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.

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