Friday, February 27, 2009

Review: The Monster Garden by Vivien Alcock

I was reading The Monster Garden around the same time I was reading Bruce Coville, and loved it just as much. (I reviewed one of his books here.) It's a kids' book, although I'm not sure what age the protagonist is exactly (12ish?), originally published in 1988 and featuring a variation on the "secret pet" story. This was the second book to ever make me cry, after Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher.

It'd been a long time since I'd read or thought about this, and I didn't remember a lot of it so it was almost like reading it again for the first time. I cried again, and I loved it just as much as before if not even more.

Frankie Stein is the daughter of a research scientist. She accidentally creates a baby monster with unwanted cells from her father's laboratory, which first scares her and then starts endearing itself to her (and the rest of us.) She enlists a girl who's good with babies/animals to help her take care of it and keep it secret, so that no evil scientists can take it away. But the monster keeps growing...

My favorite thing about this book is the way Monnie, the monster, is treated by the author. I love him/her/it to death, but I'm never told "here, you're supposed to love this." My second favorite part is the relationship between Frankie and Monnie and how it grows, how well I come to understand them over the course of the story.

A lot of basic kid themes are present, including sibling rivalry and the special dynamic friendship has at that age. (And the friendship subplot is one of the most believable things in the book. You'll know what I mean when you read it, it's not what you're usually fed in these books.) I really like Frankie, and how practical she is with herself even while she's having a completely emotional and impractical reaction to something. She's the kind of person I'd like to be my friend, and when I'm reading The Monster Garden it's like she is. Also, I love Alf.

This is Vivien Alcock's absolute best book, and suitable for all ages. Unfortunately a lot of her books weren't this good, a lot of them had weak endings as I recall, but the other one I liked was The Mysterious Mr. Ross, and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville is the first book I'd recommend to go with this The Monster Garden.

Buy The Monster Garden

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Interview with Robert Paul Weston, author of Zorgamazoo!

Those of you who have been reading this blog for any length of time have probably heard me mention Zorgamazoo once or twice. Possibly more than twice, because I'm crazy about this book. (You can read my full review here, complete with a short summary and a few excerpts.) The author, Robert Paul Weston, graciously agreed to a short interview this week!

If you haven't read the book and are too lazy to click over to the review, Zorgamazoo is a kids' fantasy novel written entirely in verse that was released last October. And without further ado, my friends, the interview.

FF: How long did it take you to write Zorgamazoo?

RPW: It took me about three years, but not full time. I was also working and going to graduate school.

FF: What was your goal for the book? Why did you write it?

RPW: To be honest, once I began my goal was simply to complete it, to challenge myself and see if it was possible. And as for why I wrote it...I suppose because I had a story to tell. The idea came to me like all ideas, which is to say mysteriously and without warning. At the time -- several years ago now -- I didn't consider myself a children's writer, so initially the story didn't appeal to me. But I'd speculated about a novel in verse from time-to-time and I thought, what if I told this particular story in rhyme? Would that make it more appealing to me? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes.

FF: Are there any specific books or other media that you feel influence your writing in general or Zorgamazoo in particular?

RPW: In fact, there are many. First, the obvious influences -- Roald Dahl and Dr. Suess -- but they're sort of ubiquitous in nearly every English-speaking childhood. In a way, we're all influenced by those two in one way or another. I was also a fan of Edward Lear's nonsense poetry as a child (and astute readers will pick up on the homage I paid him in chapter 14).

I also looked to modern examples of epic verse as inspirational examples of what was possible; notably Vikram Seth's novel The Golden Gate, which is written entirely in Pushkin sonnets, and The Wild Party by Joseph March. Merely knowing pieces like these existed helped sustain my momentum while writing Zorgamazoo.

Music was also an inspiration, as I've always been a fan of lyrics. I think songwriters are the unsung heroes (pun intended) of contemporary form poetry. Of course, when I say "contemporary," I'm including the lyricists of Tin Pan Alley and writers of the Great American Songbook. I even took inspiration from musical theatre -- W.S. Gilbert, for instance, whose topsy-turvy songs are composed with an almost despotic adherence to a given metre.

FF: What do you read for fun?

RPW: I'm a slow, methodical but dedicated reader, and there are few things I love more than getting lost in a book. I tend not to read much children's literature, however, but since producing some of it myself, I've made an effort to bone up, and I've discovered some incredible gems I would have overlooked otherwise. I adore David Almond, for instance -- Skellig is pure genius. My favourite books from recent memory are Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer and The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill.

FF: Do you have a particular writing process? Story first and then rhyme, vice versa, or something completely different? What's your favorite part?

RPW: The story always comes first. I've unfortunately scrapped a lot of writing that wasn't well planned. But while the overall story of Zorgamazoo didn't deviate much from the beginning, there are certainly individual scenes that were altered because I fell in love with a particular couplet. Characters turning right instead of left, maybe, because "heft" and "bereft" wouldn't cut it.My favourite part? comes near the end and it'd be a spoiler if I told. But I can say that my favourite part to read aloud is the second half of chapter 3, when Dr. LeFang stalks onstage for the first time.

FF: What's the best part about having a published novel? How about the worst?

RPW: Let's start with the worst. That's when your editor tells you to murder your darlings, meaning to cut out some part of the book you adore, and then has the audacity to ask you to go ahead and grow yourself some new darlings. The feeling goes south from there when you realize she's absolutely correct. The best part, however, comes afterwards. That's when you get a message from a kid who tells you he's never finished reading a single book in his whole life, until now...and you believe him because he's misspelled every word in the email.

FF: Would you ever accept an offer for a movie adaptation of Zorgamazoo?

RPW: Uh, yes please. Are you offering?

FF: I think Zorgamazoo is fantastic as a stand-alone novel, but how would you feel about a sequel?

RPW: The schedule for my next two novels is a little too tight for producing another work of long form verse, so those next two will be in prose. However, I would love to have the opportunity to revisit Katrina and Morty in the future. So the short answer is yes, I'd like to do a sequel, but you'll have to give me some time.

FF: The Author page on says your next novel is called Grimm City. What can you tell us about it?

RPW: In many ways, Grimm City is the antithesis of Zorgamazoo. Whereas the latter is humorous and whimsical, Grimm City is rather dark, features more sophisticated themes and it aimed at an older YA audience. It's a literary thriller set in a mysterious, isolated city populated with skewed versions of fairy tale characters; and as I mentioned, it's a prose novel -- no rhyming here. At the same time, however, certain similarities have emerged: First, I hope it will stand (as I hope Zorgamazoo stands) as a different kind of fantasy novel, and second, also like Zorgamazoo, it has at its heart a strong but strained father-son relationship.

FF: Thanks for giving us your time! Is there anything else you'd like to add?

RPW: Only that I'd like to thank readers who have sent me their comments, appreciation and words of encouragement. Writing can be a lonely pursuit at times, so it helps tremendously to know someone out there is reading your book and enjoying it. So thank you. I wasn't kidding with that earlier question -- hearing from readers is truly the best part.

You can visit for more info about the book, news, all that lovely stuff, or visit Rob himself at his blog, Way of the West. You can buy the hardcover here. (I already went and bought it after originally reading a second-hand ARC, and it's lovely. Perfect size, perfect type... seriously. Buy the thing.)

Rob, thanks again, and Grimm City sounds fantastic! Keep up the good work!

Buy Zorgamazoo

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

This is one of the few books I’ve literally not been able to put down and had to read in one sitting. Its premise is one I had never seen before, as of last year when I read it and still, and that’s pretty rare where fantasy novels are concerned.

The odd-numbered chapters of this book deal with a place simply called “The City,” where dead people live until they are forgotten on Earth. At one time the city was huge, and no inhabitant could ever dream of meeting everyone who lived there. But now the city is shrinking, and no one knows why. The even-numbered chapters tell the story of a woman named Laura Byrd who is trapped in Antarctica, alone at a research station with no means of communicating with the rest of the world. She slowly withdraws into her own thoughts, and most importantly her memories.

Kevin Brockmeier weaves these two stories together masterfully, constantly dropping hints but never revealing too much of the story at one time. Each clue slowly makes what is happening more clear, making for a gripping read. Even if you guess the story like I did, as it unfolds you're drawn more and more into the surreal experience of listening to Laura’s thoughts as if they were your own, and you want the story to be complete.

Each character is fully formed with all the good and bad qualities of any other person you would meet on the street, and their strange situations only make that more clear. I didn't find them personally compelling as individuals, but that wasn't quite the point.

The important thing to remember when you pick this up is that it's not your typical fantasy book or thriller. It's more literary. The plot moves slowly and it's very introspective, without a lot of "fantasy." Be prepared to sit and think, or just sit and drift. Read it when you've got some time on your hands, especially if you're inclined to stop and process while you read.

Buy The Brief History of the Dead

Monday, February 16, 2009

Review: Kingdom of the Occult by Walter Martin

Bonus review this week, seeing as I'm pretty sure this review is more than a few days overdue. (Very sorry, Thomas Nelson. This book is freaking huge.)
The Kingdom of the Occult is an updated, October 2008 version of The Kingdom of the Cults, originally published in 1965. It is 733 pages long, 678 if you don't count the Q&A appendix, counselling assessment appendix, bibliography, or index. It contains in-text footnotes, along with case studies, graphs, etc., and suggested resources at the end of each chapter.

The goal of this book is to investigate cults/cultism, examine cults' influence on America and the world, compare/contrast Christianity and cultism, and prepare Christians to speak to members of the occult. It aims to do this by historical analysis, theological evaluation of each cult's beliefs, and apologetic contrast between the cult and Christianity.
I had some issues with the theology presented, but I won't go into that. E-mail me if you want a rant. What I will say is that the main impression I got from the book was paranoia and Us vs. Them. My advice is to read it while you're awake and paying attention, to do wide research to back things up, and make sure to look up all the Bible references so you know what's being talked about.
This book would be very useful for any kind of research on the subject, much more than for casual reading. There's plenty of information, including statistics etc., that would come in really handy for papers or presentations, and it suggests or mentions plenty of other sources to look at for each topic that it addresses.

Buy The Kingdom of the Occult

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review: Evernight by Claudia Gray

Evernight is a YA vampire romance published last year, and at first glance it seems very much like a Twilight knock-off. However, while it may be a read-alike, it's not just a knock-off. It's an amazing, amazing, amazing addition to the genre, that far more people should have heard of by now. (Also, if you haven't read any summaries or Amazon reviews, DON'T. They'll give things away that you don't want to get until you're reading.)

Bianca is a new student at Evernight, a creepy Gothic boarding school where all the other students seem to be beautiful and rich. On her first day there she meets Lucas, a bronze-haired boy who is not only gorgeous, but seems to feel as out of place as she does. He's also got some anger issues and he's moody and secretive. They fall in love. There's also a third romance interest. I know, it sounds familiar. But bear with me for a few chapters.

Evernight knocks over all the tropes and cliches you're thinking of. I love Twilight, but I freely admit having some issues with it, and Evernight deals with all of those issues exactly the way I'd been wishing something would.

My favorite aspect of the book is the plot. It's perfectly crafted, and I'm in awe of the way Claudia Gray is in such control over it without making herself evident in every encounter. There's a lot of mystery and activeness here, for those of you who don't like nothing but romance, along with some delicious romantic intensity, and a few plot turns that will keep you up past your bedtime.

There's a variety of characters present and all of them are very real and organic. None of them fell into the cliches they might have been prone to, and their interactions were also very believable. (I don't know about you, but I hate those books where the characters are just talking heads. Everything these characters do is based directly on their motivations.) There's a lot of subtlety here, and Gray doesn't need to spell things out for us for us to understand them.

I have plenty more good things to say, but I won't spoil. Just read a copy for yourself. The sequel, Stargazer, is coming out on March 24. If you're looking for further recommendations let me know and I'll pass some on, but basically this is great for anybody who likes the genres.

Buy Evernight

Friday, February 6, 2009

Review: A Passion for Books by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan

I love to read books about books. I don't personally know that many bibliophiles, so I like the sense of community I get. I'm also interested in the history of books and bookmaking and book-people and everything else. Unfortunately, I find that a lot of these books-about-books start to ramble in the third or fourth chapter, and it can be difficult to actually obtain information from them.

This book's full title is "A Passion for Books: A book lover's treasury of stories, essays, humor, lore, and lists on collecting, reading, borrowing, lending, caring for, and appreciating books." Rather than being one person rambling, it is instead a collection of said stories, essays, humor, lore and lists, gathered from a wide variety of times, places, and people. Each essay explores a new topic, with plenty of useful information and interesting tidbits to sink my teeth into, without having so much that I'm overwhelmed or worse, bored.

There are cartoons, humorous essays, lists of must-reads, informative articles, and character sketches of the most famous (and infamous) bibliomaniacs. There's something to suit anyone's interests, or in my case, to suit all of my interests! Some of my favorites were the essays concerning book collecting, something I didn't know much about before. Other highlights were Umberto Eco's essays on how to run a public library and how to justify a private one... he's funnier than I gave him credit for!

This is definitely my favorite book in its field, but my other book-about-books review from November can be found here, and a list of a gazillion recommendations for more books can be found here. My favorite in the list is The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski.