What about Video Games?

Two posts today. The next one will be about a specific book series. But first, something everyone probably has heard of, but I suspect a lot of people don't really know anything about.

Video games are a big part of many boys' lives. Actually, they are a big part of everyone's lives, since the average age of gamers is 37 according the the Entertainment Software Association, with 42 percent of gamers being women, but games are traditionally considered teen boys' business. Gaming is also a huge industry, with a market value of 74 billion dollars. Why am I telling you this? Games are important to a lot of people, so, like them or not (I love 'em) they are not to be ignored. It shouldn't therefore be surprising that a number of games have been spun off to other media, including books. All this can be used to our advantage in promoting reading in teen boys.

I mentioned that I love games. I have several gaming systems (4 kinds of Nintendo, a PC, and an XBox 360), and I play regularly. I play M rated games, but that rating doesn't really do justice to the quality and storytelling of many games. There is nothing in most games that is any worse than a movie or even many books, so don't think that the shootin' and killin' is anything worse than the frequent abuses of people and drugs in a lot of YA novels. In fact, the games that do have things that aren't appropriate for kids, I suspect kids wouldn't be too terribly interested in anyway, just as not many teens would much care about, say Woody Allen.

Anyway, you should be aware of the various games and game system teens like. GTA isn't Pokemon, and Halo isn't Mario. Fans of Nintendo may not be fans of Playstation and XBox. They aren't all the same, and don't all appeal to the same people. Know your boys, and it will go a long way into getting them reading.
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Mass Effect novels by Drew Karpyshyn

Mass Effect is a trilogy of games, two of which have so far been released with a third due in 2012. Humanity has just recently joined the greater galactic civilization where humans are regarded with great suspicion. In the games, players can create their character (male or female, good or bad) and guide the story along various paths, whether saving or destroying species, individuals, etc. with the ultimate goal of saving the galaxy from an ancient threat. While this is the general plot, it is impossible to exsplain more; player chocie have major impact on the storyline. Knowledge of the games isn't necessary, but it is the draw to these books.

The first book, Mass Effect : Revelations, is a prequel featuring some of the background characters and the villain of the first game, but is largely a new cast with a stand-alone adventure that sets up the plot of the rest of the game series.

The second, Ascension, is even more independent, but is set between the first two games: while the universe is the same, there isn't a direct link to the action in the games. What is interesting though is the lengths the author has to go to to avoid mention plot points, as the game has several, very different, endings. The third and upcoming later books in the series will follow the same formula, sharing the universe with the games, but not being directly tied to them.

The writing isn't very good, but quality writing isn't the point. It's an expansion of a universe, sort of like Star Wars novels. In this case, the author also happens to be the lead writer for the games, so there aren't any many major contradictions with the games.
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Would you Rather...? by Justin Heimberg and David Gomberg

Would you rather have mayonaise tears or Kool-Aid sweat? Have multiple lives like a video game player in Donkey Kong or multiple weapons as in Halo? Your dad be Hulk Hogan or Gandalf?

Would you Rather...? by Justin Heimberg and David Gomberg contains 1500 dilemmas like these. They range from questions about appearance, to sex, to superhero powers. (and some are so random, they don't fit into any kind of category at all.) It's a pretty ridiculous and, some may argue, pointless book, but it's also one of those strangely addictive ones where you can't help reading the next page. This is partly due to the fact that it's so easy to read -- there are only two to three questions per page and you can open the book and start reading at any page. Cartoons and drawings can be found throughout the book and the questions are divided into different categories (e.g. celebreties and pop culture, Extremely painful and extremely fatal). In addition to the "would you rather" questions, there are the "Would you..." questions (e.g. Would you accept the power to fly in exchange for weighing 500 pounds?) and travel games (e.g. car bingo where you have to look for people doing strange things in their cars).
If you have a teen looking for a quick read on the weird and gross side, this just might be thing to recommend.

Heimberg and Gomberg have written quite a few other Would you Rather books with different themes (Doubly Disgusting, Dirty, etc.) and Heimberg is the author of some of the Worst Case Scenario handbooks.
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How I Stole Johnny Depp's Alien Girlfriend by Gary Ghislain

David Gerswhin is lying in bed next to Zelda. This is the closest he's ever got to a girl (and a super hot one no less) and it should be one of the most romantic moments in his life, but alas, he knows that all Zelda can think about is Johnny Depp. No, not like your average crazy-about-Johnny's-good-looks-and-bad-boy-image girls.  Zelda is a warrior from the planet of Vahalal and she is on a mission to kidnap her chosen one, aka Johnny Depp, back so that he can, well, help make babies to prevent the extinction of her Amazonian-like race. Yes, at first David and his therapist father thought Zelda is delusional too, but after she's showed off some of her out of this world space moves, he's convinced of her crazy story and content to be her loyal Pudin (basically like a slave, pronounced "pudding") and race around Paris with her till she finds Johnny, all the while thinking why oh why is he not the right match. 
This is one wild adventure. Funny at times and plenty weird and ridiculous, and it's one of those books you just have to shush your inner voice of reason and just run with it. David's mom is a total riot, and the ruthless Vahalalians are equally entertaining. A good summer read.
» Read an interview with the author on School Library Journal.

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Classic of the Day: Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

I've never been a big fan of books that teach lessons and impart moral messages. It's not that I don't think you can learn from books; it just seems to me that teen books in particular are rather upfront about it, and it seems like they cram lessons down your throat. I've never understood why reading can't happen just for fun. Having said that, there are some that really work. Black Like Me is one of those, and I think the premise is a great hook to hang the lessons on.

In 1959, John Howard Griffin dyed his skin in an experiment. He decided to see what life would be like as a black man in the racially divide South of the United States. Without changing his name or the details of his life, he travelled around, even meeting people he knew who did not recognize him. He was entirely unsurprised to find that he was treated differently, poorly.

This is a work of non-fiction, and has many lessons of tolerance and acceptance to teach, and despite what I said above, I liked it. The author was audacious; I'm not sure anyone could get away with what he did today. Given what the author had to deal with both during and after his experiment, it could be argued that he didn't even get away with it.

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White Cat by Holly Black

Cassel is from a family of Curse Workers -- people with supernatural abilities to influence others with a touch of their hands. Some can change others' emotions, luck, and dreams -- others can modify memories or even kill.
se of their dangerous abilities, Curse Workers are feared and considered outlaws. Thing is, though, Cassel is the only one in his family who isn't a Curse Worker. He's always felt like an outsider and been torn between trying to lead a somewhat "normal" life and wanting to be like the rest of his family. He's also haunted by a horrifying event in his life -- the fact that he killed his best friend, Lila, but doesn't understand why and cannot remember the details of the event.
When Cassel has a disturbing dream about a white cat and wa
kes up sleepwalking, a chain of events follow which cause Cassel to question whether or not Lila is really dead and search for the truth about what really happened that day.
It's difficult to find any paranormal teen fiction that isn't about stunning vampires fighting over werewolf boyfriends or zombies competing for popularity at the local high school these days -- all plots that are too close to chicklit for my taste -- and probably plots that wouldn't interest most teen guys.
I did find this story pretty intriguing though. The plot moves quite well, and certainly has a darker, more serious mood, without the superficial high school drama or brand name dropping you sometimes find in other YA novels. The idea of Curse Workers kind of reminds me of the mafia and mobsters of the early 1900s, and the book has some good action and seedy characters.

The problem is though, that the covers published in the US (especially the second and third books with p
hotos of a female looking vacantly into space), might put off some guy readers.

I'm not sure if the cov
ers published in the UK are that much bit better --the dripping red glove is kind of cool but the White Cat cover looks a bit drab.

I've only
read the first in the Curse Workers series and reviews of the second and third books makes me fear that the story might morph into more of a romance... which would be a shame as this series really does have a good premise.
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The Compound and The Gardener by S. A. Bodeen

Bodeen's books are natural and lend themselves so easily to booktalks. If you work in a school or library, you're probably constantly looking out for books with that great premise or hook to lure potential readers in. In the summer at our library, we get more kids / teens / parents asking for recommendations, and for the guys, my first go to book is The Maze Runner, but when that's out, and it often is (yay!), The Compound and The Gardener are fine choices too.

It's been six years since Eli and his family took refuge in the compound.  Luckily his dad had the foresight to build an underground shelter before the nuclear attack. Eli lived with his parents and his two sisters, and he missed his twin brother Eddy and his grandma, who didn’t make it on time. Eli could still hear the sound of the compound door closing on them.

Being cooped up six years in one place will drive anyone crazy, even if your billionaire dad has created an almost exact replica of your old mansion. Lately things had gone for the worse. They discovered that their food supplies had been contaminated and it didn't look like it’s going to last them another nine years before they could safely go back outside. It’s odd that his father would make such an amateur mistake. His father, who'd thought of everything…

One day Eli was messing around with Eddy's laptop, which he only discovered recently when he finally had the courage to enter his brother's room.  He was sitting outside his father's office wanting to ask him about his Math homework, and suddenly Eli got an internet connection. Could there be survivors like him outside? Eli quickly signed into chat to see if anyone is online, and then he saw it: Eddy's name on chat. Shaking, he started to type, "Eddy?" and almost immediately, he got a response in caps: "WHO ARE YOU?  HOW DID YOU GET MY BROTHER'S LOGIN?" "IS THIS SOME SICK JOKE?" Before he could ask any more, he heard his father's voice: “What are you doing out here, Eli?”

Mason's mom seemed to have an irrational anger towardsTrodyn, one of the world's leading company in global warming research, and had forbidden him to apply for a summer internship there, but what did Mason find in her drawer one day?  An old Trodyn employee batch!  She's worked there before? Why didn't she say so? That was the last straw. Mason had had enough with all the family secrets. He's old enough now and deserved answers, like where was his father all these years, so he marched right up to the nursing home where his mom worked to confront her.

His mom didn't take care of old people like he had always imagined, but young teens just like him, except that they suffered major brain injuries in various accidents and basically just sat there, neither talk nor move, and stared out all day. While he's waiting for his mom to come back to explain this all, Mason took out a DVD of the only video he had of his dad and put it in the player to calm himself down. You couldn't even see his face, just his hands holding a copy of the Runaway Bunny, but it was enough to relax Mason.

"If you become a mountain climber," said the little bunny,
"I'll be a crocus in a hidden garden."...

"Where am I?" Mason turned and saw one of patients staring wide awake at him.

"If you become a crocus in a hidden garden," said his mother, 
"I will be a gardener. And I will find you."

Mason stopped the DVD and walked over, but that was it. The girl had gone back to being totally unresponsive.  Maybe he had dreamt it all, so he restarted the DVD, but when it got to the same line about the crocus, again the girl spoke, "Where am I?" As soon as the next line was uttered though, she was gone again.

Why did his father's reading wake her up?

Both of these books are thrilling pageturners. The crazy and scary premises in both of the books will draw readers in right away, and then along the way, you'll be sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to see what's going to happen next. The books are about the difficult choices you've to make in life, and it's frightening to see what people believe to be good intention and what they would do because of it. Can't wait for the author to write another novel...

» Visit the author's website and blog
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Biker by Jerry Langton

Like Good Behavior, this is a story about a criminal, though in this case it is fiction (sort of: it looks like non-fiction but it's not). Author Jerry Langton is a normally a journalist specializing in biker gangs. He has seen the worst the Hells Angels, Bandidos and other gangs have had to offer. In Biker, Langton has fictionalized life in a biker gang, but he stresses one thing: the characters are made up, but the details are real. This is what like is really like for the hardcore members of the worst gangs. Drugs, alcohol, violence and murder and other terrible crimes are all a part of the life.

One might ask if this kind of thing is appropriate for teens. After all, this book pulls no punches. It's pretty extreme, and it is all the more frightening because it is pretty close to reality. The language is (very) harsh and the details are unpleasant to say the least, but any kid who has watched TV or movies has seen it all before anyway. This is very much a cautionary tale, if you need justification.

The writing isn't particularly good, but it's a fairly easy read. Langton is a journalist, not a novelist, but something about the style lends itself to the material. To me, though, it feels more 'true' than it would with fancy language and turns of phrase.

This isn't for everyone. Fantasy readers probably won't want to touch it, but more hesitant readers might go for it based on the premise and the fact that the cover is pretty clear about the contents of the book.
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Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction

Here's another book that will probably make parents and teachers cringe. A step by step instruction manual on making projectiles, catapults, and other wonderful artillery from materials available to any teen -- elastic bands, pencils, string, paper clips and the like.
My favourites are the "claymore mine" that fires candy shrapnel and the Ping Pong Zooka that shoots flaming ping pong balls. (I am seriously tempted to try these projects out...) The book also includes instructions on how to cut out the pages of a book and turn it into a secret hiding place for your weaponry and well as how to make alien and zombie targets. The detailed diagrams accompanying the instructions make it easy to put these projects together. I think this is another one of those great novelty books that will appeal to teen guys (not to mention adults). Besides, what better way to keep yourself occupied during a boring class than make crossbows with rubber bands and pens? (disclaimer: I am not endorsing the use of projectiles in the classroom)
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Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans

I have to admit I'm often suspicious of a YA novel written by a bestselling adult author. It seems to be the "in" thing to do these days and the result is sometimes mediocre at best.  And taking a quick look at Richard Paul Evans' bibliography leaves me to wonder how he's going to pull off a subject matter quite different from what's in his adult books, but I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly enjoyed this first book in the series.

Much like Percy Jackson, trouble seems to follow Michael Vey. He's not on his principal's "good" list, and he's a magnet for bullies. Michael tries to stay calm and keep a low profile, because if he doesn't, bad things happen. Well, not to him, but to others, because Michael zaps people with electricity from his hand every time he loses his cool. It's a power his mom has wanted to keep secret, and Michael certainly tries his best to do so, but when he fights back one day against the school bullies, he catches the eye of a couple people. One being Taylor the hot cheerleader, who has more things in common with Michael than he ever would have imagined, but then there is the man who wears sunglasses at night. Just in case the interest is not mutual, he decides to kidnap Michael's mother to get his full attention.

The plot moves along and the mystery unfolds nicely, as Michael discovers the origin of his power and why all these people are after him and Taylor. The guys are very likeable in this book, especially Michael's powerless but loyal best friend Ostin, and the villain is just plenty crazy and scary. Great resourceful kids but not too invincible, and the ending wraps up the action in this book but also provides a good set up for the next one, without being an annoying cliffhanger type. Riordan fans will enjoy this one, and I think it can work for the upper elementary school crowd too.

» Visit the official website

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for providing an eGalley for this novel.

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The Onion A.V. Club on George R.R. Martin

Lost of posts today! Just a quick one for now, though. The Onion A.V. Club has a good article on getting into George R. R. Martin. Since he is an epic fantasy writer and his works are topping the bestseller lists, I figure it would be useful to know a little bit more about his works. See it here.
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Uncle John's Bathroom Readers

As we say in our "About" page, the publishing world is great for making boys into readers with Percy Jackson's adventures and Greg Heffley's antics, but obviously they aren't the only books boys read. We all know that elementary school boys practically riot to be the first to get their hands on the latest Guinness (or, as they often say, "Genius") or Ripley's book. This feeds into the "boys love non-fiction" idea. We do. But sometimes, we don't want a whole book, especially in the summer when we have better things to do. That's one of the things that makes Guinness and Ripley's appealing: bite sized segments that allow easy skimming. But where do you go from those books when you get a little older?

Uncle John's Bathroom Readers fill this gap. This is trivia at its finest, with short but detailed articles on pretty much subject under the sun, and including the sun itself. Usually no more than 5 pages per article, they allow for picking and choosing what stories you want to read.

Lest you be concerned that trivia books are a nerdy pursuit (they generally are) there are different types of Readers that will appeal to various types of boys: general information that covers everything you can think of, but also specific titles as in the image. TV, General Sports, Movies, Music, Oddities, National Parks, Canada, Hockey, Baseball, various US States, Science, etc. There are dozens of titles. You may already know of the spin-off "For Kids" versions.

I started reading these when I was a teen visiting my grandparents house and not having much to do. They had stacks of these books, and I was engrossed, usually spending more time reading them than visiting. Now I have a large collection of my own.
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How much does age matter?

Does the age of the characters in a book affect whether or not kids and teens want to read the book?
I just finished The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander and it got me thinking about this question. In this book, Mac and his best friend, Vince, are running a business out of the washroom of their elementary school. They solve problems and do favours -- like getting test answers, R-rated movie tickets, forged hall passes, doctors' notes -- for a fee of cash and return favours. Business is going well and Mac is respected and popular, until a legendary bully, Staples, begins to take control of the school through extortion and violence. Mac sets out to bring down Staples but things get complicated when he realizes someone -- possibly his best friend --is informing his enemy of all his plans.
I definitely liked the premise of this book and the plot itself played out pretty well too. It's really a sort of parody on the GodFather and other mafia/mobster stories. (you might notice a resemblance between the cover of the book and the GodFather Movie poster... ) I found it a little strange that at many points the characters acted more mature than their age. Mac was hiring third and fourth graders to be "hit men" and he himself was only in grade six and talking like he was far older than that. (this was probably intentional and part of the whole parody thing) I wondered if high school would be a better setting for the book... and then wondered if teens would be willing to read this book regardless of the fact that the main characters were only in elementary school (it is also classed as children's fiction). The content and language are not childish and I do think Mac's covert mafia-like business would be interesting to teens. In general I think most kids/teens will read books with main characters that are older than them (in fact, some of them may prefer this), but what about the reverse?
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Subject Seven by James A. Moore

First of all, the cover sucks!  It does not reflect the plot of the story (other than the fact that there are five main characters). It looks kinda cheap.
The book starts with a pretty violent cinematic escape: "Subject Seven" had broken out from his cell in the lab and he pretty much killed everyone along the way.  As the alpha of the group, he then tried to contact and "wake up" four other teens who were just like him: assassins asleep in the bodies of teenagers.  These four teenagers had been waking up in strange places, sometimes covered with blood, and had been trying to figure out what's going on when Subject Seven contacted them. Not only did Subject Seven have to evade and outwit his creators, he also had to figure out how to take over "the Other", which is basically the "normal" teenager whose body housed Subject Seven.
The beginning few chapters were quite confusing, and even when you realize what's going on and the fog clears up, you're still not quite sure where the writer is going with this. The suspense is definitely there, and the whole alter ego thing adds another layer and was more interesting than just the usual teens created by science experiments trying to get revenge storyline. I kept reading because I wanted to find out if the assassin alter egos are going to eventually win out or not, but since they are kinda unlikeable, it's hard to pick which side I  sympathize more with.  There is also no resolution to all of this, so I'm assuming there's going to be a sequel.  The book has its moments of brilliance, but not quite enough to wholeheartedly recommend it. It has some fairly violent scenes so probably more appropriate for older or less sensitive teens.
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