80s TEEN NOVEL : "Probably Still Nick Swansen"

Probably Still Nick Swansen by Virginia Euwer Wolff
     One of my English teacher friends asked if I wanted about three bins full of old books, and I said yes. There's no library funding, so I'm big on donations. Whatever we can't use for our library I take to a used book store to trade in for store credit, which I use to get things we CAN use.
     As I was going through all the old books, I found this little paperback gem from 1988. The cover illustration struck me as pathetic, along with the tagline, "What's wrong with being Nick Swansen?"
     If you have to ask...
     Then I flipped it over and read the synopsis on the back:

Nick has a problem. No, problems.
Nick is 16. He is still trying to learn how to drive. He's an expert on some things, not so good at others. He's haunted by the memory of his sister who drowned nine years ago. Nick is a "Special Ed" kid.

He's been teased about it. But that doesn't stop him from asking Shana, a former special ed classmate, to the Prom. That, Nick thinks, will be really special.

But things don't always go the way you plan.

Suddenly Nick wishes he was anybody but who he is... anybody but Nick Swansen.

     Oh, dear. Poor Nick Swansen in his awkward tuxedo, waiting for his "special" date. And what's up with that seemingly random brick of tragedy tossed in, about Nick's dead drowned sister? Like Nick's struggles aren't enough "teen issues" for one book without a haunting accidental death from the past? Virginia Euwer Wolff, you are one hard and unflinching writer.
     There's even a nice little insulting "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book, which reads:

This book contains some incorrect grammar and punctuation in order to tell Nick Swansen's story in language that is consistent with his.

     Wow, Virginia Euwer Wolff, I'm not sure who's more insulted by that, poor Nick Swansen, or the reader.

BOOK REVIEW : "Psychos: Serial Killers, Depraved Madmen, and the Criminally Insane" by various authors, edited by John Skipp

Get Psychos, edited by John Skipp, from Amazon HERE.

     I got an advanced e-copy of this book through NetGalley. This anthology is edited by John Skipp, and collects a very wide selection of stories involving murderous psychos from various perspectives, some humorous, some chilling. Authors include classics like Poe, Bradbury, Gaiman, Thomas Harris, Lansdale, Bentley Little, Elizabeth Massie, Robert Devereaux, Kathe Koja, and others. 
     To me the absolute chills-down-the-spine standout piece that made the whole anthology worth it was "All Through the House" by Christopher Coake, an author I was unfamiliar with. Skipp gives a brief intro to each story, and in numerous places "warns" the reader how freaky the upcoming story is going to be, but "All Through the House" was one of the only ones that really lived up to that for me. It focuses on a mass murder mainly from the viewpoint of the murderer's best friend, who suffers tremendous survivor's guilt. But the genius of the story is the way it creates a truly haunting (and haunted) sense of history about the location by slipping back in time before the murders, then moving forward to even after the house is burnt down, then backing up to before it was burnt down and a true crime writer was visiting to exploit the event for her own purposes. 
     Another stunningly horrid (in a good way, for a psycho anthology) story was John Gorumba's "Mommy Picks Me Up at Day Care," written very believably from the viewpoint of a little boy. The boy's mother "snaps" and the author is unflinching in the way he shows this young child's mind trying to process and cope with the situation in his limited way. Meanwhile, as the reader you're able to translate the child's perceptions, so you realize what's really happening. Very clever. 
     Included in the appendix is a very thorough and thoughtful afterword about psychos in popular culture by Cody Goodfellow, and then the actual letter sent from cannibal murderer Albert Fish to the mother of one of his victims. It's not for the squeamish. 
     I feel the book as a whole is pretty well done, the second half being more rewarding than the first. The "centerpiece" of the book is a novella by Adam-Troy Castro called "The Shallow End of the Pool," but unfortunately for me it was one of my least favorite in the book. That might just be because it wasn't what I was really hoping for, based on the theme. For other people it might be very worthy precisely because of that, since it's not what you would expect.

BOOK REVIEW : "Existence" by David Brin

Click HERE to see/buy the book on Amazon.

     This book is a treasure-trove of ideas! It's set hundreds of years in the future, when humanity experiences "first contact." But of course it's not what anyone is expecting, and there are revelations and hoaxes and twists galore. 
     The scope of the book is so huge and complex it's hard to summarize it, but one of the major themes is trying to figure out and avoid the many possible fatal pitfalls of advanced civilization. One idea I found VERY interesting is that many people (politicians and extremists on both sides of the spectrum) become addicted to self-righteous indignation, which keeps them from rational discourse. And our society tends to just feed into that and make it worse, rather than realizing an addiction for what it is: the enemy of a mature and rational society.
     This is the kind of book you sort of wish everyone HAD to read because there are a lot of clever and "important" concerns and ideas. I love the idea that diversity is vital to the survival of a species, that it brings "hybrid vigor." 
     I swear this book is very entertaining, too! Not just concepts and causes. There's a lot of great artificial intelligence stuff, genetically-engineered smart dolphins, extreme future sports, virtual reality Matrix-type mind trips, etc. Lots of adventure! Hopefully humankind won't self-destruct in any of the creative and plausible ways detailed in this book, but instead survive and thrive. 
     The ultimate message of the book is very hopeful and enlightening.

NOTE: Existence is slated for a June 19th, 2012 release. I was lucky to get an advance e-copy for review through NetGalley.

George R. R. Martin's A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

          First of all, I'd like to mention that when I first typed the name of the series, I accidentally typed, "A Dong of Ice and Fire" instead of "A SONG of..."
          So I'm pretty distracted, giggling about that. But I will pull myself together.
Dude, it's 959 pages long. And that's NOT counting the guide to characters at the back.

          (By the way, I did my best to avoid any spoilers.)
          I just finished reading A Dance With Dragons, book 5 in Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. For those who don't know, it's an epic heroic medieval fantasy, sort of Tolkienesque. But Martin's characters aren't hairy-footed little pussies, and there aren't any lovely lovely elves, and the magical elements are very few and far between, which I think makes the whole thing more believable.
          It's set in a very harsh kingdom, where no one is clearly good or evil, they're just messily human. And bad things happen to most of them. What makes Martin's writing unique, I think, is that the chapters alternate viewpoint from character to character, like in a big cycle. For instance, one chapter may be about poor little Arya, a fierce princess on the run from assassins. But the chapter will end on a cliffhanger, and the next chapter is from someone else's viewpoint, in another part of the kingdom. So you have to wait until Arya comes up again, and meanwhile OTHER characters are in dire situations. I can't put these books down!
          Now there's a miniseries on HBO, called "Game of Thrones," based on the series, and I can't see it because we don't get HBO! It's not out on DVD yet, either. I tried streaming it online and the picture quality sucked. I'm gnashing my teeth.
          Anyway, just thought I'd post the review I put on Goodreads and Shelfari, my two favorite keeping-track-of-what-I-read sites. (By the way, I prefer Shelfari because it's prettier and looks like actual wood shelves, and I can navigate it more easily. But most people seem to like Goodreads better. Not sure why) Here's my little review:

(3 out of 5 stars)
         Sigh. I love "A Song of Ice and Fire," and I will definitely read the next book in the series, no matter how long it takes him to finally grunt it out.
          I love Tyrion, I love Jon Snow, I love Arya, I love many of the characters, especially the moral grey area most of them are smack in the middle of. Just when I think Tyrion is disgusting and irredeemable, he shows true kindness to that poor little dwarf girl, and becomes her protector in his gruff, crude way.
          And I do love Daenerys, BUT I am pretty sick of her wasting so much time in Meereen when we're all waiting for her to just f*cking return to Westeros with her dragons. This particular installment in Martin's big fat unwieldy series didn't move the many plots and subplots far enough to satisfy me. It's over 900 pages long, and I wanted things to come to a head more. I still found it very readable. But at this point there are so many characters that I was confused and floundering at the start of many chapters, trying to remember who the current character was, and their relevance to things.
          Not to mention it's been years since the last book and I can't remember where many of the subplots left off.
          The epilogue was the most exciting chapter in the whole book, despite the fact that it hinges on a revelation about a certain character I did not remember at ALL, and had to immediately search for in the extensive dramatis personae at the back. It pissed me off even further to find that there were at least TWO characters with the SAME FIRST NAME, but I ended up figuring out which one was mentioned in the epilogue.
          So what.
          Character is the most important thing in any story, and if I STILL can't wait to find out what happens to these characters even when I have to go through a guide to figure out who they are, then Martin must be a pretty good writer. I remain a loyal fan of "A Song of Ice and Fire." And they better release that damn miniseries on DVD soon, so I can see it.

FAN SERVICE: not just for manga anymore

          The first time I noticed the term "fan service," it was on the back of a manga volume in the junior high library, in context like, "rated T for teen because of violence and mild fan service," or something to that effect. I had to ask a Japanese teacher friend to explain it to me. Not just because she's Japanese, she really was the biggest manga fan I knew at the time.
          She explained it in terms of Japanese boy bands, saying that it's when the boys pretend to be "romantic" with each other on stage, even though they're not really gay, or not really involved with each other. They just do it because their fans are mostly teenage girls who WANT to see them kissing or whatever. They just do it for show, to please the fans.
          It also applies to comics, like when they show female characters flashing their panties for no apparent reason. It certainly doesn't further the plot. It's just "fan service."
          Just now I was leafing through the new August 2011 VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates), and noticed a review that stated of a certain book, "gratuitous sexual crudity, female objectification, and fanservice may make this book a hard sell to parents and librarians." There was that damn phrase again! This time boldly smushed into one single word. And it was not even a comic book, it was a teen novel.
          I don't know how long they've been trotting this catchy term out in book reviews intended to help us library folk with collection development. Seems a little pretentious, doesn't it? They drop that term like we're all supposed to know what it means. Drop it like it's hot. Even though I DO happen to know what it means, I can guarantee you that plenty of other library people do NOT.
          In case you're wondering, the book tagged with "fanservice" in the new VOYA is The Robot by Paul E. Watson. It's about teenage boys who encounter a "super-realistic, sex-bomb of a robot, with no underpants..." I'm not even kidding.
Can you believe they did NOT put the robot chic with no panties on the cover? 


          My new absolute favorite horror series is "The Monstrumologist" by Rick Yancey.  I picked up the first volume as a free "advanced reading copy" from a library convention several years ago, and donated it to the school library. 
Pretty rad cover image, right? Puts one in mind of a "Cabinet of Curiosities"
          I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume, but it wasn't until I read the sequel, The Curse of the Wendigo, that I decided, "Okay, this is TOTALLY my new favorite series."

My review of The Curse of the Wendigo for Goodreads & Shelfari:

Even though I read very little YA lit, I read the first book in this series and totally loved it. This sequel just gets bigger and better, developing more of the complex themes and compounding the tragedy and poignancy. The writing is so poetic at times, subtle and artful. Weirdly enough, it's also some of the most gruesome and shockingly brutal horror I've read in a long time. "The Curse of the Wendigo" is about the Monstrumologist's search for a murderous creature with a penchant for removing its victims eyes and faces and doing "creative" things with them. Set in the late 1800s, the meat of the series is the incredibly complex relationship between the self-absorbed doctor ("Monstrumology," or the study of so-called monsters, being his specialty) and his 11-year-old charge Will Henry, whose father died while in the dangerous employ of the Monstrumologist. The doctor never officially adopts Will Henry, yet they have a powerful and multi-layered bond. The story is told from Will Henry's point of view, from journals found after his death, and his tale is truly heart-breaking, as his beloved doctor drags him into situations no child should endure. In this book Will Henry is presented with a terrible decision in a life-defining moment. I was riveted. The time period provides for some awesome set pieces and descriptions, plus cameos by notorious real life characters such as Algernon Blackwood and Bram Stoker.

Scary red Wendigo face!!!
          I would like to also add that Will Henry's painful yearning for Dr. Warthrop's love really pulls the reader in. Dr. Warthrop is so cold and analytical and demanding of poor Will Henry that when the doctor DOES finally show some glimpse of affection, it's practically heart-rending. Very effective, from a writerly standpoint. I catch myself making all sorts of embarrassing facial expressions when reading these books, gasping and blurting out, "Oh, no!" or, "Don't leave the baby in that creepy hallway!"
          You better hope you don't hear the Wendigo's voice calling your name on the high lonely wind...