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: Dangerous by Shannon Hale

8585924(Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire)

When you think of authors who write “books for guys,” the name Shannon Hale probably does not come to mind. Better known for her more feminine offerings (Princess Academy, Goose Girl, Ever After High),  Hale is one of the big names in the middle grade to YA fantasy market. But her latest book, Dangerous, is a departure from the land of fairy tale and into a world in which Joss Whedon and Michael Bay would find themselves at home.

The protagonist of Dangerous is Maisie Danger Brown — yep, Danger is literally her middle name — the only child of a pair of eccentric scientists. Despite having been born with only one arm, Maisie dreams of being an astronaut and is elated when she wins a scholarship to an elite space camp run by a goofy, “mad scientist” character. It quickly (I’ll come back to that) becomes clear that there is more going on than teen education at the space camp. Maisie and her companions end up accidentally absorbing alien technology, develop superhuman abilities, and stumble into their own version of a Fantastic Four comic book.

Dangerous is a casserole of “team of superhero” stories with a bit of an Ender’s Game aftertaste. The bulk of the book deals with the kids being pursued by various agencies (commercial, scientific, political) who want to harness their superpowers for their own purposes. Maisie, who is scientifically brilliant but who has little experience with other people her own age, finds herself trying to navigate the tricky waters of friendship, destructive peers, romance, betrayal, and sacrifice at the same time that alien technology uses her mind and body as a playground. In the end, as is expected in this sort of story, the fate of the world is in her one hand.

This novel is populated with interesting characters of both genders and several ethnicities. One of my favorites is Dr. Dragon Barnes (yes, Danger and Dragon; Hale was clearly having fun here) who works for the “mad scientist” and whose devotion to her, and later Maisie, is truly touching. Plucked from a group home into adventures with extraterrestrial technology, he provides wisdom and a parental sort of love while Maisie’s own parents are out of the picture. (Maisie’s parents are fun characters, too, although as an adult reader I wished they had been a bit more fleshed out.) There’s an odd dynamic between Maisie and her male best friend, Luther, that will probably irritate many readers but is an excellent strike for those who believe that girls and boys can, absolutely, be Just Friends. Most of the other kids in the book are a little one-dimensional, but since they (spoiler alert) seem to exist mostly as filler and/or cannon fodder, that didn’t strike me as much of an issue.

The best part of this book, in a lot of ways, is Wilder. He’s a formidable character with complicated motivations, mysterious and alluring and funny and powerful and utterly untrustworthy. Up until the very end of the book it’s near impossible to decide whether he belongs in the Justice League or the Legion of Doom. His emotional ties pull him in two different directions, and ultimately (from an adult perspective, anyway) the question of how his story will eventually end is much more interesting than the requisite-to-YA-books-with-female-protagonists romance between him and Maisie.

Earlier, I mentioned how quickly the gist of the plot solidified. If I have a criticism of this book, it is about the pacing. Obviously, the important part of the story occurs after the superpowers are acquired — but when weeks of the long-anticipated space camp are zipped through in a matter of paragraphs, I find myself disoriented and struggling to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In Ender’s Game, we understand the characters and their motivations better for having read chapters full of practices, tests, and dormitory skirmishes. Dangerous fast-forwards through all of that, and I missed it.

Many reviews of this book focus on the thinness of some characters and the plot holes left after, I presume, paring the book down to its essential comic book plot line. I agree that Dangerous leaves something to be desired for the adult reader, but as a book written for young teens, I think it’s very successful. And although the protagonist is a girl who suffers the misfortune of losing her heart, the violence, action, intrigue, and technology will captivate male readers. Fans of The Avengers and X-Men will find plenty to enjoy in this novel.

Review: The Ascendance Trilogy

[Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire]

I want to tell you a story.

There’s a sixth grader who frequents my school library (I’ll call him Tim), checking out an astonishing number of books every day. In fact, in the past eight months, he’d checked out well over 200 books — but every one of them was a graphic novel. Nothing wrong with that, but I occasionally wondered what it would take to get him to make the jump from visual to verbal narrative.

And then, in fourth quarter, he checked out The False Prince, the first book in the Ascendance trilogy by Jennifer A. Nielsen.

A few days later Tim was practically jumping up and down at the circulation desk. “This book is SO COOL! The author, like, doesn’t ever even let you know what’s going on! I was completely tricked!” I can’t continue quoting him without printing spoilers, but his excitement over this novel (completely devoid of illustrations though it was) was extraordinary — and he desperately, desperately wanted the second book.

Yesterday, when I asked him to pick out his favorite library books, he walked right past the graphic novel section and picked up the Ascendance trilogy. I don’t think I have to tell any of GLW’s readers what that felt like to me.

Tim’s love for these books is far from unique at our school. We brought in several copies of all three books in anticipation of the author visiting, and it quickly gained fans of every age, reading level, and gender — including among the staff. As a school librarian I read a lot of YA books. Admittedly, sometimes reading some of these books feels more like work than pleasure. Reading the Ascendance trilogy, in contrast, was a very different and enjoyable experience. I found myself waiting for the next book in the installment every bit as eagerly as the kids.

I won’t go into a whole lot of detail about the first book, as it has been reviewed here by other readers before (last August and this April) but I will say this: if you’re looking for a swashbuckling adventure story with a great balance of darkness and amusing moments, just a sprinkling of romance (not enough to make it mushy, but enough to keep it interesting), pirates, double-crosses, battles, clever capers, and a resolution that is neither too neat nor unsettling, then here you go. It’s a series that I’d feel comfortable recommending to both fifth graders and ninth graders, and although the main character and most of the supporting cast are male, the strong female characters and great storytelling make it universally appealing.

And of course, my reading experience was complemented by the awesome experience of getting to meet the author. I’ve always said that books have two creators — the author and the reader — but this has been my first chance to speak in person with that original creator. I look forward to sharing some of Jennifer A. Nielsen’s thoughts from my interview tomorrow!

NOTE: Interview with the author is here. Go read to learn more about her writing process, potential False Prince movie news, and more!

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?

Review: The Red Hourglass

Red HourglassThis review originally posted at Guys Lit Wire.

As a middle school librarian, former high school English teacher, and now mother of a boy, I’ve been fortunate enough to gain some insight into what sort of reading material is likely to capture the attention of an average young dude.

One tried and true boy book bait, in my experience, is gross stuff.

Oh, and sex. (Age dependent, of course.)

Those two criteria makes Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators a likely candidate. The clear, accessible, and often hilarious writing makes it a shoo-in.

Grice comes across less like a nature writer and more like some dude who is obsessed with creepy and dangerous animals and loves to tell anyone and everyone allllll about them. His love for all things we’d rather not encounter while barefoot brings them to vivid life on the page. While reading this book I found myself laughing out loud, squirming, wincing, exclaiming in surprise and turning to Google for confirmation, and — more than once — reading excerpts out loud over the protests of my friends and family who don’t find spiders and snakes to be pleasant conversation fodder.

I mean, seriously, you have to share nuggets like this:

There was a beige-painted wood banister along the landing, and a piece of it had grabbed the moth and was chewing its head off. As I looked closer, the carnivorous piece of banister adjusted its grip slightly, and I recognized it as a praying mantis…. She held the moth, wings down, before her face and turned to stare at me. She looked like a person wiping her face with a napkin.

Ew. Am I right? Great stuff!

The Red Hourglass consists of seven stand-alone chapters, each focusing on a different critter. The first and best is about the black widow; others explore rattlesnakes, other spiders, and mantids. Grice detours from the usual grody suspects with chapters about pigs and canines, shaking up one’s preconceived notions about how warm and fuzzy these predators actually are while slipping in some intriguing discussion about the symbiotic relationship between man and “domesticated” beasts. Each chapter shines a light into the cobwebby shadows of these animals’ worlds, lovingly describing their predatory skills, their brutal mating habits, and their relationship with humankind. It’s shocking, it’s funny, and it is seriously gross.

This book did everything I love in narrative nonfiction. It was tremendously entertaining; I had a hard time putting it down. It taught me cool new things without ever feeling forced or boring; it changed the way I thought about several different animals, including humans and our place in the world. And, significantly, it made me look around eagerly for someone to share it with.

While I believe plenty of middle school-aged kids would take enormous joy in reading The Red Hourglass, it is probably better suited for slightly older readers. A recurring theme in the lives of these predators is what Grice charmingly refers to as “sexual cannibalism,” and he doesn’t shy away from describing this macabre practice. There’s a reference to a myth about a fanged vagina, and the paragraphs about pig breeding ultimately made up my mind about not including this book in our middle school’s library. (Excerpts, though, would be awesome informational texts for a science class!) I would enthusiastically recommend it to older teens, and to any adult who is more fascinated than repulsed by creepy-crawlies.

Arachnophobes and ophidiophobes should probably steer clear.

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!