Best Books of 2011

Well, obviously I've stopped posting regularly here to the Hungry Brain. For one, most of the books I've been reading are for review on GeekDad, so I just post them there. I got tired of duplicating my efforts and copying everything here, although maybe that'd be a good way to keep track of all my book reviews in one place. (Maybe I'll do that yet.)

But I stopped double-posting in April. I also decided to give Goodreads a try, and I've been tracking books I've read there, but those aren't full reviews either. Just one or two sentences sometimes.

So, which ones were the best of the year?

In adult fiction, these four were all fantastic and quite different from each other:

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier is gorgeous and haunting. It's the most serious of the three, but still has an element of fantasy in it. The less I tell you about it, the better, because the slow realization of what's happening is part of the draw.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is a zombie book, one that has been mistaken for a young adult paranormal romance novel. Which it sort of is, but not really. It's narrated by a zombie, and really gets inside the heads of these shambling creatures. Surprisingly, the book actually has some significant things to say about humanity and survival despite what you may expect.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is just a fun read, particularly if you're a child of the '80s who loves computer games. If not, well, you may not get most of the references. It's kind of a big mashup of the Matrix, World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons, and 1980s culture.

Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson is a novel about first contact: when the aliens show up. What makes this one fascinating (aside from the way the aliens are imagined) is that it's told from the point of view of Ariel Blum, a videogame developer/reviewer/blogger. What he's interested in is: what sort of videogames do the aliens play? But it becomes a much bigger story than that.

In non-fiction, just one book really stands out: Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby. Valby spent a lot of time in Utopia, Texas, a tiny town that (at the time she first visited for Entertainment Weekly) was about as removed from popular culture as you could get in the United States. After spending more time there, she came to know the residents, and it's an engaging portrait of small-town life, particularly dear to me from my time in Tribune, Kansas.

Three young adult novels make my list this year:

Plain Kate by Erin Bow is one I read earlier in the year, as part of my "Stories About Girls" series on GeekDad. It's a fantasy novel, about a woodcarver girl who is suspected of witchcraft. It's beautifully written and will break your heart, but it's so worth it.

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy is set in post-war London, and is another gorgeous book. But this one is about magic (alchemy, really), spies, and being open to possibilities. A great story with some fun adventure to it.

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler is about Facebook. Yeah. But it's set in 1996, years before Facebook will exist, before most high schoolers are using the Internet. Two friends get a sneak peek at Facebook, at their own lives 15 years into the future, and it's a fascinating look at how the choices we make affect us later ... and also how knowing about our futures can affect the choices we make now.

Probably my favorite kids' book of the year is Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier. It's just a bizarre fantasy story that goes all over the place, with some clever wit and some absurd characters. I'm reading it out loud to Robyn now, who says it's kind of like something created by Terry Gilliam. I can see that.

Two other kids' series were pretty fun this year as well: The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch is reminiscent of Lemony Snicket, but (1) it's only five books long instead of thirteen, and (2) you don't feel like you're getting strung along with a bunch of clues that don't lead anywhere. Also, the Far-Flung Adventures by Paul Stewart and Chris Ridell were a new discovery. I found a copy of the first one used and read it to my older daughter, who absolutely loved it. So we got the next two. I love the zany inventions and the colorful characters. But I also like the fact that the three books, while set in the same universe with some interweaving, aren't just sequels. Each book has its own storytelling style and set of characters.

Finally, some comics: Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke is a delightful story for kids, with wacky aliens and a little Earth girl trying to save her friend. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? by Brian Fies is an excellently-illustrated tale about the history of the future. It tracks the space program over several decades, but with a fictionalized father and son who age more slowly, growing up along with our ideas of space.

And one more: Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon is a wonderful story (for adults) about living and dying. There's a gimmick to the book which I won't give away here, but they put it to great use. When I talk about comics being serious literature, Daytripper is a prime example of it.

Well, there you have it! My best books of 2011. Happy reading in 2012!

And, just for the record, here are the books I've read this year (after The Year of the Bomb, the last one I posted here):
Makers - Cory Doctorow
Superman/Batman Vol. 5: The Enemies Among Us - Mark Verheiden
Level Up - Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham
Scott Pilgrim 1-6 - Bryan Lee O'Malley
Kick-Ass - Mark Millar
Nerd Camp - Elissa Weissman
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? - Brian Fies
The Reading Promise: My Father & the Books We Shared - Alice Ozma
Prince Caspian - C. S. Lewis
The Mysterious Howling (Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place 1) - Maryrose Wood
Crazy Love - Francis Chan
Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites - Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson
The Hidden Gallery (Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place 2) - Maryrose Wood
Voyage of the Dawn Treader - C. S. Lewis
The Storm in the Barn - Matt Phelan
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Amy Chua
Isle of 100,000 Graves - Jason
The Silver Chair - C. S. Lewis
Ready Player One - Ernest Cline
Feynman - Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick
Warm Bodies - Isaac Marion
Americus - M. K. Reed and Jonathan Hill
Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes - Jonathan Auxier
Anya's Ghost - Vera Brosgol
The Apothecary - Maile Meloy
Love Wins - Rob Bell
Toy Dance Party - Emily Jenkins
The Familiars #1 - Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson
The Familiars #2: Secrets of the Crown - Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson
Habibi - Craig Thompson
The Secret Series 1: The Name of This Book Is Secret - Pseudonymous Bosch
The Secret Series 2: If You're Reading This, It's Too Late - Pseudonymous Bosch
The Secret Series 3: This Book Is Not Good for You - Pseudonymous Bosch
The Secret Series 4: This Isn't What It Looks Like - Pseudonymous Bosch
The Secret Series 5: You Have to Stop This - Pseudonymous Bosch
All Your Base Are Belong to Us - Harold Goldberg
Far-Flung Adventures: Fergus Crane - Paul Stewart and Chris Ridell
Far-Flung Adventures: Corby Flood - Paul Stewart and Chris Ridell
Far-Flung Adventures: Hugo Pepper - Paul Stewart and Chris Ridell
Bake Sale - Sara Varon
The Brick Bible - Brendan Powell Smith
Bad Island - Doug TenNapel
The Future of Us - Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
The Mad Mask (Archvillain #2) - Barry Lyga
Dominic - William Steig
Constellation Games - Leonard Richardson
99 Ways to Tell a Story - Matt Madden

Fed to jonathan's brain | December 31, 2011 | Comments (0)

The Year of the Bomb - Ronald Kidd

Note: This review originally appeared on GeekDad.

I came across The Year of the Bomb at my local library in the junior fiction section and I was intrigued by the jacket flap text. Set in the 1950s, the book takes place in Sierra Madre during the filming of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Four teenage boys, obsessed with horror movies, are thrilled that it's being filmed in their town — until they discover that there are undercover FBI agents involved. I got the impression from the blurb that maybe the book would take a turn into sci-fi, with pod people actually making an appearance in the book.

As it turns out, that's not really what happens, but it doesn't make the book any less worth reading. Ronald Kidd, who was obsessed with horror movies as a kid, takes a lot of real events and weaves them into a compelling tale about fear. He uses the pod people as a sort of metaphor (kind of how Shaun of the Dead used zombies as a metaphor, until the literal zombies showed up): there are people who aren't really awake, who look like real people but aren't really living. That's not all, though — the book is also about McCarthyism, the fear of the Bomb, Richard Feynman, movie-making, and a host of other things that you wouldn't think would work in a book for young readers.

Here's the gist of it: Paul Smith (a plain kid with a plain name) spends most of his time with his three friends Oz, Arnie, and Crank, going to horror movies. Oz is the geek who knows bits of trivia about everything, but particularly about movies. Arnie's a bit of a dolt, scared of his own shadow and not too bright. Crank is a big kid who probably would have bullied the other three if it weren't for their shared love of sci-fi and movies. When the news hits that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is going to be filmed in their sleepy little town, they can't wait. They show up on set every day, getting to know some of the filmmakers and a pretty extra named Laura.

Eventually they discover that one of the actors is actually an FBI agent, searching for Communists in Hollywood. And he's also on the trail of Richard Feynman, who worked on the atomic bomb and happens to live in the town next door. The boys get sucked into both the production of the movie and the investigation, taking things into their own hands and getting a lot more than they bargained for. It's a fascinating story, all the more so for the truth it's based on. While Paul and his friends are entirely fictional, the filming of the movie (and some of its principal participants) was pretty accurately portrayed. Feynman was indeed under investigation, and the evidence against him described in the book was also based in reality.

Paul and his friends can't agree on whether Feynman is guilty, and I thought the shifting sands of adolescent friendship was very accurately portrayed here. Oz's dad, a former sound editor, has been blacklisted because of college ties to Communists, so he's not convinced the FBI has everyone's best interests at heart. Crank, on the other hand, believes in the picture of "good guys" and "bad guys" and can't understand how anyone could be uncertain about it. Feynman himself plays a significant role in the book, and his conversations with the boys are fantastic and definitely have a Feynman-esque quality to them.

The Year of the Bomb draws a connection between the fear of nuclear war and annihilation to the monsters and aliens that were so prevalent in movies in the 1950s. Fear was in the air then — fear of the Russians, of Communists, of the bomb, of flying saucers — and it made its way into pop culture as well.

I really enjoyed reading The Year of the Bomb; I sat down to read a little before bed and ended up reading it almost in one sitting. I think it's a great combination: an action-adventure, coming of age, historical fiction, buddy story with a good deal of movie trivia to boot. Oh, and Richard Feynman! What's not to love?

The Year of the Bomb was published by Simon and Schuster in 2009.

Fed to jonathan's brain | April 27, 2011 | Comments (0)

Incredible Change-Bots 2: The Vengeful Return of the Broken! - Jeffrey Brown

Note: This review originally appeared on GeekDad.

Chee choo chee choo chook. That's the sound of an Incredible Change-Bot transforming from its robot form into, say, a microwave oven. Of course, that's also the sound we remember from the old Transformers cartoons — the sound that was conspicuously missing in Michael Bay's movies (among other things). Jeffrey Brown, a cartoonist who may be best known for his semi-autobiographical comics like Clumsy and Undeleted Scenes, has taken all of the stuff we loved about old-school Transformers and cleverly satirized them in comic-book form.

Incredible Change-Bots 2: The Vengeful Return of the Broken picks up a few years after the first book, but for those (like myself) who missed the first installment, there's a handy synopsis at the start of this book. Basically, the Awesomebots and the Fantasticons fought their big war on Earth, which resulted in the defeat of the Fantasticon leader, Shootertron. They joined forces and took off in search of a new home.

Of course, what nobody expected was that Shootertron was still alive, buried deep beneath the ground! Okay, yeah, probably everyone saw that coming, but that's sort of the point. Incredible Change-Bots takes a lot of the tropes of our beloved Saturday morning cartoons and mashes them up into a hilarious take on giant (and not-so-giant) robots battling it out for no really good reason.

The Awesomebots and the Fantasticons! Image: Top Shelf

When Shootertron comes to, he has lost his memory and has no idea who or what he is. He's adopted by a farmer couple, Edna and Stanley, who nurse him back to health and enroll him in high school. Meanwhile, the military has their eye on him, in the hopes that they can control him and turn him into the ultimate weapon. Oh, and did I mention that — due to some slight miscalculations — the rest of the Change-Bots are headed back to Earth? Naturally, that leads to another big confrontation between the Awesomebots and the newly-re-formed Fantasticons.

The book is hilarious. Brown's drawings have a charming crudeness to them, and the book gives the impression of a couple of kids playing with their toy robots, making "bew! bew! bew!" noises and spouting absurd dialogue. It's also really clever, though. Incredible Change-Bots is a parody by someone who clearly knows his source material well, and it's a delight to read.

If you're a fan of Transformers but were just a bit disappointed in the more recent big-screen versions, pick up a copy of Incredible Change-Bots 2 and get ready for a thrilling (and cheesy) ride! You can buy the book from Top Shelf Comics, Amazon, or check with your local comics shop.

Fed to jonathan's brain | April 27, 2011 | Comments (0)