Friday, November 30, 2012

November Update!

I'm excited to officially announce that my newest YA novel THE MONSTER APOCALYPSE is coming to Amazon NEXT WEEK!! I'm doing the final revisions over the weekend and will have the book up sometime between Tuesday and Thursday.

Check back this weekend for a reveal of Katie Bode's amazing COVER, and then I'll let you know when the book is officially for sale.

I hope you guys like it! THE MONSTER APOCALYPSE... just in time for the holiday season! :)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Well, I’m going to be doing something that I imagine few book bloggers ever have: I’m going to read all 14 of L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books, one a month, all the way to the end of 2013.

I first got this idea over the summer, when I was writing my YA novel Over the Rainbow (currently out to literary agents), a modern update of The Wizard of Oz. When I was a kid I got the first 8 Oz books but only read two or three of them. I remember falling in love with the characters, with the world, but never taking the time to tackle the complete series. And going into 2013, as I look at a potential major rewrite of my novel, and possibly even come up with sequel ideas, I thought it would be important (and fun!) to read Baum’s series, one at a time, and take you along for the ride. 

And we start with the original, and to what to Baum was always intended to be the only. Instead of picking up any old copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I found an awesome edition of the book at the local library calledThe Annotated Wizard of Oz, which has the complete text, as well as hundreds of pages of trivia, biographies, funny anecdotes, and more. I devoured this 400-page book in about five days and loved every second of it. The book starts with about 100 pages on Baum’s history, and how he came to write Oz, and its thirteen sequels. I was unaware that Baum had been publishing multiple books throughout the years before Oz came along, including 55 novels, 83 short stories, over 200 poems, and more. Even after writing The Wizard of Oz, he set out to redefine himself with other works of fantasy for children, all works that have been forgotten today. He didn’t want or need to write a second Oz book; he only did so when he was inundated with letters from children who demanded he write a sequel. All these years later, we can be glad he did, because these books are pure magic, and I’m excited to dig through this series, which includes at least 8 or 9 books I’ve never picked up before.

Not having read The Wizard of Oz since childhood, I was struck by a lot of things, mostly obvious of which how different the endeavor is from the classic 1939 MGM production, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’d been so long I just figured the book and the film were sort of similar, but I was totally wrong! Here, for example, are some major differences in the book:
  • No time is spent in Kansas hardly at all in the beginning. Within just a couple pages we’re tossed into Oz. There’s barely any Uncle Henry or Auntie Em, and none of the other characters from the film.
  • Dorothy is about 5 or 6 years old, definitely not teenage like in the movie. Oz producers initially wanted Shirley Temple, who would’ve been more in line with the age in the book. 
  • The shoes are silver, not ruby! Apparently ruby was chosen for the movie because red would look better against yellow on film. 
  • The Wicked Witch of the West is barely in the book! She doesn’t greet Dorothy at the site of her sister’s death, she doesn’t shout at them from atop a roof by the Tin Woodman. The Wicked Witch is in one single chapter about halfway through the book, and she’s described as short, old, mannish, one-eyed. Nothing like the movie!
  • No singing (obviously)!
  • The scarecrow, tin man, and cowardly lion all reveal to Dorothy in detail their histories, something the movie barely touched on. Did you know, for example, that the tin man was in love once and that’s why he needs a heart? 
  • The poppy field Dorothy and the lion get sleepy in is not enchanted by the wicked witch, but simply is what it is! Even worse, they leave the lion behind for a short while!
  • There are a ton of mini stories not featured in the movie, like a stork saving the scarecrow’s life, and the tin man beheading a wildcat and saving the lives of mice. Yes, that’s right, there’s a beheading. Not exactly material for 5 year olds. 
  • They have to wear green sunglasses in the Emerald City, or otherwise they’d be blinded by the bright lights!
  • The Wizard’s reveal as a normal old man doesn’t come at the very end, but arrives with another 50-60 pages of the book still to go!
  • Where the film ends, the book is just getting started, with plenty more adventures in store! Dorothy in the book does not just click her heels together; she has to travel all the way to the land of Glinda, the Good Witch (who is the witch of the South here) to find a way home. Along the way the scarecrow, tin man, and lion take advantage of their newfound traits. And they stumble across the Attacking Trees, which was a deleted scene nixed from the film!
All in all, I’ve have to say I still prefer the movie, but the book is loads of fun, too. I love Baum’s simple, classic writing style, which doesn’t overload the reader with unnecessary information. The whole adventure has a casual nature to it that makes for light, pleasing reading. I could totally see myself reading this book for a child of mine in the future. It’s filled with so many wondrous, magical characters, both the leads that are also in the movie, but also side characters who don’t even show up in the background in the famous film. The book is enchanting, and sets up so many questions about the world that it seems odd Baum didn’t intend to write any sequels. It’d be like if J.K. Rowling had written Sorcerer’s Stone then never wrote another Harry Potter. Doesn’t make sense. Therefore I’m glad I have many more opportunities to travel back to this world!

With my newest YA novel at the forefront of my mind, and with all of these Oz books to read, and with the awesome-looking Sam Raimi film opening in March, my life right now is consumed with Oz! And I couldn’t be happier. Check back next month for a look at the 1904 sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What I'm Reading (3)

Since last summer I've been trying to read one book every week. My life gets very busy, but I feel like if I'm going to be a working writer, I need to read just as much as I write. Every Monday I will post here what I'm currently reading, and I'll add the reviews once they become available as well.

This week's book...

I've been hearing about this book for awhile, and when I found a copy of it at my local library, I snatched it up without hesitation. I didn't realize until I looked him up this morning that Daniel Handler is the real name for the man who wrote the Lemony Snicket books. Cool! Can't wait to read this one. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Book Review: Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy touched me more than any book I’ve read in years. I’m gay. Have been pretty much since the beginning of time. (Of course I dabbled here and there—in the words of Ellen Degeneres, “who didn’t?”) Since I’ve started focusing on YA fiction, both in writing it and reading it, I’ve been on the lookout for solid gay YA books. I figured they were few and far between, but I’ve already picked up a few, including Definitely Positively Not and Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I’ve also written my first gay YA novel, about a fifteen-year-old lesbian who survives the rapture and battles dinosaurs on her journey to find her true love. There needs to be more gay YA fiction out there, and Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan, easily sets the benchmark for this small but growing genre.
Boy Meets Boy is magical, not for any other reason than it tells the love story of two high school boys and treats it as normal as if the romance were between two members of the opposite sex. In the world of this novel, people, young and old, are gay, and no one cares. There’s no big coming-out scenes, no scenes of suicide attempts, no depressing “why-can’t-I-just-be-normal” contemplation scenes. In the world of Boy Meets Boy, it’s normal for a fifteen-year-old boy to be infatuated with another boy, it’s normal for a cross-dresser to be both football quarterback and Prom Queen, it’s normal to be gay and have parents who actually love and respect you for who you are.
The book feels so modern, as we slowly but surely transform into a society where gay people can be married and have kids and be happy with no opposition, where people can love who they want to love and not feel guilty or be punished for it. Thus I’m surprised it’s nearly ten years old—the book was Levithan’s debut novel and came out in 2003, before Glee, before Modern Family, before Neil Patrick Harris outed himself, before even Ellen started her talk show! Clearly Levithan was ahead of his time, and part of me is sad I didn’t discover this book when it first came out, as it would have helped me with my own coming out, during those awkward years between 2003 and 2006. I needed to turn to my own art to help me through that difficult time, and in 2005 I wrote and directed a gay short film, that you can watch below.
Every year I feel lucky when I come across a book or two that I love, and this year I’ve already found two: John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy . (You better believe I’m excited to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the novel they co-authored together!) These two authors have inspired me to no end, and I’m ecstatic to read the rest of their work. They understand the teenage years more than any YA authors I’ve come across yet, and I feel privileged every time I sit down to read their prose and drop down into their worlds for a while. Looking for Alaska was a joy from beginning to end, but Boy Meets Boy is a particular revelation, because it gives all the young gay readers out there hope for a better community, a better world, and a better life. Don’t miss this amazing novel. I can’t recommend it enough.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What I'm Reading (2)

Since last summer I've been trying to read one book every week. My life gets very busy, but I feel like if I'm going to be a working writer, I need to read just as much as I write. Every Monday I will post here what I'm currently reading, and I'll add the reviews once they become available as well.

This week's book...

I spent most of my summer writing a YA novel that is in many ways a subversive modern telling of The Wizard of Oz, and being submersed in that world made me want to go back and check out the initial world L. Frank Baum created over a hundred years ago. This begins a 14-month challenge: one Wizard of Oz book a month, until all of Baum's Oz novels have been read. I've only read the first three books in the series, and I've always wanted to check out the rest. Now, finally, I'm going to read the entire series. I can't wait! 

This month I'm starting with The Wizard of Oz, but not just any edition -- the Annotated edition, which is filled with endless informative nuggets, full-sized color illustrations, a complete bio of Baum, and lots more. So much fun!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Life of Pi

I've been meaning to read Life of Pi for more than ten years. I was first introduced to this book during my freshman year of college, when I caught my surfer roommate, who wasn't much of a reader, devouring it one week in the spring. I asked him what it was about. He told me it was about a boy and a tiger trying to survive on a ship in the middle of the ocean. It sounded intriguing. But then I picked up one of the Harry Potter books again, and forgot about it. What's the best way to get a book in my hands and make me read it? Even ten years later? Make a movie adaptation! With a new major film coming out at the end of the month, directed by the master Ang Lee of all people, I knew I had to check out the book beforehand. I found a pristine, super low priced copy of the book at Grassroots (the best independent bookstore in Reno) and finally took a crack at it.

There are three sections to the book, and the best, by far, is the second. The first section ebbs and flows in its ability to engage. My favorite part of the first hundred pages was the zoo material, especially the hilarious scene when Pi's father mercilessly teaches his children why it's important not to pet the tigers. Once young Pi is stranded on the boat, with only a few random, potentially dangerous animals on board to keep him company, the book really takes off, and it's this section that was the real stunner for me. The details surrounding the gore, the pain, the will to live, nearly stop your heart, and the way Pi slowly, over the course of many weeks, develops a friendship with the tiger, is stunning. How did Martel think of an idea like this? It's brilliant, and executed extremely well. You as the reader get inside Pi's head as he tries to survive, and you try to imagine what you would do in such a terrifying situation. (I probably would've just fainted and been eaten, but that's me.)

I'm super excited to see how this story is brought to life on the big screen. It was for years deemed unfilmable, and many directors have tried to tackle the material. Leave it to Ang Lee, one of our most eclectic and surprising directors, to take on this beautiful story. The film opens next week, and look here in the coming days for a review. I can't wait!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Movie Review: Brave

After an inexplicable detour into crass commercial filmmaking with last year’s dreadful Cars 2, Pixar is back in top form with Brave, a supremely entertaining combination of drama, comedy, and magic. I knew this film would be enchanting, but I wasn’t really prepared for how funny it would be. The ads didn’t make the plot of the film very clear, but the turn of events that take place are unexpected and hilarious. But of course, as also to be expected, the film is ultimately moving and winning, ending on an uplifting note that, while a bit predictable, works wonders.

Brave is noteworthy for being the first Pixar movie to feature a female character in the lead—which, considering this is their thirteenth production, seems far overdue. 2012 has been the year of the strong female warrior—think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, and Snow White in the newest incarnation of the classic fairy tale—and the strong-willed ginger Merida makes a great addition to the list. While this story may be set a long time ago, her personality and values couldn’t be more modern day. She’s a great role model for all the young girls in the audience, and even the boys are apt to fall in love with her wit and spirit.
Visually, as to be expected, the film looks gorgeous—so much is set outside in the Scottish countryside, with overhead shots of meadows and forests, and ferocious bears hiding in the trees. I was also in awe of something subtle but important—Merida’s long curly red hair. I remember watching a special on the original Toy Story years and years ago where the animators said that they had to apply the hair on Andy, Sid, and the others one hair at a time. It’s amazing to see in seventeen years just how much the characters’ hair design have evolved and strengthened.

Although Brave isn’t on the same level of Pixar’s best—it’s a little too predictable and cutesy at times, with a plot point involving a witch that seemed to be lifted out of Fairy Tale Storytelling 101—it’s one of the company’s funniest movies. I probably laughed more in Brave than I have in any Pixar film since Finding Nemo. While the mother-daughter relationship in Brave is certainly poignant, there’s no emotional moment in the film that comes close to the opening sequence of Up, or the final twenty minutes of Toy Story 3. The movie is fast-paced and fun, and that’s enough this time around.
Brave comes out today on Blu Ray and DVD!

Monday, November 12, 2012

What I'm Reading (1)

Since last summer I've been trying to read one book every week. My life gets very busy, but I feel like if I'm going to be a working writer, I need to read just as much as I write. Every Monday I will post here what I'm currently reading, and I'll add the reviews once they become available as well.

This week's book...

I've become a huge John Green over the course of this year, having read Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars. I can't wait to read the rest of his work. Which books of Green's have you all read? What's your favorite?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review: Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

In 1993, when I was eight years old, two events shaped the way I would forever look at movies: seeing Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park opening weekend with my dad, and receiving a CD-ROM entitled Microsoft Cinemania ’94, a disc jam-packed with info, pictures, video, and reviews of every movie made from the dawn of cinema to the (at-that-time) present. I was a super geek at the time—well, you could argue I still am—and for years I spent my nights perusing my Cinemania. (I now have the ability to recite the release year of almost every movie ever made, and I think it stems from the time I spent with the CD-ROM program.) Cinemania was my introduction to two film critics I would follow my entire life—even today, even this morning—Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert. On one magical day at the Sundance Film Festival 2005, I got to meet both critics and tell them how much their writing had meant to a film lover like myself. Maltin’s reviews were short and to the point, and Ebert’s reviews were more like long, thoughtful essays.
Microsoft Cinemania was a favorite tool from my childhood, but the one element of it I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was the reviews written by Pauline Kael, the third and final critic whose writing was featured on the software program. While there was a structure to Maltin and Ebert’s reviews, Kael’s was less so, more rambling and personal, with big block paragraphs and long-winded sentences. I remember at the time always skipping her review in favor of what Maltin or Ebert had to say about the movie in question. But her last name has always stuck out in my mind over the years, and when I saw that her very first biography had been penned, I knew I wanted to snatch up the first copy I could find. And I’m sure glad I did.

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark is a fascinating look at a female film critic who flourished in the late 60’s and early 70’s at The New Yorker, during a time of true artistry in the film industry, when directors were raw and ambitious and uncompromising in their visions, without much producer and studio interference. Just as Roger Ebert did, Kael got her start professionally reviewing films during this time and got to be at the forefront of a film revolution. I love to read about the history of films, especially in regards to awards and criticism, and Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark gave me the same kind of joy that similarly-themed books like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Pictures at a Revolution gave me. While I wasn’t alive during that exciting, constantly changing shift in the culture, I love reading about it, and Kellow does a fantastic job in this biography interweaving Kael’s life in with the larger picture of what movies were becoming and where they were headed.
Kael’s life may not have been the most mesmerizing, but what interested me about her was that she was a woman growing up during the Great Depression and becoming an adult during the 40’s and 50’s, a time when so many women accepted a life at home with their children and their kitchens—but she refused to settle, and she instead focused on a writing career that didn’t fully take off until she was nearing age fifty. Kael is a fascinating subject because in a time of such politeness, of such political correctness, she broke out of the mold and patented an exciting, original voice in the film commentary scene. She didn’t just give the reader of her reviews the facts and her generic thoughts on a movie—she delivered her experience of watching the movie to her readers. It was often asked of her why she only watched movies once, and she said that the truest reaction one has to a movie comes during that first viewing, that to watch a movie again and again would deplete its freshness.

Kael’s takes on movies sometimes went against the universal opinion—movies she didn’t worship like everyone else included It’s a Wonderful Life, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, A Clockwork Orange, and Network, to name a few. She hated Clint Eastwood, loathed most musicals, and abhorred the work of Alfred Hitchcock (!). She was a constant center of controversy, what with her arguing that Orson Welles wasn’t the true author of Citizen Kane, or her tendency to champion certain directors’ films more than others (ie, Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah), and her decision in the late 70’s to embark on a producing career in Hollywood. She also disagreed with the great Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris (who passed away this week) about the auteur theory—unlike Sarris, she believed that a director shouldn’t necessarily put his stamp on every motion picture he creates.
Reading about her life was an exhilarating experience, one that Brian Kellow has researched and put together in sublime fashion. It’s a fascinating read not just for those who knew about and wanted to read more about Kael, but also for those who have an appreciation for film history. It may not be the most exciting look at a life, but there’s still some meaty stuff in the pages. If there’s anything about Kael’s personal life that hangs over the entire book, it’s her relationship with her one and only child Geena, who Kael kept physically close but emotionally closed off from throughout the majority of her life. It’s a sad element in the book, one that’s not glossed over too much, but rightfully so; not dwelling on it time and time again actually makes the story of their unusual relationship more indelible to the reader.
If there’s any regret I have about Pauline Kael, is that, unlike Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert, I never got to meet her. I wish I could have enjoyed a chat over coffee with her in the late 90’s when she was still alive (Kael died in 2001), talking about movies, directors, our passions for film reviewing and film going. Pauline Kael was a neat lady, absolutely worthy of a 350-plus page biography, and Brian Kellow has written a great one.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Some movies you see to be challenged, to witness great acting, to inspire thought-provoking discussion after the end credits roll. But then there are movies you see just for the pure old-fashioned entertainment value. Wreck-It Ralph is one of those movies.

All the Disney non-Pixar movies were suffering in quality for years and years, starting with 2001's Atlantis and ending with 2008's Bolt. For these seven years, we animation buffs turned to the Pixar movies for quality entertainment, to movies like Finding Nemo and Ratatouille. Yet somehow, only recently, the shift in quality has changed. Last year's Cars 2 was a disgrace, and next year's Monsters University is another Pixar sequel (or prequel) nobody asked for. The Princess and the Frog, on the other hand, was solid, Tangled was an enchanting delight, and now we have Wreck-It Ralph, a smart, funny, and touching animated film that takes the lives of video game characters. Video game enthusiasts will go nuts for this movie, and the rest of us will cheer for the full-fledged return of Disney Animation.

While it's a notch or two below the best of the Pixar movies (Toy Story 1-3, Finding Nemo, Up), Wreck-It Ralph is a ton of fun, and a real crowd pleaser. John C. Reilly, perfectly cast, voices Ralph, the "villain" of an arcade game who has spent thirty years destroying a tall apartment complex, only to be tossed off the top of the building when the "heroes" save the day. He has no friends, he sleeps on bricks, and he's never given his due for what he adds to the game. Therefore, he makes his way not just to therapy, but to the video game universe's central station, where he straps on a uniform and tries his hand at different games, in different modes of play and graphics. He ultimately finds himself in a whimsical racing game, where he befriends a pixie girl Venellope (Sarah Silverman) who has become a glitch in the game and needs his help to reclaim the character who was once hers.

The first half of Wreck-It Ralph is the most effective. I don't know how it took until 2012 for a film to go into the lives of video game characters, but it was well worth the wait. The screenplay is similar to Toy Story in that the characters do what they're supposed to all day on the arcade screen, but as soon as the kids go home and the lights go out, the characters breathe lives of their own and interact with each other, even with characters from different games. We see Ralph interact with Qbert, Bowser, Pac-Man's nemesis, and more. It's these more loose, faster paced scenes, filled with the building of this amazing world, where the movie really shines. I loved Ralph's character development, how he wants to be loved but doesn't know how to be, how he expresses his feelings in a support group for villainous characters, and the game he's tied to has quite the setback when he doesn't return to fulfill his role. His entry into a heavily intense game of war and violence is well-realized, too, with a female warrior character voiced to perfection by Jane Lynch.

The second half of the movie works great too; it's just more standard fare. I was secretly hoping Ralph would jump around to different games, certainly more than just two. For the last forty-five minutes or so, he stays put in a racing game, and the film focuses its attention on building the relationship between Ralph and Venellope. It's sweet and charming, and the rousing conclusion is fantastic, but it doesn't offer as many surprises as the film does in its opening hour.

Overall I had a lot of fun at Wreck-It Ralph, and I know you will, too. So many adults especially blow off animated films, like they're just for kids and not worth per suing, but a good story is a good story, and Wreck It Ralph tells a great story. It's the kind of movie you need to drag your boyfriend or husband or cousin or best friend to see, even if you're twenty-one and up, even if you don't have any kids. It's a blast, and it's proof that Disney Animation, which seemed to be losing its way for a few years, is back in grand style.

And one more reason you have to see this movie? For the animated short that plays before it. Paperman, directed by John Kahrs, is one of the most charming pieces of perfection I've ever seen. Hand-drawn, black and white, with a simple nail-biter of a love story that nearly brought me to tears, Paperman is a joy. Don't miss it.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Book Review: Looking for Alaska

I have been writing YA fiction exclusively since last summer, and earlier this year I realized while I was spending every day writing and working on new YA projects, I wasn’t reading as much YA fiction as I should have been. I checked out The Hunger Games trilogy of course, and I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Harry Potter series, but my knowledge of the genre was (and definitely still is) somewhat lacking.
In March, Shaunta and I decided to start reading at least one young adult book a month, and now that we’ve started this blog, we’ll probably end up reading even more than one a month. And let me tell you this: if every YA book I read is half as good as John Green’s Looking for Alaska, I’m going to be in for some joyous reading experiences. A friend of Shaunta’s recommended the author John Green last February, and I soon checked him out on Amazon—I loved the concepts of his books, plus, of course, the sparkling reviews. I didn’t know which one to start with, so I decided to check out his debut novel, published back in 2005, and I’m glad I did. Looking for Alaska isn’t just the best book I’ve read so far in 2012; it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

What a touching, funny book this is, and never in an obvious way, either. John Green’s writing is engaging from beginning to end, with characters that feel real, from their dialogue to their behavior to their screw-ups to their worries and fears. Miles, aka Pudge, is an extremely flawed leading character but always earns our sympathies, and Alaska is written as a smart young woman with wit and sass, and not as merely a sexual object. The arc of her journey is magnificent. And then there’s Chip, aka The Colonel, who provides hilarious comic relief. A scene where he explains his relationship with his dad was so funny that I did something I’ve never done before: take a picture of a paragraph. The sentence about the paperback books made me crack up so much I thought I was going to die. Here it is below…
When I started reading the book, I thought I had the “before and after” device pegged from the get-go: I knew the “before” section was going to be the relationship between Miles and Alaska leading up to their first sexual encounter, and the “after” was going to be how their relationship progressed after the awkward, and potentially inebriated, evening spent together. Boy, was I wrong. The device turned out to be a surprise, and it certainly made the last third of the book an even richer and more emotional experience than the first two thirds.
John Green’s books have been praised to the high heavens, and rightfully so: his characters pop off the page, so much so that at times you feel like you’re literally standing amongst them, existing with them in their world. Looking for Alaska made me laugh and cry, and I don’t say that lightly; most books don’t make me do either, let alone both. I’m so happy I’ve discovered this man’s work—I just bought The Fault in Our Stars at Powell’s Books in Portland—and I’m ecstatic to have four more of his books to plow through at a date in the near future. Many of you know of this guy’s work, but if any of you don’t, I recommend you start with Looking for Alaska. This book is simply amazing!