Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Originally posted at Guys Lit Wire. Not the review this book deserves — I could write a paper about the use of symbolism in AtLWCS alone, and I’m sure plenty of English majors will — but I’m fighting off a head cold so it’s the review that it gets. Y’all should read this book.

Boise, ID doesn’t have too many major league celebrities, so it made some pretty big waves when our resident author Anthony Doerr hit the bestseller lists and then proceeded to win the Pulitzer for his second novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

Me, I’m a skeptic. The more hype something gets, the more reluctant I become to jump on the bandwagon. Not only that, but I’ve long betrayed my English major roots by doubting the readability and enjoyability of books that earn major awards. Consequently, I had no immediate plans to pick up the prize-winning WWII novel that everyone in town claimed to be reading until my book club named it as the choice of the month. Even then, I put it off until almost too late, and then began reading immediately to try to beat the clock.

Except… I couldn’t put it down.

All the Light We Cannot See takes place in France as it is occupied by the Nazis, and follows the lives of two children as they grow to young adulthood. The first is Marie-Laure, the French daughter of a locksmith, and the victim of severe cataracts that rob her of her eyesight by the time she is six years old. The second is Werner Pfennig, a German orphan with an uncanny ability to understand machines, which develops into a talent for radio repair that propels him into an exclusive military school for the Nazi elite. Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father, who hides a dangerous secret; Werner becomes a soldier for a cause he doesn’t embrace but lacks the wherewithal to resist. Her fascination with a clandestine radio transmitter, and his obsession with broadcast, tease at intersection.

Finally, inevitably, their paths cross in a French port town in 1944.

This is not a romance, except perhaps in a classical sense. Rather, it is a beautifully-crafted and engrossing window into two aspects of WWII life that most Americans don’t even know that they don’t know. Understanding how the war affected those who were neither Nazi oppressors nor Holocaust victims is priceless, but the truly great thing about this novel is how it lets the reader glimpse the humanity of some of WWII’s monsters. Doerr is no apologist, and in fact the majority of the Nazis he portrays are truly beastly — but Werner’s path toward becoming a Nazi soldier is a tragic and illuminating example of how nice, normal young men got swept up in an inexorable movement.

World War II continues to be a subject of great attraction to young American men, and a much-studied era of history in the schools. Anyone with an interest in this time or this war should take this skeptic’s word for it and run, not walk, to the nearest available copy of All the Light We Cannot See. And that goes for scholars of literature and composition, too — you’d almost think this guy won awards for his writing ability or something.

Review: Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia


Former underground fighter Owen Z. Pitt thought he had turned his life around, thought he’d finally found a way to have a perfectly boring, respectable life. After all, what’s more boring and respectable than being an accountant, right? But when his boss turns out to be an out-of-control werewolf, those less-respectable skills at buttkicking allow Owen to survive a vicious attack. Of course, the whole werewolf thing comes as a bit of a shock, but it all begins to come into focus when Owen is recruited by a mercenary bounty-hunting organization called Monster Hunter International, devoted to hunting and exterminating paranormal threats to the planet, and making big bucks in the process.

Monster Hunter International (and the other books in the series) is the paperback equivalent of a “movie for guys who like movies”: explosions, big guns, tough wisecracking men and women, helicopters, fight scenes, and surface-level relationships that give the characters some depth without distracting from the explosions, guns, and fight scenes. In short, it’s a total testosterone-fest, but one without sex scenes or gratuitous profanity, making it potentially appropriate for younger readers.

The bad guys are werewolves, vampires, trolls, zombies, wights, fey, and Lovecraftian “Old Ones” who weave evil just beyond human sight. The good guys are primarily survivors of attacks by these creatures, whose physical and mental tenacity deemed them worthy of Special Forces-style training and, if they don’t wash out, lucrative careers (and often short lives) in the monster-killing industry. The other bad guys, who are also good guys, are a MIB-esque secret governmental agency committed to covering up the existence of monsters at any cost. And then there’s a super-duper secret group called Special Task Force Unicorn (STFU — yes, really)…..

MHI stays true to the time-honored tradition of making its protagonist “the chosen one,” but avoids getting bogged down in weighty musings about fate and responsibility to humankind and whatnot. Nope; this series is pure science fiction/horror fun. It’s Vin Diesel with a rocket launcher against a swarm of zombies with heavy metal playing in the background: loud, awesome, violent entertainment.

The level of violence, scary situations, and occasional technical detail about weaponry probably means this book is a better fit for older teens and adults, but I can absolutely think of many middle school aged boys who would love every page of it.

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Sidenote for those who pay attention to such things: The author, Larry Correia, has been embroiled in the recent “Sad Puppies” brouhaha surrounding the 2015 Hugo Awards, and his politics may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s little sign of anything especially controversial in this series. The characters, like their author, are major gun nuts (his term) and skew libertarian, but there’s no discernible sense of an agenda or any particular prejudice.

Cross-posted on the Guys Lit Wire website.

Review: Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction

Editor Guy Haley opens this hefty volume with the sentences, “Science fiction is arguably the most exciting genre of entertainment. No other form of storytelling shapes our culture as much, or is as popular.” He’s certainly got a point, particularly when it comes to male readers (and watchers). Ask a room full of boys what sort of books they like, and you’re going to hear words like adventure, action, battles, and maybe more specific items like robots, time travel, lonely three-boobed green alien women. Obviously that’s not a universal preference, but ask a random guy and chances are you’re going to find he likes to read something that falls in the broad spectrum of science fiction.

The other thing that a lot of guy readers seem to enjoy is trivia — just ask my disintegrating copies of Guinness World Records and Ripleys Believe It or Not! annuals. The literary equivalent of a candy buffet is a fat book full of glossy color photographs and attractively arranged factoids, especially when the subject matter is something tasty like sports/games, gross stuff, or a beloved movie or TV series.

And so, Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction falls pretty tidily in the intersection of the school librarian’s Golden Venn Diagram:

Let’s start with the good stuff.

Sci-Fi Chronicles is impressively thick. At about 9″x7″, it’s no larger than your standard trade paperback, but it boasts 576 pages of thick, glossy paper. If you’re looking to become the local authority on all things science fiction (or at least look like it) this resource is going to catch your eye. Measured purely on quantity, there’s a lot of bang for your buck here.

Open this book to a random page, and you’ll likely find multiple color photographs or illustrations, a couple of columns of readable encyclopedia-style text (more friendly in tone than Wikipedia, but also less exhaustive) and — probably the neatest feature — color-coded timelines, subgenre headings, and a sort of “evolution of the text” that shows each of the editions/iterations of the story. The entry on Blade Runner, for example, starts with the book cover for the initial printing of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and progresses through the movie posters, video game packaging, and comic books. Your budding speculative fiction pedant will find hours and hours of interesting information here, in very attractive packaging.

Now for the less-good stuff.

I won’t waste more than a passing mention of the SF industry’s general grumpiness about the abbreviation “sci-fi,” nor of the title’s cutesy assumption that better speculative fiction isn’t being written elsewhere in the galaxy. These were stylistic choices that Firefly Books made for reasons of their own, and I, at least, am not pedantic enough to really care all that much. However, I see no way to avoid bringing up two significant flaws in this volume.

This is not the sort of book you read cover to cover, so as I sat down to review it I tried looking up random science fiction works to see how they were included. After all, if this is (as the back copy claims) “a definitive sci-fi guide for the 21st century… and beyond,” it ought to be — well, definitive, right?

I didn’t try to pick especially obscure pieces: The Man From Earth, Logan’s Run, The Postman, Sliders, Flight of the Navigator, Explorers, Zardoz, Starship Troopers. A fairly wide variety of science fiction classics, good and bad, commercial and otherwise. To the dismay both of myself and my indignant husband, only half of these had entries, and the other half weren’t even mentioned. What kind of “definitive” guide to science fiction neglects what is arguably the best movie of Paul Reuben’s and Sarah Jessica Parker’s careers? How could any visual history of science fiction leave out the glory of Sean Connery in long braid and red bondage wear?

Leaving aside Haley’s questionable criteria for selecting “the galaxy’s greatest science fiction,” I had a more seriously complaint. While Firefly Books clearly put a lot of energy into the graphic design for this book, it sacrificed attention to detail — specifically editing. The entry for Logan’s Run talks about the film’s “widespread appeal laying [sic] in a core concept…”. The Sliders page refers to a Professor Maximillian Jones, who doesn’t exist; it no doubt meant Professor Maximillian Arturo. It seemed that every page I flipped to had a grammatical or factual error — little stuff, but a darned shame in such an otherwise well-assembled volume. Heck, even the copy on the back cover commits the sin of repetitive word choice, boasting of “lavishly illustrated entries” on one line and “lavish photo features” only two lines down.

Ultimately, is this book actually “definitive”, “truly international,” “a must for all sci-fi fans,” or representative of “the galaxy’s greatest science fiction”? I’m skeptical.

But is it lavish? Yes. Fun? Interesting? Appealing? Yes, yes, and yes.

Does it have multiple pages of Doctor Who coverage for my rabid Whovians, a meaty section on Star Trek for my Trekkies (or Trekkers, since we’re being nitpicky), and a respectable amount of attention paid to the science fiction movies and shows contemporary young males are likely to have watched and enjoyed?

Yeah. Yeah, it does. So even if it’s sloppier than it should have been, and even if my household is offended by some of its blatant and inexcusable omissions and characterizations (my husband is still muttering under his breath about Logan’s Run being described as a minor work), I’m sure it will be well-liked by fans of science fiction and collectors of trivia.

[Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire]

Review: Copper by Kazu Kibuishi

In our middle school library, which is heavily frequented by boys, there are a few authors whose books never seem to touch the shelves before being checked out again. Chief among them are graphic novelists Jeff Smith (the Bone series), Doug TenNapel (Cardboard, Bad Island), and Kazu Kibuishi (the Amulet series).

I’m always hoping these guys will release another dang book — so when I realized that I’d somehow missed Kibuishi’s 2010 collection of his webcomic Copper, published by Scholastic, I ordered it right away.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this slim volume with a cute boy and his neurotic-looking but equally cute dog on the cover. What I got was a fantastic collection of short stories and one-page vignettes that demanded more time to read than I’d planned.

Copper is a boy — or is he a man, rendered small to reflect his childlike spirit? — whose sole companion is his dog, Fred. Copper is brave in a a reckless sort of way, and he is also recklessly optimistic. He wants to believe that crazy things are possible. Fred is cautious, worried, and battling an existential crisis. Copper wants to go check things out, and Fred wants to wait and see. The bright-eyed boy tends to get his way, and the result is a quiltwork of adventure and misadventure, both real and imagined.

I tried to read it as a kid and found myself thinking about Calvin and Hobbes, especially in the scenes where Copper and Fred dream themselves into wild escapades. (They seem to have plenty of wild waking adventures as well, and I spent a good portion of this book wondering what was real and what was dream.) If I follow that line of thought, Copper is a grown-up Calvin who has absorbed the best of his tiger friend’s philosophical maturity… and Fred is Hobbes crossed with a healthy dose of Eeyore.

Reading it as an adult, I was drawn in by the surprising depth of emotion captured in the short pieces. Copper often seems chipper and carefree, but his dreams are haunted by a sad girl trapped in a bubble, and his nights and days are painted over a backdrop of loneliness and a yearning for something more. Fred, meanwhile, is wrestling with his sense of his own mortality and his fears that no one cares enough to even notice him. Is Copper’s audacity really a frantic attempt to get to an adult life he fears he’ll never have? Is Fred’s reticence really a half-conscious attempt to slow the march of time? A better mainstream cartoon for comparison might be Family Guy, with its moral underpinning in the forms of canine Brian Griffin.

What you’re wondering is, is this book right for middle school guys (or high school guys, or….)? I submit that the answer is yes. It isn’t necessarily written “for” my rampaging hoards of eleven-year-old boys, but they’ll pick it up and they’ll read it. They won’t understand all of it — they’ll possibly miss the deep stuff entirely as they rush to soak in the gorgeous imagery and daring exploits. But I think seeds will be planted, and if they return to Copper as an older teen, as a man, as fathers — why, I think they’ll find that it’s a pretty dang literary work of sequential art.

(Speaking of art: hands-on types will love Kibuishi’s “behind the scenes” section at the end of the book. It was accessible, entertaining, and illuminating — a great resource for the budding graphic artist.)

Review cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

[Cross-posted at GuysLitWire]

Let’s face it: we are all of us, but perhaps especially young guys, guilty of judging books by their covers. That’s why books have cover art, after all, and it’s why we have terrific, heated conversations about that art when it doesn’t match up to reader — or worse, author — expectations. (An example.) It’s no surprise that a book with a really kickbutt cover can gain wings to fly off the shelves, which is how Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas got selected for my middle school library and why I had to wait until summer vacation to get my hands on a copy.

The ingredients:

  • a ferocious, sexy female assassin
  • two male best friends, both smitten by said assassin, neither willing to violate Bro Code by pursuing her since the other also likes her
  • an evil king
  • a rebel princess
  • political intrigue
  • a competition to the death
  • a mysterious power lurking in the bowels of the castle
  • a fairy tale land that has lost its magic

This book, its sequel (Crown of Midnight), and its collected prequels (The Assassin’s Blade) proved enormously popular with my male readers, so I was imagining that it was an action-packed magical gorefest. By the time I finally got the chance to read them, I was surprised to find that these were much more feminine than I would have guessed. The heroine, Celaena, is almost disturbingly vain and girly, and the love triangle takes up a significant chunk of the story. Celaena is obsessed with her appearance and uses it like any James Bond femme fatale would — as a weapon. And as the series progresses, things in that love triangle heat up to a degree that had me running for my roll of YA stickers.

And yet, despite being clearly focused on things more commonly attributed as “girl” interests, they remain a hot commodity among my guys. There’s a lot of good fighting, dark mystery, and a thread of high fantasy running through the tale. Yeah, the guys are starry-eyed for their pet assassin, but they don’t stop acting like dudes — they still fight, they still notice other girls, they do their jobs, and they don’t forget to think about their guy friends. There are weapons, enchanted objects, duels, and betrayals aplenty.

It also bears mentioning that this series has a prominent, powerful, female PoC character, it passes the Bechdel test, and the courting behavior of the male characters would be a pretty decent example to the young men who read it.

In all honesty, this series started weak to me. Book 1 (Throne of Glass) is kind of disjointed, with an assassin who worries about breaking her nails and a bunch of bad guys with murky motivation. Something about the characters and premise made me go back for more, though, and I am SO glad that I did. Crown of Midnight was outstanding, and left me anxious for book 3 (to be released this September; Maas anticipates writing 6-7 in total, thus breaking the oh-so-common Rule of Three in YA literature). The prequels were surprisingly good as well, and did a lot to round out Celaena’s character development.

I’d recommend this series for teens and young adults, probably grade 8 and older. Guys and gals alike will find something to love about these books.

Reading Update #15

SGF Reading

Reading Update: Today is Wednesday, April 16. As of late tonight, I have read 36 books this year. Two of them were picture books (Mouse Paint and Grover’s First Day of School). The third was Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Styxx, a 1008-page behemoth that took me a couple of weeks to polish off. And the fourth was Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince.

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(Notice any trends in cover design?)

Okay, so Styxx was not an easy book to read. I mean, it was profoundly easy to read, because Kenyon’s a good writer (with caveats to be explained shortly) and I like her voice/style. But it was so brutal. I mentioned some of that last week. And I mean, yes. Obviously reading an account of the life of someone sold into sexual slavery, or of someone who suffers physical and emotional abuse, is going to be rough. But for me, what was really wrenching was how Styxx was so helpless in the face of all this evil that was done to him — by the gods, especially, but also his family. And let’s just put that out here: Betrayal is waaaay up there at the top of my List of Things that Upset Me, and what greater betrayal is there than a family that rejects you for something outside of your control? Even though I knew how this book would end (trust me, once you’ve read a couple Kenyon books, you know how they all end, which is actually a rather lovely and restful thing) my heart just kept breaking for this guy. And that’s the genius of Styxx, because before this book, the rest of the series had trained me to despise him. Well done, Sherrilyn. I really applaud her research and the fact that she refuses to let her series be just paranormal fantasy, or just romance — it’s complex, and thoughtful, and multidimensional. She resists absolutes in a genre that too often embraces them.

I’m going to keep going; I figure if a book’s page count breaks into four digits I can take some more time writing about it, right?

Like AcheronStyxx is really two novels in one. The first 3/4 of the book is a, if you’ll excuse the subgenrefication, historical fantasy. Kenyon paints a vivid picture of a super-ancient Greece, before the fall of Atlantis, and sets it as the stage for a massive mythological melodrama. The gods meddle, the humans react, and innocent lives are caught and buffeted in between. This part of the book is very R-rated, but it in no way qualifies as a romance novel (differing from the bulk of Kenyon’s writing, which are solidly in the romance category although heavily influenced by urban fantasy). Again, like the first portion of Acheron, this part of Styxx is very well written and I found myself completely immersed in the story.

The last part of the book fast-forwards to the early 2000s and the modern-day issues facing the surviving gods, demigods, and other characters. It’s more in the fantasy/action genre, and if you ask me it seems clear that it was written much more quickly and with less love and attention than the rest of the book. We get repeated exposition, clunky dialogue, dropped threads of subplot, and other little messy things that are distracting after the tightly woven fabric of the ancient Greece part of the story. Plus, it’s a rehash — from a different perspective — of events I’d already read in other books from the series, so there was a pervading sense of déjà vu.

It kind of bothered me to have my loyalties shaken up (I’ve been a big Acheron fan, but now? His twin seems the better man, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with that! #bookwormproblems) and I’m still a little confused as to what, exactly, was going on in all the times when Styxx and Acheron had their memories messed with, but this was a good solid 4.5 stars for me. I wouldn’t recommend it to the general public, but if you’ve been a Dark-Hunter series reader, you absolutely have to drop everything and read Styxx now.

Hey, there was another book I read, too. I read The False Prince, the first book in a middle-level/early YA trilogy, because its author, Jennifer A. Nielsen, is coming to my school for an author visit next Thursday. I’m going to try to read all of her books before she comes, if I can pry them out of the hands of our students (ha ha). They’re all pretty quick reads. The False Prince was an action-adventure fairy tale about a bunch of orphans (sorta) sucked into a plot to overthrow (sorta) the kingdom. For most of the book I felt like it was a bit too simple for my tastes, but I kept reminding myself that I was reading a book written for twelve-year-olds. Then as all the loose ends began to knit together, I realized that this was a more sophisticated story than I’d assumed. I mean, I’m an accomplished reader. I knew exactly what was going on with this novel long before it told us. But I still appreciated the cleverness and am excited to see what happens in the other two books.

Currently Reading/Looking Ahead: I just finished The False Prince and haven’t started anything new yet. However, the copy of Nielsen’s Elliot and the Goblin War (the first in a trilogy written for upper elementary/lower middle) that I had on hold just came in, so I’ll probably read it this afternoon. I have several adult books waiting in the wings, starting with Made in the U.S.A. by Billie Letts, but I’m going to try to finish both Nielsen trilogies first in advance of the author visit. I’m trying to land an interview with her, and I feel like I ought to be familiar with her books first. Of course, my brain is now in paranormal romance/urban fantasy mode, thanks to Styxx, so I may succumb to that temptation if a book presents itself at a vulnerable moment.

Review: Odd and the Frost Giants, Ludo and the Star Horse

Writing for children is harder than it looks, so I especially appreciate it when an adult fiction author can also write successfully for kids. Take, for instance, Neil Gaiman. He writes epic fantasy for adults, he writes lushly illustrated abecedarians — but his sweet spot, arguably, is spooky bildungsromans for the tween set (think Coraline and The Graveyard Book).

Include in that category his lesser-known 2008 book Odd and the Frost Giants.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about OatFG‘s plot; in fact, one of the things I liked best about it was its fodder for studying schema and making text-to-text connections, which is probably proof right there that you can take the English teacher out of the classroom but you can’t make her stop being a nerd.

Odd is a 12-year-old Viking boy with a crippled leg (played in my internal cinema by a more subdued Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon). His woodcutter father dies and his mother remarries, leaving Odd unsure about his place in his family or his village. Then winter refuses to pass into spring (“The cold never bothered me anyway!”) and Odd leaves home for his father’s abandoned work cottage. An act of courage and compassion puts him in league with a trio of down-on-their-luck Norse gods (you’ll have to forgive me if they were voiced by Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and especially Hopkins in my imagination) and sets him on his way from Midgard to Asgard and back again.

The title character is especially interesting. Writing sparely, in the style of an old legend, Gaiman leaves us with a lot of room to speculate on Odd’s motivations and internal dialogue. Ultimately, OatFG almost feels like an origin story; I wouldn’t be shocked to see Odd pop up as a fully-realized adult character in a future novel.

Beyond the more obvious connections, I found a book from my childhood tugging at my memory as I read OatFG. Mary Stewart — another British author with the gift of writing for multiple audiences — wrote three novels for kids, one of which is Ludo and the Star Horse (1974). There are many similarities between these two books beyond the identically formatted titles, one of which being remarkably similar discussions about the quasi-mystical art of woodcarving (IIRC; I didn’t re-read LatSH for this review), and the primary one being that the young male protagonist must leave home and travel into the realm of mythology.

Ludo is a young Bavarian boy who, on a long winter night, pursues his beloved workhorse on the path of a shooting star. They end up in the House of Sagittarius and then must travel the entire zodiac, facing tests of character along the way. Readers who love mythology, who want to know more about the symbols behind the western zodiac, or who just love a good boy-and-his-horse story will find this book fascinating and, I hope, as memorable as I did. (I imagined that it would be impossible to track down, but it looks like you can get it starting at $4 on Amazon — with updated cover art, thankfully! It’s hard to sell kids on novels with Seventies-era cover art, regardless of the quality of the book’s innards.)

Written for the upper elementary/lower middle school crowd, either or both of these books get my recommendation for the school or classroom library. Put them in the hands of young readers who are interested in mythology or just love a good, straightforward adventure story. And if you’re a fan of the adult work of Gaiman and/or Stewart, don’t miss out on these stories just because they’re written for younger readers. They’ll make for a pleasant, nostalgic afternoon’s reading.

This review has been cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Review: Zombie Baseball Beatdown

Zombie-Baseball-Beatdown-by-Paolo-BacigalupiThis review originally posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Recently, I ordered several books for our school library, including this much-hyped middle grade novel about immigration reform. I mean, about conditions in the meat processing industry. No! It’s about corruption in the legal system based on the evils of money. Ack! What I am trying to say is, a novel about ZOMBIES. Yeah, that’s right! It’s about zombies, and baseball. Or so I am reminded, when I look at the cover….

Okay, I should be fair. This was actually a pretty darn good book for what it is, and even though I’m about to point out its weaknesses, it overall gets a thumbs-up from me. Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi is a grody, funny adventure story of the classic “groups of kids running around with curiously little parental supervision” sub-genre. It’s a buddy story, written in an accessible style, with plenty of the stuff that middle school boys like: slapstick, comic books, sports, video games, cars, oblivious adults, crazy heroics, poop. You know: the good stuff. I found myself smiling, compulsively turning pages, reading choice bits aloud, and rooting for the good guys. It was a fun read.

On the other hand, Zombie Baseball Beatdown is also a not-at-all veiled polemic against racism, the meat industry, American immigration policy, and big business. As my husband, who is an expert in such things, reminds me, zombies are always political metaphors. And of course, subtlety isn’t really in order when you’re writing middle grade literature. That said, ZBB really lays it on thick. My personal politics weren’t offended by the book, but it didn’t take much imagination to realize that plenty of readers would be completely turned off by the story’s message and end up walking away from what was otherwise a fun story. Obviously the use of fiction to promulgate ideology is nothing new (hello, pretty much everything you ever had to read for a high school English class) but a lighter hand with the vituperation might not have been uncalled-for here.

As an adult reader of a kid’s book, I was uncomfortable with the violent ideation. It bothered me that almost all of the protagonists’ (adult) nemeses conveniently got zombified, providing the kids with ample excuse to beat them up with baseball bats. I mean, I’m not so far gone that I can’t see how this would appeal to a middle schooler’s sense of justice; heck, some of these adults were so rotten before become zombies that I wanted to smack them myself. But there are a few violent (for a middle grade novel) moments where the kids get to deliver what ought to have been fatal beatings to adults in their lives, and they left me feeling a little disturbed. The inevitable zombie apocalypse scene blithely glosses over the fact that the kids are bludgeoning their erstwhile parents and neighbors.

Looking back on the novel, I realize that there are really no positive adults in this book, and ZBB fails the Bechdel Test big time. I’m not really counting that as a flaw here; it’s clearly a book intended for young guys, and the characters are pretty awesome. Our main character is a smart (but not caricature-smart) Indian-American boy who isn’t much of a baseball player but has a good head for stats. One of his friends is a courageous, big-hearted Mexican-American boy from a family of illegal immigrants, and the other is a Martin Riggs type with a rough home life. Together, the trio face enemies small, large, bovine, and undead. The ending is deliberately untidy, in such a way that felt exactly right to me and will frustrate the heck out of its target demographic.

Ultimately, this is a book that I’ll still sincerely recommend to kids who will either gloss over the politics or not mind them, and it’ll have a prominent place in our Halloween book display next October. It may make Cory Doctorow’s YA lit look subtle in comparison, but Zombie Baseball Beatdown is also a zombie-infested revenge fantasy filled with lots of cow poop — what’s not to love?

Wired!

I’m not a big “New Year’s Resolutions” gal, but there were a few things floating in my mind this month that I’d like to do to improve my life in 2014. Save a little money each month, for example. Move my part from the middle to the side of my head. You know: the big stuff.

Another thing that I knew I wanted to do fell more on the professional side of things. As a middle school librarian, I need to be familiar with more middle-level books. There are plenty that I’ve read or know a lot about, but our library is big and getting bigger all the time, and I have a lot of catching up to do. More than just reading books, though, I need to talk about them. So one of my goals for the upcoming year was to read more of my collection, and get back into the habit of writing reviews — maybe even try my hand at videos.

It’s funny when the universe conspires to help you out with things like that. (Now if only it would lend a hand on the “saving money” front!)

There’s a terrific website called Guys Lit Wire that exists to highlight books that might appeal to teenage boys. They have a writing “staff” of about 25 folks who post daily book reviews. The books don’t necessarily have male protagonists and aren’t necessarily written for teens. The contributors include teachers, librarians, college students, published authors, etc.. It’s a fairly well-known site amongst those people who are interested in YA books.

Anyway, last week they posted a notice that they were looking for new contributors. I emailed them with samples of my work, and on Wednesday evening they replied and let me know that they’d like to have me on board!

I’m elated. Not only does this support me in my goal, but it puts me out there as a reader and a writer in a professional sense, which is good for me. It will help me get to know some great people who, like me, are stupid-passionate about helping young people fall in love with books. It’s a small commitment (one review a month) with a great deal of creative license, so it’s a challenge at a manageable level for me right now with my other commitments.

Anyone who knows me as a teacher/librarian knows that biblio-matchmaking is one of my greatest passions. SO thrilled that GLW is giving me one more way to do this!

Anyway, I’ll be cross-posting my reviews, but I encourage you to subscribe to GLW if you’re interested in YA books in whatever capacity, or just want great book recommendations.

PS Big thank you to Deb for first pointing me in this site’s direction!

Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and DisappearedThe 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

My rating: 5 out of 5

Joseph Stalin. Mao Tse-Tung. Winston Churchill. Robert Oppenheimer. Sigvard Eklund. Charles de Gaulle. Presidents Truman, Johnson, and Nixon. Sonya the Elephant. Conceivably, if you lived a hundred years — the right hundred years — and were the right guy, and were in the right places at the right times, you might just interact with all of these people. In fact, if you were the right guy in the right places at the right times, you might conceivably have a pretty significant impact on some of these people and the big things they did with their lives.

Allan Karlsson, as it turns out, is the right guy. But when this quirky, amusing, intelligent novel begins, he is also a hundred years old, fed up with life in a nursing home, and anxious for a stiff drink. The novel opens with his undramatic escape from the Malmköping Old Folks’ Home and takes a sharp left turn into the twin stories of Allan Karlsson: his present-day adventures as he flees across Sweden, pursued not only by police who want to save him but crooks who want him dead, and his astonishing life story that shows the reader how Allan Karlsson became the man he is today.

The 100-Year-Old Man bills itself as a Forrest Gump story in the back cover copy, and that’s not a bad way to characterize it, at least on the surface. Like Gump, Karlsson has — largely through sheer dumb luck — found himself a player in a disproportionately large number of major historical events. Also like Gump, Karlsson has navigated these events devoid of political or economic motivation beyond simple survival and a “why not” attitude. Unlike Forrest Gump, Allan Karlsson is a brilliant explosives expert, and this expertise propels him beyond the sidelines straight into the action. Without intention or motivation, Karlsson drives and changes the course of history itself. Jonasson’s novel paints this now-unassuming centenarian as the pivotal figure in multiple international conflicts, assassination attempts, intrigues, and conspiracies. Yes, The 100-Year-Old Man is kindred to Forrest Gump, but it also shares genes with Catch Me If You Can and perhaps even Water for Elephants; heck, there might even be a wee dash of Douglas Adams in there.

The result is a novel that I was reluctant to put down, that I recommended multiple times to the people around me as I read, and that was chock-full of passages that I just couldn’t help but read aloud. For example:

If it is possible to become stone-cold sober instantly after having just downed a whole bottle of tequila, then that was what Vice President Harry S. Truman did. The news of Roosevelt’s sudden demise meant that the vice president had to conclude the pleasant dinner with Allan and fly immediately to Washington. Allan was left behind in the restaurant to argue with the headwaiter about the bill. In the end, the headwaiter accepted Allan’s argument that the future president of the United States was probably reasonably credit-worthy and that, in any case, the headwaiter now knew his address.

I greatly appreciated Jonasson’s dry humor, the somehow believable absurdity of both storylines, the fascinating gallivant through 20th century international history, and the unabashed way in which Jonasson drew present-day Karlsson as a vivacious and personable protagonist despite or even because of his advanced chronological age.

I love it when I stumble upon a book by accident — or perhaps its the book fairies, or fate, or angelus liborumi — and it turns out to be a real winner. This particular book was crammed into a shelf of used crafting and home decor books in a crowded corner of a thrift shop in a small Idaho town; I’d already gone through the entire book section but had returned while waiting for someone else in my party to finish shopping. The book’s bright orange cover caught my eye; the ridiculous title and its placement made me think it was going to be an interesting nonfiction, perhaps in the sociological vein, and then the first few pages convinced me to gamble a dollar on it.

In all honesty, I was initially skeptical of this book based on the highly scientific fact that it was written by a Swedish author (originally in Swedish, naturally). I had failed to make it through the first chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I had the erroneous idea that Jasper Fforde’s books — which I desperately want to like but cannot — were of Swedish descent as well. From these two disappointments I had drawn the conclusion that I Dislike All Swedish Literature, which is approximately as fair as stating that one dislikes all meatballs based on the frozen nuggets available at IKEA. I’m glad that, despite the word “Swedish” emblazoned several times across the cover, I gave this novel a chance. It’s one of my favorites of the academic year thus far, and definitely one I hope to share with others. Heck, this book would be equally appropriately recommended to my highly educated book club friends and with at least some of my 17-year-old students. I may have to track down a second copy for my classroom library!