Monday, December 29, 2014
Note that I said comedic "body switches" as opposed to horror-movie-style body swaps - those are invasive and terrifying, whereas The Swap is a smart and sensitive look at what it would be like for two middle school students of opposite genders to switch places.
When an encounter at school causes them to unwillingly swap bodies, thirteen-year-old Jack and twelve-year-old Ellie have to figure out a way to deal with their very different bodies, families, friends, and afterschool obligations until they can swap back. Before this unexpected event, the kids weren't friends. They go to the same school, so they vaguely knew each other - with Ellie being more aware of Jack than vice-versa - but they are a grade apart and don't have any classes or activities in common. By the time the book is over, though, there's no way they could call themselves strangers anymore.
This story is about more than temporarily being in someone else's body - it's about sharing someone else's life. The decisions the protagonists make and the actions they take while walking in each other's shoes (including Ellie's soccer cleats and Jack's hockey skates) affect them both. Seeing the world through new eyes changes how they see others and how they see themselves.
And back to the body sharing: where some sitcoms, books, or movies might play awkward moments in the locker room and in the bathroom as silly and/or gross jokes, these kids are truly uncomfortable at those times, and ultimately very respectful.
You could say that the two parental figures in the book are both devoted to their children, but they are definitely at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Ellie's mother, a divorced single parent and yoga instructor, is upbeat and sunny. Jack's stern father, a widower, is very strict with his four sons. Very strict. Think Captain Von Trapp. He oversees their daily fitness routine and year-round hockey training and makes them call him "sir." Ellie's mom wishes her daughter would be more open with her, while Jack's militaristic dad doesn't do heart-to-heart chats.
Jack has a whole bunch of buddies and gets along very well with his brothers. Meanwhile, only child Ellie feels like she doesn't have a friend in the world. Sassy, her best friend since kindergarten, has found a new best friend and now finds it fun to say mean things to Ellie (and Jack-as-Ellie) at school, on the soccer field, and at a memorable sleepover. Anyone who has had a friend turn on them, especially in middle school, will relate to that heartache. Friendship break-ups can hurt just as much as romantic ones. Not all friends make up; not all friends should. Kids and adults alike should keep this in mind: If someone is being mean to you and repeatedly putting you down, that person is not a true friend.
Both Ellie and Jack are healthy and athletic, which is really cool. It also comes in handy when they have attend each other's practices and tryouts. I also appreciated that the sports storylines didn't culminate in either character winning the big game or being chosen MVP; instead, it was about personal successes, about what the work taught them about themselves and how it pushed them outside of their comfort zones. There was also a neat sporty bit towards the end of the book that I wasn't expecting, and I liked a lot.
I've read a lot of books with dual narratives, and The Swap is a solid example of a story that both needs and benefits from two narrators who offer honest first-person thoughts. Without making them polar opposites, Shull has her characters speak and react differently, with some overlap - it's fun when they start realizing that they've picked up each other's lingo. The narrating duties flip back and forth in alternating chapters, and the story is easy to follow. The Swap considers the different ways we treat girls and boys, the different things we expect of our sons and daughters, and it's a great take on upper middle school life, a time that a lot of TV shows glaze over, jumping from little-kid-dom right into the teen age rather than dealing with the simultaneous horrors and happiness of those in-between wonder years.
For those of who you have yet to read the original novel Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers, do yourself a favor and pick up that book at the same time you pick up The Swap. Also grab Megan Shull's previous releases, including Amazing Grace.
Friday, December 26, 2014
(Originally posted on my personal blog.)
I first picked up I Am A Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President based on its deliciously verbose title and its endorsement from Jon Stewart (“If War and Peace had a baby with The Breakfast Club and then left the baby to be raised by wolves, this book would be the result. I loved it.”) When I discovered that its author was one of Stewart’s executive producers, and that it had come out in paperback, I could no longer resist its evil, evil charms.
I was quite wrong about it, though. I thought Genius was going to be more or less realistic fiction about an over-intelligent, misanthropic kid running for student body. As it turns out, I was a tiny bit wrong about that “realistic fiction” bit. The story’s protagonist is Oliver Watson, a thirteen-year-old kid who may be overweight but who is also the third wealthiest person in the world. An evil genius, he built his fortune from a single petty crime (stealing some money from his mother’s purse) and carved out an empire of subterranean tunnels accessible from his bedroom or a secret locker passageway. He’s a blimp-piloting, minion-smacking, evil gadget-inventing mastermind who, as a seventh grader, holds the strings of any number of puppet corporations and countries.
Oliver is determined not to divulge his crazily successful alter ego, and so he lives his life as a very convincing idiot. He’s got everyone fooled into thinking his shoe size exceeds his IQ – classmates, teachers, even his mother and, importantly, his father. It turns out that Oliver is motivated, not by greed, respect, or a desire to change the world, but by a consuming dislike for what he sees as his self-interested and small-minded father.
He’s also motivated by puppy love, but that’s another story.
As Oliver’s best intentions fall apart around him, he ends up in an amusingly messed-up race for student body president, gets cut down a size or two, and maybe even grows up a little bit. But that’s not why you should read it; you should read it for the footnotes.
I’d say that Genius would be what happened if a Daily Show writer re-wrote Catcher in the Rye as a superhero comic book, but since that’s basically what this is, I guess I’ll just say that if you're ready for a good, smart laugh, find yourself a copy and buckle your seatbelt.
Monday, December 22, 2014
For superhero comic book fans: Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe by Tim Leong uses infographics (a few samples) to chart the world of comics.
For precocious or aspiring foodies: Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear is a wild look at adventurous eaters and food movements, in a very New Yorker way (Goodyear writes for the magazine). Dan Barber's The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is a more detailed look at agriculture, sustainability, nutrition, and food traditions. Hmm, I made that sound really boring, but the book is full of fascinating people and information. While the viewpoint is limited, it does provide a lot of, well, food for thought, especially for people who care about food.
For readers looking for a character they can really root for: I'm not the only person calling The Martian by Andy Weir a favorite book of this year. Partly because it's really smart, partly because it's really funny, partly because it's really suspenseful. (I mean, there must be a reason so many A-list names are involved in the film adaptation, right?) But I wonder if, in a year that has seen so much despair and senseless violence, The Martian's optimism and perhaps old-fashioned can-do attitude has provided a much needed antidote for readers. In any case, I highly recommend this both to science fiction fans and science fiction avoiders--it is that awesome a book.
Friday, December 19, 2014
Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke is a non-fiction book which details the biggest escape from a Nazi concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The book was first published in 1982 and won acclaim world wide.Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke is an exciting history book, told as a novel. The book is divided into three sections which introduce the people, tell about the escape from a top secret Nazi death camp, and the after war years.
Mr. Rashke knows that the strength of any book, non-fiction or otherwise, is the personal stories which make up the big picture, and does a great job introducing us to them. The people which the author chose to focus on were non-military Jews and a Russian officer, some were pulled out of the lines for the gas chambers due to special skills and some just by pure luck.
The author engages the reader from the start with personal pre-war stories. This is not just a history book about the escape itself, but about people we care about and the heart wrenching decision they had to make in order to survive.
The cruelty and barbarity of the Nazis is also talked about, contrasted by the strength of character of the prisoners, as well as their mental anguish. Unfortunately, many of the Nazi criminals were never punished for the their actions and brutality.
Once the prisoners escaped, the author details their struggle to survive in a hostile environment, either hiding from the Nazis, being take advantage of by the local population or the partisans. Some of the escapees happened upon brave people who helped them, some were not so lucky.
Some of the survivors were still living at the time the book was published, a few even took up arms and went back to fight the Nazis. This book has many themes about survival, freedom and more.
A must read for any history buff or World War II enthusiast. This moving book might be grim, it is also inspiring and vividly recounts an event which most of the world has never known before it was published.
Originally published as Book Review: Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke on ManOfLaBook.com
Thursday, December 18, 2014
In middle school, I used to take all my allowance and blow it on a fist full of comics. Every week or so, I'd bum a ride to the local comic book store and load up on anything that looked interesting, then pore over the fat stack of magazines all afternoon. It was a pretty good time to get into comics. Not only were the big superhero publishers putting out some pretty good stories, but there was a burst of weird, amazing, and fantastic independent and art comics appearing on the shelves those days. Over the years, as graphic novels have come along, I've drifted away from the thrills of "comic book day," but there's a bunch of really great comics titles out right now, so I figured I'd talk about some that really excite me!
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Sometimes when an incident occurs eyewitnesses have a different take on what exactly occurred. What they see is often colored by their experiences and prejudices. That is the case in Kekla Magoon's fantastic book for teens called How It Went Down which deals with the fall out from the killing of an unarmed black teenager called Tariq by a man named Jack Franklin. As (bad) luck would have it Franklin just happens to be white.
Friday, December 12, 2014
LET'S GET LOST is the debut contemporary coming-of-age novel by Adi Alsaid, and he really gets it right the first time. This is a strong story that I highly recommend to anyone wanting a good contemporary story about love, friendship, family, and adventure. LET'S GET LOST is told in 5 parts, each one from a different character's point of view. I absolutely loved having multiple points of view in a single story - this is something that doesn't happen enough in YA fiction.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Some guys - bless 'em - know exactly what they want and can articulate it when it comes to books. I was not one of those guys, and that inability to express my general interests ended up in some, er, interesting book selections when I was a teen. I suppose that year I got a book on identifying rocks and gems came from the haphazard collection of stones I had picked up while camping, but that was an earnest mistake; to this day I have no idea what to make of my getting Jonathan Livingston Seagull when I was 13.
So what follows are a short collection of books that I have found nifty recently that, if not perfect gift selections for some guy you know, may at least provide potential book ideas for that mumbly, mopey dude over there hoping no one asks him what he's into.
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Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Ever wonder why dogs don't write more poetry? Well, if you have (or if you have now that I've framed that question), this book is for you. Jessica Swaim has come up with a bookful of parody poems, in which celebrated dog poets explain lots of things . . . why they chase their tails, how fish compares to meat ("thou art more flaccid and more apt to spoil"), the horror of being neutered, and more.
Each of the sixteen canine poets is introduced with a "bio" page that looks something like this one, for "Rover Frost", with terrific artwork done by Chet Phillips:
It's followed by two parody poems: a short version of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" entitled "Sizing Up Shoes on a Soulful Evening", and a parody of Frost's "Rose" entitled "Nose". Here's that poem:
by Jessica Swaim, writing as Rover Frost
A nose is a nose,
And was always a nose.
And a dog licks his nose
When the nose overflows,
And the slicker it grows,
'Til it glistens and glows.
You can bet your sweet toes,
Nothing's nice as a nose,
Unless it's a tongue,
Or a tail, I suppose.