Oct 25 2016
Halloween is on us again, and as in previous years, I thought I would do a Halloween themed review of books for kids, middle schoolers, and teens.
I recently discovered a series of classic horror literature converted to graphic novel format. These include Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven & Other Tales.
Muted colors pervade Frankenstein, emphasizing the themes of loss and loneliness from the original text. Characters are drawn with a perspective that creates a feeling of viewing from a distance or being separated from the events of the story. Frankenstein’s monster, were it not for his stitches and hallow face, could almost pass for a regular man.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde also utilizes color to emphasize theme but, in contrast to the monochromatic tones of Frankenstein, the illustrator makes heavy use of red, brown, green, and even pink. Perspectives are closer with less depth of field, highlighting themes of chaos and madness. Mr. Hyde is portrayed with deformed, almost caricature witch-like features. In addition his face is marked with sores indicating disease such as smallpox or similar.
The Raven & Other Tales makes strong use of bright almost neon colors. In one section of the book, each page is overlaid with a different bright color such as purple, turquoise, or red. The reader is given a sense that the narrator is experiencing hallucinatory sensations.
While Dracula uses similar color schemes as Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the drawings are less detailed or refined. In some places, sketches take on almost a satirical expression while in others there is detailed use of shadow and shading. These may have been deliberate choices to highlight certain aspects of the story line.
Retaining the dialogue of the original text, these classics have been carefully illustrated to retain the feel and theme of the original. The graphic novel format may appeal to teens interested in exploring the original text in a more accessible or familiar format. This introduction to the stories may further inspire teens to delve into the original novels.
Ghosts, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier, centers around the story of Catrina (Cat) and her family. Her sister Maya has cystic fibrosis, so the family has moved to the coast of Northern California in an effort to improve Maya’s health.
BahÍa de la Luna is different from other places in that the old missions and constant fog provide the perfect conditions for ghostly visitors. The entire town is obsessed with ghosts and as such Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is an especially grand affair. Maya is delighted by this revelation. Cat, however, desperately wishes it would all disappear.
As with Dracula and the other classics, the graphic novel format makes the story more accessible to younger readers or to kids who might not otherwise read a 200 plus page book.
The inclusion of the cystic fibrosis story line is presented in a positive yet realistic manner. Cat knows that her sister’s lifespan is likely to be cut short due to her condition, and as such she is protective of her even as she finds her annoying. The novel does not shy away from the subject of death but addresses it with a frank yet sensitive tone. Maya’s illness has made her determined to live as full a life as possible, and feeds her obsession with the town’s ghost culture. Cat, on the other hand, struggles with the idea that her sister might not always be around and as such, retreats more into herself and tries to reject the ghost stories.
Some readers objected to the depictions of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations claiming Telgemeier appropriated a culture that is not her own and that she presented the holiday as more of a “Mexican Halloween” than a day during which families honor and pray for those who have gone before.
Ghosts is not as scary as the title implies, but since the Dia de los Muertos holiday has come to be celebrated starting on Halloween Day it is an appropriate book for the time of year. Children of Hispanic descent will likely enjoy a book which depicts characters who look like them and who have cultural similarities.
Peanut Butter and Brains written by Joe McGee and illustrated by Charles Santoso introduces the reader to Quirkville, a town overrun with zombies. Reginald is a young zombie who is different from the other zombies in that instead of craving brains, he desperately wants a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The residents of Quirkville are understandably frightened of the zombies. After all, nobody wants to get their brains eaten. In addition, the other zombies are confused by and skeptical of Reginald. How can a zombie not be interested in brains they wonder? Then one day, Reginald sees a little girl at the bus stop with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her hands.
Peanut Butter and Brains is a great book for beginning readers. Santoso’s illustrations nicely complement the story line without being too frightening for small children. The theme of standing out from the other zombies emphasizes the positive aspects of being unique.
Parents will be amused by Reginald’s eagerness for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and may in fact see their own picky eater within the plot lines.
Peanut Butter and Brains will delight kids and will not bore parents quite as quickly as a constant diet of peanut butter and jelly might.
I Will Not Eat You by Adam Lehraupt and Scott Magoon presents Theodore a monster who lives in a quiet cave. Occasionally various animals wander by the cave and each time, Theodore wonders if he should eat them, but each time decides that he is not hungry. Eventually, a little boy comes to the cave. Theodore is getting hungry. Should he eat the little boy?
I Will Not Eat You is a delightful book about little boys, dragons, and unusual friendships. Illustrations are presented in large images with broad strokes and bright colors. Young children will be eager to see whether or not Theodore eats the little boy, and parents will audibly laugh at the somewhat dark twist at the end.
I Will Not Eat You is a perfect addition to the collection of Halloween themed books and will likely become a favorite among young kids and parents.
Jul 12 2016
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day is a comedic auto-biography. Well known within the blogging/vlogging community, Day is also something of a minority, as she is a prominent female gamer. In addition, she has gained acclaim for her web series The Guild and is noted for her accessibility within the fan community. As part of this, Day launched Geek and Sundry, a fan-oriented community in 2012.
Day begins her book by introducing herself to those who “have no idea who the hell I am.” She recalls an incident during which she stopped at Build-A-Bear. Having some time to kill, she is soon recognized by a few girls from the Hot Topic next door. As they clamor to get pictures, a mother who is also shopping there asks “Are you an actress?” Day explains she is also a producer and writer and then realizing she is rambling says “Yes, I’m an actress.”
What follows is a surreal moment in which neither the mother, her daughter, or the sales clerk recognize her, raising the defensive ire of the “Hot Topics” as Day has dubbed them.
Extracting herself from the situation as gracefully as possible, Day heads to tour the Virgin Galactic hangar as part of a social media invite. Such is the surrealness of her life, she reflects.
Based on those two factors, Day makes the assumption that the reader is either extremely excited to read her book (“OMG! FELICIA DAY WROTE A BOOK!”) or extremely confused (“Who the hell is this chick?”) For those in the former category, she thanks you. For those in the latter category she hopes you will stick around.
The first chapter, “Why I’m Weird”, details Day’s eccentric childhood. Having attended regular schools for kindergarten and first grade, Day is sent to a conservative Lutheran school for second grade. Her parents were not religious, but the school was the best in their Alabama community. Day reflect that she enjoyed the school except for having to attend chapel everyday.
Due to a chapel illustration involving the burning of money, Day is soon pulled out of the Lutheran school and placed into a school that practices “unschooling.” Day states that she does not remember much about that place except that they quickly closed, having embezzled the parents’ money.
Soon Day’s father is transferred from Huntsville to Biloxi at which point it is decided that Day and her brother Ryon will be home-schooled. This goes well for about a week until any semblance of structure in their lives gradually ebbs.
Having just moved and not being on any official government lists, there is no one to supervise their schooling. Art becomes something along the lines of “Can the doodles in the margins of my geometry chapter count as art?” “Sure!”, and history becomes driving around the state visiting all the Civil War sites. The one constant in their education is that they are expected to read constantly.
Eventually Day’s father becomes concerned, and Day and her brother are signed up for an extensive array of lessons. Ballet, jazz, martial arts, watercoloring, etc. If it was available and fit into their schedule, Day and her brother were signed up for it. Eventually Day makes her way to the end of her education and, during the writing of her book, realizes she has two college degrees but no high school diploma.
Having done some acting and modeling as a child, Day decides to return to Los Angeles after college to pursue an acting career. Two months after moving, Day wraps up her first real acting stint and is cut a check for 90 dollars which bounces. On follow up, Day finds out that the production company had shut down and disappeared. She never got paid. She does, however, decide to frame the check as a funny story to tell on Actors Studio after she is successful.
In 2005, at the peak of what Day refers to as her “auditioning for burger commercials” career, her brother invites her to play a new game called World of Warcraft. Through the game, Day is able to connect with her brother and make new friends, but quickly becomes addicted, forgoing auditions, personal relationships, and most outside activities. Day later draws on her experiences during this time in the creation of her web series The Guild which, in turn, is the work that finally launched her career.
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a fun and honest look into the early life and struggles of someone who has managed to make a career out of being socially awkward. The Guild has won several awards for online series, and in 2009 was labeled “one of the Nets best serial shows” by Rolling Stone. Geek and Sundry was launched in 2012 as part of YouTube’s 100 million dollar original channel initiative.
Day writes in an easy, conversational voice. The tone of her writing belies the fact that Day is, in fact, an intense intellectual who started college at the age of 16 and graduated in the top four percent with dual degrees in mathematics and violin performance. While her insecurities may seem off putting to some readers, Day manages to remain relatable with her comedic self-deprecation.
Readers who enjoyed Just A Geek by Wil Wheaton, or Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson should enjoy You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost). All three books are written by celebrities who exude more of an Everyman persona. Each of the authors is well known for their approachability and their frequent, personal interactions with fans. All three authors have also shared intimate details their mutual struggles with anxiety and depression, allowing insight into their treatment, how these issues have impacted their careers and their creative efforts. Finally, the three authors have developed lasting personal friendships with each other. This has resulted in overlap in not only their books, but many of their professional endeavors.
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a fun and quirky read accessible even to those who have never heard the name Felicia Day.
Jun 21 2016
Over the course of his career, Neil Gaiman has written a number of essays, introductions, and speeches. The View from the Cheap Seats pulls together over sixty of these pieces in one place for the first time.
For veteran fans of Gaiman, many of these writings will revisit previously seen works. For newer fans, The View from the Cheap Seats is a rare and quite interesting look into the mind of one of the greatest modern writers.
The book’s preface sets the tone the collection with Gaiman’s personal credo: a very brief summary of the basic tenants by which he lives his life and which influence his writings.
Many of Gaiman’s beliefs seem self-evident: killing or maiming others to suppress ideas doesn’t work. Neither does attempting to control the ideas or thoughts of others. Gaiman argues that ideas in and of themselves are neither good nor bad – they simply exist and members of society should be free to express those ideas no matter how vile or reprehensible they seem to others. Rather, Gaiman states, it is up to each person to counter and persuade those representing the vile and reprehensible over to their side.
From there, Gaiman jumps into a speech on the importance of libraries that he gave in 2013 for the Reading Agency, a U.K. charity whose mission is to help people become more confident readers. Gaiman admits that, as an author, he is biased towards libraries. He also gives the reader a small insight into how libraries and librarians shaped his path when he was a child. During the summer months, his parents dropped him at the library on their way to work and picked him up on their way home. There he worked his way through the card catalogue looking for books on vampires, witches, detectives, and other wonders. After he had finished with the children’s library, he began on the adult books. During this process, the librarians nurtured his love of reading by teaching him about interlibrary loans and steering him toward other books he might enjoy.
Touching on his personal credo from the opening of the book, Gaiman later talks about Charlie Hebdo and the PEN literary gala. Since six tables had pulled out of hosting tables and so Gaiman was asked if he would step in to host one. He agreed and what follows is a deeply personal and touching moment between him and his wife, Amanda Palmer. Palmer tells him he is doing the right thing and then asks “Will you wear a bullet proof vest?” Gaiman argues that security will be tight and tries to assuage her fears by assuring her a vest will not be necessary.
“But you should wear a vest anyway.” Palmer argues. “Remember, I’m pregnant, and our child will need a father more than a martyr.” In the end, Gaiman does not wear the vest, but the exchange is a startling reminder of the power of ideas and words. Comics and cartoons can viscerally offend, Gaiman argues, but that does not mean they should not be defended. In closing, he quotes the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”
The View from the Cheap Seats is an odd mixture in both quality and subject matter. Some of the writings are deeply personal, giving the reader a rare and intimate view into the writer’s childhood, school life, and very early career. Gaiman shares his personal insecurities in interviewing authors he has long admired and reveals the origins of his friendships with figures such as Tori Amos, and Terry Pratchett. Included among these is a moving tribute to Douglas Adams.
Other elements of the book are as ungainly as their titles suggest, such as “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997.” As a reader and a reviewer that particular entry was a head scratcher. Even in the seemingly banal, however, Gaiman manages to shine by offering an intriguing look into the publishing industry just before the Internet exploded and changed everything.
Throughout the book are numerous personal anecdotes of people famous and otherwise with whom Gaiman has formed close relationships over the course of his career. Few though are as touching as the tribute to his wife’s late surrogate father, Anthony.
Intertwining themes of living and dying, Gaiman reveals the path of his relationship with Palmer and by extension, Anthony. Ironically, Gaiman and Palmer meet as a result of her commissioning Gaiman to write a handful of stories and poems for her album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” During their first date, she introduces Gaiman to Anthony who proclaims that he thinks Gaiman would make a good boyfriend. Despite not yet realizing Anthony’s importance to Palmer, Gaiman is nonetheless pleased. Anthony soon becomes not simply Palmer’s close friend but a trusted confidant and counsel to Gaiman. Then, approximately six months after Gaiman and Palmer are married, Anthony is diagnosed with leukemia. In the midst of this, two other of Gaiman and Palmer’s friends die unexpectedly. Finally, the news is delivered that Anthony is in remission. Sadly, however, a post-script reveals that Anthony in fact died from leukemia in June of 2015. What is not revealed in the piece, but is of importance, is that three months later, Palmer gave birth to a son, named Anthony in honor of their dear friend.
Fans of Gaiman’s previous works will find themselves enthralled with The View from the Cheap Seats. Gaiman has long had a reputation for being open and accessible to fans. The View from the Cheap Seats, however, offers a deeper, more intimate look at Gaiman’s early life and career. One can easily imagine from his prose a serious and quiet little Neil Gaiman stuffed into the corner of his local library.
Those previously unfamiliar with Gaiman should enjoy his conversational style and dry humor. Gaiman is that rare mixture of both famous and unassuming. It is clear from his writing and the stories he relates that he is exactly as he seems: a somewhat befuddled English bloke who likes to tell stories.
May 10 2016
Having previously done a review on books made into movies, I decided this month to tackle books or book series that are currently in development of or in the midst of their first television season.
Shannara by Terry Brooks begins with the The Sword of Shannara and currently continues through The Darkling Child. Brooks’ primary work has been the Shannara series, but he is also well known for the Magic Kingdom at Landover series.
The Shannara series takes place on Earth, approximately 2000 years after a great nuclear holocaust has destroyed most of the planet. Over the years following The Great Wars, mankind evolves into four distinct races: Men, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Trolls. In addition, Elves have emerged after centuries of hiding.
The television series begins with characters and events of the second book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara. The novel introduces the reader to Wil Ohmsford, (grandson of Shea, the main character in the first novel) Wil inherits the Elfstones and through the instruction of the druid Allanon teams up with Amberle Elessedil, (granddaughter of the King of the Elves) and Eretia, a Rover (a race of humans who live as gypsies).
Together the three, accompanied by Allanon, embark on a quest to save the Elcryss, a magical tree which keeps the Demons locked away from the Four Lands.
Brooks has long been a favorite of fantasy lovers, and the Shannara series makes it clear why. Long compared to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, Shannara pulls the reader into a world that is every bit as compelling as Middle Earth without the over verbosity for which Tolkien’s work is known. Readers who enjoy the Shanarra series may also enjoy the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind or The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman has been frequently described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” The novel centers around Quentin Coldwater, a high school senior from Brooklyn. Quentin has long been obsessed with a series of books about a group of children who discover a Narnia-like land called Fillory. On the day of his admissions interview to Princeton, Quentin is instead evaluated for and admitted to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Here he becomes engrossed in learning magic and in the fight against a mythical enemy called “The Beast”.
There are significant changes from the books to the television series, including aging Quentin and the other characters from high school seniors to adults in their mid-20’s embarking on graduate school. In addition, in the television adaptation, more emphasis is placed on Quentin’s depression. In the opening of the television series, he is shown being released from a mental hospital. None of that occurs in the books where he is portrayed as simply being more aloof or disaffected than his peers.
The Magicians is at times a brilliant piece of parody, acknowledging and perhaps mildly poking fun at similar books such as the Harry Potter series and The Chronicles of Narnia. At other times it drags slightly with the characters appearing overly negative or cynical. These issues are easily overlooked, however, against Grossman’s excellent use of dialogue and characterization.
Readers who grew up on Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia may find themselves drawn to The Magicians based on the obvious similarities, and indeed, it would be easy to dismiss The Magicians as a Harry Potter or Narnia rip off without deeper investigation, but readers will quickly realize that Grossman has created a darker, more grown-up world which acknowledges the fantasy of the other worlds but which also recognizes that being magical does not guarantee greatness.
Readers may also enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke or Soon I Will Be Invincible by Lev Grossman’s brother Austin Grossman.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman centers around the idea that the ancient stories of gods and mythological creatures are real. Since people have stopped believing in them, they have faded into obscurity having been replaced by new gods of technology, drugs, and celebrity.
The novel opens with Shadow, a convict who, days before he is due to be released on parole, receives word that his wife and his best friend have been killed in a car accident. Consumed by grief, Shadow takes a job as a bodyguard for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who appears to know a great deal about Shadow’s life without having been told. Soon they embark on a journey across America where Shadow learns the truth about all the gods, old and new.
Gaiman is an established author known for books such as Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and the acclaimed graphic novel Sandman. In addition to American Gods, Gaiman’s Sandman spin-off, Lucifer has also been made into a current Fox TV show.
Gaiman shines throughout all of his writing and American Gods is no exception. From the easily imaginable physical descriptions, to Gaiman’s solid use of dialogue, readers will be drawn into the world of American Gods and Shadow’s life. As with many of Gaiman’s previous novels, American Gods draws on the idea that ancient legends and fairy tales have a foundation in reality.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane Gaiman created a world in which fairies co-exist with mortals. In Lucifer, Satan has become bored with ruling Hell and has instead taken up residence in Los Angeles as the owner of a piano bar. In American Gods a world is imagined in which the gods of Norse, Greek, and other cultures co-exist with mortals.
Readers starting with American Gods should investigate Gaiman’s other works such as Coraline, Neverwhere, or Good Omens (co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett). Readers familiar with Gaiman’s work may also want to consider John Dies at the End by David Wong or The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams.
Each of these novels provides a good foundation for their TV adaptations, and readers should find something to enjoy in all of them.
Jan 26 2016
Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton is the third in the Humans of New York series. Preceded by Humans of New York and Little Humans, Humans of New York: Stories was born out of Brandon’s experiences in creating the first book.
The first book in the Humans of New York series is primarily a photographic essay. Brandon purchased his first camera six months before losing his job as a bond trader. A weekend trip to New York inspired Brandon with its vast array of eclectic and vibrant residents. Brandon’s original plan for his blog was to create a map with ten thousand photographs of New Yorkers plotted across it. Eventually, he begin adding short quotes and captions to the photos. This new format rapidly increased the site’s popularity and out of this came the first Humans of New York book.
The original book is almost entirely visual. Stories and captions are sparse, save for a simple location reveal or simple information describing the photo. This allows the photos to stand on their own giving the reader an opportunity to bring their own interpretation to the scene.
As Brandon collected photos for the first book, he found the camera served as a conduit for people to open up and tell him their stories. From this, Brandon decided the world would benefit from the sharing of these stories, so he came up with Humans of New York: Stories.
In Humans of New York: Stories the reader is treated to the same concept of the original book, but this time with the something extra. Instead of spartan captions or mere location tags, the new book is filled with accompanying text.
From small children to the most wizened of adults, no person is deemed as less or more, nor is anyone portrayed as more important than the others.
Many of the stories are whimsical such as the little girl of about three who gleefully exclaims “You’re taking my picture!” Next there is the small boy, perhaps 5 or 6 in age, who profoundly describes how he wants to build bridges in Wisconsin because he feels as if there are a lot of people in Wisconsin who don’t have bridges. The wrinkle in his plan? He’s not entirely certain where Wisconsin is. A few pages later is the Sikh boy holding his infant brother who says his favorite aspect of his younger sibling is that “he’s cute.”
Some of the stories are more inspirational in tone. There is the 20 something year old woman in a wheelchair who wants to become a diplomat in order to make life in China easier for people with disabilities. She reveals that she lived in a Chinese orphanage until she was 10 and was unable to attend school because she couldn’t walk. At the end of her story the reader discovers that she has begun with first step with an acceptance to the London School of Economics.
The book is also a study of contrasts. Across the page from the aspiring diplomat is a middle aged man who states that he served ten years in prison. When questioned why he responds “…Organized crime. Allegedly.” In the span of five short sentences, one gets the distinct impression that even though this man is currently anonymous his face will one day be plastered on the news.
In fact, in the original Humans of New York, Brandon reveals that one couple he photographed later became a national headline after a cache of explosives was discovered in their apartment.
Nothing is off limits in Humans of New York: Stories and Brandon delves into a considerable range of topics.
There are the two teenagers who don’t seem to know yet if they are friends or something more. There is the elderly couple who cannot agree whether this is their 61st or 62nd anniversary. Sandwiched in the middle of this mini-essay is the young couple whose nervousness is evident as they reveal they are on their first date.
Many of the stories are poignant reminders of the fact that circumstance and life can change practically on a dime.
This is best highlighted with a three page spread of a young man who talks about how he and his wife were at dinner soon before her due date of their first child. While enjoying their meal they received a phone call that they needed to get to the hospital quickly as Marwa’s (the soon to be mother) platelet count was low. At the hospital they are assured that things will be fine, but a a few days later the man finds himself a widower with a newborn baby. While he describes meeting her as evoking a “finally home” feeling, losing her creates an emptiness in him that he cannot imagine ever filling.
The stories continue on from cute and funny to serious and heart breaking. The common theme throughout is that our stories connect us.
In keeping with that theme, Brandon has used the visibility his blog grants him to promote and fund humanitarian causes.
Recently he travelled to Pakistan and Iran to highlight stories of residents from those countries. He also did a lengthy feature on the refugee crisis revealing harrowing tales of escape.
Through stories revealed readers of the HONY (Humans of New York) blog have helped numerous people. From refugees feeling terrorist attack, to a woman in New York who fled an abusive situation with four children and was facing eviction. Other fundraisers helped a man who lost his tractor in an accident and a Pakistani woman who also had left an abusive relationship with a young daughter and was in need of treatment for Hepatitis C. Finally, HONY raised over 2 million dollars for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front.
There are few books with which to compare Humans of New York: Stories. While there are a number of photo essay books, none touch on the human experience in the same manner.
Readers might find interest in life. love. beauty. by Keegan Allen. Like Humans of New York: Stories, Allen intersperses story and caption with his photos. life. love. beauty. however is more a personal photographic memoir as it centers around his career and the people he encounters within that setting.
Humans of New York: Stories is well deserving of its best seller status. The stories pull the reader in causing them to love, laugh, and cry. In short, Humans of New York: Stories strives to make the world a smaller, better place, and succeeds brilliantly.
Sep 01 2015
With the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and the renewed surge in movements such as the It Gets Better Project and the No H8 campaign, I wanted to focus on Young Adult books centering around LGBTQ teens.
Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian asks the reader “What would happen if you found yourself falling in love with your best friend of the same gender?”
Will Caynes is 17 and has never even been kissed. His best friend Angus lives down the block and has been publicly out since junior high. Will divides his time between his divorced parents who treat him as a weapon to use against each other. Will wears glasses that are slightly out of fashion because his father pays for those, but clothes that are clearly more expensive because his mother provides those. Angus, with his good looks and quiet confidence, strikes Will as everything he himself is not.
One night as Angus and Will are getting high and drunk in the park, Angus leans over and kisses Will. The make out session that ensues leaves Will feeling confused and intrigued. On the one hand, he knows he’s not gay, on the other, he enjoyed kissing Angus. A few days later, Will meets Brandy, a girl from his school and quickly begins a relationship with her, complicating the situation even further.
As Will struggles to maintain both relationships, he is also beset with worry over his father who has recently started drinking again and with anger towards his mother whose new family has little room for him. It becomes clear that Will has fallen in love with Angus despite not thinking of himself as gay, but he also has a strong physical attraction to Brandy.
Cut Both Ways is a darkly honest novel which confronts the issues of emotional attraction and teen sexuality without flinching. Mesrobian writes with a blunt and forthright style. Will’s characterization and manner of speaking reads so true to that of a teenage boy that I was genuinely surprised to learn the author is female.
Cut Both Ways contains characters which are believably flawed and complex. Brandy proves that she is more than a bubbly cheerleader type and her insecurities and attitudes ring true to the fact that she is barely fifteen to Will’s nearly eighteen.
Angus demonstrates that, despite his quiet and disaffected attitude, he too is plagued by insecurities and uncertainties in his relationship with Will and in his own sexual experiences.
Finally, Mesrobian leaves certain elements of the story unresolved, which felt very true to life.
Readers who enjoyed The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban will likely enjoy Cut Both Ways. Although vastly different stories, both novels present complex and imperfect characters that one would expect to find in everyday life. In addition, both novels acknowledge that, unlike fiction, life does not always come with neat endings.
Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Abertalli is, in contrast to Cut Both Ways, a lighter and more simplistic novel.
The titular character, Simon, is 16 and gay but has not yet come out to his friends and family. The only one who is aware of Simon’s secret is a boy at Simon’s school known simply by the pen name “Blue”. The two struck up an anonymous correspondence earlier in the year, and recently their emails have taken on a more flirtatious tone.
One day Simon is approached by an acquaintance, Martin who has a bit of a bully reputation. Martin has stumbled on Simon and Blue’s correspondence and threatens to reveal it publicly if Simon doesn’t help him pursue Abby, one of Simon’s closest friends.
Suddenly Simon is faced with a choice: out himself before he’s ready, be outed by Martin and risk revealing Blue’s secret in the process, or help someone he despises hook up with his best friend.
Albertalli writes with a fun and conversational style. Simon is easily imaginable as a self described Harry Potter look alike, and his friends are equally easily pictured. Leah, the quiet bookish one, who harbors a not so secret crush on Nick the philosophical musician with surfer looks, and Abby, the perky and skinny cheerleader whom Nick has a crush on.
I was, however, left with the sense that Albertalli is writing to a younger audience than expected given the ages of the characters within the novel or that she is perhaps not completely familiar with teenage vernacular.
For example, the social networking site Tumblr features heavily in the plot and yet each time it is referenced in either description or dialogue, Albertalli refers to it as “the Tumblr” when the most used terminology is simply “Tumblr.” As a reader, I found this jarring and distracting from the overall plot.
In addition, sections of character dialogue read as if Simon and his friends are within the young teens range instead of their actual ages of seventeen and eighteen.
Martin, Simon’s blackmailer, commits an act that is reprehensible and without redemption, yet is almost immediately apologetic and suffers little to no consequence. This felt out of character for him given his actions and words earlier in the novel.
In fact, it is Blue who is the best developed character and the one who rang truest to his written age. Even though his identity is not revealed until the final pages, Albertalli creates a character who is far more rich and complex than the characters whom we know more intimately. Through his and Simon’s correspondence we come to understand Blue’s own issues with his sexual identity. He reveals his struggles with his strict parents and his internal conflict regarding their divorce. He also reveals to Simon his deep feelings of inadequacy around his father and his fear that his mother may be unable to accept him as he is due to her religious beliefs.
Readers who enjoyed Fangirl or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell will likely enjoy Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Albertalli and Park write with similar styles and like Park, Albertalli creates characters the reader would likely enjoy getting to know better.
Aug 01 2015
August 1 slides smoothly into a new month with National Raspberry Cream Pie Day. I confess, I’m not entirely sold on the idea of Raspberry Cream pie, but I admit it does seem a solid use for the fruits of your labor!
August 2 finally gets away from anything fruit related with Ice Cream Sandwich Day. Share one with your sister as it is also Sister’s Day. I know you’re thinking this sounds like a great idea because it’s also Psychic Day!
August 3 is the perfect holiday for a hot summer day: National Watermelon Day! Watermelon is over 90 percent water making it an excellent cooling down food. Plus it’s healthy and low calorie which allows a sweet taste that doesn’t go to the waist!
August 4 is a day for dog lovers: Assistance Dog Day. My cat would like to know why there isn’t an Assistance Cat Day, but tell me honestly, when’s the last time you heard of a seeing eye cat?
August 5 has you stuffed from watermelon and junk food, but it’s still oppressively hot and humid. Fear not, I’ve got you covered – sort of. Strip down to your skivvies and proudly announce that you are celebrating Underwear Day!
August 6 continues the nudity trend with Wiggle Your Toes Day. I think the perfect way to celebrate is to attend a JAWS on the Water event!
August 7 is a beacon of holidays with Lighthouse Day. Fun fact: the world’s oldest lighthouse is in Spain. What better reason do you need to plan that vacation?
August 8 gives you the perfect reason to finally clean your basement or attic: Garage Sale Day. It’s also International Cat Day. Honor your cat by finally getting rid of that painting of the dogs playing poker.
August 9 might be my favorite holiday next to Christmas: Book Lovers Day. Since it’s better to give than receive, you can celebrate by giving your favorite book lover (or columnist) a new book!
August 10 is Lazy Day. The perfect excuse to do nothing! If you must break it, I suggest you do so by celebrating S’mores Day!
August 11 reminds us that summer is starting to wind down with Play in The Sand Day. Take a personal day, hit the beach and build a sand castle. Fall is coming and you don’t want to to look back with regret!
August 12 gets a little retro with Vinyl Record Day. Bust out the turntable and dust off your old LP’s! Then bang your head against a wall when your kids ask you what those funny looking CD’s are! It’s also Middle Child’s Day, but we don’t really need to worry about that.
August 13 happens to be one of my favorite holidays with International Lefthanders Day. If like myself you’re left handed in a right handed world, don’t despair: some of the coolest people in history have been left handed such as Jimmy Hendrix, Jon Stewart and Richard Simmons. Well OK, two out of three ain’t bad.
August 14 brings us back to food holidays with National Creamsicle Day. Take an opportunity to relive your childhood and chase down the ice cream man. Or if you prefer a more adult approach, mix orange soda and whipped cream flavored vodka. And if you drink too many, you’re in perfect shape for Relaxation Day on August 15!
August 16 might be a day you want to sit out after the revelries of the 14th and 15th, but if you’re feeling up to it, go check out the Cyclone on Coney Island for Rollercoaster Day. Just do yourself a favor and skip the pre-ride hot-dogs.
August 17 seems like it should be closer to Halloween with Black Cat Appreciation Day, but those in charge obviously aren’t reading Offbeat Almanac! Even so, black cats have lower adoption rates, so consider taking one in. Trust me, they’re not plotting to kill you – well, no more than any other cat.
August 18 is the perfect chance to show your affection with Bad Poetry Day. Write some awful prose for your loved one (or your new black cat). Here’s a head start: Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Some poems rhyme, This one doesn’t.
August 19 is one for the shutterbugs with Photography Day. If you’re like me, you might try to use this as an excuse to convince your spouse to get you that new lens you’ve been coveting, or maybe you’d like to see my 1500 cat photos?
August 20 is a holiday I would just as soon not think about: World Mosquito Day. Sadly, I feel certain some mosquito out there is just dying to celebrate by having me as a snack! I can hear him now inviting all his friends and family. Who thinks of these days?!
August 21 caters to the sweet tooth again by celebrating National Spumoni Day. Spumoni is apparently a frozen desert that originated with the Italians. In Canada, they celebrate this day on November 13. I call it “Macy’s puts up their Christmas decorations day!”
August 22 reminds me of an old joke: two men are sitting on a bench, one comments “my wife is an angel.” The other sighs and says “You’re lucky, mine’s still alive.” Do a good deed today and honor Be An Angel Day. Just don’t take it too literally.
August 23 is a holiday in which I’m certain calories don’t count: National Sponge Cake Day. With a dessert as light and fluffy as sponge cake, most of the calories are just floating around in the ether, right? If you need full justification, tell yourself you’re honoring Queen Victoria. Rumor is that spongecake slathered in jam was her favorite teatime snack. Don’t you deserve to treat yourself like a queen?
August 24 marks the 9th anniversary of a very sad day in history: Pluto Demoted Day. Didn’t we all grow up learning “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”? All hope is not lost though as recent discoveries may vindicate us all. If not, we will just have to write songs for our dwarf planet in honor of International Strange Music Day.
August 25 is Kiss and Make Up Day. Sure, we both know that your partner was wrong, but on this one day maybe we can both overlook that and well, kiss and make up. I’m certain they’ll be wrong again tomorrow.
August 26 proves that it’s true that every dog has his (or her) day. It happens to be today! I’m pretty certain this was included because August holds not one but two cat holidays, but hey we’ll throw ’em a bone anyway!
August 27 I’m fairly certain exists simply to fill a gap as it is literally Just Because Day. In thinking about it though it’s the perfect day to do something random. Send a friend a funny card. Jump in a puddle. Stand in the back of the elevator and sing Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of your lungs. Just because.
August 28 seems like the sort of holiday made for nerds, but I beg to differ. Bow Tie Day is actually the perfect day to tie on (or clip on) your best bow tie and show it off to the world. It would be more perfect if it was Matt Smith’s (the Eleventh Doctor’s) birthday, but sadly that is October 28. Even so, bow ties really are cool.
August 29 lures us back towards food with More Herbs, Less Salt Day. Cutting one’s salt is almost always a good idea. For herbs, I recommend parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. I don’t have a cure though for the Scarborough Fair ear worm I just put in your head. Sorry about that.
August 30 contains what I believe are two of the best holidays in existence: Toasted Marshmallow Day and Slinky Day. Just be sure not to toast your slinky, because I’m pretty sure that’s an environmental hazard!
August 31 wraps up the month of August and sadly, the summer, with National Eat Outside Day. For those in cooler climates, the days are getting noticeably shorter, and there’s beginning to be a nip in the air. You can help the mosquitoes celebrate too by being their last meal of the summer!
Jul 01 2015
Everyone is aware of the major holidays. Sure, people observe things like Canada Day, the Fourth of July, Easter, Mother’s Day, etc. What often goes unacknowledged, however, are the more unusual holidays. When is the last time you observed Manatee Appreciation Day or Tolkien Reading Day, (March 25th) or even Elvis’ birthday (August 8th)?
Given that July has two of the aforementioned major holidays, it seems appropriate that it is also National Picnic Month, National Hot Dog Month, National Ice Cream Month and most importantly, National Anti-Boredom Month.
July 1 is Canada Day. Oddly enough, National Poutine Day is April 11. One would think that those in charge of these things would have planned better, but alas, no. According to Ottawa Magazine, the best place to picnic in Canada’s capital city is Watson’s Mill. Slightly off the beaten path, it provides a quiet spot to spread your blanket and enjoy your maple spread. While there, perhaps you can take a couple of hours to pull out your tablet and stream any of the many movies with Ottawa’s beloved native son, Dan Ackroyd.
In addition to Canada Day, one should also be certain to observe International Joke Day with your favorite bad pun. (What kind of flooring do lizards have? Reptile!)
Moving on to July 2nd, we have World UFO Day. I’ll pass on your regards to my favorite Martian.
July 3rd is a little less exciting with National Disobedience Day. I demand that you refuse to celebrate this one.
This brings us to July 4th. Of course, everyone recognizes this day as American Independence Day, but did you know that it’s also National BBQ Spareribs Day? Sounds like the perfect meal while also celebrating National Hillbilly Day and National Country Music day!
If you’re not too exhausted after your Independence Day celebrations, you can celebrate National Apple Turnover day and National Graham Cracker Day on July 5th. I don’t know how graham crackers and apple turnovers would taste together, but what better day to find out? Just be careful how many you eat since it is also National Bikini Day!
July 6 happens to be one of my favorite days in the Offbeat Almanac as it is National Fried Chicken Day! As with National Poutine Day, you would think those in charge of these things would have made it coincide with Colonel Sanders birthday (September 9), but unfortunately we were again not consulted on these matters. No one is completely certain when the idea of frying chicken came about, but it is known that the Ancient Romans used to fry chicken with olive oil, fish sauce, and various herbs and spices. Sounds delicious and the perfect dish to take along with you while you’re in the park still observing National Picnic Month!
July 7, marks both Chocolate Day and National Strawberry Sundae Day which seems fitting in a month that celebrates, in part, ice cream. July 7 also marks the birthday of Otto Rohwedder, who invented sliced bread. Which I suppose makes every July 7th since the best thing that’s happened since sliced bread!
July 8 has another of my favorite holidays: Video Games Day. If by this time you’re sick of the summer heat and humidity, then what better excuse to cancel all your plans and stay inside? While you’re playing, you can snack on a candy bar in honor of National Milk Chocolate with Almonds Day! Or, if you prefer, you can queue up your favorite comedy on Netflix as a way to observe SCUD Day! (Savor the Comic, Unplug the Drama Day) Come to think of it, that sounds like a great way to celebrate nearly every day!
If you’re not a chocolate fan or your sweet tastes run of a simpler nature, then July 9th – National Sugar Cookie Day – is for you! Give some to your favorite little kid, send them home to their parents and enjoy the show! Don’t worry, you can thank me later.
On July 10, after you’ve binged on Netflix and played all your video games, you might feel a need to venture outside again. What better day for that than Teddy Bear Picnic Day? Grab your beloved teddy bear, pack a lunch, and embrace the day. Don’t worry about getting strange looks. It’s also National Pina Colada Day so just raise your glass and smile! Perhaps you’ll make a new friend in time for Cheer Up The Lonely Day on July 11!
Skipping ahead past World Population Day (July 11) and National Pecan Pie Day (July 12) to July 13 which has two holidays that go well together: Embrace Your Geekiness Day and Barbershop Music Appreciation Day. Let your geek flag fly and join a barbershop quartet! Ask your new friend and your teddy bear to come along for support!
July 14 is most noted for Bastille Day, but did you also know that it’s Pandemonium Day and National Nude Day? You can celebrate by creating a little pandemonium streaking at a baseball game!
July 15 has three holidays that are especially important to animal lovers: National Pet Fire Safety Day, National I Love Horses Day, and Cow Appreciation Day. Go hug your cow or horse while checking their fire safety plan. One can never be too careful!
July 16 is National Corn Fritters Day and Fresh Spinach Day. While I’m all for corn fritters, I’d just as soon skip over the spinach!
Find some respite from the heavy foods and summer heat on July 17 with National Peach Ice Cream Day! Sprinkle a little cinnamon on top and share it with your pet pig for Yellow Pig Day!
On July 18 get away from all the sweets with Caviar Day. Sure it’s expensive and kind of gross, but never fear it’s also Toss Away the Should Haves and Could Haves Day! So for one day kick back and live like one of the 1%!
July 19 tells us that having days dedicated to specific ice cream flavors isn’t good enough. Thus we have National Ice Cream Day! It’s also National Daiquiri Day so I suggest a little experimentation: Daiquiri ice cream!
Next, we come to July 20 in which we have National Fortune Cookie Day and National Get Out of the Dog House Day. Maybe you can take your spouse to their favorite Chinese restaurant as a token of goodwill. Hopefully your fortune cookie will have some sage advice on how to fix whatever you did wrong!
July 21 kicks off National Junk Food Day. Finally, a holiday that I can really get into! Of course, this begs the question of what is junk food precisely? Obviously it’s food that is considered bad for you but almost anything in excess is bad for you. Just ask the guy in China whose eyes turned green after eating too many river snails! (Seriously, look it up!)
For me, celebrating National Junk Food Day is likely going to entail a juicy hot dog, some onion rings, maybe some chocolate, and then later that night, lots and lots of regret with a nice helping of heartburn!
July 22 was surely invented as the perfect follow up to National Junky Food Day, for today is Hammock Day! What better excuse for resting off all the junk food you ate yesterday? Don’t forget your sunscreen of course, since it’s not National Lobster Day (June 15)!
July 23rd may seem repetitive in that it is Hot Dog Day, but who says we can’t spice it up a little? Bratwursts are technically a hot dog, right? So fire up the grill, relish in your favorite bratwurst, lay back in that hammock and ketchup on a good book! (Get it? Relish? Ketchup? Sorry I’ll save that for Tell an Old Joke Day on July 24.)
July 24 is a great day in a week that contains National Junk Food Day and that is Drive Thru Day! It is also National Tequila Day and National Cousins Day so call your favorite cousin, confess your recent junk food binges, and drown your regret!
July 25 gets slightly away from the junk food theme with Culinarians Day. You don’t need to be a chef or enjoy cooking to celebrate this day. Go visit your folks (or parental figure) a day early for Parents Day, and enjoy their culinary skills.
July 26 in addition to being Parents Day also happens to be Aunt and Uncle day. On top of that it happens to be National Bagelfest Day. Celebrate by checking out that new bagel shop you’ve been wanting to try with Mom, Dad or one of their siblings.
July 27 will definitely be a fan favorite as it is National Scotch Day. Some trivia: under the Scotch Whiskey Regulations of 2009, scotch must be produced and distilled in Scotland, have a minimum alcohol by volume (ABV) of 40 percent (which means it’s 80 proof), and be aged at least three years in Scottish oak casks. Wow, people take scotch seriously! Just don’t imbibe too much or you may be faced with a police officer explaining to you that wearing pants is still required for Take Your Pants for a Walk Day!
July 28 offers the perfect follow up to the exercise and drinking you did yesterday with National Milk Chocolate Day. Milk Chocolate is one of my favorites so I’ll be celebrating this day. National Hamburger Day is also celebrated on this day, but I’m not sure how a hamburger made of milk chocolate would be so I suggest you don’t combine your festivities.
July 29 I predict is going to be another favorite for many: National Lasagna Day. I’m not a fan of lasagna myself so I won’t be marking this occasion, but it just so happens to also be National Chicken Wing Day which is a holiday I am absolutely in favor of!
July 30 presents an excellent way to wrap up a month of food with National Cheesecake Day. Cheesecake is the one thing I’ve heard many people say they love almost more than they love their spouse or significant other. In fact, if anyone has an amazing recipe for gluten-free cheesecake crust, my own husband might well love you forever!
July 31 ends the month on a slightly healthier note with National Raspberry Cake Day. I think cheesecake counts as a cake, so celebrate by eating some of the leftovers from yesterday!