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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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Recent revelations on the writing front:
Last week I discovered that while my book did sell out of its first printing and go into a second, the print run on that first printing was dramatically smaller than I had been led to believe. Dramatically. This has left me reeling a bit as while I still sold out, I didn't sell out on a level that is anything impressive and honestly after all the work I did to sell those copies (travel, speak, send a thousand emails), and after the pretty big notice it received (starred review, NPR summer choice, great Air & Space review), it still sold only a few thousand [low thousands] copies.
So I'm wondering just what all the trying hard is really for.
My editor left after the 2nd printing, my agent has just left the business and while I have some emails & recall lots of conversations telling me that first nice round figure for the initial printing, now no one seems to know how I could have been so misinformed. And there's no one to challenge on it because, well, they're all gone. And really, what's the point anyway? The numbers are what they are and the book is still a wonderful thing and does any of it matter but that?
I should say no right now, shouldn't I?
MAP is now out in paperback (with over 2,000 on that print run) (I think). The paperback is really really lovely (Air & Space quote on cover!) and, well, that's it. But was it worth all of it? Or more importantly, now that I've done it once, now that I know I can write a book and get published and get positive notice, do I need to do this again?
Can I afford to do this again?
I'm not sure at the moment. I know that writing for Alaska Dispatch is a good thing, a paid-for thing (for all those "writing for free" folks who might be wondering), and there are other essay-type paying outlets I'm trying for and maybe that's enough.
I'll let you know what I decide.
Meanwhile: What I'm reviewing right now:
Antarctica: A Biography
by David Day and Full Upright and Locked Position
by Mark Gerchick, both for Booklist (both as you would expect from the titles); Hidden Things
by Doyce Testerman, an urban fantasy/noir mash-up that was published for adults but turns out to be an excellent crossover for teens - all about childhood and rebelling as a teen and how you never really can forget where you come from. This will be in the June column.
Let's see, also Escape Theory by Margaux Froley, a boarding school murder mystery also for the June column. (Fun in every way you expect with a great cast and I happily turned every page and look forward to more Keaton School skullduggery.) And The Lewton Experiment by Rachel Sa which I will discuss here this week and had some serious potential to be a very fun spin on big box stores and blind consumerism but got bogged down by tacking on a truly forgettable romance that seems to be here only because someone somewhere convinced the author she had to have it. Note to all YA authors: you don't have to have it. Trust me.
What I'm reading right now:
Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan which everyone and their cousin has already read but I put off as it is for my June column. So far, I'm loving the Nancy Drew girl detective spin, and the Scoobies in their clubhouse/classroom solving crime bits. The jury's still out on the paranormal stuff (I'm cautious - I've been down this road before and burned by YA titles)
Also, Rocket Girl: The Story of America's First Female Rocket Scientist by George Morgan for Booklist. (I can't believe this story, or that no one knows this story); Soundings by Hali Felt (got this for Christmas - first read about Maria Tharp in They Made Their Mark and have been curious ever since - she's as interesting as I hoped); When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams which is gorgeous both in style and design, really really something and The Little Book of Lettering which will be a "cool read" in a column later this summer and I'm enjoying immensely as it is so very pretty. (The beauty of having your own column is that you get to indulge your inner typography geek.)
And I'm working on an article about Joe Crosson who was the first pilot to land on Mt McKinley in 1932 and I'm tracking the provenance of Ben Eielson's first aircraft in AK so I can ask some folks a few intelligent questions about it before it's hung in the Fairbanks airport and I'm lately very intrigued about the existence of a map in an air force base outside of Anchorage which includes push pins noting the locations of some of the earliest crash sites in the state. It's decades old but still there. I have to see it and I will write about it.
And I'm trying to figure out how to write about a pilot you've never heard of but managed to be at ground zero for several historical moments. He's the Forrest Gump of the flying north. Really. How do you resist as story like that?
Candace Savage's A Geography of Blood is a personal examination of the area around the small Saskatchewan town of Eastend. The author and her husband came to live in Eastend on a whim - after first visiting it on a trip, they later booked a two week stay in the Wallace Stegner House and then bought a place. The more time they spend there, the more they fell for the prairie landscape and the more Savage wanted to explore it. Initially she sees it as most people see a place - the features, the climate, the wildlife, etc. But history quickly seeps into everything she sees until it is clear that the past is part and parcel of the modern day. This especially true in considering Wallace Stegner:
"...it occurred to me that Stegner had been engaged in a kind of literary and historical stratigraphy. As he compared the heroic myth of the pioneer era with the equivocal data of his own childhood, he had detected evidence of unconformities, gaps between the received version of the settlement story and the reality he had lived. Part of his purpose in writing Wolf Willow, I suspected, was to take a stand against this erasure - to backfill the legend with truth.
I love the whole notion of "historical stratigraphy".
There is much around Eastend and across Saskatchewan to consider, from the conflicts that arose among First Nations members, immigrant Canadians and the French fur traders (and their descendants who were neither the settlers nor the tribal members but something completely different and also part of America's story) to the Hudson' Bay Company, the military and more. There have been clashes (hence the "blood" of the title) and conflicts, pain and sorrow. It is a not geographical history of brightness and joy but Savage is far less political then you would expect and more intrigued by how all that history continues to affect us today.
Something I couldn't name seemed to be urging me on, challenging me to pay attention and remember. The imperative seemed to emanate from the hills themselves, with their treasury of bones and stones and narratives. Something in me had decided to honor this land and its stories as best I could...
Savage won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Prize for A Geography of Blood and it is well worth reading for a look at the truths we tell and those we hide. (And also a must read for Stegner fans - so much of who he was comes from his time in Saskatchewan.) I found it endlessly interesting and gave me much to think about. I'm not sure how much we can or should dwell on events from centuries before but Savage makes a powerful case for how we can not let myths to overpower fact. This is something that is very true in the Eastend and also, as anyone who watches reality tv knows, happening right now in Alaska.
Yep, not hard to see why this book resonated so much with me.
[See more on A Geography of Blood at The Globe and Mail and The National Post.]
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Just when you thought the British couldn't top finding Richard III under a parking lot, they seem to have uncovered an actual knight!!!!
Archaeologists who were on hand during the construction of a new building in Edinburgh uncovered a carved sandstone slab, decorated with markers of nobility -- a Calvary cross and a sword. Nearby, the team found an adult skeleton, which is thought to have once occupied the grave. Scientists plan to analyze the bones and teeth to learn more about this possible knight or nobleman.
"We hope to find out more about the person buried in the tomb once we remove the headstone and get to the remains underneath, but our archaeologists have already dated the gravestone to the thirteenth century," Richard Lewis, a member of the City of Edinburgh Council, said in a statement.
And over in London, they are apparently overflowing with historical graves:
Seven centuries after their demise, the skeletons of 12 plague victims have been unearthed in the City of London, a find which archaeologists believe to be just the tip of a long-lost Black Death mass burial ground.
Arranged in careful rows, the bodies were discovered 2.5 metres below the ground in Charterhouse Square in works for a Crossrail tunnel shaft beside the future ticketing hall for Farringdon station.
Tests are needed to confirm the skeletons' provenance, but the discovery should shed more light on life and death in 14th-century Britain and help scientists to understand how the plague mutated.
While the first story made me think of Indiana Jones, the second has brought thoughts of Poltergeist to mind. I'm quite worried about some kind of mash-up happening in my brain at any moment. This does not make me happy.
*Title totally copped from Jenny D. whose link brought me to the Black Plague article. It was too good not to use here. :)
I am, at the moment (and yes this has changed in the last couple of days) reading three books for Booklist (one on commercial aviation, one on the history of Antarctica and one travel/memoir on Alaska), one for my June column (another YA mystery from Soho Press) and Soundings, for myself (still sublime). Plus there is the War issue of Tinhouse (which includes a Samantha Hunt short story and thus I had to have it) and several magazines all of which showed up at once and are glossy and thus irresistible.*
So, I'm flitting from one book to another with three Booklist reviews due in April (and two more on deck after those), the mystery column begging for attention (as those books are really like candy at this point - so much fun to read) and stacks of research surrounding me that I dive into every day, mining for the exact facts and figures I know are there and now am ready to insert in the appropriate places.**
And I'm writing about the affect aviation has had on climbing Mt McKinley. Short answer = a lot. (You probably knew that already.) I love this topic though - love combining aviation and climbing history and really love writing about Joe Crosson because I don't think enough people know about him. (He was the first pilot to land on McKinley.)
This has to be the most scattered blog post ever.
The one unexpected surprise I'm dealing with in writing the new book - the Mountain Book - is finding my voice. It's so weird to look for a voice in nonfiction (you would think it would just be MY voice) but I know what I have is not right. The words are stiff, hollow - flat on the page. I keep putting them down so the bones are there, so I know where I'm going, but it's a draft with no soul.
SO BLOODY FRUSTRATING. (End rant.)
Reading and writing will continue. It's the only way to find my voice, I just wish the sucker wasn't hiding so far away these days.
*And the Andrea Barrett continues but slowly, sparingly; I don't want to rush it. Archangel is so wonderful - can't recommend it enough.
** I actually have a phone call to make tomorrow to confirm that a list is kept of notable wrecks in Merrill Pass so search and rescue does not launch every time one of them is sited again. Some are 50 years old.
What I'm reading now:
Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor by Hali Felt. Really interesting biography of an unorthodox geologist and underwater cartographer. I'm loving how Felt wrote this book - she had to insert herself into it but explains how and why throughout the text. It's...like no other biography I've read; great stuff.
Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now by CB Bernard. For Booklist, so I can't say but the premise is quite intriguing.
What I just finished:
Deviant by Helen Fitzgerald. One of the titles from the new YA imprint at Soho Press. It's a conventional thriller in some regards - there is a conspiracy, the protagonist must figure things out, murders occur, etc. But the fact that it is conventional is part of what made me enjoy it so much. This is an actual teen mystery where absolutely nothing paranormal happens. It's all about a nefarious plot and there is a chase and sneaking into rooms at night and lying to cover your tracks and, well, pretty much what you expect in a mystery which makes Deviant so bloody refreshing. Most enjoyable - great protagonist! - will be reviewed in my June column.
Last week was mostly about another fatality crash in Alaska. I have things to write about that crash, things to write about flying in AK that are unrelated to crashing and just...things to write. It feels hard this week; so I need to try harder.
Over past couple of weeks I've been working on this article about the Idiarod Air Force (IAF) for Alaska Dispatch. Just as it was about to go up on the site a privately owned aircraft that was not affiliated with the IAF went missing on Monday. I was up late that night working on that article with my editor and then Tuesday the wreckage was found - no survivors. So Tuesday I worked on an article about the previous dangerous aviation history in that area.
All of this necessitated reading a lot of old accident reports and weather reports and studying maps (I always want to study the maps - it helps me figure out what I'm writing about). None of it is anything new for me; the recent accident is very sad but I've been here before. They are always sad. While I've been doing this aviation stuff, I've been writing about mountain climbing (in 1910) and in both cases there has been a lot of wondering why men do the things they do. (I have not encountered many women in these particular questions lately, but I will ask the questions of women when they show up in my archival wanderings as well.)
Every accident happens for a very specific set of reasons. Weather might be a factor, or mechanical difficulties. The same can be said of mountain climbing (though the mechanical bits are not so dramatic). But while you can say a pilot continued into bad weather or a climber failed to turn around in the face of fading daylight (they hardly ever turn back when the summit is close), what you can't answer is why they were there in the first place. If they don't survive then you can't know what those thoughts were that propelled them to that certain place in that certain time. Just like all of us have our own reasons for marriage or school or jobs, so do pilots and mountain climbers.
The crash on Monday was about a dangerous pass and bad weather. The questions are why he chose that pass instead of the safer long way around and why he didn't turn back when it started getting bad. There are a lot of tried and true reasons that come to mind (arrogance, self-induced pressure, bush pilot syndrome, fear of failure, general obliviousness, etc.) but really, we will never know. A thousand things happened before he got in that plane to bring that pilot to that place and that crash. Even the people that know him best might not know all of his reasons. But every single time, every single crash report I read no matter how old, the question of why is what leaps to my mind.
I always want to know what I can never know. It should be frustrating but instead, it just makes me want to read and write more.
In 1928, Noel Wien's company was contracted to fly a Fox film crew up to Barrow to film scenes of Eskimo life and nature in the high Arctic. Wien offered Russ Merrill half the work of ferrying the three-man crew plus their gear out of Fairbanks. The two pilots departed on May 13 with Wien operating a Stinson SB-1 and Merrill a Travel Air Model CW; between the men and film equipment, each aircraft carried about 800 pounds.
On the first night out, about four hours north of Wiseman, the party encountered deteriorating conditions and had to land. When they attempted to depart the next day Merrill's Travel Air, with its thinner tires, was unable to takeoff in the snow. The pilots decided Wien would continue on to Barrow with one of the passengers and return with help and shovels so they could dig a runway for Merrill. Unfortunately, none of the men were familiar with the region and while Wien and his passenger did reach Barrow safely, they was unable to find their way back that day to the downed aircraft.
They returned to Barrow, again, unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter, weather settled over Barrow that ultimately kept the pilots grounded for six days. The people of Barrow became quite involved in the drama, especially whaler Charles Brower; a white man from New York City (born in 1863) who lived and worked in the village and later recorded the events of his life in the aptly titled, Fifty Years Below Zero.
On the landmarks Wien and his passenger attempted to use to find the stranded men, Brower wrote:
I questioned them carefully. Were they sure it hadn't taken longer to reach the deer camp than they had thought when they first came out? And what about the wind? That would make a difference too.
From what they said now it seemed to me that the lost plane might be farther south than they had estimated; perhaps even south of the Tashicpuk River and near the Colville.
Fog prevented any more attempts for several days. But we put the delay to some use by replacing their landing wheels with Wilkins' broken skis which we managed to patch up. Then when this job was done and everything ready for another try, a howling gale set in from the northeast and held them on the ground until the twenty-second.
As it turned out, Wien was looking in the wrong place and it took getting lost again and stranded several days at the Cape Halkett whaling station for him to discover from a man there, who remembered seeing two aircraft weeks earlier when he was at reindeer camp, just how off course he was. After the weather cleared again and he returned to Barrow, Wien departed on June 1 on a new search alongside Matt Nieminen, a Fairbanks pilot who'd arrived when no word was heard from the expedition. In a matter of hours, Nieminen found the abandoned Travel Air in the area the hunter described.
A note was discovered dated more than a week earlier; the two members of the film crew had walked out first on May 22, and on May 24 Merrill followed. All were headed north in hopes of reaching Barrow. Nieminen soon found the two passengers, snow-blind but alive. Merrill seemed lost however and while the pilots continued to search for him, Brower had his own ideas about where Merrill might be:
...so before the planes took off I sent out a couple more sleds along the sandpits, telling the boys to investigate all the sheltered places with special reference to the ragged shores of Dease Island.
At three in the morning the planes got back. From the strained faces of their crews and Noel's cryptic 'Lucky this country of yours is level,' it was soon clear why they brought no word of Merrill. They'd run into thick fog and had had to fly so low that most of the way home they were barely clearing the ground.
On June 4, three dog teams approached from the east. Two we recognized in the distance as the ones I had sent out last. Suddenly we all started on the run to meet them. The third team, we now saw, was being driven by John Hegness from Halkett Station, and on the sled was a bundled up form resembling a dead man.
Thankfully Merrill was not dead, but his recovery was very slow and precipitated returning the long way back to Anchorage via Wainwright, Kotzebue, Nome, and Fairbanks. It was eventually determined that he likely had contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and it was not until late September that he returned to flying again. In the meantime Wien and Nieminen saved his aircraft, the film crew did get some pictures of walruses and the area around Barrow was thoroughly navigated. In the years that followed the Lindberghs landed there, and sadly Wiley Post and Will Rogers were killed near Barrow in a terrible accident in 1935.
Brower was in the thick of all of this and wrote about experiences that few people are aware of. (For example, after removal of Post's engine, propeller and instruments, he supervised the complete destruction of the aircraft so no souvenirs could be taken; this was done at the request of Mrs. Post.)
His book is a record of fascinating Alaskan history and aspects of the state's bush pilot past that truly reads like a Hollywood movie.
Fifty Years Below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North can be purchased at bookstores throughout Alaska and through the University of Alaska press. Also available at the libraries, of course.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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In Elizabeth Laban's The Tragedy Paper, readers will discover a coming-of-age story set in a traditional location (boarding school) with a familiar setup (love triangle) that turns everything you think you know about this sort of book on its ear. Laban might be giving readers a familiar setting and situations but her characters are so thoughtful and the plot just twisty enough that she manages a page-turner out of the quietest of stories. The conceit is straightforward: Tim met Vanessa while stuck at the airport on his way to his new school. After sharing the sort of fun (and mostly chaste) boy-meets-girl story everyone dreams of, they continue on their separate ways, and he discovers she is not only a fellow student but dating the school's most popular boy. They become good friends as Tim also slowly becomes enmeshed in the school's senior class tradition. It is on one fateful night involving the seniors that he connects with Duncan, the underclassman whose story is really at the heart of the novel.
Laban introduces Duncan in the very beginning as the one who figures it all out. He knows how Tim's school story ended the previous year, but not how it began, and along with the reader, he learns all the sordid history via a series of CDs that Tim has left behind for him in his dorm room as part of a departing senior gift, another school tradition. Duncan has a small but powerful connection to Tim that has left him unsure about his own future, and so hearing Tim's voice, finding out why everything happened the previous year, is critical to his own wellbeing. In the middle of all of this looms the big senior assignment: the "tragedy" paper. Talk of tragedy permeates the senior English class, literary examples are tossed about throughout the text, and Duncan, in particular, is overwhelmed with a desire to get the paper right. Laban makes clear though that tragedy is in the eye of the beholder, and also that while it might reach epic literary proportions for some students, for others the tragic is all too real and in danger of eclipsing every other facet of their lives.
It's important to note that nothing huge takes place in The Tragedy Paper. There is a serious accident, and in both Tim and Duncan's narratives, there are students in trouble, but in comparison to a lot of contemporary YA fiction, the events here are subtle and familiar. Much of the book is about aspiring and struggling to find your way to the best sort of self, and the obstacles, both internal and external, that block your way. This novel is the very definition of powerful, and while it does not possess characters spouting the sort of fake witticisms that seem to crop up all over in teen books lately, they are nothing if not real. There are no villains in The Tragedy Paper, just a lot of wishing you can get things right; a lot of trying to do the best you can.
While coming-of-age themes play into a lot of YA novels, it was through reading a series of nonfiction titles that this column really came together. The first was the exquisitely designed An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris by Stephanie LaCava. This undersized hardcover sports a paper-over-board cover, dozens of careful pen and ink illustrations by Matthew Nelson, and diversionary footnotes throughout the text. (The bibliography is also well worth lingering over.) The first sentence is "I was born strange," and an introductory quotation by Mark Rutherford sets the tone for what is a writer seeking nothing less than to find herself on the page. As you look back upon the detritus of your own past and the items that served as your talismans, consider LaCava's choice of Rutherford's words: "But men should not be too curious in analyzing and condemning any means which nature devises to save them from themselves, whether it be coins, old books, curiosities, butterflies or fossils."
When she was twelve years old, LaCava's family left America for Paris. From that point forward she felt lost between two cultures -- neither wholly one nor the other. At thirteen, however, is when she "fell apart." An avid collector before she left for France (as so many young people are), her items became significant beyond measure as she struggled to hold herself together against an "active, throbbing depression." What apparently sent her cascading over the edge into despair was her frustration over a lack of control in her life. It is this aspect of her book -- revealed in the earliest pages -- that affected me the most, and I think makes it a key title for teenagers.
In the chapters that follow, LaCava writes about her adventures in Paris, the friends she makes, the places she visits, the ghosts who haunt her (it's an exceedingly haunted city), and the objects she discovers and hoards as treasure. Along the way, although she changes their names, she writes of her parents, neither of whom is quite sure what to do with her, and her younger brother. All of these figures weave into her decidedly intellectual exposition, into a title that namedrops Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali, ivory carvers, Deyrolle's taxidermy, and butterflies (among many other people, places, and things) but remains true to its nature as a coming-of-age experience. LaCava knows where she is now, she knows where her journey began, but how she got here, how she became someone fascinated by so many things, troubled and aware of her trouble but unable to change it, is something she still feels compelled to consider. So the book is her way to work through her childhood, to fully know the girl she once was. The journey she shares has an epic quality to it, and for all that the narrator was unhappy at times, readers will find still a gorgeous reading experience. Consider it a literary "cabinet of curiosities" and revel in LaCava's success now and her willingness to share so intimately the person whom she was then.
Fans of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals (a must read!) will be delighted to know that David Godine has rereleased the second book in the Corfu Trilogy: Fauna and Family. Set again in the World War II period on the same Greek island, Fauna and Family is another of Durrell's droll memoirs about growing up with his crazy family. Written entirely from the author's perspective as the youngest Durrell, these books are perfect light reading for those who enjoy the certain type of quirky British humor that the author excelled at. His widowed mother is loving, acerbic, slightly dizzy and endlessly patient; eldest brother Lawrence, a future novelist, is pompous and self serving; sister Margo is obsessed with her appearance (and cute young men); and Leslie likes to blow things up. A lot. All of these caricatures are made from the distorted perspective of a much younger brother, but readers will likely be laughing too hard to care just accurate they are.
I read my first book by Durrell more than ten years ago, as an adult, but think his perfect audience might actually be teenagers. Much of the Corfu Trilogy is dedicated to his education, which relied heavily upon tutors and an immersion into the island's natural history that is full of a dedication to observation that the most ardent naturalist would envy. Gerald collected everything; a running joke in the family is his ever-changing bevy of pets, but they are not there simply to entertain. Gerald studied the creatures he found, from dogs to birds to fish and lizards, assigning them names, noting their actions, considering their personalities, and reveling in their every odd movement. His future as a zookeeper was written in his childhood love of animals and seeing how he became the man he did is a large part of what makes his books so entertaining. (I also could not help noting a kinship between the young Gerald and young Stephanie LaCava, pining away in Paris and making her own keen observations.) Fauna and Family is enjoyable on multiple levels, but for me it is mostly a celebration of the merits of an unorthodox education, something any classroom-loathing teen will appreciate.
Finally, Lucy Knisley takes readers through her entire life via the restaurants she visited, the meals she helped prepare, and the tons and tons of delicious food she has eaten in her graphic novel Relish. Complete with recipes, this full color memoir is about growing up as a foodie with parents who loved cooking, a mother who became a serious gardener, and a lifetime of thinking about meals as something to enjoy, not just get through. Along the way, there is a tween-aged trip to Mexico with family where she should have gotten into trouble but didn't, some culinary culture shock in Tokyo, many jobs in food-related service industries (ask her about cheese), and ultimately a grand appreciation for the sheer joy of sharing a meal (and recipe) with people she cares about. Relish is not a chef's memoir, and miles from the chaotic competition shows on Food Network. But food is central to this story and shared in a manner that is both fun and informative. Knisley fits perfectly for young readers who have outgrown Raina Telgemeier but aren't ready for Alison Bechdel yet, and is also perfect for foodies of any age.
COOL READ: Every now and again, a book comes my way on a topic that is utterly and completely unexpected. Faythe Levine and Sam Macon's Sign Painters is the sort of artistic celebration that should be commonplace on the shelves and if Levine (author of Handmade Nation and creator of the documentary of the same name) has her way, it will be just one more entry into a curated collection of artisanal American. In this heavily illustrated (with photographs) title, the two authors introduce a dizzying array of painters from a wide range of states who are in love with typography, graphic design, and illustration. These men and women, covering a wide range of ages and backgrounds, revel in developing their own style and embracing life as utter individuals. Although it might be romantic to consider them a dying breed, the broad array of examples shown here makes it clear that sign painting is still a relevant and striking part of American culture. This is graphic design at its best; these signs command attention, enliven the landscape, and bring customers in. Levine and Macon aren't celebrating nostalgia with Sign Painters; they are shining a spotlight on a career that most artistic teens have likely not considered. For those seeking a profession where suits need not apply, Sign Painters offers an appealing glimpse of people at work doing something they love. It's about taking the way you see the world and sharing that view with others. Good stuff, and damned inspiring.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I've been thinking lately about Jemmy Button.
In 1830 the man who became known as Jemmy Button was taken, in apparent retaliation, with three other Fuegian people from Tierra del Fuego by Capt Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle after one of the ship's launch boats was taken. They returned to Britain with the ship where one of them passed away from smallpox. In 1831 when the Beagle departed on another voyage (this time with Charles Darwin onboard), Fitzroy made the decision to take the three Fugians back home. It was not a warm welcome at first - at all - but eventually, after some difficult times, Jemmy and his friends were apparently integrated back into the village. The missionary that accompanied them was not so lucky (he demanded to leave with the Beagle when it stopped back by, apparently the grand plan to convert the whole village did not work out) but Jemmy Button is an example of a native who left his home and albeit quite painfully, found his way back. I knew his story but because of Andrea Barrett, I've been thinking about him a lot lately.
I have been reading a lot of Andrea Barrett these days. Her sense of history is what I'm trying to tap into and the way she blends science so effectively into her stories (and novels). It's her attention to detail that is really appealing to me as I try to find the right balance of detail in my own current (nonfiction) work on AK. In her short story "Soroche", (from Ship Fever), Barrett writes about a woman, Zaga, who moved away from her family's social and economic classes after she married. When her husband dies and she gives away/loses the fortune he left her, she struggles to integrate back into the people she left behind. Sometimes, it doesn't have to be miles to make the distance great.
Zaga remembers a conversation she had years before with a doctor about Jemmy Button. There was one exchange in particular she recalled:
Think of that. Jemmy Button: captured, exiled, re-educated; then returned, abused by his family, finally re-accepted. Was he happy? Or was he saying that as a way to spite his captors? Darwin never knew.
Barrett wants the reader to question if Zaga is happy - if she was happy in the strange new world with her husband (who she loved) and if she will be happy now, with her family who distrusts her because she left. Can you go that far away and still be who you are - still be who you think you are even when you go back home?
I think about that a lot.
Templar Books has a picture book due out in a couple of months, called Jemmy Button , written by Alix Barzelay with illustrations by Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali. It is gorgeous to look at and the illustrators (who collaborated across the ocean without a common language) have done an outstanding job of showing Jemmy as someone apart in England, even when he is in the midst of a crowd. Barzelay's text tells the basic story although she spares young readers the drama of his return. "The island had remained the same," she writes, "as had the forest and the sky and the ocean." For young readers this is the Jemmy they want to know but it is of course not the whole story. The island had not changed but Jemmy had, he had become someone named Jemmy Button after all, and returning home was not as easy as walking on the same soil again.
Alaska is pretty far from the rest of the world; returning home from there isn't so easy either. So yeah, thinking a lot about Jemmy Button and Tierra del Fuego lately, while writing about Russ Merrill and more in Alaska.
[Interior shot from Jemmy Button after he arrives in London.]
Until just a few days ago all I knew about Emily Dickinson was that "hope is the thing with feathers" and she lived (and died) in Massachusetts. (In high school I thought for the longest time that Massachusetts was critical to literary success; it wasn't until we got to Hemingway that we found an American author who was from New England.)
I've always a little bad about knowing so little on such a great poet so when the buzz started about Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, I paid attention. The book went onto my wish list last year and my husband bought it for me for Christmas. I finally started it about a week ago and after some slow going in the beginning, I felt myself get sucked in more and more. By then end I was positively beside myself with who was going to end up controlling her literary legacy and I now feel confident discussing just who Dickinson was and what she accomplished.
Now where is that dreadful American Lit teacher when I need her? I'M READY FOR MY TEST AT LAST!!!
Gordon does an excellent job of using Dickinson's poems and letters (and her families letters) to buoy her narrative. This bogged me down a bit in the opening chapters as I am not familiar with much of her work so the constant quotes from her work broke up the biography for me. But I understand why Gordon was doing it and I respect that she chose to work this way. She is clearly not just pulling her thoughts out of the air - the biography comes from Dickinson and her family. This is important as a big part of what Gordon does here is [nicely] tear apart the work of others who have written about her subject.
I feel like I should mention spoilers here but since Dickinson has been dead for over a hundred years that seems pretty silly. (So look away if you want to discover her secrets on your own.) Gordon strongly suggests that the poet suffered from epilepsy which makes a lot of sense when you think about her choice (supported by her family) to live a reclusive life. More than that however, the story is about Austin Dickinson (Emily's brother), his first marriage with a woman who was much beloved by the family, and the manner in which he became embroiled in a long term affair with a married woman (sanctioned by her cheating husband). The family dysfunction is EPIC - I can't imagine what their Thanksgiving dinners were like! - and had a terrible affect on all of their lives. Ultimately Emily and Austin die, the mistress bonds with surviving sister and becomes Emily's primary editor (and largely responsible for getting her poems out to the world initially), more havoc is wrought between the sister, Lavinnia, her sister-in-law, the wronged Susan, and the determined mistress, Mabel. The dysfunction moves to the next generation as Susan's only surviving child and Mabel's daughter keep on fighting the fight. In the end it is kind a miracle that Dickinson's original papers survived or that anyone would ever be patient enough to sort through all of this mess and get to the bottom of it.
Three cheers then for Lyndall Gordon!
I learned a lot, I enjoyed what I learned and I really wish that some small part of this story could have been shared with me in high school. It makes me feel a lot more for Emily Dickinson up in her room, stuck putting up with her brother's cheating as he pays the bills (and she can't support herself) (stupid 19th century sexism!), and putting all of her big emotions into her writing. This is really interesting stuff and not to be missed.
[Post pic is the UK edition - love this cover.]
1. Prompted by his recent crash, Richard Bach has completed his long intended final part to the bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I read this ages ago but had no idea there was supposed to be more. I imagine a revised/expanded edition of the classic will be appearing next year.
2. Rebecca Stott* writes in Smithsonian about the impact Darwin's home had on his writing (this is truly a lovely piece) and also in the upcoming issue, William Souder salutes the efforts of Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway to end the feather trade that was decimating bird species. (There is a fabulous picture book about them, She's Wearing a Dead Bird on her Head!, by Kathryn Lasky; highly recommended.)
3. Everything you ever wanted to know about the seedy Tampa Bay scandal that brought down Gen Petraeus. I have to say, Town & Country is really the best place for this sort of "attempt at climbing the rungs of society" type article. Also, if anyone really doubts why the Kelly sisters were popular with older men after reading this then they are purposely being obtuse. (Pretty flirting women are apparently all the married brass wants.) SIGH.
4. Also, the woman who inspired Hemingway's "Snows of Kilimanjaro". (One of my all time favorites, and clearly a more honest portrayal then one might think.)
What I am reviewing right now:
Six Gun Snow White by Catherynne Valente for my May column. (HOLY CRAP - this was amazing, flat out majestic from start to finish.) (Also best ending ever.) (Also - I have a very skewed perspective on William Randolph Hearst now.) The Lazarus Machine by Paul Crilley for my May column. (Steampunk/Alt Hist coolness, lots of mentions of Ada Lovelace - yea! - two great teen protagonists, several fine female characters, quirkiness all around and more than one killer twist. FLAT OUT FUN.) Tiger Babies Strike Back, for Booklist. (And yes - the cover is certainly demanding a comparison to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, isn't it?) Infestation by Timothy Bradley for my May column. (Holes meets every "B" monster movie from the 1950s ever made. Tween/young teen boys are going to fly through this one in a matter of hours; it's perfectly crazy and full of smart realistic enjoyable characters.)
What I'm reading now:
Archangel by Andrea Barrett. It's....wonderful. The first story includes Glenn Curtiss' history-making flight in the June Bug and that is only one small part of what makes "The Investigators" one of my favorite reads in ages. If you are a Barrett fan you will be overjoyed with this collection and if you aren't then you are really and truly missing something special.
Also: That Mad Game: Growing Up In a Warzone for my April column (on nonfiction); Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher (on tracking the Imperial Woodpecker) for Booklist and the urban fantasy Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman which is proving to be a noir detective/horror/fantasy mash-up in the best possible way. Not sure where a review for this will fit yet, but I'll be talking about it somewhere.
What I'm writing:
I recently had a short personal essay on flying in the Brooks Range accepted by Alaska Magazine, more on that when it runs this fall. I'm working on two separate sections of the western/mountain book - one on Russ Merrill finding a path through the Alaska Range and one on Frederick Cook's ill-fated climb up Mt McKinley. I'm going to try and submit one of these as a standalone to a literary magazine - but no jinxing by divulging too much here :). And finally, I'm writing about the Iditarod Air Force for my new job as a contributor to the Alaska Dispatch Bush Pilot blog. I've had several pieces up there already in the last two weeks including a couple on a recent crash in Rainy Pass.
* I received Stott's book, Darwin's Ghosts, for my birthday, but haven't read it yet.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I've been thinking a lot lately about Frederick Cook*. In 1906 he claimed to have been the first to summit Mt McKinley and since 1906 a lot of other people have said that he lied. Since what he claimed to accomplish in the time frame he had was pretty much impossible, and since he subsequently lied about getting to the North Pole, Cook has gone down in history as being one of America's most infamous hoaxers. My question is why on earth he risked what was a perfectly respectable exploration career and let it blow up in the craziest way possible.
In other words, was saying he reached the summit worth the price he paid?
Cook is a character, in every sense of the word. His feud with Peary (who also stretched the truth about the North Pole) predated their "race" for the Pole (which wasn't really a race but in retrospect seems like one). McKinley was one of the exploration prizes at the turn of the century and has remained so for climbers. (In 1910 the "Sourdough Expedition" reached the North summit, the lower of the two - fueled on coffee and donuts! - but the acknowledged first full ascent of the mountain was in 1912 by the Hudson Stuck party.) Cook's attempt at getting their first, a desperate attempt to be sure, has not been discounted by everyone and there is still a society that supports him, refuting everything that comes out over the years proving him wrong. It's pretty impressive how they have hung in there though, in spite of all the evidence against him. (Which is not helped by the fact that he was later convicted of mail fraud.)
Studying the men who have climbed McKinley makes for fascinating reading. Some did it to be first, some for science (my favorites, really) and some as a sort of spiritual quest. Some are trying, I think, just to "check off the box" - to say they got McKinley just like they got so many others. I don't think there has ever been a "because it is there" nature to mountain climbing (I doubt Mallory even said that about Everest), but there is a need to prove something within the hearts of so many climbers. The ground is not enough for them; they need to reach the top or at least claim that they did. I'll never understand it but trying to make sense of their decisions is fun to think about.
*I'm writing about Cook in my current book. (Because pilots aren't enough, now I need mountain climbers too.)
[More on folks who believe Cook here.]
I bought Paula Martinac's Out of Time at a tiny bookstore in my hometown that went out of business fairly soon after it opened. (Honestly I was not surprised, they had such low stock in there I couldn't figure out why they even bothered to open in the first place.) It caught me with the cover and then the jacket copy about a mysterious scrapbook of 1920s photographs and a potential haunting of the main character was enough to make me buy it immediately. I read it and loved it and every few years I reach for it again. The other day I gave it a reread, largely because I have become so preoccupied with the time period due to my own great grandmother's photographs. It is still wonderfully fabulous and if you can luck into a copy (it's out of print), then I strongly urge you to do so.
Susan Van Dine is a professional graduate student (lately working on a doctorate to add to her pile of diplomas) who has no idea what she wants to do with her life but keeps hoping to figure it out. In an antique shop she comes across a scrapbook of 1920s photos, all of four young women, and feels powerfully drawn to it. In the days that follow she begins to suspect she is being subtly haunted by one of the young woman - Harriet - and also realizes the women are two couples. With the help of her girlfriend Catherine, a history teacher and researcher, Susan sets out to learn what she can about Harriet, Lucy (who owned the scrapbook) and their friends. The hauntings become much more real and the mystery of what happened to the four women (and how they met and became friends) deepens. In the end Susan finds herself and Lucy and Harriet (and Sarah and Eleanor) and also learns a ton about what it was like to be a lesbian during the Roaring Twenties.
I loved the history (my favorite period really) but it was Sarah and Catherine's relationship that really drew me into this novel. Rather than have Sarah cast aside her girlfriend as she becomes immersed in the mystery, Martinac lets the characters fight their way through this new obsession and work things out. It's what makes the book such a mature read - the characters act like grown-ups which I found quite refreshing.
But mostly - a scrapbook! Photos from the 1920s! Discussion of women's roles in the 1920s! VISITS TO ARCHIVES!
Yeah, you know why I loved it. Perfect winter reading if you dream of finding treasure in antique stores.
What I'm reading right now:
That Mad Game: Growing Up In A Warzone edited by JL Powers. A collection of essays from conflicts past and present around the world. It's written for teens and will be in my April column. Really interesting stuff - great mix of voices and locations - some are stronger than others but overall it's really a must have for NF collections.
The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest. Finally back to this book! It's another entry in her Clockwork Century series, set in Seattle and focused on three teenage boys and their hunt for something wicked bad in the streets of this near-abandoned, polluted and seriously scary city. Perfect for teens - and yep, I love it.
Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman. This is one of those books that came up in a conversation at ALA Midwinter. I was talking about the new Charles de Lint MG novel, Kate Testerman mentioned he blurbed her husband's recent book, I asked what it was about, she mentioned something about urban fantasy and private detectives and I was gone.
Tiger Babies Strike Back by Kim Wong Keltner. Sort of a tongue-in-cheek revenge against the whole Tiger Mom madness from a year ago with a lot about growing up Chinese American. This one is for Booklist.
Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds by Lyndall Gordon. Got this one for Xmas and although it's kinda slow for me, I'm digging learning about Dickinson. I know so little about her - I remember learning a few of her poems in school but not much beyond that.
What I'm reviewing:
Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies by Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky. For my April column and really really amazing. I can't recommend this one enough. Her story is compelling, the design is first class, the photos are great - I love it. It's pretty much pitch perfect.
Also, I'm working on the "Cool Read" for my March column...but not 100% sure on which book that will be yet. (I'm leaning towards this one.)
What I'm writing:
I have joined the staff of the Alaska Dispatch, an online news magazine out of Anchorage. I'm writing AK flying stuff for their Bush Pilot blog. I'm working on a post about a 727 that has been donated to the university aviation program and also looking at some accident data from past years to pick up some trends and pulling some literary references to aviation from AK books. It's a nice gig; we'll see how I do over there as I get more used to writing topical stuff again.
And I'm working on a magazine piece for somewhere else - until it's accepted I don't want to say where (and face humiliation!). I'm also trying to rewrite something that was rejected at one place to submit it to another. And finally for the western book I'm deep in the [mis]adventures of Frederick Cook on Mt Mt McKinley more than 100 years ago. Short story is he said he got to the top of the mountain and he didn't. Or most people know he didn't but some still think it's true. This all fits into the flying stuff too, I swear. Really.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Set in 1934 Hawaii, Murder Casts a Shadow by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl is an enormously enjoyable reading experience. My copy came my way as a Christmas gift and I have to tell you, from the first pages I was gripped by the slow unfolding murder mystery, the rich look at Hawaii's past and the manner in which the author worked history (some of it applies to decades earlier) into the narrative. From the untimely death of a Hawaiian king to the illegal import of Asian antiques to stamp collecting, ranching, Depression-era parties and Gumps (the upscale designer store), this one has a bit of everything. Plus did I mention atmosphere? Holy Hannah - it's got that by the bucketful!
Mina Beckwith is a freelance reporter in Honolulu who would like a lot more respect and meatier assignments. (Hello Hildy Johnson). Her twin sister Nyla is married to a police detective Todd and his longtime friend, Ned Manusia, is visiting after escorting some historic portraits of Hawaiian royalty back to islands for the British Museum. (Ned is a Samoan playwright raised in London who is "sometimes discreetly employed by a certain agency of the British government"). As the story opens, King Kalakaua's painting is stolen from the Bishop Museum where it was only recently delivered and the curator has been murdered. Mina is hot on the case, she quickly teams up with Ned to follow a clue or two, Todd and Nyla seem to be more involved in the murder than they should be and just when it all looks to be about family greed or deep-seeded local social politics, then nefarious events surrounding the king's very real death in 1891 in San Francisco move to the forefront. That's where Kneubuhl really works her magic by bringing the story of Hawaii's final days as a monarchy into a mystery that seems to not be about that at all and showing how much those tragic events are still about Hawaii, and the people who live there.
Mina is calculated and smart, Ned is thoughtful and measured - and warming to Mina in a very 1934 kind of way - the supporting characters are all quirky and interesting in their own ways which is good as there are a lot of them to keep track of and more than anything, Hawaiian society is about as complex and multi-layered as it gets. The best part is that while there is a wee bit of romantic tension, it's not the point and nobody does anything stupid to propel the plot along (thank you Ms. Kneubuhl!). This is not a modern mystery purposely set in the 1930s or modern characters dropped into a period piece; it all reads very much as a story set in that time and the characters act as they would then.
Murder Casts a Shadow seemed like the best sort of literary throwback to me - a mystery written for a time when you have to figure stuff out slowly and while there are dramatic events (more than one murder occurs), it all serves the narrative and not the author's needs to move things along. I was surprised by the outcome - by the villain especially - and found myself quite sorry to close the final pages. Fortunately there is a sequel and I will be adding that to my Powells list posthaste. Highly recommended.
Find out more on Murder Casts a Shadow over at NPR.
My February column is up and includes Christopher Barzak's collection Before and Afterlives. I was struck while writing my review by one particular passage in "The Map of Seventeen" as a father and daughter discuss her brother's homosexual relationship:
"Are you okay with that?" I asked.
"Can't not be," he said. "Not an option."
"I need no authority figure on that," said Dad. "You have a child and, no matter what, you love them. That's just how it is."
"That's not how it is for everyone, Dad."
"Well thank the dear Lord I'm not everyone," he said. "Why would you want to live like that, with all those conditions on love?"
I didn't know what to say. He'd shocked me into silence the way I could always shock him into laughter. We had that effect on each other, like yin and yang. My dad's a good guy, likes the simpler life, seems pretty normal. He wears Allis Chalmers tractor hats and flannel shirts and jeans. He likes oatmeal and meatloaf and macaroni and cheese. Then he opens his mouth and turns into Buddha. I swear to God, he'll do it when you're least expecting it. I don't know sometimes whether he's like me and Tommy, hiding something different about himself but just has all these years of experience to make himself blend in. Like maybe he's an angel beneath that sun-browned, beginning-to-wrinkle human skin. "Do you really feel that way?" I asked. "It's one thing to say that, but is it that easy to truly feel that way?"
"Well it's not what you'd call easy, Meg. But It's what's right. Most of the time doing what's right is more difficult than doing what's wrong."
Price of the book is worth it right there for that exchange, don't you think? Magic.
See the full column here - it's all about Alice in Wonderland, selkies, mermaids and princesses. None of these books are what you're thinking, promise.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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There is something inherently terrifying about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, from the casual disregard of lost Alice's fears to the homicidal tendencies of the crazed Red Queen. Many authors have investigated these aspects of the story and yet exploring Lewis Carroll's creation in new ways is something I never tire of doing. The trick is to bring something to the classic that fits and does not upend the narrative simply for shock value. A.G. Howard clearly delights in the creepier aspects of Wonderland, and they infuse her debut novel about Alice Liddell's fictional great-great-great-granddaughter, Splintered.
Alyssa Gardner is convinced she will go insane, just like her mother (an inpatient at the nearby asylum) and the other members of her matriarchal line. She knows she's already halfway there because insects have been talking to her for years, no matter how relentlessly she kills them and pins them into her outrageous three-dimensional art. Whiling away the non-school hours at the skateboard park and working at a vintage clothing store (no Alice would work traditional retail!), Alyssa tries to convince herself that "it's all in her head." Events quickly overwhelm her, however, and a moth appears to haunt her, a poster from an '80s classic comes to life, and a website suggests that the white rabbit was nowhere near as cute and cuddly as Disney led us to believe. Alyssa finds herself with a family mystery that must be solved and a trip to Wonderland that cannot be avoided. The fact that her longtime friend and crush ends up along for the adventure is just an added bonus, because, hey, nothing makes a run for your life through Crazytown better than doing it with the one you secretly love.
All the regulars you expect are here from the queens to the tea party to the garden to the Cheshire Cat, and, most spectacularly, the Caterpillar. It's all twisted, grotesque, and will make you recoil more than once. Howard has done an excellent job of playing with the classic but weaving a contemporary story within it, making sure each step of her narrative is part and parcel of Carroll's narrative. The romance is complicated, the protagonist conflicted, and the heroes are hard to come by. And while Alyssa wavers from bold (jumping down that rabbit hole with aplomb) to confused victim (shades of Bella rearing their ugly head), the only real disappointment for me came near the end when things go predictably in the direction of amnesia and noble sacrifices for love and impossible-but-presented-as-factual declarations from members of the medical field that you can be crazy one moment and perfectly fine the next. This is all a wee bit too pat for the novel's earlier promise, and especially frustrating when it comes to the amnesia parts. It does nothing to diminish all the fangs, fur, and sharp bloody promise (loved the flower garden especially) that came previously, but I'm hoping in Howard's next novel she lets her boldness carry her along to the last delicious page and leaves those convenient plot devices in the dust.
Christopher Barzak has a riveting take on Alice as well in his new short story collection Before and Afterlives. "The Mad Tea Party" is brief and lacerating, a tale that delivers a clear message on the perils of madness. Grown-up Alice returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother. Upon arriving, she takes on a porcelain Cheshire Cat, recalls a flight attendant dressed in white and sporting a pocket watch who hastened her on her way, craves tea, and dreams of playing cards. This Alice is wounded and angry, destructive and broken. She is the girl who will prompt readers to ask why Carroll's Alice felt compelled to follow the white rabbit in the first place, and what she might have been running from. If Howard writes a fantastical version of Alice's mental health legacy, Barzak plumbs even deeper depths and goes full-on reality. I'm still thinking about the eight pages of "The Mad Tea Party."
Elsewhere in Before and Afterlives, Barzak shares the history of the scariest haunted house ever in "What We Know About the Lost Families of -- House," reveals a bitter emotional legacy for the parents of a runaway teenager in "The Drowned Mermaid," and reaches deep into the heart of a living boy who finds solace in the resting place of a dead one in "Dead Boy Found."
Throughout this collection, Barzak effectively writes people contending with their fears and doubts but most especially he writes about loneliness, and it is this writerly radar for alienation that perhaps makes him so perceptive when it comes to his teen characters. The boy in "Dead Boy Found" is like any other, but Barzak teases out his sorrow page by page, paragraph by paragraph, giving readers a peek at teen humanity that will ring all too true for many high schoolers. He achieves similar results with a sister coming to turns with her older brother's sexuality and unorthodox romance in "Map of Seventeen" (this has to include one of the best portrayals of truly great parents I have read in ages), and further with a daughter forced to confront her father over the effect of his paranormal profession in "The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter." The tour-de-force, however, is "The Language of Moths," in which a brother learns to appreciate his autistic sister and together they weather a challenging summer and come to an unexpected understanding that, really, makes everything all better. Barzak makes it all seem so easy, these gentle glimpses into his characters' lives, and even though these lives might include mermaids or ghostly parents or talking fireflies, the extraordinary aspects are not what make his tales so magical. It's the way he sees plain ordinary people that gives his stories such power; the way he sees us and yet loves us anyway. Bravo.
Margo Lanagan wanders yet again into the territory of dark myth she travels so well with her multi-generational look at seal wives (selkies) and the land men who claim them in The Brides of Rollrock Island. From the young girl with a stark and frightening seal kinship whose unforgiving childhood leads her down a path to cold and cruel witchery to the boy who challenges a lifetime's worth of social mores to save his mother, Rollrock takes readers into the hearts of its island residents and the subtle way in which rape can affect a society.
Generations of disappointment weigh down Rollrock Island, and even those who are bewitched cannot deny their own responsibility in the sorrow of others (or that they sought out the bewitching in the first place). As one seal wife is driven by abject despair to suicide, the families gather to witness her sad end and know that the same possibility haunts each of their homes as well. Real love -- honest love -- is not easy, but at least it is true and fair, something the men of Rollrock have willfully forgotten and the women are lost without. Lanagan is a master at sparing her characters no quarter, at forcing readers to recognize every moment of weakness that propels her narratives. But with Rollrock, she shows how complicated love and longing can be, how emotions can be manipulated and harsh family dynamics can destroy far easier than love can mend. By every measure, this novel is the very definition of tortured romance and the author never lets you forget that.
Margo Lanagan has rightfully received praise for her previous titles and The Brides of Rollrock Island is worthy of equal measure. I was struck while reading it, however, by how adult it is. This is a novel for teens, and many of the characters in the shifting points of view are quite young, but it has an adult sensibility and awareness of the serious choices we make in the world. Margo Lanagan understands teens like few other authors today; she grants her audience a literary respect more often seen in the pages of The New Yorker than the exhaustive paranormal section of the local bookstore. Kidlit, my ass. Read her pages and see yourself as the serious reader Lanagan knows you to be while gaining a newfound respect for the always complicated world of teenagers.
In the grand tradition of fairy tales everywhere, Lily the Silent is the story of a reluctant heroine, feckless prince, and the wickedest of queens. Author Tod Davies turns expectations gently on their ears while writing her imaginary "History of Arcadia." Once within the story, however, readers will quickly recognize the invading city of Megalopolis as a thoroughly modern society that never appeared in the realms of Cinderella and Snow White. Consider the following assertion from the evil queen:
"Our technology is great. Well, it should be, considering all we've had to pay for it." She looked around her tower at the gray, wire-riddled, garbage-strewn city below. "It was easy enough for us to build another moon. Haven't you heard in your little Arcadia?" she said in a haughty voice. "We have become like gods, here in Megalopolis. We do what we will. And we do it because we can."
The industrialized city comes with a rabid celebrity culture, a passion for appearance before substance and a devotion to echo chambers that leaves Lily, the future leader of embattled Arcadia to observe: "I found out later... that they never heard anything they didn't expect to. Never. And this was true all over Megalopolis." Sound familiar, cable news fans?
Don't worry that Davies is writing a heavy-handed-message book, though; for all that Arcadia suffers at the whims of the technologically advanced and monumentally arrogant Megalopolis, this is also a story of a girl who falls in love with a boy too weak to save anyone, a False Moon designed to host parties, mermaids who guard the key to everything, and a monumentally pissed off version of Death. It is clear that events early on take her by surprise, but Lily is more Joan of Arc than Sleeping Beauty, although destined to sacrifice all, still wise enough to wrangle an escape clause. She can't help falling in love with the prince, but quickly figures out that you can't change your lover (especially when his mother has been controlling him since birth and the whole country prefers a star's gleaming good looks over a leader's hard truths). As their daughter later recounts, "...you can never tell anyone anything that they have not first discovered for themselves."
Davies has fun with Lily the Silent, opening with a bard's introductory summary of events and then relaxing into the main narrative as told by the daughter, whose asides about her parents and family friends are light with a wry and sophisticated wit. With Mike Madrid's illustrations throughout (appropriately compared to Arthur Rackham's), this title shows how comfortably fairy tales can encompass the fits and foibles of current times. It reads fast and furious and promotes love and friendship, all while making sure readers never forget to keep a solid head on their shoulders -- something the original princesses would certainly appreciate.
Exterminating Angel Press has another unique title for adventurous fairy tale readers: 3 Dead Princes: An Anarchist Fairy Tale by Danbert Nobacon ('90s trivia fanatics will recognize the author as a founding member of Chumbawumba). Set over 100,000 years in the future, this is the most anti-post-apocalyptic novel you can imagine (get those Blade Runner visions out of your head right now). Organized as a fairly traditional fairy tale, our heroine is Stormy, princess of the kingdom of Morainia, which is under threat from their neighbors in the kingdom of Oosaria. In the course of one fateful dinner, Stormy meets the visiting queen of the Oosarians and one of her sons, whom she is apparently supposed to marry. Things do not go well and, as the title suggests, the dastardly prince is soon not so much alive and Stormy is running for her life with the court fool.
What follows are encounters with a wise witch and her hip daughter, legends of a large black cat that plague Stormy's dreams, the drums of war that reverberate everywhere, a near capture in a tavern, and a great raven with a mysterious egg. 3 Dead Princes follows the fairy tale narrative with personal challenges, serious battle preparation, and more brave moments than the movie Brave. But every time you think you have it all figured out, Nobacon throws a curve ball, forcing the reader to rethink what a fairy tale can be (hello, Neanderthals!). From considerations of how a king spends his time (archaeologist and inventor?) to how his queen should act (teaching yoga at one point then donning battle gear in another), the author never wastes an opportunity to let his readers stretch their ideas of the princess-saturated world we all keep living in. By the final pages, with prince number three dead and gone, Nobacon has successfully given us all the adventure and happy ending we could want, while also posing a lot of subtle questions about society, culture, and evolution. Is it an "anarchist's fairy tale"? I'm not sure about that. Mostly it's about Stormy and how she wins and since I loved Stormy, I have to say 3 Dead Princes succeeds just fine, and with Alex Cox's illustrations along to spice things up even more, it's a very enjoyable, and unorthodox, read.
Finally, echoing the presence of mermaids and water creatures found to some degree in all of these other titles, is Mark Siegel's epic graphic novel Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson. I'll be honest, I struggled a bit with this historical novel set in the late nineteenth century onboard a Hudson River steamboat. Captain Twain is just trying to do his job, but life is complicated by the ship's ever-present owner who seems intent on seducing as many female passengers as he can while searching for his missing brother. There is also a mysterious author who is hiding more than one secret and, of course, a mermaid that Twain saves and nurses back to health in his cabin and finds himself unable to resist. The sudden arrival of the author proves to be the catalyst for the other players in this drama who are all so busy covering up their own motivations that as events overcome them (which include some standard socio-economic issues below decks), they have no time to explain to each other just what the hell is going on. The story ends, appropriately, with a bang, but only after Twain has found the madness that lies in loving a mermaid and Lafayette learns that he should have been honest with his captain all along.
Siegel's black-and-white illustrations are perfect for the haunted nature of the book, and although some might take issue with the bare-breasted presentation of the mermaid, she is depicted as readers would expect. Following some pretty specific plot points along the way, the ending is purposely obtuse, however, and therein lies much of my concern with the book. After laboring with Twain for four hundred pages, questions remained for me about an awful lot of the plot, from motivations to actions to conclusions. I tried to work this out with other readers of Sailor Twain, and can assert that it is a title that invites a lot of contemplation and discussion (always a good thing). I encourage readers intrigued by mermaid stories to check this one out, and see what they think Twain decided and if he was successful in his quest.
COOL READ: Fans of innovative storytelling will be very interested in Paul Fleischman's sumptuously illustrated The Matchbox Diary. I've long been a fan of illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline's realistic artwork, and with Fleischman's story he delivers big time. After a contemporary opening, the narrative unfolds over history, as an elderly man invites his great-granddaughter to explore his personal library and to "Pick whatever you like the most. Then I'll tell you its story." The room is a mash-up of a bibliophile and collector's dream, awash in the jewel-like tones of Ibatoulline's palette and infused with a golden glow. It gives the book a dreamy appearance and makes the story that follows even more endearing.
The girl chooses a cigar box full of matchbooks, each containing a small item that provides a touchstone to the grandfather's life journey. The objects, which include an olive pit, a photograph, a bottle cap, and a St. Christopher medal, all are part of his immigration and subsequent career as a small bookshop owner. He hands off his idea of keeping a diary (written or otherwise) to the little girl, who in the final page begins her own collection. This could be easily dismissed as a sweet story (and it certainly is heartwarming), but the celebration of tangible memory, of small innocuous objects that are capable of carrying so much history, makes it a scrapbook that transcends Fleischman's tale, and will inspire readers to create their own collecting diaries. Don't dismiss The Matchbook Diary as a picture book for small children, but view it instead as a transcendent story for all ages. This is illustrated work at its best and Fleischman and Ibatoulline have crafted a quiet sensitive masterpiece.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen....I am tired. I think it will take me a full week to recover from ALA Midwinter madness. If one must be tired though, this was a killer way to exhaust myself! In lieu of a thoughtful post (and I do have some brewing), here is a rundown of many books I caught a glimpse of that I wanted to share. (Please note though that there were several titles already on my radar - especially from First Second, Chronicle & Abrams, that I don't mention here. More on those in upcoming columns.)
1. The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess. I saw this at the Little Brown breakfast and it is stunning; an illustrated MG Appalachian fairy tale that is a perfect match between author and artist. From the copy: In this whimsical, original folktale written and illustrated throughout in vibrant full color by two celebrated masters of modern fantasy, a young girl's journey becomes an enchanting coming-of-age story about magic, friendship, and the courage to shape one's own destiny.
2. Mister Orange translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson, illus by Jenni Desmond. An intriguing sounding MG title set in NYC during WWII about a boy who takes over his older brother's delivery job and meets an eccentric customer called "Mister Orange" who is ultimately revealed as the painter Piet Mondrian. Their meetings and conversations provide the coming-of-age element to the story - all about life, war and the "freedom to create".
3. Weird Sea Creatures by Erich Hoyt. Major cool illustrated title on the animals that live in the depths of the ocean. The photos are amazing; I honestly can not get enough of this kind of thing, it's endlessly fascinating. (Ages 10 & up but really there's no age for this kind of book.)
4. My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks! A collection of stories and advice from more than 100 teens who faced this crisis and the experts who helped them. Not a novel, not a candy-colored vision of illness but the real deal. Should be mandatory reading for everyone who seeks to romanticize disease.
5. Archangel by Andrea Barrett. I'm cheating a bit with this one as the book was not physically available yet, but I chatted with the WW Norton rep all about it and I'm just delighted to see Barrett return to the short story. From the copy: The first motorized bicycles, the first aeroplanes, the first amateur studies of genetics--twelve-year-old Constantine Boyd has his eyes opened to an unfolding world of scientific discovery in "The Investigators." In "The Ether of Space," "The Island," and "The Particles," young women and men passionate about the workings of the natural world experience the shock waves of Einstein's, Darwin's, and Mendel's work. And in "Archangel," Constantine Boyd returns as a soldier on the desolate fringes of Russia in 1919, where even the newly discovered magic of X-ray technology fails to offer the insight that might protect humans from the stupidity of war.
6. Brewster by Mark Slouka. An adult novel that looks to have crossover potential for older teens, the tagline here is about "two teenage boys and their hopes to escape from a dead-end town." It's set in 1968 and holds comparisons to Richard Russo and Andre Dubus III. I'm very interested by how common the theme sounds because it is something so many of us feel as teenagers but so few authors seem to capture well.
7. The Lego Minifigure Character Encyclopedia. My son is eleven; he screamed when I called him from the Exhibition Hall floor to tell him this was due out this spring.
8. Basher History: The U.S. Presidents. This is out now and is as good as the other classic Basher titles. Some of the YALSA teens wandered by when I was in the Kingfisher booth and they went nuts over the Basher books - scooping up posters of the Periodic Table and calling their friends over to see them. My geeky self was delighted and I'll be getting this book, like so many of the others, for my son for sure.
9. September Girls by Bennett Madison. Bennett is a favorite author of mine and I've heard good things about this one - it's one of the few ARCs I sought out over the weekend. This summer beach novel centers around teenage Sam and the mysterious beautiful girls he meets. It's a mermaid story but also about "oblivious parents, sibling rivalry, first loves..." It's called darkly imaginative and painfully honest - this just might be the mermaid tale I've been waiting for.
10. East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris. This jewel of a book (and I hope to review it along with de Lint's title in some kind of column down the line), is as lush and beautiful as it gets. From the copy: From the moment she saw him, she knew the bear had come for her. How many times had she dreamt of the bear.... Now, here he was, as if spelled from her dreams. "I will come with you, Bear," she said. It is the beginning of an extraordinary journey for the girl. First to the bears secret palace in faraway mountains, where she is treated so courteously, but where she experiences the bears unfathomable sadness, and a deep mystery...As the bears secret unravels, another journey unfolds... a long and desperate journey, that takes the girl to the homes of the four Winds and beyond, to the castle east of the sun, west of the moon.
11. Doll Bones by Holly Black. I have no idea how I did not know about this one - no idea at all - but here it is due out from McElderry in May and it involves scary dolls. (GAH!!!!) For MG readers, here's the description: Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever. And for almost as long, they've been playing one continuous, ever-changing game of pirates and thieves, mermaids and warriors. Ruling over all is the Great Queen, a bone-china doll cursing those who displease her.
But they are in middle school now. Zach's father pushes him to give up make-believe, and Zach quits the game. Their friendship might be over, until Poppy declares she's been having dreams about the Queen and the ghost of a girl who will not rest until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave.
Zach and Alice and Poppy set off on one last adventure to lay the Queen's ghost to rest. But nothing goes according to plan, and as their adventure turns into an epic journey, creepy things begin to happen. Is the doll just a doll or something more sinister? And if there really is a ghost, will it let them go now that it has them in its clutches?
12. Fifty Machines That Changed the Course of History by Eric Chaline. Part of a four book series that includes animals, minerals and the upcoming plants (which was stolen from their booth), these are very similar in format to DK or Thames & Hudson titles in the best way. As DK does so well, there is great information, short chapters and heavily illustrated pages but like Thames & Hudson, these have a more scholarly old world feel that makes them great for older teens and adults. Even the pages felt wonderful; really something special.
13. There is a stack of mysteries from Soho Press that is too much for here - I'm going to post a separate survey of them next week. If you love mysteries though, for adults or teens, you need to head over to their website and check them out.
14. And from the notes in my phone: Plague in the Mirror by Deborah Noyes, a time travel paranormal between the present day and 14th century Florence; Bad Girls, Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, etc. by Jane Yolen, a NF collection of short biographies and The Theory of Everything by JJ Johnson, about the longterm impact of grief. I was looking this one over and browsing the Peachtree booth when a librarian came up and positively raved about it. From the copy: Fifteen-year-old Sarah has been acting like a different person ever since she witnessed the gruesome accident that killed her best friend, Jamie. Sarah's grades are plunging, her sarcastic attitude is putting her family on edge, and she can't escape the feeling that life is random and meaningless. Sarah's turning point comes after she meets middle-aged Roy, who owns a Christmas tree farm where Sarah begins to work. Readers will easily relate to Sarah's use of cynicism as a defense mechanism -- her sharp-witted voice sets the tone for a story that's truly tragicomic. Equally entertaining are the hand-drawn graphs and diagrams that appear throughout (texts, stern lectures, tense silence, and breakfast constitute the bulk of a pie chart about Sarah's communication with her mother). The changes within Sarah are real and moving, and the open ending underscores the idea that although death may be certain, life is full of surprises.
15. I could go on and on and on but these are the standouts. More to follow as I go thru the Soho catalog and sort out the books reviewed in two recent issues of Booklist. Also, what I'm reading, what I'm reviewing and what I'm writing about (airplanes and mountains - big surprise).
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I never expected to be urging readers to seek out a book on economics, and yet when I was putting together this month's column on graphic novels I found myself consumed with Michael Goodwin's Economix: How and Why Our Economy Words (And Doesn't Work), in Words and Pages. Frankly, this nonfiction title is far more entertaining than it has a right to be, given its subject. As someone who barely survived micro and macro economics courses in college, I approached it with no small amount of trepidation, but Goodwin knows his audience is likely nervous about the topic, and he invites readers to get comfortable and give him a chance. I was hooked after five pages, which is pretty much one of the larger literary surprises of my life.
Dan Burr's illustrations are spare and realistic, and his faces in particular are quite impressive. He nails the famous folks who are easily recognizable, which is a relief. (Thank you for not making me guess which Roosevelt I'm looking at.) Goodwin has also written himself into the action; he appears throughout and talks directly to readers, while not shying away from calling out the idiots who have made hay of international business and politics over the years. It is highly unlikely that most readers will be aware of Adam Smith's philosophies or be able to quote him at will, but within a few pages, Goodwin makes clear that he is well worth investigating, and more pointedly, that his famous work, The Wealth of Nations, has been misquoted more than once. The message here is to beware those who quote Smith for their own purposes. And everyone quotes Smith. All the time.
From the development of socialism and capitalism to the impact of railroads on the early U.S. economy, the ways in which far too many economic theories are bundled together into the mishmash we call American capitalism to why 1920s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was too powerful for too long, Goodwin pings from one powerful historic moment to the next while cracking jokes, raising eyebrows, and illuminating all the dark corners of economic theory that come his way. He warns us about academics who enjoy lecturing on the way things work on paper while ignoring their real world ramifications and points out the careful balance that needs to exist between public and private power in order to keep everyone successful, happy, and wise. This balance is endlessly elusive (as proven by our own current economic problems), but the many different ways we try to find it or avoid it makes for a soap opera of sorts that fuels the momentum of this book. Honestly, I can't believe how captivating a book has been crafted about what most of us would agree is one of the dullest subjects on the planet, but that's what we have here. This is a title that belongs in high school classrooms, college course lists, and on nightstands around the world. And, if you were wondering what to get your Congressperson for Christmas...
Eugene Byrne and Simon Gurr have crafted another history title of note with Darwin: A Graphic Biography, which will be published in February. I've read many books on Darwin, and still think there are not enough in the world, yet find it easy to recommend this new one to teens. In detailed, shadowed black-and-white drawings, the authors provide a "really exciting and dramatic story of a man who mostly stayed home and wrote some books." The standard facts are included: Darwin's childhood and early attraction to natural science, his voyage on the Beagle, and his long contemplation of evolution that led to writing and publication of The Origin of the Species. But the facts are not what make this telling of his life so good.
Byrne and Gurr frame Darwin within the fanciful setting of a wildlife program filmed for "Ape TV," and the narrative is peppered with plenty of pithy footnotes, as well as some intense discussion of evolution. The apes interject infrequently, just enough to bring in the humor, but keeping the story from devolving into silliness, and the poignancy of Darwin's life and the challenges he faced on his path to the truth (in a shared role, thankfully noted here by Alfred Russell Wallace) are not overlooked. More importantly, the authors manage to introduce some timely intellectual discussions without intimidating readers who might be fairly new to Darwin's biography and make clear that the conclusions he reached were not casual or naïve. It's a careful tightrope Byrne and Gurr walk of making their subject accessible, while not reducing his ideas to talking points. I think they have done a great job with Darwin, while injecting some unexpected humor into a very serious subject. Taken alongside Economix, this slim volume proves further the harmonious relationship that can be found between nonfiction and the graphic novel format.
Looking to fiction, Zahra's Paradise by pseudonymous Amir and Khalil is powerful, devastating, and brutal. I say all that up front because the topic, Iran's Green Revolution, is one that might make some teens reluctant to give it a chance. But if I can make you understand how this book can change the way you view the world and give you a deeper appreciation for living in a democracy, then you will understand why it should be given a chance. Just don't expect a sweet and gentle story. It starts with dead puppies (damn), and from there, the narrative of a missing son and brother apparently lost in the labyrinthine world of the Iranian prison system becomes hard to put down. Amir and Khalil had something important to share about Iran with Zahra's Paradise, and they did it straightforward and effectively: they told the truth and then dared us all to believe it.
Nineteen-year-old Mehdi has vanished in the street revolutions that shook Tehran in June 2009. His mother and brother, a blogger who narrates the story, search endlessly for him in the hospital, the morgue, and online. They post fliers, they question fellow protesters, and with the help of a surprising source, his brother hacks into a prison computer system to discover some of the government's secrets. No one will confirm Mehdi's imprisonment until his family can confirm first that he was imprisoned. Which they cannot do without someone confirming he was arrested and imprisoned. Is he alive, is he dead? Is he really missing if the officials declare no one is? These are questions that plague the families of so many of the young men and women who marched in defiance of the regime three years ago. In its final pages, Zahra's Paradise moves beyond Mehdi's tale to include all of the names of the missing, along with information on the thousands who have vanished over the years since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.
Ultimately, what happens to the characters in Zahra's Paradise is inevitable. But for all its sorrow, all its despair, this is also a story of triumph. The authors are saluting those who dared to change the world, and that is no small thing. Teens will not help finding the commitment of these young adults to be a remarkable achievement, and after reading Zahra's Paradise, they will be hard pressed not to pay more attention to the events in places like Iran. It's a small world we live in, as Amir and Khalil make clear, and full of stories we need to hear.
For much lighter fare, Oni Press is releasing in February the first collection of Bad Medicine, Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir's occult mystery series, which is really a blast to read. This first volume provides the necessary backstory with Doctor Randal Horne, a haunted (literally) surgeon with a conscience, who leads his crew of misfits as they seek to find out why a seemingly headless murder victim has an invisible head and is spreading the lycanthrope virus in a small northern town. Along the way, the many disparate personalities in the group get melded together, from the tough NYPD detective to the forensics specialist who seems more skater boy than scientist and, of course, the crusty doctor from the CDC who thinks he knows everything and can't stand Horne but fortunately might be a pain in the ass, but isn't a stupid pain in the ass and, thus, a nice addition. (I hate it when writers toss stupid into the mix just because they want a convenient dupe for the plot.)
The monsters are smart and scary, both on the street and in the office, and the team's evolution is nice to watch. Everyone has a reason for wanting to be part of this crew, especially Horne, who is perpetually seeking redemption and likely will never find it. Christopher Mitten's art is crisp and realistic, and while there isn't a teen character, there's plenty of teen appeal. Consider it a more realistic version of the BPRD, with the requisite silver bullets and occasional bloody death.
The protagonist of Fred Chao's Johnny Hiro can certainly appreciate the over-the-top drama of Bad Medicine, as his day begins with a T-rex breaking down the wall of his apartment building and scooping his girlfriend out of bed. Forced into heroics, he chases her via the NYC rooftops until Mayumi is able to phone Mayor Bloomberg and the troops -- meaning a ton of cops -- arrive. From there Hiro's life and Chao's story unfold in one hilarious moment after another. The apartment destruction results in a comic courtroom drama with his landlord, a run-in with an old classmate at the Met finds him fending off some white collar sword-wielding rōnin, and trying to keep his restaurant job means dodging angry dockworkers and some chefs very protective of their lobster. Your average everyday moments are full of outlandish excitement for our hero, no matter how hard he tries to live the sanest, most ordinary life possible. Of course all of this crazy prompts him to have an introspective moment or two (with the occasional help of Mayor Bloomberg and David Byrne), but readers should not come to this title expecting deep reflection. Chao's goal is a good time and he delivers. With a healthy dose of sardonic wit and winks to Godzilla and pretty much every chase film ever made, Johnny Hiro is full of awesome. If you liked Big Trouble in Little China, then you will know what you're getting into here, and relish every blessed page.
Antony Johnston's quieter story of intrigue and espionage set during the waning days of the Cold War shows Berlin to have been the quiet center of international conflict. The Coldest City has everything a spy novel needs: governments with dueling priorities, operatives left far too long out in the wild, and loyalties that shift with the needs of the moment. At the center is a murder mystery and an agent with no allies and a host of enemies. The story hinges on what she uncovers after arriving in Berlin and how fast she can stay one step ahead of whomever might be trying to kill her.
In the wake of a fellow agent's murder, British agent Lorraine Broughton has been sent to find the important list he might have had at the time of his death and uncover who knew about its existence. Everyone lies to her, which is to be expected, but the pace at which events on the ground move is nearly overwhelming. Johnston keeps his plot tight here, short clipped dialogue, quick meetings, sudden discoveries. Even the quieter moments, as Lorraine ponders what she does and does not know and opens up with other agents in the city (which was essentially spy central), are fraught with tension. Johnston makes sure readers are always holding their breath for what might come next, and while Sam Hart's stark black-and-white drawings can't compete with the big screen splash of 007's latest, they perfectly fit the sharp danger Lorraine finds in Berlin. There are twists and turns and while Johnston tosses a few timely meetings in along the way, they are nothing readers wouldn't expect for Bond, either. He makes sure all the questions are answered and all the clues uncovered, and yes, the ending comes with a kick worthy of old-school Kevin Costner. Though written for adults, this one deserves notice from older teens who will appreciate the atmosphere, the danger, and every dramatic moment.
Less violent but no more realistic, Thien Pham's short and lightly worded Sumo is the story of former football player Scott who seeks athletic success and inner peace in Japan as a student of the ancient wrestling form. In glossy pages, washed in muted tones of green, orange, and blue, Scott's story unfolds from the breakup with his longtime girlfriend back home, to his failure to make it to the NFL, and finally his decision to travel to Japan and enter into a regimented training schedule that dominates nearly every aspect of his life. What he seeks is purpose or direction, something that will help him find himself again. Pham is not obvious about any of this, thankfully, but it all becomes clear as Scott learns, makes friends, and remembers his life before. As competitive as sumo is, Pham manages to write about it in a most noncompetitive way, and he makes clear that the fight is not the point, but the preparation for the fight, accepting the challenge of the fight, is everything. The message is subtle, the artwork simple but quiet. Scott is a noble hero on the quest of his life. Reluctant readers will especially be comfortable with Sumo, and while I don't often send titles in gender specific directions, Sumo is a book that should be put in the hands of teenage boys at every opportunity. It will help them think like a sumo wrestler, which clearly is a very good thing.
Finally, David H.T. Wong takes on a bunch of seriously skewed American history courses with his saga of the Chinese who came to North America in Escape to Gold Mountain. From the Opium Wars of the early nineteenth century that sent so many Chinese citizens looking westward, to the discovery of gold in California, construction of the transcontinental railroads, and the booming cannery industry, Escape to Gold Mountain is a piece of historical fiction based on the author's family's immigration experiences. He touches on major legislation that sought to limit Chinese immigrants from citizenship and separated their families, and shows more than one gut-wrenching episode that should resonate strongly with readers following the current immigration debate in the U.S. It's all very historic and yet achingly topical, and thus very hard to ignore.
Escape to Gold Mountain is forgotten history, and all the more important for teen readers in particular, because it has been so overlooked. Wong does a solid job of bringing his characters to life and making the narrative both informative and emotional. Readers will want a happily-ever-after for these people and feel real emotion for those who receive only despair upon arriving at Gold Mountain. As a fan of both American and Canadian history, I found this graphic novel quite compelling and perfectly suited for the illustrated form.
COOL READ: Oleg Lipchenko has illustrated a new edition of Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits that makes the ultimate of nonsense poems accessible for a new generation. Lipchenko's style is reminiscent of nineteenth century fairy tales, and the muted palate of blacks and browns used throughout lends itself well to the aura of old world fantasy that permeates Carroll's poem. Lipchenkno's interpretation of the characters brings humor and pathos to the words, creating sympathy and hilarity at every turn of the page and providing some direction for those who get lost while trying to follow Carroll's very twisted direction. Honestly, The Hunting of the Snark still doesn't make any sense, but the humor leaps off the pages here, and the classic feel and old world charm are hard to beat. Carroll aficionados will love this edition big time, but older readers, seeking the best way to appreciate his poem, should find Lipchenko a very worthy guide. It's a picture book, but The Hunting of the Snark is ageless, and it certainly looks and feels that way turning these pages.
Thanks to David Abrams and his best of 2012 reading list, I now have added several titles to my own wish list including Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer, Misfit by Adam Braver and Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch. Be sure to check out David's entire post - it's fantastic.
Amanda Palmer will be speaking at TED next month and in typical Amanda fashion blogged about it and asked her readers to weigh in on her speech ideas. The comments really must be read - tons of fascinating stuff there about how a creative person connects with her audience and what the audience values the most and how the internet and social media work for all of that. I'm still thinking about this and how it applies to authors in particular, but direct you to check out Amanda's blog right now.
Relatedly, Amanda's husband Neil Gaiman has a gut wrenching post up about the death of his dog Cabal. Read it at your own risk because the tears will flow.
This look by The Atlantic at scholarly articles written about Sex In The City (and especially the Carrie Bradshaw character) has got to be seen to be believed. Here's a bit:
Dana Heller's American Studies article "Sex and the Series: Paris, New York, and Post-National Romance" analyzes the sixth-season episode "An American Girl in Paris (Part Deux)" and declares it a modern manifestation of early American literature's "Indian captivity narrative" (you know--young, virginal white girl gets kidnapped by bloodthirsty Indians, then is saved by other heroic white people and/or the grace of God). Paris stands in for the "evil" Native Americans, Carrie plays the helpless, innocent captive, and Mr. Big is, uh... God.
Oh, how I laughed! I laughed and laughed and laughed!!
[Post pic of Mark Dion's "Maple Tree Library for Studious Birds". I honestly can not get enough of his work.]
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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The short story collection Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins has gotten quite a bit of attention in the past few months and it was one of the books on my holiday list that showed up under the tree. (Yea for books for Christmas!) There are several very powerful stories in this collection, most notably "Ghost, Cowboys" about her father's membership in the Manson Family, but the overriding theme is that of disappointment. A lot of people die in Watkins's world, a lot have horrible relationships, a lot find only dead ends personally and professionally and pretty much overall every single story in this collection ends with a whimper of grimness.
It's not exactly a vision of a bold new day in America.
Please don't think I'm picking on Battleborn however, because there is nothing different in this book then a lot of others I've read lately. Heck, I'm the person who wrote a book with "Dead" in the title, so I'm as guilty of pessimism as the next person. (Though writing about aviation without writing about crashes is pretty much impossible.) What struck me about Battleborn though was that the unhappiness is not due to a sudden change in circumstance - an accident or unplanned twist of misfortune - but rather to the choices made by the characters and their unwillingness to make other choices then to change the situation.
You have a young man who visits a bordello in Nevada and falls for a prostitute, foolishly thinking he is in love. The story is about how she is willfully manipulating him in the hope of financial gain and how the manager of the facility is horribly lonely. No one is happy in this story and no one knows how to be happy.
In another a woman breaks up with her unpleasant boyfriend only to discover she is pregnant and then meets her former boyfriend (the nice guy whose baby she aborted) and thinks about having this new baby. No one is happy in this story either. (Except maybe her sister but she's not the point.)
There is a couple who goes camping and the wife is trying to figure out if she is happy as a wife and mother, the pregnant teenage girl who is discovered in the wild after a drunken party and might be impregnated by her father (I really wasn't sure) but goes back with him anyway and obviously is not happy. (I really couldn't figure out why the cops weren't called on this one but I was too busy being glad the dog didn't die to dwell on it.) And there's the woman who tells her lover about how she peer pressured a friend into having sex with multiple guys they did not know when they were in high school and how the two of them stopped being friends afterwards and the other girl ended up in an abusive relationship and clearly did not live happily ever after. (This was probably the saddest story ever because the whole thing happened out of manipulation bred by boredom - they could have gone to a damn movie instead.)
The story I had the most trouble with was a historic one about gold mining brothers. One plans to get rich and return to marry his girl, who will wait for him - of course. They nearly die getting to the gold fields, lose all their equipment, struggle to find any gold, the girl doesn't write, the brother goes mad, innocent people are killed (bonus - they are Chinese killed due to their ethnicity!) and the sane brother flees without ever knowing what happens to the crazed sibling he left behind. Jack London and everybody else did this already and better, but the point is clear - no one got happy trying to get rich in the gold fields and the girl will never wait for you. (Really - is there a story where the girl EVER waits like she promises?)
Again, in all these stories the writing is powerful, the characters well drawn, the sentences elegant. It's all the good stuff you expect in literary fiction. But honestly, when I was done reading this book I couldn't reach for a fluffy romance novel fast enough. I was tired of all the negativity and it was really wearing me down. I needed something hopeful stat.
What bothers me about so much contemporary literature is that it seems that serious work has to mean unhappiness. We have turned so hard against unearned happy endings (the princess model) that to get respect you have to show the failures of the American dream - the ways in which life beats us up again and again and again. No one just meets the person of their dreams and buys a nice little house and loves their job and enjoys themselves. Can you think of a non-genre title where this happens? Can you think of something lauded as serious literature where just nice pleasant things happen to the characters*? Are we so jaded we don't even want make believe people to be happy?
Am I the only one who wonders about this or still believes that happily-ever-after is an okay thing to think about?
*The only one that comes to mind for me right away is Glaciers by Alexis Smith, the wonderful novella from Tin House. It's thoughtful and written with great care but contains a definite measure of happiness that really makes it heartwarming.
One of my favorite lines:
"Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."
Hell yeah, Mr. President. Hell yeah.
The graphic novel Not My Bag follows the travails of a comic book artist and writer Sina Grace who took a department store job to cover some unexpected car accident related bills. His decision makes perfect sense and the logic behind it - holding down an undesirable job for the time it takes to get a grip on your finances - is really quite admirable. We've all worked for the man when we didn't want to and the book seems set up to share all of Grace's frustrations along with lots of on job snarkiness. But then the author throws a major curveball - he starts to like his job.
"Like" is actually not the right word here, more it's that he becomes seduced by the store and the people he works for. The competitiveness of department store employment is laid bare (did you have any idea how insane it is?), and Grace fell for it hook, line and sinker. He became a selling fool, dazzling his floor and department managers. Soon enough climbing up the department store ladder became the center of his life and his creative career is at first neglected and then pretty much completely ignored. Grace is dressing in Alexander McQueen and wooing shoppers, he's promised a shot at a great new department, he's going places!!!!
Well, as long as the only place he wants to go to is in the department store.
Bit by bit Grace shows how he fell to pieces, lost his focus and even got a little close to losing his patient and endearing boyfriend. The manipulative powers exhibited by his bosses are something to behold (if only they used their powers for good!) and all too soon he starts to go crazy in paranoid manipulation land as well and lashes out at his co-workers. Everything comes down to moving the merchandise, pleasing people who have no respect for him and winning points with those who are happily using and abusing him. It's a sick system but a crazy seductive one. You can see how Grace lost sight of his initial plan and how hard it was to walk away.
A note on the illustrations: the artwork is spare and direct and Grace excels at facial expressions, easily conveying all manner of subtle emotions - very well done. See also Gabrielle Gantz's review from last month over at The Contextual Life. Here's a bit:
All the melodrama of working in retail is on display in Not My Bag, from an evil boss whose nature is depicted through grotesque facial renderings to the silent competition of fellow coworkers. More importantly, however, Not My Bag is a warning, it shows what happens when one forgoes their passion and, at best, chases after someone else's dream.
...And I couldn't be more pleased. I've been reading Air & Space since I was 19; this is really a moment for me.
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1. There was the perfect grilled cheese sandwich, a killer hamburger, fabulous Vietnamese pineapple salad and Quesadillas served at the end of the longest walk in the world. Also lovely fruit (among other things) at the Little Brown breakfast.
2. As you can see, food was a reoccurring theme at ALA Midwinter.
3. Biggest Revelation: there is a ton of work that goes into being a librarian and the folks on those award/list committees are dedicated to an epic level.
4. Having said that, librarians also can put away a drink and apparently involve themselves in wild karaoke parties. (I was not there but I heard stories.)
5. Friday night, when the Exhibition Hall opens, was....insane. I was warned that it would be wild but nothing can prepare you for the sight of grown-ups plowing into each other to obtain a copy of Rick Yancey's latest. I can only figure it was some kind of crowd induced hysteria. Saturday, thankfully, was much much calmer.
6. On Saturday I commenced with my Master Plan to visit every publishing rep I knew via email and connect with them in person. Delightful chats commenced with Rachel and Mindy at DK, Lara at Chronicle, and lots of other folks (especially in small press land). I also discovered that DK is releasing a book on Lego Minifigs this summer which pretty much has made my son's year. (I called him immediately, of course.)
7. Cringe-Worthy Moment: Sighting four-inch high heels on the convention floor. (All I could hear in my head was "WHAT NOT TO WEAR!!!")
8. Best Literary Face-Off: The divine Liz Burns and divine Jackie Parker exchanging radically different opinions on Grave Mercy. Hysterical does not begin to describe it. (Kelly Jensen and I were eating french fries dipped in milkshake during this discussion.) (Don't mock us; it was tasty!)
9. Most Uncomfortable Moment #1: Introducing myself at the Algonquin booth and asking about their new YA imprint only to have the young rep respond "What exactly is a Bookslut?" I started to explain the site and then just...couldn't.
"You've never heard of the literary website Bookslut?"
"No. Are you new?"
[ARE WE NEW????] I had no words.
"Um, is there someone else here I can speak to?"
He turns, nudges lady behind him: "This lady is from something called Bookslut. She wanted to talk about the YA imprint."
Lady steps forward, hand outstretched. "BOOKSLUT! We love Bookslut!"
[Thank you, God.]
Rational, wonderful conversation followed.
10. Most Uncomfortable Moment #2: Five minutes in the Harper Collins Kids booth waiting to be noticed. Taking notes, tweeting, the only person in the booth with four reps who talked to each other and never spoke to me. After I walked out I received a tweet from a blogger friend who sent me to the HC Adult booth with the name of a rep to ask for. She was very nice, walked me to the kid side and introduced me to a rep (who had been standing there all along). I asked about Bennett Madison's upcoming September Girls and was quickly given an ARC. That's when I mentioned I had reviewed some of his other books, was a fan of his work, and..... she said nothing. "Have a nice day," she chirped, and walked away.
11. Nope, I didn't get her business card. (I consider myself damn lucky that I got the book.)
12. Every publisher (and agent and editor) should attend a Best Fiction for Young Adults Teen Feedback Session. Alternately shy and defiant, soft spoken and confident, these kids were amazing. They stood carefully in line, kept their comments under the 2 minutes allotted, gave their reasons for supporting or not supporting a title and more than once asserted themselves against the opinions of the adults around them. "No More Love Triangles!!" ("It's hard enough to find one person to love, let alone two!") "All Teenage Guys Are Not Jerks so please stop writing them that way!" "I was LIED TO by this cover!" and the mother of all shut downs for Amanda Hocking - including a damning quote from her nominated book - which prompted applause from the audience.
13. Adults don't know what it is like to be a teenager. We remember, but we don't know. Listening to some actual live feedback from teens is critical for anyone involved in the YA publishing industry.
14. And kudos to teen librarian Jackie Parker for wrangling this group of great kids together so they could share so much with all of us.
15. Did I mention Soho Press has a YA Mystery line now? More on this later but I spent several lovely moments with the crew there and am very much looking forward to seeing what they have to offer teen mystery fans.
16. Can someone explain to me when it became a thing for teen librarians to color their hair pink or purple or blue? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
17. Most Disturbing Thing I Saw All Weekend: Three women packing no fewer than 500 books into several extra large suitcases next to the Coat Check after the Exhibition Hall closed Saturday evening. They had about twenty tote and shopping bags full of books they were transferring to the suitcases. We all stood in line transfixed by the sight. I was tempted to take a picture but they looked pretty surly and I didn't think it was worth a confrontation to record the fact that they were greedy jerks. But still, it was pretty damn unbelievable.
18. Also Unbelievable: Someone stole four lovely hardcover books from Firefly Books (which has some great stuff) on Friday night. (Really - they stole Fifty Plants That Changed the World. REALLY.) Also, someone apparently stole the display copy of Code Name Verity from the Hyperion booth. (Took all the stars along with it as well.)
20. Best Moment: A long bookish discussion with Barry, Sara and Kate over Mexican food on Saturday night when we realized that if anyone was listening to our conversation they would think we were insane. The forty-five minute wait for a cab was no fun, but as we know now it is all due to Kate's curse, we accept that it is the price to be paid for her company. Just be warned that a dinner out with her will involve nearly freezing to death on a street corner later. :)
21. Three Fan Girl Moments: Cara Black at Soho Press, Ellen Datlow at the Horror Writers Assoc and Nancy Pearl, who I thanked for choosing my book last year for her NPR Summer Reading List. (She thanked me for writing it - can you imagine?!) All were simply wonderful.
22. Lessons Learned: Meeting in person is always a good thing; bookish people are funny as hell; free books make some folks go a wee bit crazy and bacon should never be put on a vegetarian burger. (It wasn't my burger, but trust me on this. It was WRONG.)