Truly Wonderstruck

Brian Selznick is really carving out a niche for himself. In the world of endless series books and feeble efforts to write the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games, Selznick has snuck into the literary world with true magnificence. Starting out as an illustrator for beloved kids’ books like Frindle and others, he nearly revolutionized the literary genre with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a mix of artistic brilliance with a riveting story. For the first time since I can remember, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, perfectly married art with words. Instead of using pictures to illustrate a story, he used pictures to tell some of the story. Add in a historical setting and (some) true events, and Hugo Cabret was a unique and wonderful work of art.

Still, I thought Hugo Cabret was missing something. In spite of its brilliance, there was some parts of it that could’ve delivered a better punch…It’s one of those, I know it when I see it type things. If it was a punch he was missing in Hugo Cabret, his follow-up “Wonderstruck” was nothing short of a thunderclap.

This time he weaves not one but 2 stories into one: the words for one character, and the art for another. Against an even more riveting historical backdrop, he takes the reader through a world that many people may never understand, the World of the Deaf. I’m a child of the 80s, where references to disabilities were either taboo or they were treated pretty blandly and almost forgivingly. People with disabilities were considered the “them” and the “us” should be sympathetic to their challenges. Nowhere was there understanding. Nowhere was there empathy.

Nowhere was there art of experience. At least, not like Wonderstruck.

I’m usually not this drool-over-myself-soppy about a book, but Wonderstruck is something else, Wonderstruck is the art of experience.It’s more than, “this is what the Deaf community has to deal with everyday”. It’s more than this is how we should be considerate of those with hearing disabilities. It’s “come into our world and see what you can learn from our experience”. Add in that it’s a story, a powerful narrative, brilliantly told with a historical context so under-recognized, but so moving at the same time. In short, Wonderstruck is brilliant because you not only experience the book, but you come away with a renewed sense of understanding.

In short, the book truly lives up to its name. Read the book, and you’ll be wonderstruck, too

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Real Fiction

When I was a master’s student, I remember a professor waxing philosophical about the future of academia. In one of her lectures, she discussed the possibility of a degree concentration in Counter-History, in which scholars imagine history differently than it transpired, perhaps even contrary to actual events, in an effort to uncover new perspectives. Of course, some of this might be revealed in Cartesian philosophical orientation, but as of today, I know no doctoral program in Counter-History.

Though it may not exist in academia, I’ve found it to be alive and kicking in the literary world.

These days, it seems like a great novelist is more than a story teller. She or he is a historical analyst, an investigative journalist, and a first-rate researcher. A rich historical context, along with the possibility that a story could be “based on true events,” makes a story real and far more intriguing to read. Of course, none of this is actually new. Popular novelists have been borrowing from history for generations (Jo Rowling and Rick “Percy Jackson” Riordan commonly feature figures that exist historically, either in real life or in literature). But I’m not talking about borrowing from history, I’m talking about recreating history, and creating the mystery around the possibility of a new truth. I’ve found this gem of novel writing in two recent books: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and The Poe Shadow.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine B. Howe. I have to admit, I stumbled upon this book with quite a bit of serendipity. While waiting for the free samples at Cost co one day, I saw this book promoted on their table display. I judged the book by its cover (I’m a sucker for nicely designed books), picked it up and, after reading the back cover, rushed…to the library to get a copy. Brilliantly researched book by the descendent of not one but TWO condemned salem witches, which works great since it’s a book about the Salem Witch Trials. Many of the events and circumstances were real. The story, however, was not. Nonetheless, there was so much real about Howe’s book, I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl: I actually found this book, again, by accident. Howe had acknowledged Pearl at the end of her Physick, for his literary help on the book. When I later found the book, noticed Pearl’s name, and checked to make sure the title and picture on front were intriguing enough (book cover judging again), I was sold (figuratively of course, it doesn’t cost money to borrow a book at the library, though I do believe I had $.50 in late fees on it). In the Poe Shadow, Pearl takes the mystery of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe and builds it into a seemingly real-life narrative of the effort to uncover the mystery. Though some of his characters are fictitious, the argument he makes for what may really have happened the days before Poe was found listless in a Baltimore Tavern shortly before his death. With his cleverly spun tale, not only is Pearl’s book real, but in it he proposes hypotheses and demonstrates findings that are entirely new to the debate. So instead of writing an academic paper spawning a lecture series about Poe’s last days, he writes an ingenius narrative that is both compelling and unforgettable.

These are only two of a voluminous library of books that recreate history, taking literary liberties for both the good of the reader, and history itself. Through this genre of historical-based novels, writers put a new spin on history and keep the eternal flame of history’s many and varied stories burning.

Please! No More Series Books

The Indie Girl has been trying to get me to read a new book series she’s gotten into: Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull. This is the same Indie Girl who introduced me to Harry Potter over 10 years ago, and who’s book choices have always been superb. So why I have been hesitant to start the series? I have to say, I’m a little series’d out right now. And, in the end, I’m probably going to give in and read the darned Fablehaven series, because, the Indie Girl is usually right, but here’s a few reasons I’m dragging my feet:

1. Book series books are so overdone. I remember growing up reading one-and-done books like Cricket in Times Square. Simple little, one-dimensional stories that were reflective of the kiddie audience they were written for. Then comes Harry Potter (ok, Potter wasn’t the first in-depth kiddie series, some forget The Dark is Rising series and others). Jo Rowling introduced to the reading world that kid books could actually be good. Now there’s an idea. Deep plots with classic literary themes, the works. So why do I deride book series now? Everyone thinks it’s the format, the multiple books telling the same story, thing. So now instead of one-dimensional, one and done books, we now have one-dimensional one-and-done books spread out into more than one book, just to sell it. Not good.

2. A good story should be concise. I have a friend who is writing a book series. He asked me to review his plot line, characters, etc., and I found them to be quite enigmatic and engaging. When he told me it was going to be a book series, I told him: “Sure, it can be a book series, but why don’t you just write the story as one book?” The thing is, too many authors are thinking multiple books in a story line, when they should be looking at multiple story lines in one book. A good story should be as long as it needs to be. Harry Potter fits the bill, though she could have left out a few subplots. Percy Jackson and the Olympians? ENTIRELY too long. I think we could do without books 2 and 3 frankly. The problem? Book series tend to either have too many unrelated plotlines, making the series just a ploy to make more money, or they’re just one plot line stretched out over too many books. And for all those people who think they’re selling a great idea to publishers, think again. Most publishers don’t want someone who proposes a book series, because for them it doesn’t mean multiple book profits, it means multiple books they have to worry about marketing for.

3. Copy cats are never innovators. Now, don’t misunderstand me. There are a lot of good series books out there, and there will be many to come, but most authors who write a book series now seem to be trying to re-create what Jo Rowling and other authors have done. Peruse the kiddie section of the library and book series books are being done like it’s going out of style. I think it’s time to try something new. Write a story that begins on page one and ends when you close the book. I think the one-and-done book is the NEW book series book. It’s the new black too. And the new novel. Case in point. I love Eoin Colfer books. He’s a fantastic writer. One of my favorite junior lit authors actually. But I could never get into Artemis Fowl. Why? I hated the story. I know, it’s odd. Artemis Fowl is his Harry Potter. In my opinion though, his one-and-done books are much, much better. I particularly love Half Moon Investigations. I found it at a school book sale for like $2. It’s one of my favorite books I think I’ve ever read. So well-written. Such a great story line. And the ending is superb. One of my other favorite books, Airman. Yes, another Colfer one-and-doner. AMAZING story line. He effectively captures the Count of Monte Cristo theme, innovates it, and produces something special. Both books are supremely better than his book series.

All in all, am I condemning book series? No. In fact, I picked up Rick “Percy Jackson” Riordan’s newest book 1, the Red Pyramid (in which he does the same thing he did in Percy Jackson, but with Egyptian Mythology instead of Greek Mythology). The thing is, though, just writing a book series does not make it better than the one-and-done book. In fact, more often than not, we’re seeing it go the other way around.

In the end, I’m probably going to end up reading the Indie Girl’s new favorite: Fablehaven. And you know what, I’m probably going to love it, and the next blog post is probably going to be a gushing review of it, with all the usual pictures, links, pomp, and circumstance. But that’s going to be my last book series. Of course, until Indie Girl finds another good read.

Here come the Olympians: Everything You Need to Know About Percy

Another book series headed for Hollywood. It’s almost as if Hollywood doesn’t know how to write a good story anymore…but I digress. Following the strong showings from Potter, and that chick who can’t decide between a vampire and a werewolf, we have a newcomer: some kid who claims to be a son of the Greek Gods. As Percy Jackson hits the big screen in the Lightning Thief, undoubtedly, the America that doesn’t read before they rush to the theater, and those who are pondering reading the series now that it has some legitimacy, need to know a few things about Percy and his friends.

1. Yes, the story is eerily familiar. Ever heard this one before? A boy who comes from  humble beginnings, finds out he has a magical history he knew nothing about, ends up having to go a magical school where he learns to use his power, makes friends who help him on endless quests that involve the return of one of the most powerful nemeses to all that is good. Oh, and don’t forget the prophecy that foretells that Percy, alone, will be the one to destroy him, thereby saving the world.

Percy and Harry –  Separated at Birth?

2. And yet, it isn’t Potter. For one, the story is relatively flat. Ok, there will be those who cry foul here and say, “What about the understories of the search for Pan? The lessons of the oracle? All those cool Greek Mythological creatures?” To them I say: flat. Flat, flat, flat, flat, flat. The reason? They add little depth to the story, and little depth of sympathy for the characters. In fact, my biggest beef with the Percy series is that so many of the adventures have nothing to do with the plotline. It’s as if Riordan simply thought of every possible Greek Myth he could put into the modern day and then wrote about it. It becomes incredibly predictable and quite inane after a while, ESPECIALLY in the Lightning Thief book (and the Sea of Monsters). Also, the writing in the books is very juvenile…In fact, I don’t think they’re written that well at all. Look Rick, I get it, you’re trying to simulate the teenage experience, and the dialogue that accompanies the teenage drama, blah, blah, blah, but I find the dialogue to be, well…flat. Of course, it could’ve been worse, at least it’s not James Patterson’s Maximum Ride books!

3. Ok, Percy’s world isn’t ALL flat… There is one exception to the flatness of this story: Nico D’Angelo. I have to say,  understory. I think Nico’s inner turmoil and role in the last few books quite literally “make” the story. It’s just too bad that it took 3 books to get Nico’s character, and the incredible depth he adds, into the story…especially since he makes a cameo in book one.

4. The bottom-line. If you start the books, you’ll most likely find yourself in the same position I’ve been in the last few years: finishing the book just to see what happens. And, if nothing else, that’s what makes the stories worth your entertainment dollar: in spite of the eery similarity to that other kid with mystical powers who found himself in a long book series, the overall story does grab you in a sort of “curiosity killed the cat” sort of way…and, if you are like me and are stuck just trying to finish the story for finishing the story’s sake…well…

At least Percy doesn’t wear glasses.

Al Capone Does My Shirts (Review)

Al Capone Does My Shirts Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
This book has amazing depth for such simplicity. Choldenko grabs you with a unique setting, and then hooks you with real people. A pure delight. She really recreates an older era, the 1930s, where society was different, and takes you into that era like no other book I’ve read.

I only have one “beef” with this book…and it’s a minor inconsistency. In one small quote, Moose regrets that he’ll have a normal life, but his sister won’t, saying that he’ll graduate from high school, go to college, get married and have kids…The only problem with this is that college wasn’t an assumed route by everyone back in the 30s. In fact, college as a rite of passage, that is the feeling entitlement to go to college, is only 2 or 3 decades old.

Other than this, simply an excellent book.

View all my reviews.

Breaking Dawn: From the eyes of a 30 something year old dad

breaking_dawn_cover_by_tranquilitysurreilFinally got to read Breaking Dawn. Here’s my three sentence review.

Starts slow. Waxes triumphant. Ends with a fizzle (kind of).

Yep. That’s about it. There are times in the book when I thought: This is the best book I have ever read. There are others when I thought, “That’s it?”

It doesn’t take anything away from what the book series really is, though…one of the most haunting yet addicting stories ever written.  As I was finishing the book, I started asking myself, what is it about this book, written for a supposed teenage girl audience, that enraptures a 30 something year old dad?

And when it all comes down to it, for me, I think it’s the contradictions of love.  Every guy wants that Bella, that girl who completes us, and yet, we’re vampires (or wolves) underneath the skin, struggling with the fight inside of us to no to ruin what we have. We’re constantly in a fight against who we are and who we want to be. When the Indie Girl and I got married, we used to laugh at people who were engaged who thought that being married would be like one long date.  Yeah, life happens, it gets complicated, and can be frustrating. But, I think that Twilight shows a life obtainable…a relationship that can really be happy. One that I am constantly working towards, despite the “monster” I can be.

Then again…it could just be that the idea of being a super strong vampire who lives forever and pretty much has all the money he could ever want is just REALLY cool. So, who knows.

Two More Notes before I close this (Spoilers):

1. At some point when you’re reading this book, and you read about the vivid romantic exploits  of a newly married couple on their honeymoon, you start wondering…”Wait, how many 12 year old girls did I see in line to buy this book in August, again?”  Yeah, the themes are too mature for pre-teen girls, I think. Book one was very easily pre-teen chick lit. But book 4? definitely aged at least 10 years. Which brought up another question in my mind: As an author, at what point do you decide to write for your audience and write in spite of your audience?

2. ***SPOILER**** I have to say that I was disappointed in the ending. I expected a fight. I really thought we’d see the Volturri taken down, and, a la another very popular book series, we’d see at least a few characters sacrificed. But in the end, it just fizzles. No one dies. The Cullens and the Volturri make amends and part their separate ways. At one point, I started thinking that Edward was the tragic character…that in the end, Bella would die, and he would be left with  Renesme as the memory of a love that was perfect…a love that could never be.

From Novels to Movies: To Be or Not to Be

I have gotten into doing a lot of novel reading…as my commute in the DC area can be quite long. Ok…so it’s not actually novel “reading”…it’s books on CD…but you get the picture.

Throughout my reading (or listening) I have wondered how some books would fair as movies, and at the same time, have wondered why some books have been made into movies. Here’s some miscellaneous ponderings:

The City of Ember: This book has received some good reviews, and honestly, I couldn’t get even halfway through the book. Fairly inane story based on an alternate reality that I just can’t grasp onto. It’s a city that is on the verge of collapse with a mystery behind its beginnings. Sure, sounds nice, but I just couldn’t get beyond one underlying facet of the city: the communication. I could write a whole blog post on this one, but I won’t. Instead of modern conveniences like the Internet, phones, or EVEN snail mail–they use messengers who have to run all over the city to convey messages. Just the idea that an advanced society couldn’t figure out mail turned me off.

The Lightning Thief: Harry Potter meets Mount Olympus. I have been thinking about a whole post on this book, and how after what JK Rowling put together, no other book featuring a young boy who goes on a quest to defeat evil will ever be able to avoid being compared to Harry Potter. But then I found out that it was in production to be a movie. I think the scenes and story are good enough for a movie, but the plot, frankly, is a little predictable and a little overdone. It is unique in it’s own merit, and I look forward to seeing how they pull off the final scene between Percy and a character not to be named, so as to not ruin the story for you.

The Tale of Despereaux: I mistakenly read this book to my kids. It’s not really a kids book honestly. The themes are very adult and anything but child-friendly. Especially the murder plot…oh, and the child abuse. Then I saw the previews for the movie, and I have to say, I don’t see ONE element of the book in the movie. THey must have done a complete overhaul of the story to fit into the movie.

The Dark is Rising (AKA The Seeker): I just finished this book, and at first, I was anxious to see the movie (the 2007 release, the Seeker).  Then I saw the previews, and it looks like they tried to update it to give it a 21st century feel to it. I read the reviews, and others agree, the movie and the book are two separate entities. If you’ve seen the movie, don’t let it ruin the book for you…the book is fantastic.

Now–a few movies I’d like to see:

Airman by Eoin Colfer: The plotline is akin to the Count of Monte Cristo, but it’s fabulous in its own right. The end left a little to be desired, but all in all, this was an amazing book, and I can’t wait until some producer picks up the movie rights for it.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp: I loved the book. Fantastic story. Great plot twists. Excellent character development. I’d love to see John Woo take this movie on.

A Boy and His Tiger

And so it goes with God. These words will now haunt me. The last words that Pi Patel utters in Yann Martel’s triumph: Life of Pi. I was enraptured by Martel’s story-telling, his thought-provoking philosophy wrapped into the most beautiful language I have EVER read in novel. But the ending…the ending, that’s what will keep me awake at night. I won’t tell you the ending, but I will say this: Life of Pi is a must-read. And if you want the real experience, listen to it on your Ipod–Jeff Woodman (the narrator) is nothing short of brilliant. Martel’s book–a thoughtful and riveting adventure about a shipwrecked boy stuck on a boat with a Bengal Tiger–is a never-ending stream of up and down, tragedy, triumph, chaos and order. I have never read such a beautiful fictional story in my life–in fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if it were true. I’d like to believe it’s true, after all, I think that’s how Pi Patel would want it. That is the brilliance of this book. You feel like you know Pi. You feel like it was real.

And that’s all I’ll say about this boy and his tiger. You’ll have to read it to experience it.

Ok, maybe I’ll say just one more thing, Martel’s boy and tiger made me reminisce about another wonderful story about a boy and his tiger:

Early Review of Breaking Dawn

So apparently, a lot of people are finding me through Google looking for early reviews of Breaking Dawn, the 4th installment in Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular vampire novels.

Being a fan…I’m flattered you’re coming here. But, since I don’t have any inside-access to the publisher or to Stephenie’s publicist, and thus, do not get an early review copy…all I can give for an early review is this:

“I’m sure it’s going to be drop dead fantastic.”

And yes, you can quote me on that….and then if you happen to meet a publicist for Stephenie, tell them to send me a book…and I can give a real review.

Oh…and if you don’t like my vague and disappointing “review”…here’s a “just as disappointingly-vague” review of the book by Stephenie Meyer herself:

In the ‘Twilight’ of a Comic Convention…

So, early reports are that the cast set to immortalize Stephenie Meyer’s characters in the upcoming Twilight movie made a special appearance at San Diego’s “Comic Convention”…the report details that hundreds of teenage girls in the audience shrieked and squeeled to get their first peek at the movie and its stars.

Forget about how Twilight fits in with the likes of Trekkies and Star Wars nuts…WHAT were teen girls doing at a comic convention?