plot that will keep you reading. The introduction of less-than manic pixie dream girl Penelope as a potential love/lust interest for both Charlie and Dan also makes for a satisfying subplot. And how can you deny a book that begins with the main character being punched in the ass, continues with him punching himself in the junk, and ends with him getting punched in the face not once but twice? Dan vs. Nature pulls no punches in its gleeful depiction of man and nature at their most elemental.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Sign of the Beaver

It's not perfect. But The Sign of the Beaver is a good story. Good enough to be named a Newbery Honor Book, as a matter of fact.

It tells of thirteen-year-old Matt, who is left to guard the new home they built in the wilderness of Maine, when his father heads off to bring the rest of the family from their old house in Quincy, Massachusetts. He loses his hunting rifle to a thief, and worries that he may starve. But some locals Indians help him in exchange for Matt teaching the young Attean to read.

"An uncomfortable doubt had long been troubling Matt. Now, before Attean went away, he had to know. 'This land,' he said slowly, 'this place where my father built his cabin. Did it belong to your grandfather? Did he own it once?'

'How one man own ground?' Attean questioned.

'Well, my father owns it now. He bought it.'

'I not understand.' Attean scowled. 'How can man own land? Land same as air. Land for all people to live on. For beaver and deer. Does deer own land?'

How could you explain, Matt wondered, to someone who did not want to understand? Somewhere in the back of his mind there was a sudden suspicion that Attean was making sense and he was not. It was better not to talk about it. Instead he asked, 'Where will you go?'

'My grandfather say much forest where sun go down. White man not come so far.'

To the west. Matt had heard his father talk about the west. There was good land there for the taking. Some of their neighbors in Quincy had chosen to go west instead of buying land in Maine. How could he tell Attean that there would be white men there too?"

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

Everyone has a history. For Petula and her Youth Art Therapy (YART) classmates, their histories pretty much bite. How does one move past a marred past, either a singular event or a series of bad decisions that result in a complete loss of faith in an individual? Everyone makes mistakes, some are just bigger and harder to forgive than others.

Rachel and Petula were great friends, best friends even. They loved to share everything with one another, until that terrible day. Of the many issues Petula suffers from,  many have developed since that terrible day, most deal with extreme (irrational) safety. As in how likely one is to be struck by piano falling from the 5th floor of an apartment building while walking down the street,  or making sure one wears the appropriate clothing for cold weather so as not to catch pneumonia.

Jacob, a.k.a. the bionic man, has his own past. As a transfer student, not everyone knows where he has been or what he has done, but he does. It haunts him, causing him to leave behind huge portions of what makes Jacob "Jacob."

As the classmates work together - at first under serious duress - they start to see each other as more than just a summation of mistakes, but as truly whole people.

Nielsen gives us some really fantastic characters in this book, they all have their hangups, bang-ups, and screwups, but they are each touching in their own way. I think many readers of Jandy Nelson, John Green and Rainbow Rowell will enjoy this funny and heartfelt novel.

Friday, June 2, 2017

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

I'm reviewing this book for Locus Magazine right now, so I can't say much but you need to get In Other Lands on your radar now. It's for YA readers (the protagonist ages from 13 - 17 in the course of the book) and for all that it is somewhat familiar (teen from our world at school in a magical land) it's unlike any fantasy I have read in a very long time. It's due out in August from Small Beer Press. More from me on it after the review runs, but here's the publisher's description:

The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border — unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and — best of all as far as Elliot is concerned — mermaids.
What’s your name?”
“Serene.”
“Serena?” Elliot asked.
“Serene,” said Serene. “My full name is Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle.”
Elliot’s mouth fell open. “That is badass."
Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.
It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likeable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world.
“The beauty of men is a sweet soft thing that passes all too soon, like a bird across the sky.”
In Other Lands is the exhilarating new book from beloved and bestselling author Sarah Rees Brennan. It’s a novel about surviving four years in the most unusual of schools, about friendship, falling in love, diplomacy, and finding your own place in the world — even if it means giving up your phone.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Secret Lives by Berthe Amoss & Girl in Reverse by Barbara Stuber

There are few topics more universal than family secrets. Every family has them, ranging from the tragic and devastating to pedestrian and silly. We cover up family secrets because we are often taught we must do so, but most of us can not look away from them or deny an interest to know more about how those secrets came to be. (The immortal heroine of a certain novel wasn’t called “Harriet the Spy” for nothing.)

Traditionally, literary teen detectives find their earliest genesis close to home, cracking open the mysteries of family and friends before embarking on those in the wider world. These stories are often relatable on a level that far flung adventures and dystopian dramas struggle to achieve. After all, while we all might love the idea of saving the world, ferreting out the lies that lurk around our own kitchen tables is something far more achievable.

The titles Secret Lives by Berthe Amoss and Girl in Reverse by Barbara Stuber center on questions surrounding the life and loss of parents, especially mothers. In these historical novels, the protagonists suffer from feelings of abandonment and when tantalizing clues about their mothers are discovered they each embark on the hunt for more information. 

By placing their characters far from the era of computers and cellphones, the authors allow their narratives to unfold slowly and carefully. With their climbs into attics and visits to cemeteries, Secret Lives and Girl in Reverse mimic the classic girl detective plots but there are no Scooby Gang moments of catching a nefarious villain. These books are all about finding answers to very personal questions and the delicate balance the protagonists must consider as they pursue their own pasts.

Girl in Reverse is the story of Lily Firestone, who was left at an orphanage by her mother when she was just a toddler. Now sixteen, she is the Asian daughter of adoptive Caucasian parents in 1951 Kansas. With the country immersed in the Korean War, Lily is frequently subjected to the cruelties of racism by her classmates and though dearly loved by her family, she is terribly unhappy. Everything changes when her younger brother Ralph finds a small box in the attic that came with her from the orphanage and includes a collection of Asian artifacts. Looking for information about the objects, Lily visits the local museum with its Asian exhibit, meets some of the archaeologists involved and eventually discovers what her birth mother had to hide and why. Surprisingly, Lily finds herself confronting someone she never expected and learns things that challenge her entire identity.

The Firestone family is unaware of Lily’s past and more importantly, have a great deal invested in leaving it alone. Her adoptive parents are living their post-war 1950s ideal of peace and prosperity and are steadfastly determined not to acknowledge any conflicts that Lily’s ethnicity might cause. They care deeply for their daughter, but Stuber does a fine job of showing how their love is not enough to change what people think about her and denying her difficulties serves only to exaggerate them. Lily is suffering and her family history is what she needs to uncover so she can feel secure. In her case, the questions are beyond her parents’ comprehension and thus all of her detective work must be conducted in secret, albeit with the delightful assistance of her brother, who grasps what their parents can not.

In Secret Lives, an out-of-print rerelease in the Lizzie Skurnick Books series, twelve-year-old Addie lives with her older unmarried aunts in 1930s New Orleans. Cared for by them since her parents were killed in a Caribbean hurricane, Addie is chafing at life in the genteel household and desperate to retain her fading memories of her mother. With the help of a new friend, who eagerly embraces the mystery, Addie finds her own puzzling clue in the attic, (proving it’s an old trope but a good one), and starts asking questions. In her case though, the truth is revealed more by listening and noticing—by gauging the reactions of others when her mother’s name comes up. Step-by-step Addie moves from one family member and friend to the next, pressing each for a bit more information until the final picture, the true picture, of her mother is revealed. 

It is clear early on that Addie’s relatives know all the answers; it just has not occurred to them that she would ever want to know more than the entirely acceptable story they crafted about her parents. Amoss shows that assumptions about “what is best for the child” can often go awry and rarely hold up to the impertinence of a truly determined miniature Nancy Drew. This basic premise of adults exerting fruitless control over a situation makes Secret Lives a more traditionally constructed but no less effective title.

By the final pages of these two novels, each of the protagonists learns something about themselves and, more importantly, the people they love. These are predictable endings perhaps, in that the mysteries are solved and relationships affected for the better, but that does nothing to reduce their enjoyment. Collectively, we all love a good mystery and everyone of us has a relative who seems to be hiding something. Secret Lives and Girl in Reverse are proof positive that readers need not look far and wide for drama; all too often it is right beyond their bedroom doors.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

Robin Wasserman's The Waking Dark opens with bloody murder and doesn't slow down for one minute from then. (If you read Black and Wasserman back-to-back, you might want to have a romantic comedy on standby to mellow out to afterward.) It's intense, compelling, and always a coming-of-age story first and a "scary, we might all die, hold on to your hats" suspense novel second. It has been compared in various places to the great works of Stephen King, and I agree that the influence is there, although The Waking Dark ends miles better than It. This is one part Stand by Me, one part Red Dawn (original not remake), and one part every single bad thing you've ever thought about the military industrial complex (see Super 8 for more on this). Mostly though it is just a blazingly good story and the sort of page-turner that will keep you up all night for sure.

In the opening pages five teens are directly involved in five separate gruesome murders (either as witnesses or participants) in the quiet town of Oleander, Kansas. In the days that follow the shell-shocked population searches for answers to the crimes, all of which were perpetrated by otherwise perfectly decent residents. As time goes by the teens struggle with their experiences while everyone else tries to dismiss the "Killing Day" as an aberration, wrapping themselves up in religion or denial and doing their level best to resume the rhythm of seasonal celebrations that dictated Oleander's calendar for decades. Then one year later a tornado rips through town, as they do in the Midwest, and all of the Oleander's secrets are blown apart. A quarantine follows, borders are erected, soldiers swarm the perimeter and the five protagonists must navigate a strange new world where societal rules seem to be slipping away in a rush for power, bloody vengeance and paranoia. This is Lord of the Flies times a million and it doesn't slow down until the last screaming page.

The plot of The Waking Dark certainly keeps readers riveted but where Wasserman truly excels is also King's strong point -- the characters. Daniel, West, Jule, Ellie and Cass are complex, thoughtful and extremely compelling. They introduce questions of God and fate, good and evil, and bravery and cowardice throughout the narrative and refuse to be pigeonholed into easy categories. All of them are strong and all of them are weak; they make choices both admirable and regretful and their long soul searching journeys, which encompass the entire book, are the stuff of epics. A high school hallway lives in The Waking Dark, and everyone you know passes through its pages, meeting challenges that none could have prepared for. Few will survive intact.

The most surprising part of The Waking Dark, though, is just how much fun it is to read. This story takes you away, it steals your breath, it shocks and amazes. Oleander is not Derry, Maine, but damn, it sure took me back.

This review was previously published in my YA column at Bookslut.com