Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Knight Life: Chivalry Ain't Dead, by Keith Knight

Contest Book #18

Keith Knight's The Knight Life: Chivalry Ain't Dead is a low-key but consistently entertaining comic strip centered around Knight, an African-American cartoonist and musician living in L.A. Knight's family and friends (including a former rapper whose label has faked his death in order to boost record sales) are heavily featured in the autobiographical strip, which dabbles in everything from public transportation to his German wife's maladroit attempts at embracing American slang.

Sadly, the advance-reader copy we received was a stapled-together collection of 4 pages of introduction and 12 pages' worth of strips, so we were just guessing on the contents of the book's remaining 195 pages... until Wikipedia informed us that one can read the past Knight Life strips here. Flipping through the strips online is a testament to Knight's flexible sense of humor, which seems equally comfortable taking jabs at Dick Cheney's reserved seat in Hell and poking gentle fun at his wife's fear of spiders. Individual strips were rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious, but this is one of those strips that is best read as a collection—like early Bloom County, The Knight Life combines the personal and political in a way that manages to be as endearing as it is amusing.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The end of book-browsing as we know it?

The New York Times posted an article last week about the year-end boom in e-reader sales, which some analysts believe will lead to a huge increase in e-book popularity in 2011. Most of the article is stuff we've heard before, but my attention was caught by this quote from Carolyn Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster:
"My No. 1 concern is the survival of the physical bookstore... We need that physical environment, because it’s still the place of discovery. People need to see books that they didn’t know they wanted."
Something to consider, you know? I appreciate the trees we're saving with the trend towards e-books (although I'm certain the e-reader manufacturing process comes with its own environmental impact costs), but their effect on brick-and-mortar bookstores is disturbing. We hear a lot about the loss of jobs, but this was probably the most articulate point I've heard about the changes e-books will make in the way we choose our reading material, and the (negative) impact that will have on the publication industry as a whole.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gimme a Call, by Sarah Mlynowski

Contest Book #17

I've been following Sarah Mlynowski's career ever since the publication of her first novel: 2001's Milkrun, one of the first offerings from Red Dress Ink, the now-defunct Harlequin imprint devoted to modern, stylish "chick lit". I found the heroine of Milkrun grating and the plot so pointless I could barely finish the book, but look at how cute the cover was:

Fast-forward a few years, and I ran into another Mlynowski book: 2005's Bras and Broomsticks. It came out several months before Twilight, making it one of the earliest entries in the current YA fantasy/romance boom. Again, I thought the book was obnoxious, but again, it had an cute, eye-catching cover:

By this time, I was familiar with Ms. Mlynowski's strengths and weaknesses. Her books feature irritating heroines and unsatisfying plot lines, but she gets in early on literary trends and has a positive gift for scoring attention-grabbing cover art. I promised myself I'd never read another one of her books ... but check out last spring's Gimme a Call. Doesn't it look fun?

Clearly, I am weak. Gimme a Call is classic Mlynowski: the heroine is infuriatingly self-obsessed, 95% of the plot is wheel-spinning, and what little resolution the book offers comes late and falls flat.

Gimme a Call is the story of Devi Banks—actually, it's the story of two Devi Bankses. When seventeen-year-old Devi drops her cell phone into a fountain, she discovers a surprising new feature: the phone only calls her fourteen-year-old self. This development comes at a particularly useful time, as Devi has alienated all of her friends, recently been dumped by her longtime boyfriend, and finds herself scraping the bottom of the college barrel. Devi is convinced she needs to change her present by altering her past, even if she has to run her younger self ragged trying to do it.

Time-travel books make my brain hurt, but I do my best to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, most of Gimme a Call was so repetitive—younger Devi obediently makes a change, the change backfires on her older self, lather, rinse, repeat—I was left with nothing to do but ponder the many reasons the book made no sense. (Older Devi's reality keeps changing, but Mlynowski skirts issues like how one would handle the sudden switch from rudimentary to advanced classes, or from playing mini-golf to being the school's golf champ. Instead, the story focuses the important stuff, like what dreamy boy Devi is dating now.)

I actually found Gimme a Call the most irritating Mlynowski book I've read to date, probably because it was the first one that had real potential. The "If I knew then what I know now..." set-up was fun, if clichéd, and the younger Devi was sweet and appealingly awkward (particularly in contrast with her manipulative, selfish older self). If the time changes had ended halfway through, forcing the older Devi to actually grow up and fix her warped new reality, the book could have been great. Sadly, Mlynowski settles for riding her paper-thin premise into the ground, skipping any pretense of character development, and ending things with a quickie moral about making your own choices, leaving Gimme a Call a weak, dumbed-down version of what it might have been.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Setting yourself up for disappointment

The BuzzSugar staff has helpfully compiled a list of 15 books to read before their film adaptations are released. Considerate of them, although why'd they leave out The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Crossbones: Skeleton Creek #3, by Patrick Carman

Contest Book #16

We liked the first two books in Patrick Carman's "Skeleton Creek" horror/mystery series. Sure, we moaned about having to access hokey online videos in order to fully experience the story (in our defense, we are way older than Carman's target audience, and probably even lazier) and made some cracks about Scooby-Doo, but we described the books as "entertaining enough", gave Carman full props for writing something to tempt reluctant readers, and made a mental note to keep an eye out for the next book in the series—The Crossbones, which came out this fall.

Like Carman's earlier installments, The Crossbones centers around the mysteries of a fictional Oregon fishing town called Skeleton Creek. The story is told via the implausibly articulate journal entries of a teenage boy named Ryan and the (equally implausible) videos shot by his best friend, Sarah. While the ghost story that propelled the first two books was largely tied up by the end of Ghost in the Machine, a mysterious card was left unexplained. Ryan is determined to investigate further, but Sarah's family has left town, which limits their interactions to terse—and unintentionally amusing—e-mail interactions like these:
"Hi, Ryan,

I had a dream you were at the dredge without me and it made me sad. I miss you. I miss our secrets. There must be something we could do to get the magic back. But what?

Followed by...

I can bring that feeling back. Tell no one, especially your parents.

Heh. Yeah, it's not exactly Shakespeare, but fast-paced, Ghost Adventures-style entertainment doesn't require much in the way of dialogue.

Patrick Carman is like a mediocre chef with a gift for food styling—he understands the value of presentation. The Skeleton Creek series offers a smörgåsbord of gimmicks in an effort to attract readers, and while the techie tie-ins will probably be hopelessly out-of-date in a few years, we're hoping this series manages to attract—and retain!—plenty of new readers in the meanwhile.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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So pretty!

Isn't this a beautiful sight to behold?

The picture doesn't do it full justice, but I assure you: in real life, this recent repackaging of two of P.G. Wodehouse's full-length Jeeves and Wooster novellas plus a collection of short stories is a glorious, candy-colored delight. It also inspired me to look up what other Wodehouse reprints might be forthcoming from the fine people at Norton Books, and I discovered they have a boatload of gorgeous editions coming down the pike, including:

None of them come out until next summer, but I'm super-excited to check them out in person. Each one appears to feature a different cover artist (or at least a very different style), and I love seeing the unique takes on such an iconic figure...

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

A gift from Scholastic to you...

The fine people at Scholastic have made Alexandra Bullen's YA novel Wish available as a free e-book download. From now until January 3rd, click here to read Wish in its entirety. (You can also preview Ms. Bullen's upcoming sequel, Wishful Thinking, should you be so inclined.) Enjoy!

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jane Eyre on the big screen. Again.

Why, look at this, another Jane Eyre adaptation! That would be... what, the fourth version made for television or film in the past 15 years?

Most of me thinks we should let poor Jane get some rest, but who knows? Maybe this version will be great, and inspire interest in some of the Brontë sisters' other, less well-known work. I've always had a soft spot for Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and nobody's touched that since a TV adaptation in 1996.

Note: Today's book review will appear on the main site.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Goats: Showcase Showdown, by Jonathan Rosenberg

Contest Book #15

According to the Infinite Monkey Theorem, an immortal monkey hitting a keyboard at random for an infinite amount of time will eventually replicate the complete works of Shakespeare. Flipping through Jonathan Rosenberg's Goats: Showcase Showdown is like reading that keyboarding monkey's literary output at the halfway point—recognizable words have been formed, but it's still total gibberish.

The plot (such as it is) centers around a human dude named Jon and his companions, a constantly shifting group of demons, aliens, and talking animals. The characters drift through an alternate universe created by some of the aforementioned immortal monkeys, squabbling and hitting on each other and hanging out in a bar staffed by a Swiss bartender named Alfred. There are frequent outbreaks of gore and occasional references to Reese Witherspoon. Oh, and an anthropomorphic stalk of broccoli wearing Converse.

Even if I understood Goats, I don't think I'd love it. Rosenberg takes too many cheap shots at Britney Spears and Paula Abdul and doesn't include enough girl characters, although I was intrigued by his cigar-smoking, gun-toting take on Rainbow Brite. I laughed at the odd line (“I look like I had a knife fight with Violet Beauregarde.”), but found the larger story too self-indulgently kooky to be worth puzzling out.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Electron Boy takes off

With the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a Seattle-area boy battling a rare form of cancer saved the Pacific Northwest from evil last spring. (Personally, I was very grateful--I'm a huge Seattle Sounders fan, but those guys are prime supervillain bait.)

Eight months later, 14-year-old Erik Martin (a.k.a. "Electron Boy") is starring in his own 10-page-long comic created by a group of independent comic creators who wrote, drew and inked the panels in their spare time. According to the Seattle Times, the plot features "dark matter, a series of microscopic wormholes, the Space Needle, Experience Music Project, the potential destruction of planet Earth and Jimi Hendrix".

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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar

Contest Book #14

Seventeen-year-old Alton Richards, the protagonist of Louis Sachar's novel The Cardturner, is furious when his parents insist he spend the summer working for his wealthy great-uncle Lester. Lester is blind, testy, and a master bridge player, so Alton foresees a long, dull summer spent driving his uncle to his club and helping him play the world's most boring card game. But as Alton begins to understand the rules of bridge, his interest in the game—and his uncle's unexpectedly colorful past—deepens.

Bridge is not exactly a hot-button topic for today's youth, so we're giving Louis Sachar full props for guts. It's possible to read The Cardturner without delving into the intricacies of bridge, and the book features several conventional teen-lit subplots (romance, family conflict, etc.). However, Sachar makes no secret of the fact that he wrote this book to encourage a new generation of bridge players, and—remarkably—his novel-length advertisement for the game might even work. We're pretty certain the only surefire way to revive bridge is to release a version for the PS3 that somehow incorporates semi-automatic weapons, but Sachar's novel makes it sound like a fascinatingly complex and challenging game—even for a generation accustomed to having their entertainment enhanced by every imaginable bell and whistle.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Big Clay Pot, by Scott Mills

Note: We didn't get a chance to post Friday's book, so expect two reviews today.

Contest Book #13

Scott Mills's delicately illustrated graphic novel Big Clay Pot is the story of Sun Kim, a preadolescent Korean orphan who ends up in a small fishing community in ancient Japan. Sun Kim's klutziness gets her kicked out of camp after camp, until she meets Kokoro, an elderly fisherman whose grouchy exterior conceals a generous heart. The child and the old man are unlikely friends, but their relationship proves life-altering for them both.

We found most of Big Clay Pot touching, although it contains elements—like Sun Kim's desire to marry Kokoro, or a late plot twist that hinges on her introduction to puberty—that would require considerable discussion if one wanted to share the story with a young reader. Still, most of the appeal of this story comes from its simple yet utterly distinctive illustrations, which infuse every scene with emotion. Not all of those emotions are positive, mind you (in fact, most of 'em range from "melancholy" to "totally depressing"), but they're a tribute to Mr. Mills's skill as an artist.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Welcome to Temptation, by Jennifer Crusie

Contest Book #12

St. Martin's Press has recently re-released Jennifer Crusie's Welcome To Temptation, giving Crusie fans a second chance to enjoy this ridiculously fun, sexy blend of small-town politics, murder, and romantic comedy.

Wedding videographer Sophie Dempsey doesn't like small towns, and Temptation, Ohio is no exception. Sophie and her sister Amy are filming an audition video for a washed-up local actress, and Sophie is determined to finish the movie and hightail it back to Cincinnati before someone starts asking questions about her family's shady past. Unfortunately, Amy keeps making their movie script more risqué, which means the filming is attracting the notice of Temptation's prudish town council—and its highly attractive mayor, Phineas Tucker.

Crusie loves outrageously complicated plots, and keeping track of all the twists and turns in Welcome to Temptation is a tall order. In addition to Sophie's efforts to film ladylike porn, the book abounds with family secrets, blackmail, and murder attempts, some of which, it must be said, make more sense than others. Happily, the love story between Sophie and Phin is perfectly coherent, and the development of their hilarious and genuinely sweet relationship keeps this novel anchored in reality.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Oscar bait

The movie trailer for Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants is out. Behold:

Wow, middlebrow angst, cute animals, period costumes, and Edward Cullen? It's like they're trying to smash every successful female-oriented film of the past five years into one super-movie....


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Books, bells, and whistles

NPR's Morning Edition recently aired a story about "multi-platform" children's books, focusing largely on our beloved 39 Clues series. Personally, we think the literary gimmick is tough to get right, so it's a little disappointing (although not at all surprising) to hear that publishers are planning to run this new format straight into the ground.

Note: Today's book review will appear on the main site.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Linger, by Maggie Stiefvater

Contest Book #10

Writing the middle novel in a trilogy must be tough. Authors need to sustain their momentum and provide at least a little plot resolution, but they also have to leave enough loose ends to justify writing a third book. This delicate balancing act has created a lot of disappointing second series installments, including, alas, Maggie Stiefvater's Linger, the sequel to her hugely successful 2009 novel Shiver.

We're not knocking Stiefvater's writing style—on the contrary, the delicate, somber atmosphere that made Shiver so memorable is equally evident here. We are, however, knocking the way that Linger literally undoes most of the progress of the first book. Shiver was the story of a human girl named Grace who falls in love with Sam, a boy who transforms into a werewolf when the temperature drops. Linger is Shiver's mirror image [SPOILER]: by the end of the book, Sam has become fully human and Grace is seasonal lycanthropy's latest victim.

Thankfully, Linger is totally readable, even if the A-plot feels like it's moving in reverse. Grace and Sam remain a compelling pair, and Stiefvater promotes two of book one's minor characters from also-ran to co-starring status. That doesn't fully make up for resetting most of the events of Shiver back to zero, but it's enough to keep us hooked until book three—Forever, due out next summer.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Figure-skating... WITH THE GODS!

The official trailer for Marvel's Thor movie is out, and it left me with two burning questions. Is that dark-haired dude all in black meant to be Loki, and, if so, is he supposed to look just like Johnny Weir?

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Monday, December 13, 2010

How Rocket Learned to Read, written and illustrated by Tad Hills

Contest Book #9

How Rocket Learned to Read, the latest picture book from bestselling author and illustrator Tad Hills, is an engaging, attractively illustrated story about a small dog who transforms from a reluctant reader to an enthusiastic one.

When autumn comes, all Rocket wants to do chase leaves and nap... until a little yellow bird announces that she is his new reading teacher. Rocket thinks maybe he'll do some napping anyway, but his interest is hooked when the bird starts reading aloud from a thrilling story about a dog with a missing bone. Over the course of a school year, Rocket learns about spelling, writing, and sounding out words, and by the time spring rolls around he and the little bird are able to read together.

Hills's book offers vibrant illustrations, a gentle sense of humor, and a wonderful message about the difficulties and rewards of learning to read. We've heard that picture book sales are declining, and while some of the possible causes definitely hold true here*, we're still recommending How Rocket Learned to Read as a solid pick for any preschool or kindergarten students on your holiday shopping list.

*How Rocket Learned to Read is both expensive ($17.99) and aimed at an extremely small sub-set of children (four-to-seven-year-old beginning readers).

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Travel in style to fictional locations

Okay, I'm adding an addendum to our Holiday Gift List. Check out these "Comic Travel Location" posters from artist Justin Van Genderen:

Are they not awesome? There are more on Mr. Van Genderen's website, and the prices are actually pretty reasonable. If you have any comic geeks to shop for, this could make a serious dent in your holiday to-do list.

[Via Wired]

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Code:breaker Vol. 1, by Akimine Kamijyo

Contest Book #8

Volume one of Akimine Kamijyo's series Code: Breaker is not for the faint of heart. And as the first few pages indicated the story was going to be an all-ages-friendly shounen manga, I found its sudden shift towards hardcore violence startling and unwelcome.

First-year high school student Sakura looks like a delicate flower, but her fragile facade disguises an obsession with honor and martial arts. When she witnesses a boy incinerating a group of gang members, she vows to bring him to justice—a goal that gets extremely complicated when the same boy turns up in her classroom the following morning, claiming to be the school's mild-mannered new transfer student.

Kamijyo's hard-headed heroine and flashes of humor kept me reading Code: Breaker, but I couldn't get past the fact that one of the two protagonists in this series is a mass murderer. He doesn't even limit his victims to killers and rapists—he offs a number of witnesses, too. The author shows him being kind to non-victims (picking up a pacifier for a sobbing child, etc.), but the scales of justice still seem firmly tilted toward "serial killer". Thankfully, the violence is fairly cartoonish... so I suppose it's possible that readers with strong stomachs, a healthy suspension of disbelief, and deep pockets might not regret shelling out $10.99 per volume for this intermittently amusing gorefest.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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The Flappers: Vixen, by Jillian Larkin

Contest Book #7

Note: Since we didn't get a chance to post yesterday's review, you'll be getting two contest titles this evening.

Vixen, the first book in Jillian Larkin's new Gossip Girl-meets-Thoroughly Modern Millie young adult series, has a lot going for it. The cover looks great, Larkin has a wonderful time with period slang, music, and clothing, and flappers are totally hot right now. Unfortunately, the book doesn't have much bite to it—but we're not ruling out the potential for bite in future installments.

Larkin's booze- and jazz-soaked debut focuses on three teenage girls dreaming of love and independence in Prohibition-era Chicago. Wealthy, sheltered Gloria is engaged to one of the city's most desirable bachelors, but she's fighting an attraction to the black piano player at the local speakeasy. Her best friend Lorraine spends her days pining after her own unattainable man and brooding over the way Gloria's problems always seem to overshadow her own. Meanwhile, Gloria's new-in-town cousin Clara is acting like a country bumpkin, but she's desperate to conceal a past full of damning secrets.

Lying, cheating, and backstabbing are vital elements in the booming sub-genre of books about tempestuous female friendships, and Vixen boasts its fair share of all three. Unfortunately, none of Larkin's heroines are out-and-out villains, and the drama provided by Gloria's interracial romance falls flat. (It could have been highly dramatic, of course, but Larkin downplays the dangerous nature of their relationship, blithely ignoring the fact that a love affair between a poor black boy and a rich white girl in the nineteen twenties could—and probably would—get the boy killed and the girl shipped off to whatever convent was currently accepting flappers.) However, the next book in this series will introduce an additional girl to Larkin's troop of would-be femme fatales and shift the action to New York City. We're hoping these changes will be enough to fully realize this series' potential as a deliciously over-the-top historical soap.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Thursday, December 09, 2010

$30 of pure cuteness

Well, I've decided what I want for Christmas:

In addition to being totally adorable, 15% of the gross sale of this "Alice" print by artist Katie Kirk goes to benefit the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Real award, (thankfully) fictional sex

The 18th annual Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award was announced a few days ago, and the dubious honor was given to Irish author Rowan Somerville for The Shape of Her, which apparently includes the following line (and you might want to brace yourselves):
"Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her."
Oh. My. Goodness.

Note: Today's review selection (Wendelin Van Draanen's Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher) will appear this evening on the main site.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore

Contest Book #6

Before we begin, a small disclaimer: I have never read James Frey's notorious “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, but any man who compares writing a falsified autobiography to Picasso painting a Cubist self-portrait is the kind of guy who I think deserves a solid punch to the face. I don't know much about Jobie Hughes, either, but I note that the two books he is currently writing are called Agony at Dawn and At the Gates of Pyrrhus, and only one of the eighteen authors listed as favorites on his website is a woman. Clearly, I find both writers obnoxious, but I attempted to set my personal prejudice aside and judge their novel I Am Number Four on its own merits...

...if only it had any.

I Am Number Four is formulaic to the point of becoming self-parody. I spent the first half of the book looking for a sign that the authors (who co-wrote under the pseudonym "Pittacus Lore") were in on the joke, but eventually realized the story was meant to be taken seriously. Lore's protagonist is "John Smith", a teenage alien hiding out in an Ohio high school. John is a refugee from an interplanetary war between Mogadore and Lorien, two Earth-like planets from a galaxy far, far away. When the greedy, planet-snatching Mogadorians launched a surprise attack on Lorien, John was one of a handful of Loric children who were sent to Earth, hidden amongst the human population, and given a protective charm that forces their enemies to kill them in a particular order. Unfortunately for John, three of his fellow survivors are dead, which means his number is up.

Hughes and Frey have cobbled together a collection of clichés borrowed from Superman, Twilight, and every B-grade drama aired on The WB in the late nineties. There's a brooding hero, a nerdy sidekick, a meathead jock, and an implausibly perfect love interest. (She used to be a cheerleader, but now she's into photography and kitten rescue, because she's deep. No joke.) Profitability—not originality—is clearly the authors' main concern, and they're well on their way to making a zillion dollars*. I can't remember the last time I read a book so relentlessly trite, or more clearly written with a future TV/movie adaptation in mind, but I suspect Frey and Hughes will be able to soothe the pain caused by negative reviews by rolling around in their massive piles of cash.

*In addition to the upcoming movie adaptation and the contract for four to six more books, there's the five weeks I Am Number Four spent on the Times' best-sellers list.

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Plus after plus

Finally, some e-book news I'm genuinely excited about: Google has launched an online e-book retail store. Their e-books aren't fancy (no 3-D pictures or dictionary definitions on demand), but they are stored online, which means they can be read on almost any Internet-connected device—PCs, e-readers (except for Amazon's Kindle), and smart phones. Users just buy their book(s), sign in, and read. And in addition to their widespread availability, Google's e-books will allow independent booksellers to get a cut of the revenue! When readers buy the books via their local booksellers' websites, those stores will receive a portion of the profits.

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Monday, December 06, 2010

Odd Is On Our Side, by Dean Koontz and Fred Van Lente

Contest Book #4

Odd Is On Our Side is the second graphic novel to feature Odd Thomas, a twenty-year-old fry cook living in the fictional Californian town of Pico Mundo. Odd—a character first introduced in Dean Koontz's 2003 novel Odd Thomas—has a loving girlfriend, a gift for making pancakes, and the ability to see dead people. Unfortunately, seeing ghosts isn't quite as useful as hearing them, so when a ghost wants Odd's help (and they often do), they have to communicate via the supernatural equivalent of a game of charades.

In this installment (a prequel to the main series), Odd and his gun-toting girlfriend Stormy attempt to enjoy Pico Mundo's annual Halloween celebration despite Odd's increasingly grim forebodings about the festivities. Ghosts ranging from the specter of Elvis Presley to the spirit of a little girl killed in Pico Mundo years earlier are trying to tell him something, but their warnings don't make sense—something is clearly wrong, but how can Odd and Stormy catch the bad guy if they don't even know what crime has been committed?

I have frequently thought that Koontz's stories make better graphic novels than they do standard books, a theory further verified by Odd is On Our Side. Koontz has a lively imagination and an appealingly dark sense of humor, but his writing style is no more than competent. One could wish that the book's interior artwork—by Australian manga artist Queenie Chan—was more interesting, and Nathan pointed out that the cover art looks like one of those dancing-silhouette iPod commercials (it totally does, too!), but Koontz's many fans can rest assured that the $10.99 they'll need to shell out for Odd Is On Our Side are entertainment dollars well spent.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Tron 1.5

I've never grasped the appeal, but fans of Disney's Tron franchise might want to pick up a copy of Tron: Betrayal, the graphic novel prequel to the upcoming Tron: Legacy movie. Apparently, the book bridges the gap between the original 1982 film and its sequel. Here's the official plot summary:
Sam Flynn is the rebellious 27-year-old son of Kevin Flynn, a computer programmer who disappeared when Sam was just a child. When Sam looks into his father’s disappearance, he finds himself pulled into the same world of brutal programs and gladiatorial games where his father has been living for almost 25 years. Along with Kevin’s loyal confidante, Quora, Kevin Flynn and his son Sam must embark on a life-and-death voyage across a visually-stunning cyber universe to put an end to the evil Clu and his reign of this digital world.
I'd bet you know everything you need to know just from reading that description, but if you've got ten bucks burning a hole in your pocket...

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Friday, December 03, 2010

Stone Rabbit #5: Ninja Slice, by Eric Craddock

Contest Book #3

Eric Craddock's Stone Rabbit #5: Ninja Slice is a boisterous, colorful read aimed squarely at reluctant male readers ages 7-10. The plot (what little there is of it) is simple: when a new pizza shop opens in town, Grandpa Tortoise's Home-Style Pizza Restaurant can't compete. Stone Rabbit and his friends are determined to save Grandpa's business, but how can they win against an army of pizza-making ninjas?

The bright colors and cheerfully ridiculous fight scenes in Ninja Slice will appeal to small boys, while the triple threat of pizza, ninjas, and an irritable bunny protagonist who shouts "Crudmonkeys!" in moments of stress should speak to middle readers. Craddock's series doesn't pretend to be great literature, but it's a solid pick for little kids in need of a burst of quick silly fun.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Zen Ghosts, by Jon J. Muth

Contest Book #2

Unlike the book we featured yesterday, Jon J. Muth's Zen Ghosts is an example of kid-friendly surrealism done absolutely right. It's short on words, but overflows with thought-provoking storytelling and gorgeous, glowing art.

Zen Ghosts follows 2005's Caldecott Honor Book Zen Shorts and 2007's Zen Ties. All three books feature a Zen Buddhist panda named Stillwater and his trio of young human friends: siblings Karl, Michael, and Addy. In Zen Ghosts, Stillwater rounds out an evening of Halloween trick-or-treating by telling the children a ghost story based on a Zen koan (one of the questions Zen practitioners contemplate in their search for enlightenment) called Senjo and Her Soul are Separated.

I always try to run the children's titles we review past age-appropriate readers, so I read Zen Ghosts to a group of first graders. I was interested to note that while the kids seemed to love the book (and no one had any problem accepting a story that involved a giant talking panda!), quite a few of them were upset by the idea of the koan—a question designed to have no concrete answer. Muth provides a helpful author's note at the end of book about Zen Buddhism, koans in general, and the history of the Senjo story in particular, but this is still the kind of story that parents should discuss with their children. Happily, nothing about that discussion should be a hardship, as Muth's book has something to offer readers of all ages.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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Dry your tears, Buffy fans.

I've only been keeping half an eye out for news about the proposed Buffy the Vampire Slayer reboot, but I did see an article on the MTV Movies Blog that (gently) chided series creator Joss Whedon—who, it must be said, has been playing the "noble sufferer" role to the hilt—for not mentioning the fact that Warner Bros. actually offered him the first shot at the Buffy movie, which he declined.

...of course, it's possible the studio is lying, and they just didn't want to trust their franchise to the dude responsible for the final two seasons of Buffy . I'd actually understand either way.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Memory Bank, by Carolyn Coman and Rob Shepperson

Contest Book #1

The Memory Bank (text by Carolyn Coman, illustrations by Rob Shepperson) is the story of two sisters. When Hope's evil parents banish her baby sister Honey for breaking the family's "No laughing" rule, Hope puts on her nightgown, crawls into bed, and gives up on life. Her near-constant dreaming attracts the notice of the staff at the Memory Bank, where humanity's memories and dreams are stored. The Guardian of the Dream Vault wants Hope to become one of the Bank's resident dreamers, but Hope is determined to find Honey first.

Half playful black-and-white images and half fanciful prose, The Memory Bank is too long to be read out loud to small children in one setting but too simplistic to hook the 9-to-12 set. This makes its ideal audience rather small, as smart seven-year-olds with good vocabularies and a high tolerance for manufactured whimsy can be hard to come by. The publishers were clearly hoping to recapture the magic of Brian Selznick's 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but The Memory Bank reminded me more of the books of Nick Bantock: lovely to look at and entertaining to read, but ultimately rather forgettable.

[Review based on a publisher-provided copy.]

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