Thursday, August 9, 2012

Throwdown Reading Wrap-Up

Hello again, everybody. As promised, here are some final Throwdown book comments.

Let's begin with the book whose cover is staring at you from the right: The Boy of a Thousand Faces by Brian Selznick. Clearly, I have a "thing" for Mr. Selznick, and I don't care who knows it. This is the story of Alonzo King, a boy born on Halloween, who grew up loving monsters. He reads scary stories, makes models, and worships Lon Chaney, the original Man of a Thousand Faces. He watches old horror movies on a show hosted by a masked man called Mr. Shadows, to whom he sends pictures of himself in monster make-up. He is not the most popular boy in school. He His only friend is Mr. Blake, his neighbor. But then, right before Halloween, a rumor starts: there's a monster in town! There are footprints here. Someone heard it over there. Now EVERYONE wants to know about monsters, and so everyone is talking to the kid who knows about monsters. There is huge excitement building in the town as Halloween approaches. Is there a monster in town? And how does Alonzo become "The Boy of a Thousand Faces?" This short sweet book has the answers, and is a love letter to anyone who grew up loving monsters and feeling left out.

And since I'm already talking about Selznick, his afterword to Wonderstruck made clear his affection for and debt to E.L. Konigsburg's classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, so I decided to re-visit it. What a delight! Two kids run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, washing up in the bathrooms, living off the money thrown into the fountain, and sleeping in the exhibits. They end up embroiled in an art mystery over whether a particular angel was created by Michaelangelo. The mystery leads them to the wealthy, no-nonsense and lonely Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who holds the key to the angel in her mixed up files. If you're going to read Wonderstruck (and I wish you would), do yourself a favor and pick up this book first.

Next up is Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten, book four in his Thursday Next series. I really enjoyed The Eyre Affair, and liked Lost in a Good Book. The Well of Lost Plots was just okay, and I thought maybe I had burned out on the character, so I avoided Something Rotten until now. Describing a Thursday Next plot is well-nigh impossible (and you'll sound like a nutter if you try): a full-contact croquet match to stave off armageddon, obnoxious dodos (the birds, not stupid people), disappearing, re-appearing husbands, an evil corporation bent on world domination, Hamlet having an affair with Admiral Lord Nelson's mistress, book characters entering the real world, a minotaur on the run.. see what I mean? That's all one book, and there's much, much more I could have said. Is it as good as the first book? No. But I find it doesn't matter. This was such a strange, random little lark, and I enjoy the literature-infused world Fforde has created so much, that I had a great time reading it.

Rick Detorie's The Accidental Genius of Weasel High is where you steer kids who loved the drawing/writing combo of Diary of a Wimpy Kid but are a little bit older now. It's a sweet story of a guy who realizes that his best friend would make a perfect girlfriend only to find out that she doesn't feel the same way. There's a lot of humor, hijinks occur, but this isn't a simplistic story. Good stuff.

I don't know if they realized it at the time, but Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl created one of the best openings ever in Beautiful Creatures, ending thusly:

There were no surprises in Gatlin Couunty. We were pretty much the epicenter of the middle of nowhere.

At least, that's what I thought, when I closed my battered copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, clicked off my iPod, and turned out the light on the last night of summer.

Turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong.

There was a curse.

There was a girl.

And in the end, there was a grave.

I never even saw it coming.

How can you not want to turn the page? I was hooked hard, and was not disappointed. Yes, there's teen romance here (I said it was a YA book, didn't I?), but it's well done, with history and magic and Dark Secrets and books. The small-town details of place and people ring true, and even the outrageous characters make sense.

For those teens (or adults) who like their supernatural without all that romance stuff, may i suggest Rick Yancey's The Monstrumologist. It purports to be the journal of an orphan boy apprenticed to Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, who studies monsters. It's scary and gothic and gory (and sometimes tough going as it's written to sound stilted and "of its time") and there's none of that sissy girl stuff to see here. But if horror is your bag and you like some blood and guts along with your moody atmosphere, then take a gander here.

Bill Willingham is best known for the hit comics series Fables, but he writes novels, too, including this little charmer of a juvenile fiction book called Down the Mysterly River. A Boy Scout called Max the Wolf for his woodsy skills finds himself in an unfamiliar forest with no idea how he got there. He's being chased by guys with glowing swords and then he finds the talking animals, including a warrior badger named Banderbrock, a gentle bear named Walden, and an outrageous pirate of a tomcat named McTavish. Together they have to figure out how they got here, where "here" is, and why they were brought here. It's a quest novel with some unexpected twists and turns, some ripping adventure, and a touching heart.

What have I not talked about yet? If you guessed Temeraire, you're spot on. Tongues of Serpents picks up the story as Laurence and his unknowning revolutionary of a dragon are transported to Australia to build and look after a new breeding ground. Both are depressed (and trying to hide it from the other). The situation in Australia doesn't help: terribly hot and dry, politically unstable, and full of criminals and the objectionable men sent to watch over them. Then one of the eggs they're looking after gets stolen, and a group unlikely to ever see eye to eye is sent after it. Sadly, this installment didn't have as much zing as the others leading up to it. I can't put my finger on why, but this one felt draggy and uninspiring. Hopefully the next will see Novik back in form.

Finally ('bout time!), there was Paula Guran's excellent anthology The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2011. I am a huge fan of anthologies. It's one of the best places to discover new authors, or to try an author you've heard of without dropping a pile of cash on a hardcover. No anthology is perfect; most are hit and miss. But this one was more hit than miss with a lineup including stalwarts like Neil Gaiman, Joe R. Lansdale, and Tanith Lee, and current faves like Maureen McHugh, Jay Lake, Stephen Graham Jones, Holly Black and Genevieve Valentine. It even includes a nice fat novella from George R.R. Martin, set in his Song of Ice and Fire universe. Guran's definition of dark fantasy and horror casts a wide net, and it's safe to say that whatever kind of story you like, you'll find something pleasing here.


For those that might have missed it, the final results of the Throwdown can be found here.

I'd Have Gotten Away With It, Too, If Not For You Meddling Kids!

The Runge Public Library Throwdown is over, and here are the official results: Team Everyone Else read 228.82 books. I read 228.48 books. Team Everyone Else is triumphant, by a grand total of 17 pages.

To quote the immortal Jake Blues:

Honest... I ran out of gas! I--I had a flat tire! I didn't have enough money for cab fare! My tux didn't come back from the cleaners! An old friend came in from out of town! Someone stole my car! There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts! IT WASN'T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!!!

But seriously folks, this is awesome. 228.82 books equals 11,441 pages read in three weeks. We've had folks get cards that never had them before and folks using cards that they hadn't in a long time. I've gotten to talk to kids about books and what they like to read, which will enable us to make more judicious choices when we buy books. (Hint: Is it like Goosebumps? We love Goosebumps! You could quiz any kid in town about Goosebumps and they could answer your question.) We were able to keep kids reading during the summer on their reading level, which will hopefully help them out when school starts later this month. Everybody wins! (Well, except me. Rotten kids.)

As a bonus? Now the adults in town are getting cocky, so we may be having Throwdown 2: The Wrath of Kahn in the near future. Fine by me, Runge--I really want that Shrieking Flying Monkey, so Bring It ON!

And all of this Awesome? Couldn't have happened without you all. Sharing our little contest around the internet (William Gibson--THE William Gibson--re-tweeted a link to our contest page to his followers. I'm still squeeing over that, and it's all thanks to you, Deanna), reading the blog and commenting, sending cards and letters and emails: y'all have done more than you can guess to encourage kids to read (and to convince a librarian that she was on the right track). Thank you all.

I'm inching towards work time, so I'll post my final books later today.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Zero Hour, 9 AM

Just a short note: the Throwdown ends today at 5:30. Currently, Team Everyone Else is ahead 181.82 books to 177.60 books. After 5:30, all pages will be tallied and the final standings will be announced tomorrow. I will try to post my final books tonight, but blogging from a Kindle Fire is painful, so it's more likely tomorrow.

Thank you all for following along and for sending your support. 181.82 books equals 9091 pages read, and there will be more to come today. Think about that for a minute. Over 9000 pages read, most of which probably wouldn't have been read without this little shindig and your support for it. Team Everyone Else is awesome, and all of y'all are, too.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Throwdown Countdown: Two...

The final weekend for our little throwdown is done, and I'm pretty happy with the reading I got done. It's a sprint to the finish with several lead changes on the way. I can just taste that Shrieking Flying Monkey.

Metaphorically. I don't want to chew on the monkey, people. Sheesh.

First up for me was Naomi Novik's Empire of Ivory, the fourth book in the Temeraire series. I am officially obsessed with the series and actually have to force myself to read other things in between volumes--otherwise y'all would be getting all Temeraire, all the time. Taking up just where volume three left off, Laurence and Temeraire have finally returned to England from their China adventures only to find Bonaparte running rampant over Europe. England's dragons are nowhere to be seen. Laurence discovers the terrible reason for this: most of the dragons have caught some kind of virus and are slowly dying. They figure out that Temeraire had this same disease while traveling but recovered, so they are sent to Africa in search of the cure. It's terribly distressing watching friends from previous volumes sicken and die, and as if this isn't enough, Laurence is faced with a horrifying decision: stand by while hundreds of sentient creatures die, or save them and commit treason, condemning himself to death. Things are never easy for these two, which is one of the reasons I enjoy the series. There's lots of discussion about freedom and honor and such, but there are also consequences, sometimes known, sometimes not, that must be dealt with.

Next was Crash, by J.G. Ballard. Quite a departure. To tell the truth, I've read Crash before. I'm reading it again because it's this month's selection for my book group. I ran into a fellow book-grouper at ArmadilloCon and his comment was something along the lines of "Man. That book is just relentless." And yes, it is. Ballard explores our addiction to technology through characters who get an erotic thrill from car crashes (their own and others). If it's not about cars, roadways, car crashes, or extremely fetishistic sex (involving cars, roadways, crashed cars, and car crash victims), then you won't find it here. Reading the book is analogous to that "slow down and stare at the carnage" impulse we all seem to have, and just as uncomfortable.

Then I finally jumped in to China Mieville's Railsea. I am a huge Mieville fan (even if he does sometimes make me doubt my own intelligence) and I always look forward to whatever he comes up with. Imagine a post-apocalyptic world where insects and vermin have grown huge and make their way through the under the surface of the earth like one of those sandworms from Dune. You can't set foot on the ground without calling some horrific beastie up to damage you. The only safe places are small "islands" of townships (presumably built on rock the beasties can't tunnel through) connected by an ocean of inter-connecting iron and wood rails: the railsea. Now imagine that you're a young boy, clumsy and not very motivated, who's been signed onto a vessel as a doctor's apprentice, set to sail the railsea and hunt the giant moles. Your captain has an artificial arm, and is obsessed with finding and killing the great albino mole who took it Mocker Jack. It's weird and adventure-y and funny and I couldn't put it down.

Finally, I just couldn't resist diving into Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik's fifth book featuring Temeraire. Hey, I told you I was obsessed. Having essayed a noble act that has seen him charged with treason, Will Laurence expects to be put to death at any time. He knows that he only lives as pressure on Temeraire to do what the government wants. But now Bonaparte has caught England unaware and invaded, taking possession of London. Laurence and Temeraire are needed for battle, so a temporary pardon is cooked up to allow them to fight. Will is deeply depressed and for the first time, Temeraire realizes that actions, however righteous they may be, have real consequences and that their deed has hurt others and will have long-lasting ramifications (provided they survive). There's war and intrigue and loyalty and betrayal, issues of gender politics and human (and dragon) rights, bravery and foolishness, humor and pathos. There's a lot of meat to this series, and it's a pleasure to read.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Throwdown Countdown: Five...

The race remains tight, with Team Everyone Else at 145.88 books holding a slim lead over my 141.04 books. I've got some pretty substantial books in the to-be-read stack, so it's anybody's game.

Yesterday's entertainment consisted of an older YA novel and a much newer juvenile novel. The YA was the first House of Night novel, Marked, by mother/daughter writing team P.C. and Kristin Cast. Let me tell you up front--these books are the literary equivalent of crack. I cannot read them slowly and I cannot wait to get to the next one. Zoey Redbird is a terrific main character, smart, funny, dorky, compassionate, and occasionally annoying as all get-out. Even though this is a Book One and therefore saddled with tons of introductions and info-dumping, it's still entertaining and very readable.

The other novel was Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, the story of a gorilla who lived for decades as the attraction in a run-down mall, told by the gorilla himself. Ivan is a stoic, having cut himself off from painful feelings for so long that he endures rather than lives. Even his friendships with the other animals on display (and one stray dog that resists being gotten rid of) are reserved and distant. But then a scared baby elephant is brought in, and something awakens in Ivan as he strives to communicate with the outside world and save the baby. Keep tissues handy, people.

And now that I've outed myself as a book-cryer, I'll bid you all a fond good evening and get to some reading.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Throwdown Update: Six...

It's been a busy few days around the old Throwdown. A huge effort sent Team Everyone Else surging into the lead, leaving me to battle my way back. Team Everyone Else is sitting pretty at 138.84 books read, while I am almost exactly 10 books behind at 128.8. They'll never defeat me. NEVER!

I've been reading an odd amalgamation of books (which is par for the course for me) beginning with The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies by Matthew Parker. I've long been fascinated by the history of how one seemingly ordinary product can effect global changes (see Cod, or Salt, or The Scents of Eden), and given that this book promised to marry that to corruption and piracy, it sounded like a fun time. It delivers what it promised: a history of a product coming out of some of the most corrupt circumstances imaginable. There is history, both of families and Empire. There is drunkenness, licentiousness, rum, and piracy. There is slavery and inhumanity of many kinds. Sadly, the story is more compelling than the telling of it. Interesting information, just not an exciting read.

Then there was James Renner's The Man From Primrose Lane, a story about missing girls and suspicious characters that takes some really unexpected twists and turns. It's well-grounded, moves quickly and goes places I guarantee you won't expect.

Then I spent some time with Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's anthology Teeth: Vampire Tales. (I like vampire stories. So sue me.) Datlow and Windling are master anthologists, and this collection contained some of my favorite authors (Jeffrey Ford, Neil Gaiman), so I was excited to see where all it took me. It's a fantastic collection, introducing me to some new authors that I've just got to see more of: Genevieve Valentine, Cecil Castellucci, Holly Black. The pieces range from funny to scary to poignant and there were way more hits than misses.

Finally, there's The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Like Wonderstruck, it's a story told in both words and pictures, lending a (highly appropriate) cinematic feel to the reading experience. It's the story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan taken in by his drunken uncle who maintains the clocks at the train station. When his uncle disappears, Hugo goes on maintaining the clocks, hiding from the Station Agent and stealing food when he has to. The story has danger, excitement, chase scenes, automatons, coincidence, and even a history of early films. It's fabulous, and I love it to pieces.