Sunday, August 18, 2013

LoneStarCon 3 Schedule

Hello all!

Barely recovered from my reading frenzy, I dive back in to prepare for my trip to San Antonio for the World Science Fiction Convention, LoneStarCon 3.

If you want to hear me pontificate, here is my schedule:

Texas Roadhouse Blues: Speculative Fiction and Rock and Roll
Thursday 15:00 - 16:00
Texas is a big music state. The music frequently drifts into the slipstream of Texas weird. How does this happen? What can we do to make it happen more often?
Sanford Allen (M), Bradley Denton, Josh Rountree, Peggy Hailey

Best Practices from Booksellers
Thursday 21:00 - 22:00
Our experts discuss hand selling, community-building, and other tips and tricks for new authors.
Gini Koch (M, Michelle Sagara, Michael J. Walsh, Peggy Hailey, Lawrence Person

Introduction to Texas Weird
Friday 11:00 - 12:00
Meet the modern practitioners of Texas Weird and find out what makes them tick. Why are Texas writers so weird, anyway? Is it something in the water? And how can you tell?
Peggy Hailey (M), Josh Rountree, Don Webb, William Browning Spencer, Joe Lansdale

You've Got Texas in My Epic Fantasy: The Lone Star State as Setting/Influence in Speculative Fiction
Saturday 12:00 - 13:00
Texas is a weird place. They have a whole city devoted to staying Weird. What makes Texas so weird? And how does the weirdness of Texas spill over into its massive creative community? Our panelists will attempt to futilely struggle with an answer that may be bigger than San Antonio.
Peggy Hailey (M), Don Webb, James L. Cambias, Howard Waldrop , Peni Griffin

Space is Really the Old West
Sunday 12:00 - 13:00
Wagon train to the stars is a familiar trope in SF. Firefly, Star Trek, Farmer in the Sky, Outland, Cowbows vs Aliens, Exterminator 17 are all examples of western stories set in space or featuring cowboys in one form or another. Immense distances of space form obstacles and difficulties analogous to those encountered by American settlers as they crossed and colonized the continent. Come and join in the discussion of this popular form of our genre.
Mary Morman (M), Steven Brust, Peggy Hailey, Elizabeth Moon, Janet Harriett

Where have the Ghost Stories Gone?
Sunday 17:00 - 18:00
Ghost stories used to be a major part of literature, from Victorian times though the first half the Twentieth Century. Charles Dickens, M.R. James, and others were major figures. Are ghost stories still a key part of literature? How have things changed?
David Nickle (M), Ellen Datlow, David G. Hartwell, Peggy Hailey

Even if you want to avoid me like the plague, that shouldn't be too difficult and there's plenty of interesting people and panels and readings to check out (not to mention the Dealer's Room, with buckets and buckets of books, among other things), so join me, won't you?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Who's Awesome? You Are!

Once again, my thanks to all of you who helped us with this year's Throwdown. The final page count was 16,278 to 16,259 in 4 weeks of reading. That's astonishing, and nicely beyond last year's total. Three of our readers read more than 3,400 pages each, and two of them surpassed 4,000. I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of all of our readers and their efforts this year.

There was quite a push at the end, so this list is a bit long, but here is my final reading list for the Throwdown:

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Ali Saenz

Ari is a teenager in El Paso, Texas. His dad is closed-off and distant and his brother (who nobody every talks about) is in prison. He misses his brother and resents the fact that his parents have “disappeared” him. One summer, while trying to teach himself to swim at the local pool, he meets Dante, who offers to teach him. Wary at first, Ari and Dante connect and become friends. Dante is an open book—he doesn't keep himself hidden. Ari's reticence and avoidance drive him crazy, but they remain good friends. Many changes are afoot, and I don't want to spoil it for you, so I'll just say that this is a special book, and both Dante and Ari are living, breathing people. They do discover the secrets of the universe (at least their universe) and it's a joy to go on that journey with them.

The Plain in Flames by Juan Rulfo

I'm a fan of Latin American literature. I've read Borges, Garcia Marquez, Allende, Bolano and a host of others, and many of those writers talked about Juan Rulfo. His novel, Pedro Peramo, has been available for a while, but this collection of his short stories is newer.

Unlike many of the more well-know Latin American authors, Rulfo is not a magic realist. There's not a hint of magic in these stories, but they are very, very real. His sparse depictions of beat-down, impoverished dry as dust landscapes match well with the beat-down, impoverished characters who inhabit them.

Truly, Madly, Deadly by Hannah Jayne

Sawyer's boyfriend has just been killed in a drunk driving accident. As we watch Sawyer deal with the funeral and it's aftermath, we begin to get hints that their “perfect relationship” wasn't. In fact, he was physically and emotionally abusive. Sawyer thinks that no one knows, but then she gets a note in her locker wrapped around an article about Kevin's death that says “You're welcome.” Now more notes and more accidents are occurring, and Sawyer is being set up to take the blame.

A nice little thriller; easy to read and suspenseful. Sawyer is a bit too passive, and some secondary characters seem to exist only to be red herrings, but it was a good little read.

Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson

An ordinary man is hypnotized at a dinner party, but when he's awakened the switch inside that makes him receptive is left on. Soon he's plagued by visions of a woman in his house and he begins to be able to read strong emotions. Fear of (and fascination with) the whole process begins to affect his health and his marriage as he tries to deal with the downside of experiencing what his friends and neighbors are really thinking.

As with all Matheson, the prose is spare and the pace is quick. He grounds the story so well in the mundane and everyday that the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief when things get weird.

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

Urban Fantasy set in Ireland during the Troubles? Yes, please!

While in prison basically for being Catholic, Liam is assaulted by a guard. During the assault he freaks out and changes, and when he comes back to himself the guard looks like he's been torn apart by a wild animal. Released, Liam tries desperately to forget what happened, but that's not going to be easy. Although he doesn't know it yet. Liam is half-Fey and when he's stressed he turns into a huge, vicious black dog. And a Catholic boy's life during the Troubles is nothing but stress. On the one side, he's got a job driving for the IRA; on the other, he's directly in the middle of a war between the Fey and the Fallen (angels, that is) and the church wants to kill him.

It's impossible not to feel for Liam (even when he's being incredibly stupid), and the action (both political and supernatural) moves along well. But for me, the strength of this book is the voice: you can literally feel the rhythm and hear the accent as you read.

And Blue Skies From Pain by Stina Leicht

Book two of Leicht's series is terrific. Liam is caught between a rock and several hard places (some of those of his own making) and everybody is out to get him: the IRA thinks he's turned traitor, the Fallen hate him because he's Fey, the Catholic Church thinks he's a demon, and the Redcap, a supernatural entity has raped and murdered his wife and is stalking him.

The action is fast and furious but the strength of this book is the characters. Liam is flawed; fighting his upbringing, constantly angry (albeit usually with reason), and stubbornly unwilling to accept help from anybody. But these flaws give him depth and make him real, and make it impossible not to sympathize with his predicament or with his grief over his wife's death.

Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

In his debut novel Lethem marries the PI noir of Raymond Chandler with the drugged-out sci-fi wordscapes of Philip K. Dick to tell the story of Conrad Metcalf, a PI (Private Inquisitor) who quickly gets in over his head when a former client is murdered. All of your favorite noir tropes are here: world-weary, cynical PI, beautiful dames who never tell the whole truth, a convoluted plot involving slumming society folks, gangsters and family relationships more complicated than most. But they're thrown in a blender with karma points, drug use, and genetically mutated animals and humans to form a heady cocktail that packs quite a punch.

Commonly for noir, the mystery itself isn't the main point; it's an excuse to spend time with the PI and watch him go about his business. The cynical attitude and snappy dialog of the noir actually works really well in this sci-fi world of talking kangaroos with guns and designer drugs.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Spooky little gem from Gaiman.

Coraline and her family have moved to a new house. She does a lot of exploring outside (meeting some odd neighbors and a spectacular cat) but one rainy day she is forbidden to go outside. She explores inside instead and finds a locked door that opens onto a brick wall. Then one day, instead of a brick wall, there's a tunnel, and ignoring the warnings of the performing mice, Coraline crosses over. She ends up in a world where things look mostly the same (instead of eyes, her Other Mother has sewn-on buttons), but are very, very different.

Very creepy and very fun.

Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

Wil Wheaton was a child actor most famous for playing Gordy LaChance in Stand By Me and later, Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: the Next Generation. Adult roles have been few and far between, leading to a good deal of self-examination. This is the result of that self-examination.

Wheaton is a good writer, and his story is an interesting one. Suddenly terrified of never being anything other than “that guy who was on Star Trek,” Wheaton asked to be released from his contract. Paramount complied and the ripples of that decision still reverberate today. We get an up close and personal view of what it's like to prepare for auditions and never hear back, or to be promised a job only to have it yanked away. We also see how these professional struggles affect his personal life and relationships both psychologically and physically.

Wil is a likeable guy. He's also perceptive and very funny, and it's a treat to spend time with him.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

This horrifying and funny little story has always been a favorite of mine. The unnamed narrator is telling the story of how he and a group of other people wound up at the end of the world.

This is Vonnegut at his bitter, cynical, satiric best, skewering science, religion, and humanity with equal aplomb. This is not a happy book, but it is a very funny one.

Powerless by Matthew Cody

Daniel Corrigan and his family move to Noble's Green to take care of his ill grandmother. He starts meeting some kids and during a dangerous encounter with a bully, he discovers their secret: they have superpowers. Some can fly, some have super-strength, and some can become invisible. But they all have one thing in common: when they turn 13 they not only lose all of their powers, but also any memory that they ever had them. They recruit Daniel, the only kid without powers, to figure out why they lose their powers and how they can stop it from happening.

There's a lot to like here, especially Daniel as the main character. Everyone can identify with feeling powerless. The kids are likeable and the adults are basically non-existent. There's a lot of red herrings thrown around to keep reveals from being too obvious. My biggest problem was the villain. The idea of how/why he became a villain is fine, but the execution was far too cartoony for some reason.

Merits of Mischief 01: Bad Apple by T.R. Burns

An intriguing premise that bobbles the execution a bit.

Seamus Hinkle is a good kid who makes a terrible mistake: an apple thrown during a food fight goes off target, hits a substitute teacher in the head, and she dies. His parents pack him off to Kilter Academy for Troubled Youth, which is not what it seems. Rather than being a place where troubled kids learn the errors of their ways, Kilter Academy is a place that trains kids to be bad, and rewards them for doing so.

So far, so good. Seamus's bad luck follows him, but somehow his various mishaps all conspire to make him one of the top students. But Seamus just wants to go home, and his various attempts to get demerits (including writing apologetic letters to the teacher he killed) reassure us that he's really a good kid. The problem is a lack of information. We don't know the purpose of the school, so we don't know if we should root for Seamus to do well or not. We know why Seamus is there, and his roommate Lemon is clearly messed up, but everyone else seems more obnoxious than dangerous, leading you to wonder how they merited a trip to Kilter. I realize that this is Book 1, and more books, presumably with some answers, are coming, but that doesn't lessen the uneasy feeling that this one leaves you with.

Mail Order Ninja 01: Mail Order Ninja by Joshua Elder, illustrated by Erich Owen

Pushed around at school, Timmy sees an ad to order a ninja through the mail. When the ninja arrives, it turns out to be Jiro, the hero of Timmy's favorite manga. With Jiro's help, Timmy is able to defeat the bullies and take down stuck-up rich girl Felicity to win the class presidency.

American style manga with lots of action (all kid-appropriate) and lots of humor.

Mail Order Ninja 02: Timmy Strikes Back! By Joshua Elder, illustrated by Erich Owen

Felicity is back, and she wants revenge. While Timmy is at the school dance Felicity gathers her own army of mail order ninjas and attacks, taking over the whole town and imprisoning Jiro. Can Timmy and his friends rescue Jiro and save the day?

Volume 2 is just as fun as volume 1, and the 1984 references were a nice bonus for older readers.

Chronicles of Nick 04: Inferno by Sherrilyn Kenyon

This is a YA series featuring characters Kenyon writes about in an adult series. I have not read the adult series.

Nick Gautier is a smart-mouthed Cajun kid who seems normal (if a bit nerdy). But in the future, Nick becomes the Malachai, a destructive force powerful enough to destroy the world. Nick's future self keeps hitting reset, hoping to change things enough so that Nick won't destroy the world. He's on his last chance, so the fate of the world rests on a teenage boy's ability to control his anger. Things do not look good.

For all his smart-mouthed ways, Nick is a decent guy at heart. This is important not just because that humanity is the only thing that might save the world, but because it keeps his friends (and the audience) loyal, even when they want to smack him upside the head. Which they do. There's a lot of secrets running around here, and I have to say, some of them feel like they only remain secret so that the plot can move forward (i.e., if Nekoda was honest with Nick, then most of this book couldn't have happened). It can be irritating, but at least it does feel like we're going somewhere.

Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed

Ahmed's novel was so much fun, I had to check out his short story collection. I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed (unless you count wishing there was more to read).

By concentrating on locales and ethnicities we don't often see in speculative fiction, Ahmed brings a freshness to his work that makes it so much more than the same old things. I mean, come on; a cranky, portly old man who fights ghuls? a Muslim gunfighter in the weird Wild West? a supervillain who has real-world person of color problems?

Why haven't you read these yet?

Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories by Pedro Rodriguez

Rodriguez adapts and illustrates seven classic horror stories, including works by Poe (“The Black Cat”), Robert Louis Stevenson (“The Body Snatcher”), Guy de Maupassant (“The Hand”), LeFanu (“Sir Dominick's Bargain”) and Polidori (“The Vampire”).

This might be the best way yet to get kids to read older authors. Because the stories are illustrated, the sometimes overly-fancy language isn't a problem, and kids, at least the ones who come to my library, love scary stories.

Rodriguez's style is not my favorite (although I do like his use of color and shading), but it works for the subject matter and the age level.

Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch by Jayme Lynn Blaschke and Lisa Elliot Blaschke

While researching a history of the famous (or infamous) Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Jayme and his wife (a professional photographer) spent a lot of time at the site taking pictures. This is a small coffee table book with some interesting history and some really beautiful pictures.

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Opal's mom has left them, and she and her dad (a preacher) have moved to a new town. While shopping at the local Winn-Dixie one day, a dog runs through the store leaving chaos in his wake. On impulse, Opal claims the dog and eventually talks her father into keeping it. With the very personable dog (now christened Winn-Dixe after the store) by her side, Opal begins to connect with her new community and to reconnect with her father.

I adore this book. How can you not root for Opal, who's equal parts spunk and heart? The people she meets are quirky and interesting, and every page of the book is an object lesson in not judging others and in the power of friendship and community. The darn thing makes me cry. Every. Single. Time.

In Search Of and Others by Will Ludwigsen

An excellent collection of short stories from an author who should be better known. The stories are intelligent and creepy and funny and offbeat and well worth a look-see. Jeffrey Ford wrote the introduction, and Jeffrey Ford wouldn't lie.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Although I enjoy the steampunk aesthetic, I have not been a huge fan of the fiction. I like George Mann's series, and Stephen Hunt's series has been enjoyable, but most of the other stuff leaves me flat.

Boneshaker ratchets up the interest by removing Victorian England from the setting. Steampunk in the American West is somehow infinitely more interesting. Does she pull it off? Better than most. The neato steampunk gadgets are integral to the story rather than just pretty scenery, and the story moves along well.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlyn R. Kiernan

Moody, dreamy and complex, Kiernan's story defies encapsulation or explanation. There are many different layers of story here and it's difficult to tell what's real. Our main character is an unreliable narrator seemingly both consciously and unconsciously. The story encompasses art, writing and the creative impulse as well as mythology, ghost stories, and psychological problems. It evokes Peter Straub's Ghost Story throughout so thoroughly that I had to move that back onto my to-be-read stack, and leaves us with some of the same questions: is there really a ghost or simply a troubled character? Can ghosts haunt people rather than places? What does a ghost get out of a haunting?

Exophobe by D.Kenton Mellott

Sci-fi fans with a fondness for conspiracy theories, female spies, and narrators whose knowledge comes shooting out of his mouth with no filter, usually in the form of a pun, a pop-culture reference, or both must check out this book.

It's a first person narrator with a very distinct voice that I suspect you'll either love or hate. I found it charming and funny (though occasionally rolling my eyes) and had a good time with this nice little mix of philosophy, science, and thriller.

Jagannath by Karen Steen Tidbeck

is a seriously awesome debut story collection by Swedish writer Karen Steen Tidbeck. Somehow both familiar and distant, the stories have a dreamy quality that draws you in and tangles you up so that you can't escape.
Think Twilight Zone (without the "gotcha" at the end) or the off-kilter dreamscapes of Kafka.

The Ape Man's Brother by Joe R. Lansdale

Stop me if you've heard this: after a plane crash that kills his family, an infant is found and adopted by apes. His human intelligence makes him a leader among the apes, but when taken back to civilization, his jungle upbringing causes problems.

Sound familiar? It is, sorta, but when Joe gets hold of a story like this, I can guarantee you it's not going to go where you expected it to. Joe borrows from some other Burroughs stories and gives us a comic, tragic, lost world, fish-out-of-water, adventure story of love, brotherhood and betrayal.

Other Seasons: the Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. by Neal Barrett, Jr.

If you crave the eclectic, if Weird, particularly Texas Weird, is your flavor, then you've got to read Neal Barrett. Neal is an original, and it's plenty evident in this amazing collection. There's sci-fi, fantasy, crime stories, horror, humor, and just plain oddness, sometimes all in the same story. These stories will stick with you and invade your dreams. You'll laugh, you'll gasp, you'll want to shut your eyes and stop reading sometimes, but you won't be able to.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Winner? Reading!

I'll post my final books tally by Monday, but I had to let y'all know that Team Everyone Else did it again. 19 thin pages separates the amazing and triumphant Team Everyone Else from Team Me.

In four short weeks the people of Runge (mainly kids, but some adults helped, too) read 16,278 pages, blowing last year's 11,441 pages totally out of the water. Three separate kids read over 3,400 pages each, and two of them made it over 4,000 pages. I am beyond stoked. A group of kids and adults came together for a month-long project. The kids read books on their reading level all summer and will hopefully be that much more ready when school starts in two weeks. People from the whole county (because our local paper services the whole county) followed along and rooted for Team Everyone Else and enjoyed the articles in the paper. Friends from all over the world sent along words of encouragement that I hope inspired the kids, and that I know inspired me.

So thank you. Thank you all.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Final Countdown

As we enter our final week, Team Everyone Else and I are locked in a very close race. Fewer than 50 pages separates us, so with 5 days to go, it's anybody's game. The race for the individual award (a Kindle Fire!) is just as close, so it's all going to come down to the last day.

Before I give you my reading list, I want to take a minute to thank you for helping me get the word out about the contest and for keeping the kids excited and reading. It's much appreciated.

Now, without further ado, the books:

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

There has been a wonderful trend recently of fantasies from a non-Western perspective. This has enabled authors like Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemison, Tobias Buckell, and Saladin Ahmed to enliven and refresh a genre that far too often feels repetitive and overdone.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is the story of Adoullah Mahkslood, an aging ghul hunter having a crisis of faith. People are dying, there's intrigue afoot in the palace, and the ghuls are getting worse. Adoullah teams up with a dour and pious young dervish and eventually a wild girl from the desert nomads to fight the evil goings-on.

There's action and plot a-plenty, but the heart of this book is the characters, in particular the good Doctor. Adoullah is old, fat, cranky, and set in his ways. He's seen enough of the world to have some serious doubts about gods, power, and whether what he does is worth it, especially since it keeps him apart from the woman he loves. He's never without a quip or snarky put-down, and his love for his home and his friends shines through. It's a treat to spend time in his company.

Good Behavior by Donald E. Westlake

Nothing puts me in a feel-good mood like one of Westlake's Dortmunder novels, and this one may well be my favorite of the bunch. Dortmunder is a shlumpy, middle-aged career thief. His life goes something like this: get offered a job, plan the job, call the gang together, get to the job and watch as everything that can go wrong, does. Good Behavior ups the ante on that formula to hilarious results.

After an opening sequence involving a heist gone bad, a rooftop chase, an injured ankle, and dangling from a rough-hewn beam as a multitude of nuns attempt a rescue in total silence, we get the job: the nuns wish to hire Dortmunder to rescue one of their own who has been kidnapped by her wealthy father (think Donald Trump) to be deprogrammed from the Catholic Church. If he doesn't take the job, they'll turn him in. The girl is being kept on the upper floors of a Manhattan high-rise with state of the art security. Dortmunder has to convince the gang to help him out, and he has to make it worth their while.

Things spin deliciously out of control from here and we're treated to, among other things, a locksman just released from 48 years in jail and unable to control his mouth around women, a successful and semi-shady mail order business, and a mercenary army.

How can you resist?

Boys Life by Robert R. McCammon

Boy's Life is another old favorite. It's the story of Cory Mackenson, growing up in Zephyr, Alabama in the 60s. It's a little bit of everything: coming of age story, murder mystery, boys adventure story, but it all blends seamlessly into a marvelous whole.

I don't want to give it away, but if you like stories with eccentric characters, vile misdeeds, long-buried secrets, voodoo, river monsters, ill-tempered monkeys, ghosts, rock and roll music, car races, moonshiners, carnivals, race relations, storytelling, imagination, small-town values, friendship, comedy, tragedy, murder, gunfights, and Creatures from the Lost World, then you need to read this book.

Heck; EVERYBODY needs to read this book.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park are teenagers in the 80s. Park has always felt like an outsider, but Eleanor really is: mocked by the kids at school and no place in the family that threw her out a year ago. Sitting together on the bus they begin sharing music and comics and eventually fall hard for each other. It's intense, all-consuming, and doomed.

There's lots of issues here: interracial marriage, bullying, teen angst, blended families, and family violence. There's also a risk that portraying such an all-consuming love might either ring false or encourage eye-rolling. But Rowell walks a fine line, and Eleanor and Park both ring true, even when they're at their most exasperating.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Time-traveling serial killer? I'm in.

Harper Curtis is a serial killer. Not only has he never been caught, no one even knows he's out there, because he's found a house whose door opens into different times. This allows him to find the “shining girls,” young girls of intelligence, grit, and promise then visit them later in life to put out their light. Unbeknownst to him, however, he's made a mistake. He left Kirby Mazrachi to die, but she survived. While he's traveling to different eras to target and kill, she's grown up and has started to connect the dots on the killings.

It's complicated and bloody and sharp as a razor's edge. Kirby is awesome, both believably messed up by her experience and believably working through it. Harper is not an evil genius or a suave, smooth killer—he's a bad man who likes to do bad things and is presented with a way to do so on a grand scale. It's telling that, gifted with a house that let's him move between the future and the past, all he can think to do is kill women who are smarter than him, tougher than him, and better than him, even as he cuts off their potential.

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud

Ballingrud's debut collection is a boot to the head and a punch in the heart. There are monsters here, often wearing human faces. The monsters are often only a secondary focus of the story, as Ballingrud concentrates on flawed people and the (often flawed) decisions they make. These aren't easy stories; these aren't easy people. Bad things happen and happy endings are just a pipe dream. But these are powerful stories that will hit you where you live.

Lunatics by Brad Denton

Jack has started acting strange,(he keeps getting arrested for public nudity during the full moon, for one) and his friends are worried. To keep him from jail, they take him out to a cabin in the woods once a month. What they don't know is that his strange behavior is because he's romancing Lily, a moon goddess. When they finally meet Lily, she decides to help out in all of their love lives, and chaos ensues.

I first read this book a long time ago, and rereading it has been a lot of fun. I enjoy the Austin setting; Austin likes to keep it weird, but even they might have some difficulties if they were to come face to face with Lily.

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

Horror was “it” in the 80s, and those of us reading horror at the time had an embarrassment of riches to choose from. One of my favorites was Robert R. McCammon and his epic creation Swan Song. It is a great big doorstopper of a thing, and any fan of Stephen King's The Stand should do themselves a favor and check Swan Song out.

Swan Song is the story of the end of our world and what comes after. It doesn't shy away from the evil that men do, but it never loses faith that there are good people out there. It's also quite clear on the idea that being good isn't enough—you have to do good, too, and that good things sometimes require sacrifice. It's a huge, sprawling, epic post-apocalyptic story with a lot of points to make.

But although there are messages to learn here, they don't get in the way of the story, which chugs along quite nicely, skipping around from place to place and group to group to give us a wide picture of what's going on. Plus, McCammon really shines with his characters. We see good moments and bad, strong and weak. We get to see why these people act the way they do. For all of the fantastical elements to the story, the characters are very real (except, perhaps, for the big bad boogeyman, who nevertheless manages to be pretty gosh-darned scary).

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Knowing how much I love this book, and knowing how stuffed my reading time is right now, you nevertheless chose to bring up The Shadow of the Wind. Thanks a lot, Derek.

One of my favorite books ever. Daniel Sempere has lost his mother. He is inconsolable when he realizes that he's starting to forget what she looked like. To make him feel better his father, who owns a bookstore, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge secret labyrinth of old books that time has passed by. As it is his first visit, Daniel is told to choose a book. It will be his job to bring that book back to the world. The book he chooses is The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax. He stays up reading until he finishes the book, and then the story of his quest to find Julian Carax begins.

If you love books, you need to read this one. The story is in the gothic tradition, meaning it has lots of twists and turns, has some over-the-top characters, and wanders down some pretty seamy pathways. All of which is true, yet I love it beyond all reason. The characters' love of books--how they treat them and how they talk about them—is a balm to the soul of any book lover.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Former detective Andrew Yancey has problems. He's lost his job (a public attack on his married girfriend's husband involving a vacuum cleaner, the hose attachment, and a delicate portion of the anatomy), someone's building a house next door that's blocking his view and ruining a Key Deer habitat, and there's a human arm in his freezer.

This is Hiaasen, so you just know things are going slip the rails, and indeed they do. The action moves between Miami, the Keys, and the Bahamas and the plot involves insurance fraud, family feuds, Russian gangsters, shady real estate dealings, a former teacher on the lam from an affair with a student, a voodoo lady, and an extremely ill-tempered monkey rumored to have starred in Pirates of the Caribbean.

It's a bit formulaic, and I wouldn't rank it up there with my favorites (like Native Tongue), but it's still a wild ride and a lot of fun watching evildoers get their comeuppance.

Rotten by Michael Northrup

Jimmer (JD) Dobbs has been away all summer. When he returns, he finds that his mother has adopted a rescued rottweiler, which he christens Johnny Rotten. Although huge and scary-looking, the dog is afraid of people. As he tries to make friends with the dog, his human friends push for information on where he was all summer. An incident occurs, putting Johnny Rotten at risk. Snark is bandied about, friendships are betrayed , and confessions are made. Will Johnny be saved?

This description makes it sound like this is a heavy book, but it isn't. It reads fast, and although the danger to Johnny feels real, Northrup never forgets that these are a bunch of teenage boys, who say and do incredibly dorky things sometimes. Johnny, abandoned, misunderstood, afraid and needing someone to stick up for him is a clear stand-in for JD. Luckily, both of them find some of the things they're looking for.

Vordak the Incomprehensible 03: Double Trouble by Vordak the Incomprehensible (Scott Seegert, illustrations by John Martin)

What can I say? I'm a fan. Vordak's over-the-top pronouncements and overdone language simply beg to be read out loud. The plots are simple and goofy with a lot of humor (most of it deriving from just how bad of a supervillain Vordak really is) and the illustrations are fun. For my money, Vordak beats Greg Heffley any day.

This installment revolves around clones. Tired of listening to the Blue Buzzard brag about his success at the father/son supervillain picnic, Vordak clones himself at age 10. The problem is, his clone is (gulp!) NICE, and Vordak just can't understand it. Many frustrations and over-reactions later, there's a twist, but no matter how many twists and turns there are, you can always count on one thing: Vordak never wins.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

A special girl survives an encounter with a monster named Charles Manx, but it breaks her. She grows up and has a child of her own, but now she's convinced that she was crazy and all that stuff never happened. Which is fine until she starts getting phone calls only she can hear from the denizens of Christmasland, telling her that she'll be sorry for hurting Mr. Manx. If she's gone crazy again, that's bad. If the memories are real, that's worse. Now Manx has her son and she's trying to save him before Christmasland destroys him.

Hill is maturing as a writer, and this book is running on all cylinders. Manx is a monster and his henchman Bing is worse (perhaps because we get to see him become a monster, whereas Manx already is). Victoria's terror at possibly losing her mind is heartbreaking, and her ex-husband Lou is awesome: naïve and gentle, but ready to stand up and fight when it counts. The cops investigating her son's disappearance are all too willing to believe that Vic is crazy and behind the kidnapping. We know she's not, that her son really is in danger, and that really ratchets up the tension.