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.


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: Mummies: The Newest, Coolest & Creepiest from Around the World

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

I picked up Shelley Tanaka’s Mummies: The Newest, Coolest & Creepiest from Around the World because it was featured on a “spooky book” shelf and because it looked like a fun, quick read. I wasn’t expecting to get completely wrapped up (ha ha) in it, much less to be murmuring “Wow!” every time I turned a page.

Published in 2005, Mummies is a 48-page illustrated nonfiction book at an 8.2 grade level. It meets the reader right where we’d all start when opening such a book: “Mummies… Right away we think of the ancient Egyptians.” Tanaka immediately pivots, explaining the broader definition of mummies and sending us around the world from Egypt to Chile, where the earliest mummies were found.

This is a book about death and corpses, and it neither sensationalizes nor flinches away from this. In a straightforward manner that will appeal to any reader (but probably especially young guys) Tanaka explains how ancient Chinchorro people skinned and dismembered their dead before reconstructing the bodies with the aid of sticks, fur, feathers, and clay.

She explains how the Inca performed human sacrifice by immobilizing/killing and leaving their “most beautiful and healthy children” in mountaintop tombs, where they were frozen and preserved so perfectly that their blood — even their eyelashes! — are still in place centuries later.

Readers learn about peat bog mummies in Ireland, the Iceman of northern Italy, medieval mummies as far north as the Arctic Circle, 4,000-year-old mummies preserved by heat and sand in a Chinese desert, and of course the famous Egyptian mummies.

Tanaka also brings mummification into the contemporary world by telling about researchers who reproduced the Egyptian techniques on a man who left his remains to science, and about Buddhist monks who mummify themselves before dying! She also talks about famous political mummies Lenin, Mao, and Peron, and about the plastinated mummies currently touring the country with exhibitions like Body World and Bodies: The Exhibition.

Mummies is full of glossy, full-color pictures of mummies, coffins, artifacts, and corpses — including an actual-size photo of the shockingly well-preserved face of an eight-year-old girl, and a far number of skeletal remains. Somehow they didn’t strike me as especially disturbing or disgusting, although I’m sure the majority of adolescent readers will be delightedly grossed out. And if they’re anything like me, they’ll find themselves intrigued, wanting to learn more about non-Egyptian mummies, making surprising connections to history and cultural geography, and probably passing the book around to all of their buddies. I read several sections out loud to my husband and son* and can’t wait to feature this book more prominently in our library collection.

* My son (who at seventeen months old has relatively little prior knowledge of mummies) leaned forward and kissed the picture of an ancient bust of Tutankhamun seen above, then stole the book from me and spent several minutes intently flipping through the pages of desiccated ancient corpses. As recommendations go, that seems like a pretty solid one.

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.

Reading Update 28

SGF Reading

Reading Update: Today is Thursday, July 17. As of today, I have read 69 books toward my goal of 100; two of them have been since the last update. The two books I’ve read so far are:


Siege and Storm is the sequel to Shadow and Bone. I like this series, although it falls in kind of a strange zone for me. For the most part, it seems to be middle school level — but then there’s this undercurrent of darkness and sexuality that makes it more YA. I mean, there’s nothing happening or anything, but there’s this sort of sense that it will, y’know? Anyway, it’s a pretty great dark fantasy sort of thing, with interesting characters (albeit somewhat thinly written).

Dangerous is the latest by Shannon Hale, and it’s science fiction! It’s a superhero story, an alien story, a love story, and an adventure story. It reminded me of both The Fantastic Four and Ender’s Game. I liked the characters, especially the strong female protagonist, and I liked how it wasn’t nice and neat and whitewashed. I didn’t like the way that huge spans of time were wiped away in a single sentence, but I guess that comes from trying to edit a book down to a length and pace appropriate for young readers. It wasn’t the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I’m hoping for a sequel.

Currently Reading/Looking Ahead: I need to find a good read to review for GLW. I put Ready Player One in my bag this morning but am not enthused.

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!


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!

Review: Redshirts


Redshirts by John Scalzi

My rating: 3.75 to 4 out of 5

John Scalzi is one of my favorite science fiction authors, for three reasons:

1. How can you not love someone whose Goodreads bio says, “John Scalzi, having declared his absolute boredom with biographies, disappeared in a puff of glitter and lilac scent”?

2. On top of being a fairly prolific novelist (and a contributor to Stargate Universe), Scalzi maintains a terrifically smart and entertaining blog.

3. On top of being prolific, smart, and entertaining, Scalzi does something rare and exceptional: he writes really great funny science fiction — of which Redshirts is only the most recent offering.

If you are a fan of Star Trek, you probably get the reference in this book’s title. If not, I’ll try to explain. Have you ever noticed — or heard people joking about the appearance that — horror movies casting black actors as the expendable buddy who falls victim to the ax murderer/vengeful ghost/etc. early on in the film? The “black dude dies first” trope (you can substitute “meme” for “trope” if that makes more sense to you) doesn’t actually happen that often in contemporary horror, but it happened often enough that it’s become heavily parodied (see Scary Movie — or don’t, because that’s a terrible movie, but it’s an example). This is an echo of the redshirt phenomenon from classic Star Trek. When the episode included an away mission, they would send the “important characters” (your Kirk, Spock, etc.) who obviously needed to survive — but someone has to fall victim to the malevolent natives, right? Often-nameless crew members in red uniforms (meaning they were part of the security detail) were expendable cannon fodder, dying horrifically to advance the plot, and becoming a catchphrase among geeks everywhere.

Scalzi latches on to this trope for this hilarious and thought-provoking, self-aware parody of the original Star Trek series (self-aware in that it eventually acknowledges the relationship between the novel and the TV show). In Redshirts, the lower-ranking crew members of the Intrepid have begun to realize that, in their words, “everyone on this ship [is] monumentally f***ed up about away missions.” And no wonder; every mission seems to follow the classic ST model. Not only do new recruits get mysteriously mowed down in an almost orchestrated setup for the glorification of a handful of “important” crew members, but random bits of exposition and motivation seem to pop into their heads as if being uploaded. It’s bizarre, ominous, and — as our protagonists quickly discover — often fatal.

A few plucky redshirts band together to try to unravel the mystery in time to avoid gruesome death vis-a-vis whatever inexplicable battle or situation arises next. With the assistance of a yeti-like ship hermit and tongue-in-cheek application of heavy-handed deus ex machina, our protagonists bust through the veil dividing their reality from that being parodied. The results are not only funny and smart, but surprisingly touching as the two worlds collide and improve one another.

If you’ve ever stayed up late over coffee (or your “conversing about hypothetical issues with friends” substance of choice) bouncing crazy ideas about multiple universes and time travel with your equally geeky friends, or if you’re the sort of person who likes to sit in the back of the theater and make snarky comments about implausible plot developments and the abuse of your suspension of disbelief, you will probably get a HUGE kick out of this book. (Being a fan of ST isn’t a requirement, although it will enrich your reading experience as you draw connections between characters and cast members.) This would be an amazing book club selection, for the right book club; I find myself itching to ask other readers about one of the central characters and his power over the craziness aboard the Intrepid. The three “Codas” — short story epilogues that add some rather lovely layers to the story — provide some excellent food for thought and discussion as well.

Redshirts isn’t liable to win the Pulitzer (although it did debut at #15 on the hardcover fiction best-seller list), but it was exactly the sort of book I needed on a cold February night (and yes, it flies — once you get sucked into the tractor beam of this novel, be prepared to lose a few hours). This novel is transportive, grin-provoking, and the literary equivalent of sharing a great inside joke with a clever friend. And if you’d like to give it a try, you can actually read the prologue and the first four chapters for free.

You can also read Wired‘s interview with Scalzi — it’s pretty good, too.

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The-Guernsey-Literary-and-Potato-Peel-Pie-Society The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of my favorite things about a historical fiction or narrative nonfiction book is when it sheds a beam of light into a previously unknown corner of something that you thought you already knew all about.

For example, I thought I pretty much had World War II down. Between personal reading, film, and the fact that WWII was pretty much the only thing we seemed to learn about in history class, I thought I had a pretty good overview of the time period. And then along comes The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, telling a story that I’d never heard before: the story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, specifically Guernsey, and what it was like to try to survive under conditions that I’d never associated with that part of Europe.

The protagonist is Juliet, a British woman in her 30s whose life and writing career are at a turning point. WWII is recently over; she’s just become a bestselling author but is anxious to try a different style of writing; her apartment and all her possessions have been bombed; as a single woman in the 1940s, she’s beginning to wonder if she ought to consider finding herself a husband. Intelligent, sassy, warm, and independent, she is soon swept up in two different worlds: the dazzling cocktails-and-dancing world of a wealthy American suitor, and the quieter charms of an eclectic group of readers and survivors on the island of Guernsey.

Through correspondences between Juliet and members of the delightful supporting cast, the reader falls in love with Juliet’s London friends, the people of Guernsey and their resilience, and even the dashing but possibly dastardly American. Shockingly, a degree of affection for some of the German occupying forces begins to develop as the authors reveal their humanity, reminding the reader that many soldiers end up fighting wars in which they don’t believe. That’s something that I hadn’t really experienced in other WWII literature; the temptation to draw one’s enemy as a caricature is generally overwhelming. On the other hand, this book also exposed me to Nazi atrocities that I’d never heard of before, through the story of one of the founding members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Ultimately, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a book about people who love books, and about their power to bring people together and keep them going when the going seems not only tough but even impossible. It’s about the power of individual stories to illuminate the truth about communities. Sure, it’s also about WWII, and it’s also a romantic tale (Will Juliet give in to Mark’s protestations of love? Is Sidney truly not Mark’s romantic rival? Is there someone entirely different waiting for Juliet in the wings?) but at its heart, this book is about literature and how art can shape and save your life.

I’ll admit that it took me a little while to succumb to this book’s charms. The January pick for my book club, it had received rave reviews from a startling number of my bookish friends on Goodreads… and I just didn’t get it. At first. The biggest stumbling block for me — the fact that this is an epistolary novel (written in letter form) — was actually a selling point for many readers. Having to wait for character traits, relationships, and background information to unfurl through a series of notes, telegrams, and letters threw the brakes on for me, but once I had the major players fleshed out in my imagination, the novel really took off and I began to find the format more enchanting than distracting.

It’s a perfect choice for a book club, and a great recommendation for any aficionado of history or literature. I’ve already passed my copy to my mom, who loves great historical fiction, and would like to get it into the hands of my fellow English teachers. I’m hoping they might be as amused as I was by the multitudinous (but not annoyingly so) literary references, and by the names of the protagonist and her eventual love.

(Endnote: It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I took some time to research Guernsey. I’d been under the impression that it was a British island and that its citizens were British, but it’s actually a British Crown dependency — the responsiblity, in terms of defense, of the UK, but not actually a part of it. Geographically, Guernsey is much closer to France than it is to England, and both languages are common there as well as some small regional dialects. It consists of six islands with a total size of 24 square miles, and today about 63,000 people call Guernsey home.)

Review: Going Bovine

Going Bovine book coverGoing Bovine by Libba Bray

My rating: 4 out of 5

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book review, but I thought I’d give it a go again because I’m trying to process my thoughts about this novel. I had been intending to read Going Bovine for some time (it came out in 2009) but hadn’t ever gotten around to it until this Christmas break. I like to read the books recognized for the Michael L. Printz Award, which focuses on YA books written with great literary merit. I try to have as many of these books on my classroom library shelves as I can; I love the idea of sharing books that are interesting to teens, written for teens, that are also artful.

That being said… sometimes I wonder if the Printz Award is more about an exercise in YA writing, rather than books that real teen readers actually want to read. Several of the books I’ve read from the Printz list are inarguably well-written, but I have a really hard time knowing which of my kids would like them — and when I recommend them to my students, I often get pretty lukewarm reactions. (Recent example: Punkzilla.) It’s kind of like the Pulitzer, y’know? Everyone knows that Pulitzer Prize-winning books are amazeballs, but does anyone actually read them?

Going Bovine was really well done, and I enjoyed it enough to knock it out in one day despite my increasing inability to focus on a book. And I’m going to put it out there for my kids to try. But I’m not really 100% sure what they’ll think…

This book tells the story of Cameron Smith, a disaffected sixteen-year-old boy who thinks his life pretty much sucks up until the point when it actually sucks — that is, the day he is diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (better known to most of us as mad cow disease, a fatal neurological disorder). We first realize that all is not right in Cameronville when he begins hallucinating, seeing a pink-haired angel following him around as well as a legion of enormous fiery creatures that seem to be trying to burn the world down.

After Cameron is hospitalized, the angel reappears and lets Cameron in on a little secret. Yes, he has mysteriously contracted CJD… but there’s more to it than that, involving a time-traveling scientist named Dr. X and the fire giants’ leader, the nefarious Wizard of Reckoning. If Cameron will accept the angel’s mission and undergo a quest to save the world from the Wizard, she tells him, then Dr. X may be able to cure him and save his life.

What’s a teenage boy with a death sentence to do? He recruits a sidekick (inevitably, a hypochrondiac Hispanic afro-wearing video-gaming Little Person named Gonzo), sneaks out of the hospital, and begins following a loosely-constructed trail of clues to track down Dr. X and save the world. As time goes on, it’s increasingly unclear whether Cameron is actually trekking across the southeastern U.S. or if his quest is the product of a disintegrating mind as he lies in his hospital bed. The result is a satirical, sometimes touching, sometimes hilarious, and often hallucinogenic tale that, surprisingly, works.

I liked this quotation from a Goodreads reader review:

Imagine Brian Lee O’Malley surrendering his masterpiece Scott Pilgrim series to Bob Dylan, Scott Adams and Jack Kerouac. The constraints are Scott Pilgrim is now a stoner who has mad cow disease, Ramona is a punk rock angel who flies in and out of Scott’s life, and Wallace is a hypochondriac dwarf human. They all take a road trip through the dirty South and face many a task. New Orleans blues legends, smile cults, eskimo rock bands, evil snowglobes and the occaisional [sic] viking gnome.

(I’d also throw in a bit of Neil Gaiman; Going Bovine reminded me at times of American Gods.)

So what’s “wrong” with the novel? Why am I unsure whether it will actually appeal to my YA readers? I have three thoughts on that subject:

  1. I’m a character-driven reader, and Bray’s characters always turn me off. Gemma Doyle drove me insane, and Cameron’s not exactly the first person I’d choose to go on a roadtrip with. And while I totally get what Beauty Queens was trying to accomplish, its cast was just waaaaaay too much for me. That said, most kids who’ve read the Gemma books love them, so maybe it’s just me. And I certainly encounter a fair number of Caulfield-esque, stoner boys in my line of work.
  2. It’s really, really weird — and most of my teens have a pretty low tolerance for absurdism. They’ll read fantasy or science fiction, but satire flies over their heads and this sort of free-wheeling plot entanglement seems to be kryptonite to them. I think absurdism (whether a la Douglas Adams or as an attempt to capture drug trips/mental issues on paper) requires not only a high level of intelligence and reader buy-in, but a sophisticated sense of humor. It’s challenging to find a kid who possesses those things and who wants to read about a kid like Cameron.
  3. It’s also — at least for this consumer of plot — fairly predictable. The breadcrumbs Cameron follows, meant to be so random that they almost have to be the result of a diseased brain, are glowingly obvious to readers who know their quest tropes. There’s relatively little doubt as to what is really going on (although it’s pleasant to read the story as a straight-up magic realism quest) or as to what the end result will be. I’m not sure that predictability is a problem for most YA readers, but I thought I’d throw that one out there.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, and I’d recommend it to other adult readers of YA literature if they’re the sort who are tolerant of absurdism and somewhat unlikeable protagonists. (In fairness, Cameron becomes much more likeable as the book goes on — it’s not much a spoiler to say that this is essentially a character redemption tale.) I’m also glad that I have it as an option for my students, in case the right one comes along. It is a very well-executed book, deserving of the Printz; it is not my favorite book ever. But maybe it will be yours!