28 June 2008

Geography Club

Just finished reading Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club and must say that I enjoyed it immensely. Hartinger’s newest novel in the Geography Club series, Split Screen: Attack of the Soul Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (HarperCollins, 2007) recently won a Lambda for bisexual fiction. I’ve been wanting to read it, but thought I should start at the beginning -- that said, I’ve been skimming Split Screen and it seems to stand up pretty well on its own.

Geography Club is mostly about Russel Middlebrook, a high school sophomore with a terrible crush on Kevin Land, a popular jock. Russel's pretty sure he’s the only gay kid in his high school ... and then discovers that is not the case at all. He and several other teens (including his bisexual friend, Min) form a support group called the “Geography Club” (a club so boringly titled that surely no-one else would join) and Rusel’s life is pretty good until it suddenly goes spectacularly pear-shaped.

Happily, being gay is not an issue in this novel -- the characters do not spend time railing at the universe for afflicting them with the dread Gayness. No, the big issue is how everyone else will react when their secret is out (and, honestly, this is much more an issue for some characters than for others).

I appreciate of the novel’s realism -- teenagers can be cruel selfish beasts and Hartinger doesn’t gloss over that. Usually well-intentioned characters do make some terrible choices, because they want to conform. The underdog does not become Mr. Popular. There is no storybook ending for any of our happy couples. But there is also enough humor and true friendship in this novel to give readers hope for better things to come.

“It’s true, you know,” I said.
“What?” he said. He got some points for wiping away a tear.
“That I’m gay.”
Gunnar rolled his eyes. “I know that.”
“What? How long have you known?”
“Oh, maybe, five years.”
“What?” I could hardly believe my ears.
“Well, I’m not a complete idiot!” Gunnar said. “I mean, it’s kind of obvious. Animated Disney musicals?”
“And do you care?”
“What?” he said. “That you’re gay?” I nodded, and he said indignantly, “If I cared, would I be standing here with a juniper bush up my ass?”

I look forward to reading The Order of the Poison Oak (HarperCollins, 2006) just as soon as the interlibrary-loan fairy brings it to me.

Geography Club by Brent Hartinger(HarperCollins, 2003)

26 June 2008

The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebegott

My “L” author for the A~Z reading challenge was Ali Liebegott. I selected her novel, The IHOP Papers (Carroll & Graf, 2007), because it won the 2008 Lambda Award for Women's Fiction. Yes, I selected a novel specifically because it won an award. Does that make me a pretentious twit or what?

Also, I thought it might have something to do with pancakes.

I ♥ me some pancakes.

Alas, this book had very little do to with pancakes and much to do with love and pain.

Francesca is a 20-year-old virgin who is so in love with her junior college philosophy instructor, Irene, that she moves to San Francisco to be with her (and Irene's two other lovers). She gets a job at IHOP, starts writing a book (this one), and falls in love with several other women while still loving Irene.

Honestly, I couldn't fathom Francesca's infatuation with Irene as Irene was an entirely insufferable character who I frequently wanted to punch in the face. She was so, I don't know, Janus faced? Preaching nonviolence and mindfulness while being a petty tyrant with her lovers.

The IHOP Papers is a very fast read -- I zipped through this book in a matter of hours. Liebegott's stream-of-consciousness style might not be every reader's cup of tea, but I found it rather enjoyable as it carried me right through the ups-and-downs of Francesca’s life as if I was there with her.

I do wonder when this book is set as I’ve never seen an IHOP waitress in the uniform Francesca describes:

Oh god, if you've never seen this uniform, you should. It's enough to make you want to kill yourself, if you didn't already want to. It's navy blue with poofy sleeves and a country floral apron. The rust-colored flowers in the apron match the booths in the smoking section, and the material is a bulletproof polyester blend.

California banned smoking in all public places in the state in 1998, but there's definitely public smoking in this novel so it must predate 1998 (there's a lot of public smoking).

Nobody does breakfast like IHOP! Or lunch! Or dinner! That's the annoying slogan that's printed 6,000 times all over the paper placemats. That fucking annoying exclamation point! It's like who are you trying to convince?

IHOP switched from "Good things cooking at breakfast, lunch and dinner" to the slogan "Nobody does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast" in 1992 so that means The IHOP Papers must be set sometime between '92 and '98?

I don't know why I am obsessed with knowing when precisely this novel is set, but I am.

Read more about IHOP's corporate history here.

The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebegott (Carroll & Graf, 2007)

24 June 2008


My “A” author for the A~Z reading challenge was Tasha Alexander. I had read a pre-pub alert for her most recent novel, A Fatal Waltz, which made it sound quite delicious. Who was I to refuse a nice bit of murder set at a Victorian country house party? Alas, it was not to be as my library has yet to purchase A Fatal Waltz. However, it does own And Only to Deceive which is the first book in Alexander's series about the life and adventures of Lady Emily Ashton.

Once upon a time, in Late Victorian London, Lady Emily Bromley accepts the proposal of Philip, the Viscount Ashton. It is, on her side, a marriage of convenience. While she has no great desire to marry, Emily does possess a great desire to escape her mother. Alas, Emily’s marriage is a short one as her husband dies most unfortunately while on a hunt in Africa. The widowed Lady Ashton (why never referred to as the Viscountess Ashton?), finding herself surrounded by people who sincerely morn the loss of Philip, becomes fascinated with her deceased husband and, too late, falls a little in love with him.

Emily is a wonderful character and it’s nice to see how she evolves through the length of the novel. Emily begins the novel very much a woman of her time, but as the story progresses we see Emily come into her own by embracing the freedom widowhood gives her. This, I think, the makes it easier to see Emily as the historical and social Original she is rather than as a modern woman in a period dress (which is how I perceive many heroines of contemporary historical romances).

Throw in an antiquities scam, a few suitors strait out of Typecasting 101, and a heavy dose of Homer, and you end up with quite an interesting book. And Only to Deceive is a nice blend of mystery, romance, and historical fiction and I recommend it as a pleasant diversion from any unpleasantness which may be plaguing you.

An excerpt from this novel is available on the HarperCollins website.

And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander (William Morrow, 2005)

17 June 2008

“Enter by booksteps, on story ladders ...”

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville (Del Rey, 2007)

My third (but not last) 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats, OR tl;dr reading challenge selection was China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun which is both a 2008 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and one of the 2008 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age. It is a fantastic novel and put me in mind of Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Coraline, Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books, and simply everything Brian Froud.

Un Lun Dun tells the story of what happens when twelve-year Zanna and Deeba follow a bedraggled umbrella out of London and into Un Lun Dun. Un Lun Dun is, well, un-London. A weird Through the Looking Glass kind of London. A place where it has long ago been prophesied that the Shwazzy (all signs point to Zanna) would show up and defeat the evil Smog to the joy of all (excepting the Smog, of course). Alas, the prophesy turns out to be completely and utterly wrong.

Zanna is thoroughly decommissioned in her first battle; the book of erroneous prophecies becomes almost maniacally depressed; and Deeba comes forth to save the day ...

I can’t write any more about the story without giving too much away. You will just have to read Un Lun Dun and find out what happens to Zanna and Deeba. I will say, however, that I really liked Mieville’s treatment of Deeba. She isn’t a stock character cut and pasted into the story because, as we all know, every questing hero(in)e must have a sidekick, but is instead a well-written character who exists perfectly well in her own right. Deeba is even, at points, made aware of her presumed sidekick status and is suitably outraged.

Anyway, the characters and illustrations are wonderfully done. I especially loved Curdle (Oh, that sweet puppy of a milk carton!), the extreme librarians, and the binjas:
In the light of the streetlamps they retracted their limbs and legs with a faint shlp, leaving only grubby stains where each limb had been. They were instantly disguised – just a pair of dustbins. After a moment they sprouted limbs again. The stood in karate poses. Then they opened their own lids, reached into their own dark interiors, and drew out weapons.

One took out a sword, and the other two pairs of nunchucks, which Zanna and Deeba recognized from martial-arts films. The two dustbins ran off towards the sound the of the pursuers, disappearing in shadows.
Trash. Can. Ninjas.


Be sure to check out the novel’s website to view some illustrations, read excerpts from the novel, and get plot spoilers straight from the author’s mouth.

15 June 2008

Graphic Novel: The Tale of One Bad Rat

bad rat cover thumbnail
The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse Comics, 1995)

My second 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats, OR tl;dr reading challenge selection was Bryan Talbot’s graphic novel, The Tale of One Bad Rat. It’s the story of Helen Potter, a sexually abused teenage runaway living on the streets of London with her pet rat with nothing holding her together except her love for the works of Beatrix Potter and (maybe) her hallucinations. Now, you might not think a graphic novel dealing with issues like incest and homelessness could be described as "uplifting," but that is exactly what The Tale of One Bad Rat is -- truly uplifting and wonderful.

Helen, on what is ultimately a healing journey, retraces Beatrix Potter's path from her childhood London home ("She dreamed of escaping into a new life. Escaping from the third floor of that 'dark Victorian mausoleum' in Bolton Gardens") to the Lake District where she, like Potter, finds a physical and spiritual refuge.

The cover of One Bad Rat has been designed to look like a large scale Beatrix Potter storybook. The typeface and the centered illustration are all in perfect harmony with Potter's style -- the only jarring note is the homeless girl sitting squarely where Squirrel Nutkin ought to be. It's a neat twist, but I'm not sure if the cover works against the novel -- I don't know what the crossover rate is between readers of Potter and readers of graphic novels. Does the cover look too twee for "hard core" GN readers? Does it bring back bad memories of The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle?

The inside illustrations are beautifully and almost photo-realistically rendered. Talbot modeled everything he drew from real life places and people -- there's a brief essay in the back of the volume which explains how and why he did this. It's well worth reading.

I also recommend visiting Talbot’s One Bad Rat page -- it has tons of interesting extras.

13 June 2008

"Duzbuns Hopsit pfarmerrsc"

Making Money written by Terry Pratchett & read by Stephen Briggs (HarperAudio, 2007).
Mr. Bent liked counting. You could trust numbers, except perhaps for pi, but he was working on that in his spare time and it was bound to give in sooner or later.
Once upon a time in the multi-verse, in the city of Ankh-Morpork1, a con artist named Albert Spangler was hanged and reborn as Moist von Lipwig, head of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office (for more on that, read Going Postal). Because von Lipwig so successfully resuscitated the dying postal system, the city's tyrant offers him a chance to do the same with the Royal Mint. It is, as all such offers are, an offer von Lipwig cannot refuse.

Add in some (gold-ish) Golems, a yappy bank chairman, a lecherous ghost, an overbred and lavishly litigious family, and you have ... Terry Pratchett's Making Money.

Terry Pratchett was my "P" author for the A~Z reading challenge. Of course, Terry Pratchett. There's no other "P" author I love more than Terry Pratchett -- I read Small Gods in high school and was so enamored that I quickly ran through the few the volumes available at Waldenbooks. Yes, my darlings, this was back in the Dark Age of Pratchett when his books were not common in the U.S. and one bought what one could get regardless of preference. One might want Granny Weatherwax, but one would settle for The Watch.

Happily, I eventually resolved my Discworld accessibility issues by falling in love with an Englishman who just so happened to own all the Discworld novels I'd been itching to read.

(Here I wish to write something cute like "Reader, I married him" and while that is true, it would give you the wrong idea ... I didn't marry him for his literary taste. Though that certainly did him no harm).

Pratchett's Making Money (read by Stephen Briggs for HarperAudio, 2007) is a direct follow-up to Going Postal, but you don't have to have read the first to enjoy the second (says the Discworld fangirl). Pratchett provides just enough backstory to fill you in, but then goes on his merry way. While many of the Ankh-Morpork regulars pop in and out of the story, you don't need read a Wikipedia entry on Nobby Nobbs to understand what he's doing in the story.

I really enjoyed this novel and spent much of my commute grinning hugely to myself. There was one particularly funny bit which so amused me that I almost spat water at my windscreen (heaven knows what my fellow rush hour commuter zombies thought of my coughing/laughing/flailing spasm).

1 A city on a plain on a flat world which is balanced on the backs of four elephants2 which stand on the back of a giant turtle3
2 Because ... why not?
3 Great A'Tuin, the Giant Star Turtle (species: Chelys galactica)

10 June 2008

λ Lambda Literary Awards Winners Announced, Woo

Winners for the 20th annual Lambda Literary Awards were announced on 29 May. I must not subscribe to the right news feeds, because I only found out who won what yesterday. Yet I knew who won the Orange Prize(s) almost immediately --the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction went to Rose Tremain forThe Road Home and Joanna Kavenna won the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers for Inglorious.

Anyway, knowing about the Lambdas would not have helped with this month’s fiction display as we only own one book off the Lambda list -- Perry Moore’s Hero (Hyperion, 2007) and it is AWOL.


Many libraries in our system do own other Lambda winners, so I will be reading:
I especially look forward to reading Split Screen. Even though I have not read the novels it follows -- Geography Club and The Order of the Poison Oak -- Split Screen sounds like it will stand-up (or flip-up) just fine on its own. Yes, it’s a flip book telling two parallel stories. Is that not nifty? I ♥ me some flip books when I was a kid. Also, there are not enough novels with bi characters out there and so I get extra excited when I see a YA one.

The first chapter is available on Hartinger’s website -- I dare you to read it and tell me that Split Screen doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun.

08 June 2008

The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon

In 1991, fourteen-year-old Brent Runyon stood in his shower, drenched his bathrobe in gasoline and set himself on fire. As with his previous suicide attempts, he doesn’t manage kill himself – instead he is left with massive burns over eighty-five percent of his body. His memoir, The Burn Journals recounts the confused events leading up to his suicide attempt and the painful year of recovery which followed.

Fear not, this memoir isn’t a tearjerker. Rather, The Burn Journals is a beautifully funny and compelling book. Funny and compelling, because Runyon doesn’t posture or make himself cooler than he was; he doesn’t skip all the stupid and utterly dorky things he said or did, or all the times he didn't understand his own actions. Runyon doesn’t remember why exactly he set himself on fire and that makes perfect sense to me. How many of us can pin down the exact motivation for past behavior?

My favorite passage:
Every time I open my mouth to say what I’m feeling, something stops me and I have to make sure I’m not going to say anything stupid. It makes me crazy. And then, once I’ve figured out what I’m going to say, I have to go over it, over and over again, just to see if what I’m feeling is right. And then I have to figure out how to say it. Like, if I want to say, I feel sad, do I say, I feel sad, or, I feel so sad, or, Sad I do feel, or what? How about, Feeling sad am I. How about, I’m the saddest boy in the world.
Dear god, this is exactly how I felt from ages fourteen to nineteen.

I should warn you that this memoir contains a lot of strong language and many sexual references. Neither is surprising considering the context of the story and never struck me as offensive. Anyone who has spent time with teenagers (or can remember being one) knows they talk smack and are full of hormonal urges. However, some people have been so outraged by the content of this memoir that it has been challenged in several school districts:
According to John Biesz, "The book has it all – suicide attempts, terrorist ideas, sex, cults, profanity, pornography, violence and drugs. Is this the kind of garbage our kids should be reading?" Biesz asked.

"I believe in freedom of speech," said Susan Biesz. "but we're molding the minds of these young children. Our job is to give them good things, to build their character. If you don't want them to talk and act that way, let's not make them think it's OK to do that."

("School library book - to ban or not to ban" Medford Central Record, 24 Oct 2007)
(Also check out this news piece on WESH Orlando)

More reason to go read it, I think.

A tip of the hat to can I borrow your book? for posting this book on her 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats, OR tl;dr list -- I would not have discovered it otherwise.

The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon (Knopf, 2004)

06 June 2008

"Do you like better to paint or to feel communion? They are the same."

The Forest Lover written by Susan Vreeland & read by Karen White (Penguin Audio, 2004)

My “V” author for the A~Z reading challenge was Susan Vreeland. I’ve been meaning to read something by Vreeland ever since she published The Passion of Artemisia in 2002, but have just never managed to get around to it (so many good intentions, so little drive).

I meant to listen to The Passion of Artemisia as I’ve always had a soft spot for Gentileschi (one of my first art crushes), but The Forest Lover happened to be the only Vreeland audio on the shelf the day I ran out of The Third Angel and found I couldn’t wait for Amanda Quick’s The River Knows to arrive. Am dangerously addicted to audiobooks, you see, and have lost all tolerance for radio.

Must. Have. Audiobooks.

Happily, The Forest Lover was an excellent listen. This novel “speaks strong talk” in recounting the (fictionalized) life of Emily Carr, a Canadian artist whose life bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While her works began as an attempt to create a serious and exacting record of the art and artifacts of Northwest Coast Indians, they eventually evolved beyond mere records ... becoming deeper, bolder, and more representational of the spirit of the thing than the thing itself.

But, perhaps, the spirit and the thing are not so different? Perhaps it is all a matter of seeing?

Carr’s works, particularly those later pieces, remind me very much of Georgia O’Keefe’s (whom I adore) and I wish I could go see them in the flesh. Art sites and art encyclopedias are all very well, but I would just as soon see these paintings face to face. Alas, I do not reckon on getting up to British Columbia any time soon.

I look forward to tracking down copies of Carr’s books (yes, she was also a writer) – there are copies of Klee Wyck in our system, but I’d most like to read Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr if only to see how much of Vreeland’s novel was true. Either way, I doubt I will be disappointed.