Friday, June 19, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... Non-YA Books!

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, YA Guy's taking a little break from YA this summer. Maybe that's because I've read over 150 YA books in the past three years (plus writing several more), and I felt a need to read outside my genre. Personally, I think YA writers need to read widely; I think you can learn a lot about writing YA by reading things that aren't YA. But leaving aside the benefits as a writer, it's just fun to read other stuff from time to time.

Last summer, I read non-YA science fiction. This summer, I'm focusing on classics. I've read only two in the past month--they take longer to read than YA!--but they've definitely been worth it.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Way back in graduate school, I taught a class on science fiction, including H. G. Wells's novel The Invisible Man. My graduate mentor visited my class on the day I was discussing the Wells novel, and she was totally confused because she thought I was teaching the Ellison book! But I hadn't read it at that point, and I didn't read it until this summer.

It's a pretty zany book. Some of the scenes--such as the oft-anthologized Battle Royal or the scene in the paint factory where the anonymous narrator's job is to mix black paint into white--are almost preposterously allegorical, and as such they have little realism. But other parts of the book--in particular, the Harlem episodes, including the narrator's struggles with the Brotherhood (a thinly-veiled Communist Party)--are striking as realistic representations of urban African-American experience in the middle of the past century. And the narrator's voice, at once learned and naive, bellicose and timid, hopeful and cynical, is one of the great inventions of American literature.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

You have to go even farther back in my history for my first encounter with this book. I read the Classics Illustrated version of it when I was nine or ten (the version pictured to the right), when my parents were trying to introduce me and my siblings to great literature. (That was the way I discovered a lot of classics I'd later read for real: Frankenstein, The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and more.) I've read many Dickens novels since, but for some reason, I never read A Tale of Two Cities. So I decided it was time to take the plunge.

I'll admit, it took me a while to settle in to Dickens's verbose, orotund style. I've heard that Dickens protracted everything because he was paid by the word for his serialized fiction; whether true or not, it was a bit much to take at first. But once I got into the story, I was able to accept the style. Dickens produces some great set pieces, particularly those surrounding the events of the French Revolution, and some great characters, particularly the ominous Madame Defarge, who scares the hell out of her own creator but who I saw as a precursor of many "kick-butt" female characters of the present day. And the novel's title, I discovered to my surprise and delight, has less to do with the two physical cities in which the action takes place--Paris and London--than with the two metaphysical "cities" sometime protagonist Sydney Carton struggles between: the hellish city of selfish sensuality and the heavenly city of selfless sacrifice. I don't remember much from the old comic book, but I do remember Carton's ultimate action and concluding speech. They were powerful to me back then, and they're still powerful to this day.

So I think I'm going to read either Les Miserables or Crime and Punishment next. Then it'll be back to the great YA novels I've got waiting on my Kindle!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

YA Guy Lists... His Top Ten Superhero Movies!

YA Guy, being YA Guy, loves superheroes.

I read all the comics when I was a kid, drew my own characters (like the one pictured above), dreamed of becoming a comic-book artist like Jack Kirby or John Byrne (some of the biggest names in my day). When the movies started to come out in the eighties, I was first in line. Still am.

But the thing is, I'm becoming very disappointed in the direction superhero films are taking. I saw the latest Avengers installment today, and it was a huge let-down: too chaotic, too noisy, too full of unconvincing computer-generated mayhem and too-obvious philosophical truths (there is evil in all of us, etc.) at the expense of plot or character development. (In this respect it was only marginally worse than the first, which had all the above problems but a somewhat more coherent script.) Maybe I'm getting too old, and maybe I shouldn't complain if movies about caped deities seem immature. But the best superhero movies have always struck me as intense, inventive, and emotionally complex explorations of what it means to be human. They don't need to be sophomoric video games.

So here, for fun, is a list of my 10 favorite superhero movies. Enjoy, and feel free to suggest others!
  1. X-Men. By far the best of the bunch, this film about super-powered mutants is a trenchant analysis of prejudice and victimization with a brilliant cast, great special effects, and compelling story. The conflict between Magneto and Professor X is incisively drawn, the relationship between Wolverine and Rogue surprisingly tender. And some of the action sequences--most notably, Magneto's game of Russian Roulette at the train station--are utterly stunning.
  2. Spider-Man 2. I'm talking about the original series here, with Tobey Maguire in the lead role. I found this one of the most emotionally gripping of all superhero movies, with the hero struggling to reconcile his responsibilities with his desires. And the performance by Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus was amazing. Not surprisingly, novelist Michael Chabon shared story credits on this film.
  3. Batman. The Michael Keaton/Tim Burton original. Without lavish special effects, this film gets to the heart of the Batman mythos in ways the overblown Dark Knight films can't touch. Keaton was a surprising but perfect choice, Jack Nicholson was great as the Joker, and Burton managed to satisfy the demands of the genre while keeping his own eccentricities on a tight rein (something he failed to do in the bizarre sequel).
  4. Iron Man. The first and best of the three-part series (all of which are pretty darn good). I had a few problems with the film's politics--which seem to suggest that it's okay to produce weapons of mass destruction as long as they don't fall into the hands of the "bad guys"--but the great performance by Robert Downey Jr. and the gritty realism (for a film in this genre) redeem it.
  5. Daredevil. One of the things I've always disliked about the Dark Knight films (and comics) is their tedious repetition of the timeworn cliche that heroes and villains are actually the same deep inside. Yeah, yeah, yawn. But in Daredevil, vigilantism is represented with something like its true psychological complexity. Plus, the movie's villain--an over-the-top Bullseye--is hilarious.
  6. X-Men: First Class. Another classy chapter in the X-Men series (in truth, there's not a bad film in the bunch), this one anchored by the astonishing performance of Michael Fassbender as a young, tortured Magneto. The scene in which he confronts escaped Nazis in Argentina is worth the price of admission in itself.
  7. The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In general, I don't see the need for all these "re-boots" of existing superhero movies. (I just heard that a new Fantastic 4 is coming out this summer.) And I didn't much care for the first installment of the new Spider-Man franchise, which seemed to add nothing to the old except an unconvincing green monkey-dog supposed to be the Lizard. But the second film in the new series hits all the right notes, with Jamie Foxx expertly cast as the bumbling loner-turned supervillain Electro, and with a surprise death at the end I never expected the filmmakers to have the guts to carry out.
  8. Guardians of the Galaxy. All right, this one is fairly chaotic, but at least it's chaotic in the name of fun and not in the super-serious, portentous fashion of so many overblown superhero flicks. The moment the hero entered a secret lair on  a remote planet to the tune of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," I was hooked.
  9. Spider-Man. The first film in the Tobey Maguire series. The Green Goblin as played by Willem Dafoe was a great villain, and the young actors did a terrific job of capturing teen angst and insecurity. The third film in this series had too many villains and too much stuff going on, but the first two are solid.
  10. The Incredibles. I'm cheating a bit here, since this Disney/Pixar film isn't based on a comic book. But I loved how deftly the film turned superhero conventions on their head while still paying homage to the spirit and style of the genre. Kind of an Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for the silver screen.
Yes, I know that's my second Michael Chabon reference in this post--and that's no mistake. Great superhero movies should aspire to the status of art, not just escapism. All of the above do precisely that.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... Climate Change Books!

Here's a little known fact: YA Guy has a passion for the environment.

Well, maybe that's not such a big secret. Some of my blog posts are environment-related; my novels are set in a desert world radically altered by environmental degradation; and I'm sure if you checked my Twitter feed or Facebook page you'd find environmental stuff there too.

But did you know I've been an environmental activist for almost ten years? And that the focus of my activism has been the fight against global warming?

It's true. Ever since I saw the film An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, I've been involved in raising popular and political consciousness about the threat posed by a changing climate. I've organized and participated in marches and rallies, met with politicians, developed a regional citizens climate change network, hosted teach-ins on climate change, taught the subject in my college classes, sat on a local college board dedicated to reducing campus emissions, and done whatever else I could to highlight the issue of climate change and advocate for personal and political action to combat it. I sometimes feel I haven't done enough, but I've sure tried.

Nor do I see this side of me as inconsistent with being YA Guy. I believe (and the science backs me up) that climate change is the greatest challenge future generations will face. While my existing novels are not in any way political polemics (and none of my works-in-progress directly addresses climate change at all), I believe YA literature has a responsibility to dramatize this issue.

Lots of great YA books do just that: Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, Mindy McGinnis's Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, Sherri L. Smith's Orleans, Emmi Itaranta's Memory of Water, Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries, and many more recent YA books use climate change as either a backdrop or central feature of their fictions.

A new scholarly book by Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (2015), barely touches on YA (which is one of its weaknesses), but it's an interesting analysis of the emergence of climate-change fiction (which some, following the coinage of Dan Bloom, call "cli-fi," but which Trexler calls "anthropocene fiction"). Trexler asks two main questions: how can fiction help us to conceptualize and address the problems we're facing and will continue to face in a climate-changed world? And how will fiction itself be changed by the changing climate and all its ramifications? Though I take issue with Trexler's claim that there is "entirely too much science fiction" (6) among climate-change novels--as if science fiction is a poor substitute for realistic fiction rather than the thought-provoking genre it has always been--this review and analysis of anthropocene fiction is a welcome addition to the literature of (or about) climate change.

The same is true of journalist Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014). Klein argues that the truly inconvenient truth about climate change--something Al Gore's film refuses to admit--is that we can't meaningfully address the changing climate without radically restructuring the economic, political, and cultural underpinnings of the society that has caused the problem. In other words, so long as we remain addicted to capitalism's mantra of limitless growth, we'll never be able to resist the fossil-fuel mania that is driving anthropogenic climate change. Klein argues that local economies, democratically organized, are a necessary alternative to our current global economy, an economy ruled by corporations whose sole mandate is greater profit even at the expense of people and planet. I tend to agree with Klein; the cheery idea that we can solve the problem utilizing the same models that produced the problem strikes me as fulfilling the classic definition of insanity. Whether we as a species can actually take the radical steps Klein advocates is, of course, another matter.

As a writer, an environmentalist, and a father, YA Guy certainly hopes we can.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

YA Guy Reveals... My SCAVENGER OF SOULS Playlist!

YA Guy has a confession: I don't actually do playlists.

Many writers do. They create music mixes, usually containing songs that have something to do with the book they're writing or the mood they want to be in while writing it, and listen to the music on their MP3 players or smart phones or whatever as they write.

Me, I don't have an MP3 player or smart phone or whatever. More importantly, I need a distraction-free environment to write; too much noise from outside my head--and even worse, lyrics--makes it impossible for me to concentrate. So in my case, playlists would actually prevent me from writing anything.

That being said, I do sometimes think of songs that connect to my stories in one way or another, and I thought it would be fun to share a few of them. I've chosen 9 (you know, for Survival Colony 9 and all); though I didn't listen to any of these songs while writing SC9 or its sequel, Scavenger of Souls, they're part of the soundtrack I would have chosen if I could.

Midnight Oil, "Beds Are Burning." When people think of a post-apocalyptic song, they mostly go for "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons. I like that song fine, but for me, this beauty from the eighties will always epitomize the post-apocalyptic landscape I tried to capture in the Querry Genn series.


Band of Horses, "Is There a Ghost." Something about this crazy song reminds me of the Skaldi. Maybe because it asks the question of whether we're haunted without knowing it.


Family of the Year, "Hero." A great song for reluctant heroes. From the "Boyhood" soundtrack.


Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime." If you're looking for a funky war song, you can't beat this one. I considered using The Clash's "London Calling," but the reference to Pittsburgh in the Talking Heads tune tipped the scales.


Ben Lee, "Love Me Like the World Is Ending." My books aren't really love stories, but I think it's safe to say that Querry's always looking for love. So one end-of-the-world love song seemed appropriate.


America, "A Horse with No Name." "In the desert, you can't remember your name." I wish I'd written that.


Kansas, "Dust in the Wind." Another great desert/end-of-the-world song. I saw Kansas when they toured last year, and though Robby Steinhardt wasn't there to play the violin solo, this song was every bit as great as it's ever been.


Led Zeppelin, "Kashmir." If you don't know what this song is doing on my list, listen to the lyrics carefully. Then you'll get it.


The Toadies, "Possum Kingdom." I have no idea what this song is about--some say it's a vampire song, others some kind of twisted love song. Whatever, it totally creeps me out, and makes me think about the Skaldi. And the music video is pretty damn freaky too.


So there you have it. Any other songs I should add to the list? Please make suggestions--though of course, I won't actually be listening to them while I write!

Monday, June 1, 2015

YA Guy Hosts... The STEPPING STONES Cover Reveal by Kacey Vanderkarr!


Today, YA Guy is thrilled to host the cover reveal for Kacey Vanderkarr's new YA urban fantasy, STEPPING STONES, the first book in the Stone Series! Kacey's novel is available August 25, 2015, so add it on Goodreads and pre-order it on Amazon!

You ready for the reveal? Here it is....


Stepping Stones (The Stone Series, #1)
Author: Kacey Vanderkarr
Available: August 25, 2015
Genre: Young Adult
Goodreads

Blurb:

Onnaleigh Moore is part of a plan—and it isn’t hers. When her brother dies in a car accident, Onna is desperate to preserve the tatters of her family. Any hope of finding normalcy vanishes when her mother runs off and her dad turns to booze to numb his pain. Onna’s grief is crippling, but the boy who showed up just when she needed him is helping her cope.

Everett’s presence is comforting, though he knows things—Onna’s name just before they met, where she lives, and sometimes he comments on thoughts she doesn’t say aloud. She pegs him for a stalker, or maybe psychic, but the truth is deadlier than she imagines. As their feelings for one another deepen, Everett confesses a horrifying secret: Onna’s brother is only the beginning of the plan, and some fates are worse than death.

Author Bio: KACEY VANDERKARR has a penchant for fantasy and frequently listens to the voices in her head—most of whom are teenagers. Her favorite place to write is an old salon chair in her kitchen, with coffee in one hand and adoring cats sprawled across her arms. She prefers her music loud and her skeptics quiet. When she’s not writing, Kacey coaches winterguard, works as a sonographer, and hangs out with other weirdos like her at the Flint Area Writer’s club. In addition to her novels, The Reflection Pond Series, Antithesis, and The Stone Series, Kacey’s short fiction is featured in Sucker Literary Vol III, Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things, and Out of the Green: Tales from Fairyland.

Links:
Amazon
Twitter
Blog
Facebook


Sunday, May 24, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... ZEROBOXER by Fonda Lee!

Zeroboxer kicks butt.

YA Guy doesn't say that very often, mainly because it's become such a cliche in YA. How many YA novels and/or main characters have you heard described as "kick-butt" recently? And how many of those same novels and/or main characters actually merited the description?

Well, Zeroboxer does.

Fonda Lee's debut not only delivers some amazing fight sequences--conducted, as the title indicates, in zero gravity--but constructs an excitingly original science fiction world set on Earth, Mars, and a lunar colony. The story, which concerns the rise of young Terran zeroboxer Carr Luka to the pinnacle of his sport--and the secrets and lies that threaten to tear him down--is told with the directness and visceral energy of a boxing match, while the subplot concerning Terran/Martian tension and prejudice provides a reflective backdrop to the whole. Carr himself, and the cast of characters surrounding him, are all sympathetically rendered--especially Risha Ponn, an expatriate Martian who works as Carr's marketing strategist and who becomes his romantic interest. Lee's writing is clean, her plotting seamless, and her visualization of what sports and sports marketing might look like in the era of space colonization utterly convincing. Here's a sample, from a scene where Carr encounters some diehard fans:

"They all grinned. How childlike they seemed. They were teenagers--one or two of them looked eighteen or nineteen, around Carr's own age--but to him, they all looked like [his fan] Enzo, silly with enthusiasm. This was fun for them, traveling all the way here, sharing in the fandom, getting close to the drama of the [fighting] Cube and the fighters they'd seen in holovid. Zeroboxing defined Carr's life, in every way, good and bad, ecstatic and heartbreaking. He'd given his entire childhood to the sport. It had made him and aged him. But to them, it was all entertainment."

That's pretty good stuff!

Like many reviewers, I usually point out something I didn't like about the books I review. But in the case of Zeroboxer, I'm honestly drawing a blank. Lee's terrific debut should be on the reading list of anyone who enjoys genuinely kick-butt YA sci-fi action stories.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... WE ALL LOOKED UP by Tommy Wallach!

There's plenty of post-apocalyptic YA. (In fact, YA Guy's written some of it myself.) But what about pre-apocalyptic YA?

That's exactly what Tommy Wallach's WE ALL LOOKED UP is. The story of Seattle teens whose lives are irrevocably changed when reports emerge of an asteroid on a fatal collision course with Earth, this novel deals not with the aftermath of the collision but with the build-up to it. (Spoiler which isn't really a spoiler: we never learn if the asteroid actually hits.)

What we do learn is how people, and especially young people, respond when their life expectancy is radically shortened by forces beyond their control. Some, predictably, give up. Others freak out. Some decide to fulfill unfulfilled dreams (singing on stage, dating a secret love). All, however, are changed by their realization of the ephemeral nature of life.

Wallach writes well, in a nicely controlled third person that jumps among his central quartet of characters: athlete Peter, who's begun to wonder whether prowess on the court is really all it's cracked up to be; photographer Eliza, whose father is dying and who fills the emptiness inside her with a series of meaningless sexual encounters; over-achiever Anita, who chafes against the life her parents have planned for her; and slacker Andy, who spends most of his time getting high with his dangerous and unpredictable friend Bobo. Watching the lives of these characters intertwine is what gives the book most of its considerable narrative drive. And it's nice to read a YA book that isn't afraid to philosophize and to touch on subjects of spirituality and ultimate purpose.

There are a few things about WE ALL LOOKED UP that are less successful. The book's second half is devoted in large part to an implausible rally-and-prison-break that seems to serve little purpose other than to generate artificial danger and thus hasten the development of romantic relationships. And the author's understanding of teenage girls is often badly off the mark, as for example in this head-scratch-worthy observation:

"Eliza was getting a distinct passive-aggressive vibe off Anita, and she had no idea why. It wasn't as if they were competing or something. Neither of them were interested in Andy, and Eliza was as bad at singing as Anita probably was at taking photos. Maybe it was inevitable--one of those rivalries that so often sprout up between girls, like mushrooms in the crevices of a forest, craning up toward whatever attention filters down through the canopy."

But Wallach is young, and one hopes he'll outgrow such sophomoric stuff. I recommend WE ALL LOOKED UP to those who want an original take on the end of the world.