I don't know about you but picking out holiday presents for the men in my life is like going fishing. I never know if I'm going to land a keeper, or... a guppie. The Dog Stars is THE guy book of the year, and by guy, I mean, actual manly men who do manly things. Not only that, once your giftee finishes, you can mine the book for all kinds of thought-provoking writer tricks.
So, without further ado, basic premise: Man vs. Nature, Man, and Himself. Use this as your lead line when said present is unpacked. It will hook 'em. When asked for further details by other (likely female) interested parties - Hig, a survivor of a pandemic flu that wipes out the known human race, retreats to the community, now deserted, around the air strip where he keeps his plane, with his dog, Jasper (warning, Jasper is old), and fights to survive. He makes an ally, who is a weapons master. They are attacked by unfriendlies. Hig eventually leaves to find more survivors, cue - Eve.
This book has got everything a guy reader could want - guns, planes, dogs, fishing, hunting, fighting for survival, Adam and Eve (note: this is NOT a kids' book), even poetry. Didn't see that coming, right? Neither did I, but Heller uses it boldly and uses it well.
What can the writer can take away from this piece? Heller is a poet, so the very style of word on page is as unique as a fingerprint. Rules of grammar aren't just bent or broken, they've been reinvented. For instance, Heller uses no italics to set off dialogue. Often, he doesn't even set it off at all. That made reading, at times, a little harder. It also, for me, distanced the story from the here and now. On the other hand, his overall style came across as journaling, so for some, it could make the telling more intimate. At the very least, not using "quotation marks" is a very nifty tool, if you can figure out how to use it. I'm still working on that part.
For more great stocking stuffers, bob over to Barrie Summy's site, and stock up for a very Happy New Year!
The Very Nearly Honorable
League of Pirates
Book 1: Magic Marks the Spot
by Caroline Carlson
To say I have been waiting for this book's release like a dog waiting for a mouthwatering steak is, well, an understatement. Caroline and I were fellow classmates at Vermont College. Go Extraordinary League of Cheese Sandwiches!
I had the awesome pleasure of getting to hear an excerpt of Magic Marks the Spot during our last residency. To say the deck was stacked in favor of my liking this book is to state the obvious. But don't let my bias sway you (much :-) My girls were there too, and they were literally lining up to buy the not-yet-sold ms before the reading was over.
This is one of those books you dream about coming along. The one you'd dearly love to write and happily disappear in when you found someone else has.
Basic plot: Hilary wants to be a pirate. Her father, the admiral, is for obvious reasons grandly opposed. Her mother, a member of high society, is swooningly opposed. Hilary's magical gargoyle, and sidekick, is swashbuckingly not. The two escape boarding school to try out their piratical-ness on the high seas and find adventure galore.
Got your google browser open to download a copy?
Carlson keeps the reader magically entertained while at the same choosing Pirates of the Caribbean humor over blood and gore, which, for young readers, is such a godsend. There is no persisting nightmares in which dementors chase said child, or take up residence in her closet (which happened many many nights to my youngest after we read one of the Harry Potter books). Instead, there is laughter and merriment and general tomfoolery all around.
From a writer's perspective, admittedly, the lack of gore and ever present possibility of sudden death gentles the emotional ride for readers. At the same time, a young reader isn't emotionally put through the ringer either.
If for no other reason than authorly curiosity, read the story and ask yourself, what does this mean to have a plot that doesn't hinge on pain of death, but rather, uses humor to skirt the darkness that could overwhelm? It's definitely had me thinking for a long long while.
While I sit in my ivory tower and mull, check out Barry Summy's website for an autumnal gourd o' reading plenty!
With the movie quickly approaching, I got my hands on a copy of this almost cultish book. As a kid, I gobbled up science fiction - Dune, anything by Mary Stewart, Martian Chronicles, every Stars Wars book ever written. But Ender's Game came out way after my science fiction phase. I was well into battling my way through such wonders as the far more scientific (than fictional) Charles Monod's Chance and Necessity. Sigh. Hours of my life I'll never get back.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure yet, Ender's Game is a battle heavy book about a boy who has to save humankind from the perceived threat of an alien race, much like the Borg for all you trekkie fans, that have attacked earth twice. There will be no third invasion. Instead, we're taking the battle to their home world and Ender must lead the attack.
Despite a zillion fight scenes and at times unsettling brutality, I enjoyed Ender's Game. The premise was intriguing and the characters all Byronic heroes in their own way, but more than anything what kept me coming back for more was that the writing perplexed me. Card defies boxes.
Ender is a child who writes, speaks and acts like an adult. Entirely. There is nothing childlike about him. Either this is genius on Card's part, a particularity of the genre science fiction (there are no childlike characters) or an inability to create a child protagonist. Either way, unchildlike child protagonists are definitely Card's calling card, which has led me to theorize as to what good they do. I've come up with three: 1) this kind of character holds up a mirror up to the way we treat children in war zones; 2) this character portrays the way children view themselves, and 3) these characters create stories that defy categorization.
Three intrigues me most because Card's protagonist appeals to a young audience and well as older ones, and has created a cultish following among none other than teen readers. How's that for defying/embracing all categories at once? Seems like genius on Card's part. His work defies the neat boxes publishing has attempted to erect and divide books into. In getting rid of the boxes and making a jederman character, Card's stories unsettle me, and in unsettling me, challenge me as a reader to think, reassess, reenvision the world around me, and as a writer to challenge boundaries too. Yep, definitely genius.
Summer has come and gone so quickly, fortunately packed with a lot of amazing reads. Which made choosing this first Fall review hard! I decided to go with my fellow Vermont College friend and amazing writer, Melanie Crowder's first book, Parched. You might argue that I'll be slightly biased in my review of this work, but this story, from its inklings to final version, won a few prestigious VCFA awards, landed Melanie her agent and first book contract. It doesn't need my bias. It stands... shines... all on its own.
Very succinctly, the story chronicles the struggles of a girl surviving on the parched African savanna and a boy escaping a d(r)ying city in search of water.
In only 160 pages, Crowder develops characters and situations so powerful they have followed me throughout all of my other reads. It's a little bit magical how she does this. It's as if she discovered Hemingway's secret for parsimony. The writing is sparse but fully packed. In some ways, it's as if poetic style has been applied to prose. For that reason alone, if you're looking for tricks of the trade, Crowder's work will keep you up nights deconstructing to figure out just how she does it.
POV is used extremely deftly. Whenever the story follows either child, POV is omniscient/close 3rd. However, this is interspersed with an unusual 1st person perspective from the POV of the main hunting dog. These short chapters are like a raw, direct, honest emotional punch that jolts the reader and pulls them deeper into story.
Finally, this story itself works like a dip into the pool of all the story that is going on around the characters. Crowder shows only what needs showing, while nevertheless belying a sense of extreme depth to her characters.
Spoiler Alert: Dogs do get hurt in this book. Yes, it is another dead dog book. My kids may never forgive me for buying it for them and urging them to read it. Protest signs against parental evilness line the walls of our house. I can think of no greater compliment for Crowder. She pulled them in. She made them care. She made them mourn and KEEP READING.
Move over Where the Red Fern Grows. There is a new contender for greatness.
For more great reads, stroll over to Barrie Summy's site. She's serving them up cool and refreshing!
The One and Only Ivan
Let me say right off the bat that I really enjoyed this book. Really enjoyed it. There were some craft aspects I had my issues with, but the the emotional connection was so complete, it was impossible to walk away from the story unchanged.
Basic plot - a silverback gorilla, Ivan, struggles to find a way to transfer a new, baby elephant, Ruby, that's been added to the circus mall where Ivan lives to a zoo.
The story is very loosely based on a real silverback gorilla named Ivan who lived in capitivity in a mall for almost 30 years. During that time, our understanding of primate needs grew exponentially until public unrest pressured Ivan's owners to put him on permanent loan to the Atlanta Zoo. Consequently, there's real behind the fiction.
Applegate does an amazing job of creating Ivan's world, bringing unspoken depths to his and the other characters' emotions, and bringing the audience into the world of captive animals. Ivan seems so very real. He has friends - a dog and an older elephant. He has animals he doesn't care for - a poodle. He's well-rounded emotionally. He also has an artistic side that ultimately helps save Ruby. I won't say how. No spoilers! Here is a very character driven story.
Yet, from a craft perspective, I had a little trouble getting through the very beginning of the story. It is intensely introspective and, at times, well, a bit of an expository dump. In Applegate's defense, she somehow had to build the story around this gorilla, but there was a lot of terminology and backstory in the beginning that got a little long. I did listen to this on tape, so length may shorten if one is reading. Still, as a writer, I wondered how the section got left as is. There had to have been a way to change it up some, to add some action to the telling, telling, telling.
On the upside, there is hope fellow writers. One does not have to create a perfectly crafted piece to create a perfectly amazing one.
Aliens on Vacation
by Clete Barrett Smith
Perhaps it's the alien state of my house under demolition/renovation that made me identify so completely with the shock David experiences when his grandma's B&B turns out to be a hotel for aliens. Others might argue it's that I have a teenager in the house, a veritable alien in our midst. Could be both.
Not to mention the excellent writing.
Basic premise: Twelve year old David, a.k.a. Scrub, spends the summer with his fraternal grandmother in the Pacific Northwest, far from his home in Florida. His grandmother lives in a sleepy little town well of the beaten track and David is sure summer is going to be majorly boring...until he discovers his grandma runs a hotel for aliens vacationing on planet Earth.
Let the fun begin!
Every dressed up an alien to "go native" on planet Earth?
How about bought groceries for them?
Or played a game of b-ball?
Scrub's life isn't all fun and games. Sheriff Tate suspects more goes on in the Intergalactic B & B than meets the eye. Seven foot guests and Scrub's ginormous squid "pet" he takes for walks have gotten his attention. They've gotten Amy, his daughter's, attention, too. She hides in the bushes to catch the truth on film. Scrub does his best to keep Amy from the B&B to protect his grandma's secret, but Amy isn't so easily put off. She's a space buff. Plus, she's friendly. And, well, Scrub kinda likes her.
This is a fun science fiction romp bursting with creativity and imagination. My daughter would NOT let me stop reading at night. And when we finished, the first words out of her mouth were, "When's the next book coming out?" She is in love with this series. She wants to email the author every other day as if he were her buddy.
What's really great for the adult in me is that there is meat to the grammar and word choice of this story. It's a great transitional book for kids who do chapter books but are ready for more demanding novels. The story keeps them entertained while challenging their linguistic and comprehension skills.
From an author's perspective, I really enjoyed the close third POV. At times, I forgot the book was in third person. It felt that much like first person. Which is really another reason it works so well as a transitional, tweenish book for kids graduating on to harder reads.
The one thing I wasn't completely sold on was the ending. I like them short and sweet. The last chapter ends that way, but then there's an epilogue. I think the story stands well without it, but I'm hashing literary hairs. It certainly doesn't make the piece any less fun to read. And given the fact that my daughter never wanted me to stop, it was helpful for her to fade away, rather than cut.
It's been a while since I've really sunk by teeth into the craft of a book, partly because I listen to so many audio books and it really is a different experience. However, I read Goblin Secrets out loud to my eleven year-old. It was our evening reading book. I will readily admit that my craft feelers were more fine-tuned than when I read a book that hasn't won The National Book Award. Spoiler alert - my expectations are higher for award winners.
Very briefly, the story is about an orphaned boy, Rownie, living in a magical world that includes goblins, who were once humans who have changed, machines that use the hearts of anything from fish to humans as fuel, and mechanical creatures that are also part organic.
Rownie wants to find his brother, we discover somewhat into the story. He starts out the "grandchild" of a witch but runs away and joins a troupe of goblins, who, it turns out, are also looking for Rownie's brother. They eventually find him. He's been turned into a puppet, i.e. his heart has been removed and with it, his will. Rownie, however, saves his brother and keeps the river from flooding the city of Zombay.
This story is packed with creative imagination in a wholly invented world like nothing I've ever experienced before. For exactly that reason, I would have loved a little more world-building. I was left wondering about the shape and breadth of this particular world. Tolkien set the bar so high when it comes to world-building. In this book, world-building was more of a sketch. We are left with many incomplete ideas. How does a person become a goblin? Why is acting outlawed? How do the hearts fuel stuff? Who is the mayor? How did this world come to be? Why are the goblins looking for Rownie's brother? What are dust fish? How do they exist? Can you eat them? Are there other magical creatures, or just goblins? Why goblins?
Does it really matter? My eleven year-old didn't worry about all this. She was perfectly content with the world as it stands.
Desire lines were there, but also a little under-developed. For instance, Graba craves power so she dislikes the goblins, who have their own kind of power. This could be developed more. As it stands, it's very archetypal. It works, but there isn't much meat there. This is typical of many desire lines, including Rownie's. He wants to find his brother, but that doesn't come out until a few chapters into the story, and as such doesn't feel like THE heart's desire of the book exactly.
Of course, as with any good story, weaknesses are easily forgiven if we're swept into the fictional dream and stay their voluntarily. I was and I did. This book deserves to be read not just because it sweeps the reader into that dream but because there is enough, both good and bad, crafting to make the writer think and learn.
The Mighty Miss Malone
Christopher Paul Curtis
After all the fiscal cliff diving the United States media has practiced in the last forty-eight or so hours, this book seems incredibly fitting to review. Christopher Paul Curtis revisits the height of the Great Depression in Indiana/Michigan - site of his Newbery-winning Bud, Not Buddy - in The Mighty Miss Malone.
The story follows the lives of twelve year-old Deza Malone, her brother Jimmie and parents Peg and Roscoe as their lives spiral downwards into shanty town destitution after Deza's father leaves town to find work, her mother loses her job, and the family, their house.
What happens to a family torn apart by poverty? The Mighty Miss Malone draws a very stark picture. It's not so stark that a young audience will feel overwhelmed, but it is very eye-opening. I watched the effects on my daughters every morning on the way to school (we listened to this book on tape). The enlightenment that life can be very very different, was and, today, is for over fifteen million children nationwide reflected on their faces many mornings.
Curtis provides both a forward and an afterward, first grounding the story in the roots of unshakable family bonds and then providing hard-hitting facts such as the number of children living below the poverty line in the U.S. today. He does a good job of weaving a story that entertains, awakens curiosity and provides information.
From a craft perspective, The Mighty Miss Malone, while solidly built upon characters so real I feel as if I've met them before in my life, follows a plot that is less satisfactory and somewhat random. This could be meant to reflect the very real randomness which wreaks havoc on the lives of so many living at the edge of or in poverty. However, this randomness makes the ultimate resolution to the family's financial woes almost like a deux ex machina. Again, in many ways, finding work during the Great Depression may very well have felt like a deus ex machina. I remember my dad telling me stories about his grandmother, mother of ten children during the Depression, walking down the street and finding a dime and breaking down into tears because she didn't have any money to buy food until she found that dime. So take my comments with that grain of reality salt.
Add to that, however, that Deza does very little to change her plight, unlike Bud, in Bud, Not Buddy, who himself strikes out to find his lone surviving relative. Nor does she solve the internal, emotional struggle, i.e. reuniting the family. Does it matter? Because both the external and internal problems are solved by someone other than the main character, those resolutions are not as intense, nor do they feel as earned. Deza, like the main reader, is along for the ride. We feel with her. We feel acutely. Curtis does an excellent job with that, but we don't ultimately feel satisfied with the story's resolution because Deza hasn't done much to make to it happen. She's suffered, but her suffering doesn't buy her the golden elixir. It's suffering that could continue on indefinitely if someone else (both her mom and her brother) hadn't bought the golden elixir with their actions. Ultimately, it's a bifurcated hero's journey with many hero's solving problems, but none of them is the main protagonist.
Don't let that stop you from reading The Mighty Miss Malone. It's a story worth reading, a time in our history worth revisiting. Maybe if a few members of Congress were to do so, fiscal cliff diving might take on an entirely different meaning.
Oops. Mixing politics with book reviews. Bad, bad reviewer!
For other warm winter reads, plow on over to Barrie Summy's website. Happy 2013!
I review books that surprise me, jar me, make me think. They are books I've bought, borrowed from the library, or been given as a gift. I do accept ARCs, but will only review a book if it moves me. It's about the writing. If I'm moved, I pass it on in a review.