Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: "The Manhattan Projects" Vol. 1 by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

Looking at this list of exceptional comic books got me thinking that I should take the opportunity to review some SpecFic that's written in a more nontraditional format than my usual fare. And by nontraditional I mean a graphic novel, as opposed to the word-heavy works of literature that I normally prefer. I am very picky about my graphic novels. They must include a compelling story line that's clearly communicated through both images and well-written text, instead of relying on just one or the other. Balance, in my opinion, between these two forms of communication with the reader can be a large part of what either makes or breaks a graphic novel.

A friend has been very patiently waiting for me to read the copy of "The Manhattan Projects" that he lent me a number of months ago. I finally got around to it, and genuinely enjoyed the read. The story (the series, actually) involves historical figures Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Robert Oppenheimer, and other scientists involved in the real-life Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. But their adventures begin as WWII is coming to a close. The novel starts out simply enough, with Oppenheimer being recruited by the U.S. War Department to the Manhattan Project. But soon our dour band of geniuses are dealing with trans-dimensional kidnapping, aliens, fractured personalities, and brain-eating goodness. Oh, and FDR is a supercomputer. I, for one, didn't see that one coming.

The art is well-matched with the story, clean line drawings that don't sacrifice detail but refrain from cluttering the space in each frame. The people themselves seem to mostly be drawn with big heads and gangly appendages, which could easily be a commentary on where their true prowess lies or just an artistic style. Since the characters' backstories also make appearances, it's helpful that the past is depicted in red and blue ink, while the present includes the whole spectrum. A big nod to Jordie Bellaire, who did the color for the book, for that ingenious way of indicating time.

If you like the tv show "Fringe," enjoy drastic departures from the historical record, and want to see your favorite physicist heroes come into their full scientific potential, check out the "Manhattan Projects" graphic novels by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra. Volumes One, Two and Three are available now at your favorite local bookstore.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Etherington's Top 10 Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Asterix and Obelisk

Robin Etherington, a successful British comic artist and author of Monkey Nuts, has come up with a list of his top 10 comic books. (Some people will argue that these are graphic novels, not "comic books," but that's a subject for a different post.) The selections are geared toward younger readers, but I still think that Craig Thompson's Habibi and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman should have been included on the list. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Book Review: "The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara

This is one of those rare books that truly defies any attempt to classify it: it's fiction, but written in the form of a memoir, based on a true story, involving adventure, discovery, horror, and science all at once. When I consulted with a friend and coworker on how one would describe the nature of this story, he thought for a moment before replying a little helplessly that it was "a well-realized first novel," and leaving it at that.

In the end I have to agree. I don't honestly feel like I knew what the book was really about until the very end, even though the blurb seemed pretty straight-forward: An unlikely young scientist discovers on a lost island a tribe of people who have found the secret to immortality. There follows the stunning revelation to the scientific community, the subsequent scramble of researchers and pharmaceutical companies, and the desolation of the once-beautiful island, its secrets exposed and then ripped away.

But there's more to it than that. As I mentioned, this book is written as a memoir. Doctor Norton Perina, the main character (whom I didn't like at all but who was very effectively written), relays his story to us through letters to a colleague, which he sends from prison. The very beginning of the book features a newspaper article about his arrest, trial and sentencing, but after that Norton takes us back to the very beginning of his life, and we're made to wait on the details of his incarceration.

This organizational decision was very smart on Yanagihara's part, because I found the first hundred pages or so to be about as interesting as watching dust accumulate on a flat surface. It does, however, help to inform Perina's character, so I pressed on and was rewarded with a vibrant, intense story as soon as Perina reached Ivu'ivu. This story arc, full of questions and mystery and some very creative thinking on the part of the author, was the first of two that I caught within the story.

That first arc was about the rise and fall of Ivu'ivu; the second was about the rise and fall of Perina himself, and was heavily informed by the first arc. With the artful way in which his story is told, one assumes his innocence of the crimes of which he is accused, even though it is never specifically claimed within the text. And in this second portion appears what I felt to be the true center of the story: one man's obsession not with immortality, as one would imagine, but with recapturing  feeling that can never again be attained.

This story is both fascinating and horrifying. If you can beat your way past Norton's childhood and life up until he leaves for Ivu'ivu, you're in for a real psychological treat. Read this if you're a Stephen King fan, if you like "American Horror Story," or enjoy twisted tales that play with your mind instead of simply spraying gore everywhere. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara was released in August of this year, and is available right now at your favorite independent bookstore.

Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 and a Resurgence in Book Censorship

As 2013 is winding down, and Christmas approaches, it's one of the greatest gifts we get as indie booksellers to see people remembering their passion for the printed word. Our stores are full of people looking for the perfect gift for the bibliophile in their life, generous community members purchasing books for Giving Tree programs, and reacquainting themselves with their neighborhood bookstores. I am reminded of how lucky I am to be living in such a community of readers.

But the past year has brought up some concerns about literary content and reading freely. The Kids' Right to Read Project, which fights censorship in schools, libraries, and other public institutions, recently had this to say on the subject:

"In November, the Kids' Right to Read Project investigated three times the average number of incidents, adding to an overall rise in cases for the entire year, according to KRRP coordinator Acacia O'Connor. To date, KRRP has confronted 49 incidents in 29 states this year, a 53% increase in activity from 2012. During the second half of 2013, the project battled 31 new incidents, compared to only 14 in the same period last year.

"It has been a sprint since the beginning of the school year," O'Connor said. "We would settle one issue and wake up the next morning to find out another book was on the chopping block."

The majority of challengers were parents of district students or library patrons, though a handful were local or state government officials. Of the more than two dozen incidents KRRP faced from September to December, most involved materials used in classroom instruction. Another trend that emerged during the fall was a substantial number of challenges to notable works by well-known minority writers, including Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits and Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima.

"Whether or not patterns like this are the result of coordination between would-be censors across the country is impossible to say," said O'Connor. "But there are moments, when a half-dozen or so challenges regarding race or LGBT content hit within a couple weeks, where you just have to ask, 'What is going on out there?' "

O'Connor also noted a positive trend this year in the notable increase in positive outcomes to book challenges, including two recent victories: Bless Me, Ultima was returned to sophomore English classrooms in Driggs, Idaho; and The House of the Spirits will remain in Watauga County Schools in Boone, N.C.

KRRP was founded by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and is supported by the Association of American Publishers and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund."

This article was posted in Shelf Awareness, an indie bookseller e-newsletter.

So if you're looking for a good New Year's resolution for 2014, and you want to blend your personal love of books with some community action, why  not educate yourself on what is or isn't permissible to read in your schools and communities? Odds are you'll learn something new, and even if you don't, it's always fun to get more involved with your fellow book lovers.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Best Books of 2013

Browse More Than 200 Of This Year's Standout Titles

As 2013 draws to a close, NPR has put together a list of what they consider to be the best books of the year. Note that both The Painted Girls and A Natural History of Dragons are included there! The list encompasses everything from adult fiction to children's picture books, so especially if you're still looking for a perfect gift for the book lover in your life, check it out! Just click on the image of each book cover to read a full review and learn more about it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: "A Natural History of Dragons" by Marie Brennan

Dragons: They're not just for kids! And aside from playing a prominent role in myriad RPG's, they star in a lot of adult sci-fi and fantasy books as everything from wise teachers to evil tyrants. In A Natural History of Dragons Marie Brennan suspends the idea of draconian sentience that appears in dragon classics like Dragonsdawn in favor of a more scientific approach that still provides a compelling, engaging story that will please readers across a wide range of ages and genders.

In a fantasy world that seems to resemble Victorian England, dragons are not considered an appropriate subject for young ladies to pursue. But from the time Isabella Camherst first learns how to sneak books out of her father's library, she's been in love with the creatures. This interest leads her to some devastatingly dangerous escapades as a child, and ultimately to far-off lands in pursuit of the fledgling field of dragonology. A Natural History of Dragons is the story of her introduction to dragons, and her first expedition to Vystrana in search of the rock-wyrm that lives there. The resulting story of mystery, discovery, corruption and tragedy that is related in this first installment of Isabella's memoirs launches what will become her long and storied career as a premier dragonologist.

Isabella is added to the expedition to serve only to organize the notes taken by the three men, one of whom is her husband Jacob, and to make sketches of the dragons and anything else that may need recording. Of course though, over the course of the study, she becomes much more than support personnel to the party and, indeed, makes some of their most profound discoveries. Her sketches are included in the book, which I thought was a very nice touch.

The qualities of her drawings, beautiful but also precise and scientific, reflects the nature of her admiration for dragons: she is fascinated, amazed and inspired by them, but isn't dragon-mad in the traditional romantic sense. Rather, she sees them as beautiful and noble creatures that have been overlooked by science and should be brought into the light as subjects of legitimate scientific study.

There is a frankness to Isabella's voice that really contributes to the genuine feel of this memoir. She openly admits to her sometimes foolhardy ideas and undertakings, but apologizes to no one for her unconventional life. She also admits to the high price of her expedition to Vystrana, and its implications upon her return. She makes comments aside about her opinions on certain customs or points of view, which really help to illustrate her as a character even though she's also the narrator, and made me giggle outright more than once. Additionally, she mentions when she has chosen to omit a certain event or theme from this book, and explains to the reader her reasons for doing so. For example, much of her journey to Vystrana has been skipped over in her memoirs, and Isabella points us toward another publication of hers if we are interested in further reading on the subject. I am very excited to see how Brennan fills in the gaps and continues to weave the colorful life of her protagonist in further books.

I can't think of a single part of this book that I didn't enjoy. It was beautifully written, with just enough plot twists to keep me guessing at the last piece of the puzzle, colorfully imagined and with enough emotion to make the story personal but not sappy. If you're a fan of the old classic The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, have an interest in cryptozoology, or just love both science and fantasy, I highly recommend A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan as your next read. It was released in February 2013, and you can find a copy on the shelf at your favorite independent bookstore.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Error Messages for Writers

Writing a novel involves lots of time, commitment, and hard work, yes. But it also requires copious amounts of coffee, tears of frustration, the banging of one's head on the keyboard, and questioning whether or not your life really means anything at all while trying to complete the next chapter. In honor of all these things,  Maggie Stiefvater has put together a list of error messages that one might experience while trying to finish that manuscript. Whenever you experience them, remember: You're not alone!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Book Review: "Fortunately, the Milk" by Neil Gaiman

The name Neil Gaiman is something of a magical incantation for fans of dark sci-fi and fantasy. I was first introduced to his work when I read the first volume of his graphic novel series The Sandman in middle school, and from there I moved on to The Graveyard Book and Coraline. At present I recommend American Gods, Neverwhere, and Mirror Mask to all and sundry. And yes, with an author as talented and well-known as Gaiman, it seems like everyone is constantly boasting about what big fans of his work they are. But his popularity and the mountain of devoted fans that come with it don't mean that you (yes, you) shouldn't perk up your ears too whenever he releases a new book. Because sometimes, it's really worth it to be "one of the masses." Otherwise you might really be missing out on something.

Fortunately, the Milk is Gaiman's latest children's book and continues seamlessly his record of creative, engaging writing. This is an engaging story about a father's mission to get milk for his children's breakfast (and perhaps a little bit for his tea), which helps to inform the somewhat odd title. What starts out as a quick trip to the corner grocery becomes a harrowing adventure across space-time, with milk in hand (or pocket) almost all the while. By page 66 we've encountered pirates, aliens, dinosaurs, lost tribes, volcano gods, ponies, and vampires who have trouble mixing up their "v"s and their "w"s. There are also piranhas and three dancing purple dwarfs that make a brief but entertaining appearance.

The story moves at a quick pace that will keep young readers hooked, but the parts all tie together in the end with a simple yet nonetheless delightful conclusion. As the father tells his story to his children once he finally returns with the milk, his son and daughter interject at certain points in the book to ask questions or address flaws in the tale their father is spinning. This detail adds some reliability for children reading the book, as kids are no fools, and get suspicious if a story is too outrageous.

As I read both the father's account of his adventures and the dialogue (especially the exchanges between the father and Professor Steg) I was reminded of Monty Python-type sketches, full of absurdity and abstractly funny details. While the story itself may have been a little bit simplistic on its own for an adult reader to enjoy, this humorous writing style kept me giggling to myself over my lunch. (It took me only about an hour to read.)

In the context of the story Gaiman also gives young readers beginner lessons in the space-time continuum, concerning the father's travel but also interactions that he has with himself in different time streams. He uses this time-hopping ability to  contact himself for help and escape more than one hairy situation. All while, of course, keeping hold of the milk for his children's breakfast.

The book has text interspersed with drawings on nearly every page. Skottie Young was the perfect choice of an illustrator for the project, with his wacky, whimsical depictions of characters and incidents. He captures flawlessly the simple but engaging events as they unfold, including the children as they question their father's story and try to poke holes in it. It was almost as if Young drew the story as one of the two children was imagining it, listening to their father.

Gaiman's latest is a guaranteed hit with all young readers and, thanks to the illustrations and fast-paced story, would be an excellent read-aloud option for parents with readers who aren't quite ready to tackle the book on their own. Fans of Doctor Who and, as I mentioned, Monty Python will enjoy sharing this book with the young readers in their lives. Fortunately, the Milk was released in September and can be found at your local independent bookstore, just in time for the holiday season!

Monday, November 25, 2013

26 Hilariously Terrible Rough Drafts


These fake rough drafts of some titles you'll recognize from pop culture may not be real, but the sure are funny! And as high-stress as writing can be sometimes, it's fun to play around with it. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Book Review: "Tsarina" by J. Nelle Patrick

Russia possesses a very rich cultural history that remains largely overlooked in popular American literature. Recently though books like The Age of Ice by J. M. Sidorova and Baba Yaga by Toby Barlow have started to bring Russian fiction potential into the light, combining innovative writing styles with the rich creative resources available in Russian history. J. Nelle Patrick jumps on the bandwagon with Tsarina, a tale of conflict and magic during the Russian Revolution.

Natalya Kutepova, the daughter of a prominent Russian general, is madly in love with Alexei Romanov, the heir to the Russian throne. Even though they're form different social tiers within the Russian nobility, everyone knows they'll be married, and Natalya will be the Tsarina. One night at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg Alexei, who has always been a prisoner of his hemophelia, shows Natalya the greatest and most powerful Romanov secret: a Fabergé egg that contains the power of Russia itself, protecting the Romanov family and those they love, and acting as a symbol that they are the true rulers of Russia. It is this power that has kept Alexei save all these years, a gift from Grigori Rasputin.

But the Russian Revolution interrupts Natalya and Alexei's fairytale romance, driving the Romanovs into hiding and eventual capture by the Reds. Natalya goes into hiding as a peasat, along with her friend Emilia. Natalya is determined to sneak into the occupied Winter Palace and find the Fabergé egg, to keep it safe with her and Emilia in Paris until the revolution dies down, thus preserving the Romanov connection with Russia itself. However, Natalya isn't the only one who wants to claim the fabled egg; a Red Party member and an old mystic both want the power of Russia for their own people too. And so across the harshly beautiful backdrop of Russia Natalya battles doubt, thugs, and even her own heart to save the man she loves and secure the future of her country.

This book makes me want to visit Russia even more. Patrick does an exceptional job describing the vibrant colors of the city and how they stand out against the landscape. She also describes how harsh Russia can be as a place, especially during the winter, by relating stories of Napoleon's army and Polish invaders. Neither force was able to withstand the brutality of a Russian winter.

In order for the concept of the Fabergé egg to really work as a vessel for the mystical energy of an entire land, there had to be a certain amount of anthropromorphization present in the writing. That is, Russia had to be a vibrant, living entity on its own to be able to use its power to willingly protect its monarchs. This concept was very skillfully worked into the writing, so that as a reader I didn't feel like it was a shock to have the idea of the land's sentience introduced. Maybe that's because Natalya always thinks of Russia as an independent entity, separate from its people.

**SPOILER ALERT** At the end of the book Natalya winds up destroying the egg, but this is not covered in the text. I felt that this was a huge mistake on the part of the author, since the egg has been the focus of most of the book's conflict. The only thing the reader is told, though, is a brief mention in passing as Natalya and Leo sit together on a train. This was a very big turn of events, in my mind, and should have had some detail attributed to it in the last chapter.

I was also disappointed to learn how historically inaccurate the story was, regarding the events of the Russian Revolution. This is something that Patrick admits freely, and doesn't detract from the story line, but to me personally it was something of a letdown. Patrick did do a lot of research though, and was able to describe in the Author's Note some of the specifics of what she changed and why. For example, main characters Natalya and Leo are both completely fictional, and the revolutions in St. Petersburg and Moscow, which were events separated by an entire winter, were pushed together for the sake of the story. While these key parts were far from historically accurate, the details in the book like clothing, weather, and expression of political attitude all felt very genuine.

Fans of Russian folktales and wartime romance will love this book, as will readers of dark fairytales (like the original stories by the brothers Grimm). While the protagonists here are around 18 years old, their challenges are so very adult that I would not just classify this as a Young Adult novel. Instead, I believe it to be equally suitable for teen and adult readers. Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick will be available on February 27th. You can talk to your local independent bookstore to see about pre-ordering.

Monday, November 18, 2013


For those of you who haven't heard, November is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately referred to as "NaNoWriMo." In just 30 days, intrepid and sleep-deprived writers everywhere complete a 50,000-word first draft of their novel. For those of you doing the math, that's about 1,600 words per day. It's grueling, it's stressful, you become a caffeine-fueled shut-in who needs to be reminded to shower, and at the end of it you, my friend, have written down the bones of what could someday be your published work.

Sound intriguing? Check out NaNoWriMo's website here! It'll give you an idea of the resources available to help you keep on track. Also, check out the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Even if you're not doing NaNoWriMo, it's a great resource for one of the hardest parts of writing a novel: actually getting it on the page. It's entertaining, easy to read, and immensely helpful.

In the mean time, here's a list of published novels written during NaNoWriMo. Fill up that coffee pot and keep writing!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Book Review: "City of Bones" by Cassandra Clare (Mortal Instruments Book 1)

I'm normally not drawn to given books just because they've been adapted to film. But when customers at my workplace started asking me about the Mortal Instruments series a couple of months ago, wanting to read it before they saw the movie, I figured I'd better do some research of my own. And while I initially feared that City of Bones would be just another generic teen romance, it was actually a fun and creative read.

Clary is so normal that she's bordering on boring, as is often the case at the beginning of books like these. Her father died before she was born and her mom is a talented but sometimes flighty artist. With her uncle Luke and her best friend Simon, Clary is pretty content with her life. But everything turns upside down the night she sees three people her age kill a blue-haired demon in a nightclub storage closet. The weird thing is, nobody else seems to have noticed it but her. 

The next thing she knows, Clary is swept into the world of the Shadowhunters, to whom she has some unknown connection. Her mother goes missing, crocodile demons are attacking her in her own kitchen, and one of the Shadowhunters she saw at the club, Jace, keeps popping up wherever she goes. To try and find out who she is and what's happened to turn her normal life into such a wreck, she joins the Shadowhunters at their New York Institute and learns more about their purpose, tradition, and history. The upshot of their investigation is that Clary is somehow of Shadowhunter lineage, and that an evil Shadowhunter long thought dead is regaining his power. 

Together with their Shadowhunter friends and a tagalong Simon, Clary and Jace face down Foresaken humans, various demons, vampires, werewolves, and even crash a party at the home of New York's most prestigious warlock. All the while feelings between Clary and Jace continue to grow, even as their situation becomes more and more dangerous. Because Valentine, the turncoat Shadowhunter, is looking for a relic that will allow him to raise a Shadowhunter army that will destroy all demons and ruin the fragile peace that exists between worlds. Clary is the only one who can find it first. 

Buffy pretty much takes the cake as the quintessential teenage demon slayer, but Clary gives her a good run for her money. I feel like a big part of why City of Bones didn't feel stale or predictable even though it was another paranormal teen book is that the Shadowhunter back story is so meticulously thought out and presented with so much interesting detail. Clare has thought up a whole alternate existence for the Human Race, with flair and creativity. This would also encompass three other Shadowhunter novels set across the pond in London: Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince, and Clockwork Princess. Clare has put a considerable amount of time and effort into thinking about this world of Demons and Shadowhunters, how they interact and get along with humans in everyday life, why they haven't been discovered, and the Shadowhunters' role in all this. And that effort is what makes this book really shine in its genre. 

As far as the romantic interest goes, you have the sexy, mysterious and hilariously cocky Jace vying (though he'd never admit it) against the sweet, open, determined Simon, whom Clary's known for almost her entire life. A pretty standard conflict, right? Except that - plot twist! - one of them turns out to supposedly be Clary's older brother! Sound familiar? 

Despite the solid amount of action that appeared in a near-continuous stream, I sometimes felt like nothing was happening in the big picture of the story line. In retrospect though, I think a lot of that feeling was because of how the puzzle in the plot was laid out: All the pieces that Jace, Simon, Clary and the others uncover have to context at all, to the point that I as a reader didn't even know that some things would have any connection whatsoever to the main story line, like the vampire battle. It wasn't until the very end of the book, when Clary figures out where her mother's hidden the artifact (independent of any of the challenges they've just faced) that the other things they've discovered actually come to mean anything. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not on Clare's part, but as adrift as I sometimes felt in the narrative, I did find myself wanting to read more. I don't plan on seeing the upcoming City of Bones movie adaptation, but I may eventually read the rest of the Mortal Instruments books. (I cheated and took a look at their blurbs, and they all sound just as creative as the first book.) 

If you like vivid story lines and characters, action, and paranormal adventure, and if you don't mind romantic tension without a lot of actual romance, pick up a copy of the first book in Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series. City of Bones, along with a plethora of other Shadowhunter books, are available now at your neighborhood independent bookstore. The film adaptation of City of Bones was released in August. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day 2013 - Military Books

The brave men and women who choose to serve their country by entering into military service have a long record of being honored and emulated by characters in print. In celebration of Veterans Day, please enjoy this list of military fiction titles, which includes both classics and more recent writing, brought to you by indie bookstore Powell's Books in Portland, OR.

(Photo courtesy of Friends of Ocee Library)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs

This YA fantasy novel has been in my "To Read" stack for a while, and I recently got around to reading it despite all the other books clamoring for my attention. And now I'm chastising myself for having waited so long to pick it up. It's a combination of historical fiction and fantasy, with just enough horror to make your toes curl in your slippers. I can see why Riggs's first novel has been getting so much positive press, and I'm about to add to it.

Average 16-year-old Jacob adores his grandfather, even as the rest of the family shies away from his strange stories and the cabinet that he keeps well-stocked with all manner of weapons. Ever since he was little Jacob has loved the tales of his grandfather's childhood on an island in Wales after fleeing the Nazis in Poland. He even showed Jacob photos of his fellow orphans, strange children with strange abilities under the strange care of one Miss Peregrine. Of course as he grows older, Jacob inevitably comes to doubt the truth of his grandfather's tales. The photos that once fascinated him become nothing more than badly altered pictures, and the "monsters" that his grandfather left the island to fight lost their literal interpretation and are assumed to be Nazis. But the night that his grandfather is killed, Jacob sees a horrible creature in the shadows and realizes that everything he'd come to rationalize away was the truth. With his dying breath, Jacob's grandfather tells him to find the bird in the loop on the other side of the old man's grave. That Jacob will be safe there.

Following these cryptic clues proves unfruitful, even with the guidance of his therapist, who believes that following up on his grandfather's dying words will allow Jacob to find closure. In a last-ditch attempt to find something, anything, Jacob convinces his parents to allow him to travel to Wales, to the island where Miss Peregrine lived with her brood of peculiar children. But when he reaches the rocky island and ventures out to what remains of the orphanage, there's not much left for Jacob to discover: a Nazi bomb hit the building the night his grandfather left, destroying it. But Jacob pokes around anyway, just to be sure he can learn nothing more. His interest earns Jacob attention from one of the girls in his grandfather's photos, who mysteriously appears there. Jacob chases her through a bog and into an ancient cairn, and when he emerges he's in 1940, on the night that the bomb hit the orphanage. There he meets the children from his grandfather's photographs, as well as Miss Peregrine, who explains to Jacob that she has protected them all in a time loop against Hollows and Wights, the creatures that killed Jacob's grandfather and the monsters that he left the island to fight all those years ago.

Now Miss Peregrine and the other children, all of whom have different superhuman abilities, are in danger and Jacob is the one who has brought them into harm's way. Luckily, he's also the one who can save them: Jacob, like his grandfather, has the ability to see Hollows. The others cannot. When Miss Peregrine is kidnapped like other peculiar matrons in other time loops, Jacob and the children must fight to get her back and find out what the Hollows are planning to do with so many powerful peculiars in their custody.

Riggs's writing style is engaging and entertaining, and I was sucked into his world from the very beginning. Jacob is a very empathetic character who struggles with some big mental challenges: mentally unstable relatives, deaths of family members, and even wondering if you're going crazy. He's confused and uncertain, even about things like which side of Miss Peregrine's time loop he'd rather be on. But instead of feeling melodramatic and overblown, the situation felt really genuine to me as a reader. I got the feeling that Jacob was just trying to stay on top of events as they occurred; he's brave and creative because he has no other choice, not because he's always known he was meant to be a hero or anything like that. This made Jacob a much more interesting character to me, and one for whom I genuinely came to care.

Another great touch in this writing was the fact that Jacob was unsuccessful in following he's grandfather's clues. He went to the old orphanage in Wales as a last desperate attempt to convince himself that there was nothing else to be found, that he was just going a little bit crazy from stress and trauma. It's only after Jacob finds himself in the loop and in the company of Miss Peregrine that he realizes what his grandfather's clues meant. That arrangement of events was really a great surprise, considering that most times there are cryptic clues given and then the story gets bogged down in solving them all before the action can commence. It was a great twist of events to have the character follow a very different trail of breadcrumbs than the one that was laid out for him (and us). I can see how some people might consider this "cheating" on Riggs's part as a writer, gearing up for a quest or mystery and then backing out. But personally, I found this take very innovative.

I've always been a fan of multimedia projects, both in my own work and in others' projects, particularly when the worlds of art and writing can intersect. Riggs takes his storytelling to the next level by adding photographs, the ones Jacob's grandfather shows him, to the book itself. It's a nice touch to see what Jacob is seeing, but what really amazed me was learning that the photos used in the book are real. They were gleaned from mountains of random old shots by dedicated collectors and enthusiasts, of which Riggs was just one. Here I've included three photos of peculiar children and one of Miss Peregrine herself:



Overall this story was well thought out, innovative, and I'm genuinely interested to read the sequel when it comes out in January. In the mean time, if you like tastefully supernatural coming-of-age stories with a hefty dose of adventure and just enough horror to make you check your closet before going to bed, or (as was suggested to me by Rae from Parallel Worlds Magazine) you're a Doctor Who fan, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. It's available now in all of its glory at your local indie bookstore, and its sequel Hollow City will be available in January. Check with your friendly neighborhood bookseller to pre-order!

Monday, November 4, 2013

World Book Night 2014

It's time to start thinking about World Book Night again!

For those of you who don't remember of who have maybe never heard of WBN before, here's an overview: Every April all over the world, publishers and authors team up with bibliophiles everywhere to try and promote books in low-reading demographics. They do this by publishing special editions of a variety of books, sending them to volunteers, and having them passed out for absolutely FREE to total strangers. Each year a different lineup of books is selected. Here's the 2014 list:

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
The Ruins of Gorlan: The Ranger's Apprentice, Book 1 by John Flanagan
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Large Print edition) by Jamie Ford
The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen
Pontoon by Garrison Keillor
Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
Miss Darcy Falls in Love by Sharon Lathan
Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee
Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
Cuando Era Puertorriqueña by Esmeralda Santiago
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Large Print edition) by Maria Semple
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
100 Best-Loved Poems edited by Philip Smith

 As you can see there's a wide variety of subject matter available, and even Spanish language and large print editions, to help get everyone reading.

Here's how the giving works: If you want to hand out twenty books to random strangers this April, which I can tell you is a LOT of fun, start out by going to the WBN website here. Just pick out three books that you'd like to give out, and apply to be a giver. Their guidelines are very concise and helpful. If you're chosen to be a giver WBN will contact you via email. Your books will be sent to a community location (that you select through WBN) where you can pick them up, usually the week before WBN. Then, on April 23rd, go out and help spread the magic of books! You can sign up to be a giver until January 1st.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: "Defy" by Sara B. Larson


Love and conflict: it seems like you can't find the one without the other in most books. Of course we wouldn't want it any other way though. Being able to hope, ache, and follow the characters through their struggles is what allows us to form a bond with them, share in their triumphs and feel their pain.

Well, there's plenty of both romance and conflict in Defy, a new YA fantasy novel by Sara B. Larson. The book's general themes are listed as "Identity, princes, adventure stories, magic, and conspiracies." And that's a fair assessment of the book's key elements, but not of the plot itself, which is more imaginative than the one-word assessments imply.

Alexa and her twin brother Marcel are raised on the border of two warring countries, until their parents are killed in a raid. In order to stay together, Alexa becomes Alex, and both join the army. They rapidly move up the ranks until both find themselves in Prince Damian's elite personal guard. But when the war escalates, and Marcel is killed protecting the prince, Alex is left alone with her secret.

The next assassination attempt at the castle results in Prince Damian being taken captive, along with Alex and her fellow guard Rylan. But all is not what it appears: Prince Damian, outwardly a spoiled and entitled pain in the rump, has actually been working with those on the other side of the war to help end the violence. But Rylan, who has always been there to support and stand beside Alex, doesn't trust Damian or his motives. And the longer the three of them are stuck in close quarters together, the greater the risk of Alex's secret being revealed. Which, of course, happens eventually. Spoiler alert: Both Damian and Rylan already knew. Now in the midst of a daring plan to bring peace to her country and install Damian as king, Alex has to face down her feelings for both the men who love her: Damian, powerful and full of secrets; and Rylan, steadfast and protective.

While the agony of choosing between two people who have declared themselves to you is nothing new for a YA novel, it can be written very successfully. In my own writing, I've found the trick to be in making sure I don't treat the premise as something that's tired and overused; if in my mind I make it something new and novel, my writing turns out exciting too. Despite the exciting premise of this book, the setup for Alexa's character and the potential for her to be a Katniss Everdeen-like heroine, Larson's YA debut falls flat. When I was reading it, I felt like she didn't really sell some of the roles being played. For example, when Damian first starts opening up to Alex when she's guarding the prince's suite, there's no real prelude to it. No reason for him to suddenly do a personality flip from the spoiled brat he played to the sentimental, caring person for whom Alexa comes to have feelings.

This kind of unrealistic character is highlighted by the fact that Alexa's character is so very well developed. She's incredibly empathetic, with realistic fears for her country and her future, even as she feels helpless to impact any of it. Her only choice, she feels, is to continue the charade and hope that the situation improves sooner rather than later. And I felt those things for her too, by knowing her thoughts and seeing the story through her eyes. She is strong, capable, and earns herself a prestigious place as a prince's personal guard through her own abilities with a sword, instead of with stereotypical feminine wiles. Unfortunately, this strong character goes all to bits and pieces as soon as she figures out that two boys like her. Instead of a sword-slinging female warrior she degenerates into an emotional puddle of lovelorn insecurities, which I felt was completely unlike the character she was made out to be in the beginning of the novel. Thankfully she redeemed herself a little in the end when it came time to choose between Damian and Rylan, but I was still disappointed in this depiction of a woman becoming powerless and governed by her feelings alone when a love interest (or two) was introduced. The author set this up perfectly for a series that will eventually culminate in Alexa and Damian being together, but I'm hoping that in the mean time Alexa will have a chance to redeem herself as a strong female protagonist with some backbone.

Larson attempts to broach some serious topics through Alexa, like rape, war, and loving your country even when you don't necessarily agree with what its leader is doing. And during a period of change and confusion like adolescence, these are issues that many adolescents are working their own way through. But unfortunately like Damian's trite character, the language of the book is lacking to give depth and significance to these themes. Instead the social commentary aspect comes off as overly simplistic, becoming more a motivator for Alexa to succeed (which is still important) than a real topic to be addressed in its own right. Opportunities to open discussions about feminism, sexuality, and loyalty are, I felt, wasted in Larson's rush to reach the climax of the romance instead of further developing the story at large.

If you're looking for a fairly engaging but unsubstantial read to keep you entertained for a stormy weekend, and you liked the Twilight books, consider picking up a copy of Sara B. Larson's YA debut novel Defy. It will be available at your local independent bookstore starting on January 7th.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Best-Known Books Set In The States

Most Famous Books Set In Every State_02

Business Insider has come out with this awesome map of the US, with each state represented by what they've determined to be the most well-known book that took place there. And while I'm ashamed to admit that my home state of Washington is still so closely associated with Twilight, I think this is a pretty accurate list. Check it out!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Review: "Seven for a Secret" by Lyndsay Faye

I'm a strong proponent of the old caution to never judge a book - to read or not to read it - by its cover. The same advice should be applied to book titles, too; after all, The Name of the Rose is not about flower gardening. But at this point I have to make a confession: I picked up Lyndsay Faye's latest novel, Seven for a Secret, solely because of the title. It references a children's rhyme that's always been intriguing to me, about counting crows and what their numbers mean. 

As misguided as my motivations for picking up this book may have been, I haven't for a second regretted it. This is actually Faye's second mystery centered around main character Timothy Wilde, but it was a wonderful and entirely understandable stand-alone novel as well. It's 1845, and New York City is abuzz with three things: the Democratic party, abolition, and Irish immigration. As a member of the newly formed Copper Stars, Wilde is sworn to uphold the law. But when that means compromising his own moral code, he's willing to overlook legal routes in the interest of protecting common citizens. When a wealthy black woman comes to him for help finding her kidnapped sister and son, that will mean bending the law possibly even farther than he can justify in order to solve the case. 

Lucy Adams's family, free blacks from Albany, has been taken by blackbirders. Since slavery was illegal in New York but not in other parts of the country, many escaped slaves made for the empire state. However, they weren't safe even after reaching the north. A landmark court case had determined that slaves who were recaptured and identified must, as stolen property, be returned to their owners in the south. Unscrupulous whites looking to turn a quick profit would capture free New Yorkers of color and claim that they were escaped slaves in court. Although free, for all intents and purposes blacks had no legal rights, and so were nearly always carted away to be sold into slavery at a tidy profit. The conscienceless people who were responsible for this practice were known as blackbirders. 

What starts as a simple kidnapping case gets complicated fast. Wilde rescues Lucy's family with the help of his vice-ridden brother Valentine, another copper star, and the Adams family hides in Valentine's house until Mr. Adams is due to return to New York. But when Timothy Wilde comes to check on the family, he finds Lucy dead in Valentine's bed and Delia and Jonah missing yet again. 

In a race to uncover the truth behind the murder and keep suspicion away from Valentine, Wilde enlists the help of a craggy Dutch cohort and a group of free black vigilantes who were close with the Adams family. Wilde follows the case deep into the Democratic party and its immigrant constituency, through an old case of his and into the ethical gray area of racial tensions of the time. The closer he gets to uncovering the truth about Lucy Adams, her murder and her family, the more of his own life and career he risks. 

Faye takes an immensely complicated time in American history and uses it to build an incredible story of suspense. The subtleties of the politics of the time are presented with precision and detail, clearly laying out the conflicted nature of Wilde's position: he's a copper star with a sworn duty to protect New Yorkers, which he really takes to heart, but the law prevents him from standing up to people like blackbirders who prey on a particular portion of the population. Wilde doesn't believe in slavery, but during that time blacks competed directly with Irish immigrants for any kind of work. The Irish, as whites and therefore voters, made up the majority of the Democratic party that funded the Copper Stars. So being an abolitionist detective trying to solve the murder of a black woman at the expense of the party's image put Wilde in a very risky position. 

I simply cannot overstate the skill with which Faye wove all the threads of this marvelous, engaging story through to the end. There are enough references to the first Timothy Wilde mystery, The Gods of Gotham, that Faye can establish how the previous story line impacted Wilde, but characters from the first book who reappear are re-introduced with context. That way, I could understand the closeness of the relationships without having to see them form for myself. 

Another aspect of the times and setting to which Faye pays admirable attention is the language. She begins the book with a dictionary of "flash," the idiomatic slang of the lower classes. She stays true to this vernacular too, switching back and forth between flash and "proper" English as the situation and company in the setting dictate. It's frankly a fascinating language, and it brings a wonderful color to the dialogue. 

Most of us are not experts on the early history of New York City and the nuances of race relations there. Faye takes this courteously into account, and builds lack of experience with this into Wilde's own reactions to and discoveries. As a result he's constantly being reminded of the cruelties and inequalities to which even free blacks were subjected. Examples include admission of a black man's testimony in court (it was worthless) and blacks being barred from voting unless they owned a practically unobtainable amount of property. Every time he makes an egalitarian assumption that proves mistaken, Wilde reacts with shock at the way "free" blacks are treated, which reflected my own fascination and horror at the situation.

By virtue of the complex story line and detailed historical accuracy, I think that this would make an amazing book club read. Faye and her husband even put together a recipe for the Wildes' secret punch that you might drink at your book club meeting! If you like political intrigue that has more adventure and suspense than mayhem and gore, and are fond of colorful characters whose complex relationships play seamlessly into the plot, consider picking up a Timothy Wilde mystery by Lyndsay Faye. The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret are both available now at your local independent bookstore.