Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another Year, Another Review

Better late than never! (Backdating this so it gets filed under 2013.) Yes! Here it comes! Dragon's Year in Review!

From a writing standpoint, it was a mixed bag. I did not submit enough, but I did win second place in the Tucson Weekly Erotic Fiction Contest and have a flash fiction forthcoming in Cheap Pop. I convinced two agents to look at one of my novels, one of whom passed with little commentary except to say that "the voice did not jibe" with him and there was no accounting for taste; he didn't like The New Yorker's taste in fiction either. The second still hasn't made up her mind. I've spent most of the year working on a monstrous novel, which is closing in on 800 pages and will need to be completely written when I reach the end.

My biggest coup was throwing caution to the wind and giving notice at my lucrative and reasonably reliable copywriting job. The real world was crushing me, and while I may starve, at least I shall starve as an artist. More news on that front is forthcoming.

Of course, I also got married; visited Death Valley, Sedona New York, LA, San Francisco, and Santa Fe, and took my mother-in-law on a 3-day road trip from Manhattan, Kansas to Tucson, Arizona that involved spending the night on a Mennonite farm in Oklahoma, visiting the Very Large Array in New Mexico, drinking margaritas in Albuquerque, and eating Pie in Pie Town; finally bought a beautiful wooden desk where I can work like a grown-up; organized all my nonfiction books by LOC designation, all my fiction books by the author's last name, and all my office supplies in such a way that I know exactly where everything is, but no one else can find it; made a not insignificant amount of art; read some good books, but not as many as I wanted to; and wrote some decent prose, but not as much as I wanted to.

In short, life happened. And now...

Dragon's 2013 Year in Review

Picture Books: 18
YA/Middle Grade Novels: 25
Adult novels: 12
Fairy Tale Collections: 1
Graphic Novels: 20
Nonfiction: 5
Memoir/Biography: 6
Plays: 1
Not Easily Categorized: 2

Total: 90

Could be better; could be worse. The intention for 2014 is to boost my number of reviews, both here and at Best Children's Books. Among other things.

Anyway, you know, keep reading. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Monster High

Written by: Lisi Harrison

First line: The fourteen-hour drive from Beverly Hills, California, to Salem, Oregon, had been total Gitmo.

Why you should read this book: Melody's parents force her to get a nose job, supposedly to help her asthma, but really because their family's only value is ageless beauty. Frankie's parents force her to wear wool pants suits and full bodied makeup because she has green skin and they want her to lead a normal life even though she's a monster they built in their home laboratory. A bunch of teenagers without enough personality to even pass as cliches roll woodenly around this nonsensical book, ostensibly worrying about clothes, boys, brand names, and identity, but in reality doing nothing more than selling plastic Mattel dolls with interchangeable body parts and outfits that would make a whore blush.

Why you shouldn't read this book: This is literally the worst book I have ever read. And I have read the entire Twilight series.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: A Novel of War and Survival

Written by: Louise Murphy

First line: Caught between green earth and blue sky, only truth kept me sane, but now lies disturb my piece.

Why you should read this book: Set in the waning, starving, terror-filled days at the dragging end of World War II, in small village on the edge of a dark forest in Poland, this is the story of a Jewish family forced into hiding as they flee Nazi atrocities. Told to forsake their given names and pose as Christians, Hansel and Gretel survive by the grace of a kind-hearted outcast and her unusual family in a twist on the now-familiar hidden-child story, while their father and stepmother join the partisans and engage in guerrilla warfare with the Germans. Death and horror no longer lurk in the darkness but walk openly through the village and the forests, destroying without reason or thought.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Atrocity. More atrocity. Pain, suffering, and further atrocity. I get why it's important to read Holocaust narratives, but I will never, ever understand the appeal of Holocaust fiction. Nothing nice happens in this book, but it's got 297 pages of bad things that the author created and set loose into the world for some purpose.

The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Translated by: Jack Zipes

First line: Many are the fairy tales and myths that have been spread about the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm.

Why you should read this book: Considered by many to be the definitive translation, this scholarly edition includes the original 210 stories (Cinderella, Snow White, and so on) along with 40 stories previously unknown to English speakers. Includes a nice historical essay on the Brothers Grimm and their work, along with annotations about the tales' origins, and even a list of the original contributors with a little biographical information. Some stories also include 100-year-old illustrations commissioned for an early American volume of fairy tales.

Why you shouldn't read this book: As far as you're concerned, the definitive edition is always the one produced by the mouse.

Dancing in the Wings

Written by: Kadir Nelson

First line: My mom calls me Sassy, 'cause I like to put my hands on my hips and 'cause I always have something to say.

Why you should read this book: Taller than the other kids, with long legs and big feet, Sassy has always lived for ballet. Teased by smaller dancers, she worries that she'll always be too big for the boys to pick up and too tall to dance in a line with other girls, condemned to dance only in the wings. When given the opportunity to audition for a prestigious summer dance festival in the nation's capital, Sassy does everything in her power to stand out from the other dancers, but learns that it's unnecessary to do anything more than be herself and try her best.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You always work to fit in.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

Written by: Ian Falconer

First line: Olivia was depressed.

Why you should read this book: Precocious piglet Olivia is back with a grade-school existential crisis: if all little girls are princesses, then princesses can't be very special anymore, and Olivia's sole intention in life is to stand out and express her unique personality. Adults enjoy the snappy and intelligent writing, devoid of treacle, while kids appreciate Olivia's spunk and self-actualization. If you're raising your child to have a strong sense of agency, the Olivia books are a nice complement.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You prefer your children not to have any sense of agency; you've been dreaming a pink princess to spoil forever.

Zita the Spacegirl

Written by: Ben Hatke

First line: Finders keepers!

Why you should read this book: Exuberant child Zita pushes a red button she found in a meteorite crater and accidentally opens up a hole in space time, into which her friend Joseph is sucked. Filled with remorse, Zita follows Joseph to a strange, doomed world, populated by an endless array of space creatures, most of whom are desperate to leave before an asteroid destroys the place. Zita must navigate this unusual planet, sorting out friends and enemies, to rescue Joseph before they all die horrible, vaporized deaths in this adorable graphic novel for young readers.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You would sacrifice your friends to save yourself.

The Princess and the Pig

Written by: Jonathan Emmett and Poly Bernatene

First line: Not that long ago, in a kingdom not far from here, a farmer was traveling home from the market with a cartload of straw.

Why you should read this book: A lovely modern fairy tale in the fractured tradition, a princess and a pig accidentally switch places due to the queen’s utter negligence and lack of motherly sentiment, and those around them accept it as magic, because it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in books. The princess grows up as a farmer’s daughters, beloved by her adopted family, while the pig remains a pig, albeit one dressed in gowns and wimples. When the princess discovers her true identity, she makes a good faith effort to rectify the misunderstanding.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Perhaps you lack the capacity to comprehend satire or appreciate ridiculousness. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Alex and Me

 Written by: Irene M. Pepperberg

First line: How much impact could a one-pound ball of feathers have on the world?

Why you should read this book: When Pepperberg set out to test her own hypotheses on the intelligence of birds, specifically in relation to the new field of human-animal communication, she determined to keep her study scientific, and allowed a pet store employee to randomly select the African gray parrot whose quirky personality and obvious ability to reason and communicate would one day captivate the world. Alex, an intelligent and bossy bird, soon demonstrated his ability to identify colors, numbers, and objects; to understand concepts such as more, less, and same; to express his desires, insecurities, and emotions to the world; and to surprise his keepers by exhibiting talents they hadn’t taught him, such as the ability to sound out words or understand the concept of zero. After thirty years of revelation, Alex’s premature death inspired Pepperberg to set aside her scientific detachment and write the story of her relationship with a very clever bird and the way in which Alex’s talents shaped the course of her life’s work and touched her emotional core.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: This is a fast and personal narrative; readers searching for more in-depth knowledge of Alex’s training and its relevance to animals studies will want to consult some of Pepperberg’s scholarly work.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Doctor Sleep

Written by: Stephen King

First line: On the second day of December in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado's great resort hotels burned to the ground.

Why you should read this book: Picking up where The Shining left off, Doctor Sleep follows Dan Torrance from a young boy learning to deal with ghosts to a young man suffering from the pain instilled by his gift and poisoned by his father's legacy of alcoholism. Dan finds a better place, where he can pursue sobriety, find his true calling in life, and make friends with a magical baby named Abra, but as Abra grows up, her abilities comes to the attention of the True Knot, a group of traveling psychic vampires who eat kids like her. The odds are against Dan and Abra as they work to outmaneuver a creature much older, much more experienced, and much more endowed with resources than they are.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're a drunk and you don't care how it affects those around you.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What about the Water: 101 Dervish Tales

Written by: Jami Milan

First line: A dervish in the village customarily told a tale each evening after dinner, wherever he was.

Why you should read this book: Dervishes, or Sufis, are a group of mystics whose philosophy emphasizes living in the moment, releasing that which does not serve, and recognizing the divine in all things. These stories read much like parables, with many levels of meaning, alone with a quiet humor, overt messages, and useful advice. Dervishes talk to inanimate objects, learn powerful life lessons from small happenings, help their neighbors, and seek out simple solutions and simple truths.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: You have proprietary feelings toward your anger and discontent.

Monday, October 28, 2013

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Written by: Max Brooks

First line: it goes by many names: "The Crisis," "The Dark Years," "The Walking Plague," as well as newer and more "hip" titles such as "World War Z" or "Z War One."

Why you should read this book: It's a highly readable socio-political deconstruction of global culture and military and disaster preparedness, cleverly disguised as a zombie story (cleverly disguised as an oral history). While it does have its gory moments, the story itself is about the human element, how individuals, governments, and armed forces in various countries personally experienced and responded to the walking dead, and it's much more about hope, perseverance, and the indomitability of the human spirit than it is about eating brains or scaring readers. Life persists, says this popular novel (which was made into an apparently unrelated and unwatchable Brad Pitt vehicle) although death pursues it relentlessly, and the question is not how to survive, but how much we want to survive and what we are willing to sacrifice to remain human.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Zombies, death, guns, fire, decapitation, dead animals, walls of bodies, cannibalism, lies, betrayal, abandonment, and it's still not really a horror story.

Lucy and the Anvil

Written by: Adam Kline

First line: The anvil had never made a friend prior to Lucy.

Why you should read this book: Beautifully and whimsically illustrated, this labor-of-love picture book was funded by 560 separate benefactors (or which I was one) on Kickstarter, and was billed as an effort to create a perfect bedtime story. In the unlikely friendship between a little girl name Lucy and an apparently inanimate but sentient anvil, there is no lack of love, but the immobile and limbless anvil soon begins to question its own suitability for friendship due to its inability to play or give hugs. Of course, the anvil finds that it still has something to offer Lucy, and that, sometimes, it is better to receive than to give.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You are a colossal grouch and you don't want to cheer up.

This book is not available for purchase on Amazon at this time. Some material may be found at the illustrator's online store.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Written by: Alison Bechdel

First line: Like many fathers, mine could occasionally be prevailed upon for a spot of "airplane."

Why you should read this book: Bechdel, whose name has become synonymous with the act of determining whether a work of cinema treats female characters as actual human beings or set pieces to illustrate a male hero's masculinity, has aptly named this memoir a "tragicomic," as it is written in the graphic novel medium, and has its (wry) comic moments, but ultimately demonstrates the tragedy of life in the closet. As Bechdel matures and discovers that she is a lesbian, she struggles with the new understanding that, throughout his entire marriage to her mother, her father has carried on affairs with much younger men. Through an examination of letters, journal entries, classic literature, the details of her family's house and business, and certain episodes throughout her life, the author comes to terms with her father's reality and his legacy to her.

Why you shouldn't read this book: The tragedy. Also, if you will lose your mind upon witnessing tasteful illustrations of cunnilingus.


Written by: Donna Jo Napoli

First line: "Mel, hurry up!" Brigid calls, splashing through puddles, heedless of the mud that has come up through the wooden-plank paving of the road.

Why you should read this book: Diverging somewhat from her typical novelization of fairy tales format and magical themes, Napoli creates a nearly whole cloth tale and a wide swath of the ancient world from a snippet of an old Norse saga. In Melkorka's world, slaves are simply unprotected people walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the young princess and her little sister, escaping a potential war in their own kingdom, find themselves lost to their homeland and destined for servitude. But Melkorka learns there is great strength in silent beauty, and while she cannot recover what has been lost, she can forge a more hopeful existence for herself once she embraces her own power.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Although it is handled with grace and euphemisms, this young adult novel contains several accounts of rape, with the princess eventually developing affection for her rapist.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution

Written by: Pagan Kennedy

First line: Michael Dillon, a bearded medical student, fiddled with his pipe and then lit it nervously.

Why you should read this book: Over a decade before Christine Jorgenson came out as the first person to use surgery and hormones to change her expressed gender, Michael Dillon succeeded in becoming the man he’d always wanted to be using testosterone and an unusual surgical technique pioneered to help soldiers injured in World War I. Although Dillon was more or less able to completely pass as a man for most of his adult life, and even helped a male-to-female friend obtain surgery that was, at the time, illegal, his brother, an English baron, suppressed the story long after his death. Here is the history of a man determined to refine himself into a person of superlative body and spirit, and the difficulties encountered in a life lived according to his own principles, regardless of what others believed.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: You’ve ever told a family member not to show their face around the old homestead ever again.

Dance Hall of the Dead

Written by: Tony Hillerman

First line: Shulawitsi, the Little Fire God, member of the Council of the Gods and Deputy to the Sun, had taped his track shoes to his feet.

Why you should read this book: When a Zuni boy dies and a Navajo boy disappears, Lt. Joe Leaphorn is sent to the reservation to look for the missing youth, who is definitely a person of interest in a seemingly motiveless murder. Leaphorn is a true and dedicated detective, willing to do the plodding work it takes to unravel this case: stake out a hippie commune from a cold and snowy cliff, examine all his knowledge of comparative mythology to understand the characters involved, get shot with an animal tranquilizer dart and spend the night hallucinating in a crack in a rock beside a beautiful high school dropout. It becomes increasingly clear to Leaphorn that no one cares about the death of one Indian boy and the disappearance of another, except as they pertain to a big narcotics bust, which makes him all the more determined to discover the truth, even if there will be no one left to share it with at the end of the book.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: You’re really, really wrapped in your Ph.D. dissertation.