The Project by Brian Falkner

What is the most boring book in the world? Luke thinks it's The Last of the Mohicans, because that's the book he's been assigned to read. The only way to get out of reading it, according to his very generous principal, is if he can actually prove that it is indeed the most boring book in the world. As Luke googles away, he knows he's out of luck, because a book called Leonardo's River has already claimed the title. It has something to do with Leonardo Da Vinci supposedly, but the book is so boring that during its printing, when the printer started to read it, he fell asleep, a fire broke out and only one copy of the book survived. This one copy has gone missing too, and some guy is offering one million dollars for it. All this just means Luke is going to spend his summer reading The Last of the Mohicans...except during a library book rescue from the raging flood in his town, he found Leonardo's River, and this little discovery is going to keep him busy all summer long. Along with his best bud Tommy, he's going to have to rescue his kidnapped teacher, keep the hands of the bad guys off the rarest book in the world, decipher the mystery inside the book, evade remaining members of a dangerous secret organization, and worst of all, Luke may have to visit the library and do some reading.  Tommy tries to convince him that it's "research", stuff spies do all the time, but who is he trying to kid?
New Zealander Brian Falkner, author of The Tomorrow Code and Brain Jack, puts together a book with all the right elements for boys: plenty of chase scenes and bullets flying all over the place, a bad guy's evil plan to rewrite history, and Luke and Tommy are two funny guys and two great friends.  The most holding-my-breath scene is definitely the train stuck in the tunnel one, where Luke has to enter the lion's den so to speak.  The excerpt from Leonardo's River is quite something... and sadly not too far from some "real" books out there. Some reviewers complain that readers have to suspend their beliefs frequently, but I'm willing to overlook some of the "conveniences" in the plot.

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Classic of the Day: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Terry Pratchett is a well-established English fantasy writer whose most famous work is the Discworld series.  Neil Gaiman is a bit of a literary Renaissance Man whose dabbles in a little bit of everything, from children's picture books to dark comics to fiction, all of it with a bit of a grim, Tim Burton-esque quality.  The two don't really strike me as particularly similar, aside from both being English and therefore having the British dry humour, but they blend seamlessly here.

Good Omens was published way back in 1990, when both writers were on the ascendant (have either come down yet?).   The story of the approaching End Times, we learn that the Antichrist everyone is expecting was switched at birth and is in fact a regular 11-year-old boy.  Also involved are various parties trying to hasten or prevent the end of the world are the remaining Four Horsemen (Pestilence retired at the advent of antibiotics), an angel and a demon (not your modern kind with the sullen expressions and pining for love, but the real classic versions.  Bad people.)  The plot is a bit tough to nail down, but if you've read either author's work, it a bit like that.

There are different versions, one American and one British, with mostly minor differences, and you should note that this cover I have posted is just one of many.  Good for boys comfortable with complicated plots, the story has plenty of jokes and Terry Pratchett's trademark footnotes to lighten the mood.
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You Killed Wesley Payne by Sean Beaudoin

Dalton Rev is a private detective who solves cases for anyone who can pay. And that's how he ends up at Salt River High, investigating an alleged suicide involving a body strung up with duct tape. With his Private Dick Handbook full of helpful guidelines (e.g. Rule #7: The weaker the play, the weaker the bluff. Also, never trust a redhead) and his extensive knowledge of all the Lexington Cole mystery novels (a detective series that Dalton uses as an instruction manual), Dalton is sure he will get to the bottom of the mystery. All he has to do is survive masked snipers, an evil principal, murderous cliques and his mom's curfew.
This is a satirical noir mystery, whose characters and language remind me the Dick Tracy comics and films (except set in a modern day high school). There are plenty of references to classic hard-boiled mysteries and movies (e.g. there's a mysterious guy named Elisha Cook) and some really over the top statements (e.g. "It's not complicated. Add killer, subtract body, solve for x. What can I say? It's a career."). I found some of the writing pretty funny -- especially whenever Dalton finds himself in complicated situations and recalls lines from his Lexington Cole novels: "In Forty Leagues Under Berlin, Lex Cole had been trapped in a German pillbox with nothing but a spoon. In Right Cross, Mob Boss, he'd fought off a gang of hopped-up Zoot Suiters with a leather wing tip. Neither scenario was much help now".
This isn't one of those nail-biting thrillers, but it does have lots of dialogue that keeps the story moving. I think those who are a little more familiar with hard-boiled mysteries/movies and appreciate parodies might enjoy this.

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Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill

Black Hole Sun, Won't You Come, And Wash Away the Rain? Black Hole Sun... (can't get the song out of my mind the whole time I'm reading this book) 
Durango's family used to have it all. His father was key to the colonization of Mars, but then the government was overthrown, his father captured and thrown into prison, and in preventing his teenage son from killing himself like all his followers, Durango is relegated to a dalit, a mercenary for hire. Despised and ridiculed by every group and class on the planet, Durango takes on odd jobs with Vienne, his second-in-command, whom he's not supposed to have any feelings for, as the Tenets prescribed, and Durango and Vienne are both sticklers for rules. This conflict of interest isn't lost on Mimi, the artificial intelligence implanted in Durango's brain, and she takes every opportunity to tease Durango about it. Who says an AI doesn't know what sarcasm is?  When Mimi isn't making fun of Durango though, she is his most useful ally. Having Mimi is life-saving on so many occasions, however, when Durango agreed to help a group of miners defend against the Draeu, a ruthless cannibalistic race, he has no idea what he has signed himself up for, and will definitely need more than an AI to stay alive.

This book reads like a video game. I can see it being the plot of a great first person action/shooter game. Sometimes I'm baffled by the choices in booklists for gamers, because many only have the slight setting resemblance, and none of the thrills and chills. This book definitely belongs to a list for that audience though. Right from the opening scene, where the Draeu hunts down the miners and demands their children as sacrifices, you know you're in it for a wild ride. The action doesn't let up at all, and every time you think you can take a breather, something else happens and plunges you and our hero right back into it. The Draeu are some scary creatures, and the mysteries surrounding them and the miners are well crafted. I love the final epic showdown and it's a fine ending to a fine book.
I visited Gill's website and was thrilled to find out that there's going to be a next book, coming in March next year.  (Another nice thing about this book is that there's no cliffhanger ending).  However, ::sigh::, look at the covers!  The designer doing the new covers is the one who did the Mortal Instruments books. Why?  Well, I know why, 'cause that's how most teen books look like now, but more good-looking teen models?  We don't need that.  Disappointing.
» Read Gill's interview in School Library Journal.

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Mental Floss

Okay, I get that not all teen boys are trivia nerds.  I was, and so were all my friends, so that might explain part of my bias.  Forgive me for that, but here is the one thing I wished exists back when I was a teen.  Mental Floss.  Started in 2000 at Duke University, it was created as an educational magazine, but fun.  Over the years, it grew into a national publication and featured contributions from such trivia kings as Ken Jennings (best known for winning a whole lot of Jeopardy) and A.J. Jacobs (best known for reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover). The magazine is now a bit of an empire, with games, T-Shirts, books and a regular trivia blog.  It's those books I'd particularly like to feature.

Mental Floss writers, like the writers at Cracked, rely on humour to make the point.  Historical information is often presented in schools and textbooks as dry, bland dates and names, but here they highlight the oddities and the insane, while still giving the bigger picture of the events.

Two history books, History of the World and History of the United States, cover, obviously, the history of the world and the history of the United States respectively..

Forbidden Knowledge covers more controversial information, facts about crime, drugs, censorship, etc., all sorted by chapter according to the seven deadly sins.  Don't worry, nothing they wouldn't learn in history class.  It's just packaged in a more appealing way.

Be Amazing uses the concept of a self-improvement or how-to books to explain the history of nation-building, x-rays, and pretty much everything else.

A number of smaller books cover more random subjects, including Scatterbrained, What's the Diffrence, Cocktail Party Cheat Sheet.and Genius Instruction Manual, all offering condensed stories of significant cultural and historical people and events.

Because most of the books are bite-sized or at least feature chapters that aren't connected, this is great for quick reading or for short sessions, and the fact that they aren't too complicated make them good choices for guys who don't have a lot of patience for longer material, or claim they don't have time to read.

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Fall 2011 Teen Books for Boys

You've probably ordered your fall books by now, and I'm sure you've noticed that it's once again slim pickings for the guys. Just browse through any catalogue or online bookstore, look at the covers and you'll know what I mean... Thought I'd compile a list of potentials...

The Death Cure by James Dashner
As much as I love The Maze Runner, one of the complaints of the previous two books (for me, the 2nd one especially) is that we still aren't any closer to the truth and finding out just what the heck is going on in Thomas' world. It's always "We'll tell you later..." This is the last book, so how's the author going to end this all?  I'm on the waiting list at my library. Are you?
Book description:
Thomas knows that Wicked can't be trusted, but they say the time for lies is over, that they've collected all they can from the Trials and now must rely on the Gladers, with full memories restored, to help them with their ultimate mission. It's up to the Gladers to complete the blueprint for the cure to the Flare with a final voluntary test.
What Wicked doesn't know is that something's happened that no Trial or Variable could have foreseen. Thomas has remembered far more than they think. And he knows that he can't believe a word of what Wicked says.
The time for lies is over. But the truth is more dangerous than Thomas could ever imagine.
Will anyone survive the Death Cure?

iBoy by Kevin Brooks
Still remember reading Martyn Pig and loving it, but also remember being disappointed by Being. This one's got a bizarre premise, so we'll see...
Book description:
What can he do with his new powers -- and what are they doing to him?
Before the attack, Tom Harvey was just an average teen. But a head-on collision with high technology has turned him into an actualized App. Fragments of a shattered iPhone are embedded in his brain. And they're having an extraordinary effect on his every thought.
Because now Tom knows, sees, and can do more than any normal boy ever could. But with his new powers comes a choice: To avenge Lucy, the girl he loves, will he hunt down the vicious gangsters who hurt her? Will he take the law into his own electric hands and exterminate them from the South London housing projects where, by fear and violence, they rule?
Not even his mental search engine can predict the shocking outcome of iBoy's actions.

The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore
I Am Number Four is still one much sought-over book at the library. Here's the sequel.
Book description:
I've seen him on the news. Followed the stories about what happened in Ohio. John Smith, out there, on the run. To the world, he's a mystery. But to me . . . he's one of us.
Nine of us came here, but sometimes I wonder if time has changed us—if we all still believe in our mission. How can I know? There are six of us left. We're hiding, blending in, avoiding contact with one another . . . but our Legacies are developing, and soon we'll be equipped to fight. Is John Number Four, and is his appearance the sign I've been waiting for? And what about Number Five and Six? Could one of them be the raven-haired girl with the stormy eyes from my dreams? The girl with powers that are beyond anything I could ever imagine? The girl who may be strong enough to bring the six of us together?
They caught Number One in Malaysia.
Number Two in England.
And Number Three in Kenya.
They tried to catch Number Four in Ohio—and failed.
I am Number Seven. One of six still alive.
And I'm ready to fight.

The Project by Brian Falkner
It begins with a book, the most boring book in the world, a book so boring no one could ever read it—the perfect place to hide a dangerous secret.
When best friends Luke and Tommy volunteer to help move books from their library's basement to higher ground during a quick rising flood, they discover the only surviving copy of the most boring book in the world: Leonardo's River, lost for over 100 years. The book is connected to Leonardo da Vinci and is worth millions, so they return that night to steal it. Unfortunately, they're not the only ones with that plan. . . .

What other upcoming titles look good to you? Leave us a comment.
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Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Why am I picking books that aren't new? Well, in this case, it could be considered a girl's book, what with it being written as the journal of a teenage girl. If it were a new book, lots of girls would be reading it now, and maybe a boy would rather not be caught reading something girls read. But don't worry, I'm not betraying the mandate of this here blog; this book has disasters aplenty, and not just the personal emotional kind.

Yes, this is about a girl, and she thinks girl thoughts at first, worrying about a boy a little, and even once mentions the thing that happens to girls once a month. No boy wants to hear that. Miranda's world is changing. She lives with her mother and brother, with another brother of to college. Her father has remarried and is having another child with his new wife. Sounds thrilling for boys, hmm? But get this: the payoff in the second half of the book is worth it.

See, the rest of the world is changing, too: an asteroid hits the moon. At first no one is too concerned. There are at first some minor effects here on Earth. But as the days and weeks go by, people notice things. Tides are stronger. Volcanoes are more active. Weather is.. weird. Cold. Relentless. It's the end of the world as we know it. Yes, this story is really more about the intense and terrifying struggle to survive in the wasteland that is rural Pennsylvania in the aftermath of this natural disaster. Little food, no people, no communications, nothing but themselves.

The scariest and most powerful part of the story is the fact that this is a natural disaster. There is nothing we can do about it should it really happen. (It can't, at least not the way it is described, but that is neither here nor there.)

There are two sequels so far. Maybe I'll tell you more about them later. One of them, The Dead and the Gone, likely would more obviously appeal to boys.

Sell this book using the disaster part. Tell the boys that the first hundred pages are just a setup if they hesitate. This is, like Across the Universe, a science fiction novel, even though in this case it isn't about spaceships or aliens but nature. Still counts.

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Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen

When John receives a note from his professor urging him to go to London to see him, John sets off immediately. But before he arrives, his professor is discovered murdered in his study.
After John and two other young men, who were also on their way to see the professor at the time of his death, are questioned by the police inspector, they are approached by a strange old man who tells them they are the caretakers of a magical atlas. This atlas -- the Imaginarium Geographica -- contains all the worlds described by myths, legends and fairy tales and can be used to guide a person to and from imaginary lands. John is sure there is some kind of mix-up, but before he can protest, they are chased by mythical man-eating creatures and he finds himself running for his life.
What follows is a quest to save both the "real" and imaginary worlds from the evil Winter King who is taking over with his army of Shadow-Born, terrible, lifeless creatures that cannot be killed.
This isn't a nail-biter thriller, but it definitely is a great adventure story with plenty of action. The first chapter starts off with the murder and from then on the main characters are moving from one fantasy world to the next. There are plenty of talking animals, trolls, magic rings, and treachery. The language is a bit archaic, but it fits the 1917 England setting and is not unlike the writing found in many of the more classic fantasy novels. What kept me reading though, was all the references to characters, places and plots of myths (Greek, Eqyptian, Norse), legends (e.g. Arthurian) and other famous literary works (Jules Verne, Dickens). It was really neat to have them merge and interact together and kind of entertaining to look for the more subtle allusions throughout the book as well. The problem with this of course, is that readers who are not familiar with these tales will miss the references, especially since not all of them are explicitly explained in the book. However, this being said, those who like the more classic fantasy style will most likely still enjoy the book, as it the plot itself is intriguing enough.
This is the first in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series. James Owen is also the illustrator and author of the StarChild comics and books.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Video game books don't have to be based on real video games. Cory Doctorow and Orson Scott Card both have written books that are sort of like video games, or are of interest to gamers, but neither of them are at the core postive about games and gaming or the passion for them. In fact they seem to be a bit of a warning about game culture.

Ready Player One is more like a love letter to '80s gaming and geek culture, where the whole plot is even structured like a cheesy '80s movie (I only wish there was a way to write a montage). I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy, and quite enjoyed it. I'm too young to really appreciate the details of the games and movies that the book relies on (I was born in 1980), but I do remember enough of it to know what is going on. Fortunately, even though there are tons of these references, the story stands up as an adventure on its own.

The book is set in the near future, when the world has completely collapsed economically and most people escape into an online world a bit like Second Life, but far more technically advanced. That world has grown to the point where it features its own elected governors (Wil Wheaton and the above-mentioned Cory Doctorow among them), its own subsidized school system, and many hundreds of planets and worlds to visit, but, most importantly, is open and basic access is free for everyone.

When the inventor of that world dies, he has a multi-billion dollar fortune and no heirs, so he decides in his will to host a contest, the winner of which would get the rights to the games and the money, leaving only one clue. Being a child of the '80s, he bases his clues and puzzles on games and movies from that decade. Of course, not all pursuers want it for the right reasons. The book is very much like a fantasy quest.

As an avid gamer, I quite enjoyed the book, since it was almost like a history book, featuring the important touchstones of gaming, so even though I don't remember playing the games at the time, I could go back now and see what they are all about.

The only thing I'm not really sure of is who the target audience of this book is; while it feels plotted like a good YA book, the fact that all of the stuff they talk about is from 10 years before that cohort is born might seem confusing. On the other hand, the adults who were old enough in the '80s to do and see all the stuff here would probably love it for exactly the same reason, though Wade, the lead character, is a high school student at the outset of the novel. Not that it really matters: I definte recommend this book to all guys who love games.
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Brains and books

Most of us would be surprised to find a guy reading Gossip Girls or Princess Diaries. There's no denying that there are specific trends when it comes to gender preferences. There's always been a big debate as to whether such preferences are inherent or a social construct, and pointing out differences between the genders has sometimes been confused for forms of discrimination. I would argue that acknowledging differences does not mean you are biased towards a particular gender -- preferential treatment does.

I thought I'd touch on some of the research on the topic of gender differences, particularly findings that might have an impact on reading preferences.

Research suggests:
  • there are actual biological differences between male and female brain development that affect cognitive ability. MRI scans show that children's brains develop in difference sequences and times
  • MRI scans reveal that the development in the area of brain for language (reading, verbal fluency, writing) and recognizing faces in the average 5 year old boy is 2-3 years behind a girl of the same age
  • Development in the area of the brain that deals with Math and science in an average girl can mature 4-8 years later than an average boy
  • It appears that there are more connections between the parts of the brain that deal with language and emotion in females - this might explain why most women like to read and talk about emotions more
  • There seems to be less cross hemisphere activity in boys' brains than in girls when working on certain tasks, in effect, boys' brains are less engaged during certain tasks and extra sound, colour, motion and physical stimulation can enhance the experience. This may explain why boys like non-fiction (quick tidbits of information) and action driven plots.
I think what we need to realize is that biological factors mean each gender learns differently due to their different strengths. Boys might be more interested in topics that have to do with math and science because they understood those better than girls at an earlier age. Girls might be more interested in narrative and expository texts focusing on the emotional development of characters because their brains are wired for this.

This is not to say biology determines our interests, but rather that it can play a role in addition to personal experience and environmental and social conditions. Of course there will always be exceptions where certain girls are brilliant at math and science and boys are exceptional readers at a young age. Note too that biological differences can often be overcome by extra study. The main point here is that it is important to recognize that different preferences exist and to shape a library collection to meet these needs.
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Variant by Robison Wells

If you can attend a school where there are no adults, where your fellow students are the teachers, the admin staff, the cafeteria workers, and some days you get to play paintball all day, and some days you study random topics like land surveying, and on top of all that, there is no such thing as tests or grades, would you jump at the chance?
Sounds good, doesn't it?  After being moved from one foster family to another, Benson Fisher thought he's finally got himself out of that depressing neverending cycle when his scholarship application for Maxwell Academy got accepted. In less than an hour at his new school though, Benson would give anything to be back in a foster home, because Maxwell Academy was only desirable if you could overlook a few things: there were cameras everywhere watching your every move, there were a ton of rules to follow, students who broke the rules and were sent to detention never came back. Stuff like that...
Oh, and once you were in, you could never leave the school again.
Benson was outraged at this prison-like treatment, and he couldn't figure out why the rest of the students didn't seem to be in any hurry to escape. Rather, after some arguing and fighting, the kids have reached a truce and organized themselves into three big gangs to govern themselves. Fine, they might be content to go to class and decorate for school dance and do all the "normal" high school stuff, but Benson was going to get away.

Books that have hit it big always has a slur of wannabes following in its footsteps, and they don't always measure up, but I think Variant is a worthy readalike suggestion for readers of Maze Runner. It was an intriguing read from beginning to end, especially the dynamics among the kids. It's scary when you realize that whoever that put these kids and lock them up in the school may not be the kids' biggest enemy. The kids themselves are going to be.  Then when Benson discovered the secret of one of his classmates, time's running out and everything got scarier and scarier (you'll never think about woodland creatures like deer and bunny rabbits the same again). And the cliffhanger ending... man, when's the next book coming out?
So pretty much nothing to complain about, except the cover!  There's got to be something more exciting than that.
To be published in October 2011. Thank you to HarperCollins for providing an advanced e-galley at netGalley. 
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