1001 [things] Before You Die

Lists are fun.  They provide endless hours of fun and debate.  There are Top 10 lists, Top 11 lists, Top 500 lists and lists of variable lengths.  Lists are an industry unto themselves.  While there are many books of lists (have I said that word enough yet?) the books published by Universe are a cut above.  Thick, heavy, long as they are (1001 things being a pretty ambitious target to hit), they do a great job.  With that many items, it's pretty easy to find enough stuff that everyone is interested in, no matter what their taste.

There are several books under the banner (hence the vague title of this post) but I should be clear:  for boys, the ones of prime interest will be the Songs, Albums, Comics and especially Video Games. There are other titles in the series (Books, Children's Books, Battles That Changed the World, Food, Art, etc.), and they'd probably like the Beer one too, but these are teen boys we are talking about.  We should still pretend they have no idea about that stuff.

The lists are comprehensive, and are sorted chronologically.  In some cases, the lists go back centuries, though in the case of video games I suppose merely decades, unless da Vinci was more ahead of his time than we thought and we just haven't discovered it yet.  In all cases, they cover all genres.  In music, there is pop, rock, rap, blues, electronic, indie, you name it.  Video games covers all the major systems and types, from stand-up arcade hits to Angry Birds and everything in between.

These books are well suited to casual browsing.  There is no narrative as each entry is entirely self-contained without reference to anything else in the book.  They especially well-suited to groups of people sitting around it, fun for promoting debate about whether a certain item should be on the list, and comparing who has seen/heard/played what from the list.   I've got the albums one, and I flip through it just to count how many of the albums I own.  Likewise the games one: I've played a lot, but it's just as interesting to see what I've missed.

It's an expensive book, though.  It cost me a lot buying albums I discovered through reading the book.

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The Secret Journeys of Jack London Series #1: The Wild by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

The Secret Journeys of Jack London #1 The Wild
Seventeen-year-old Jack London dreams of striking gold, just like all the other men and women traveling to Yukon. He willingly embarks on a treacherous journey across the wild north through blizzards and mountains and raging rivers, all the while keeping his optimism and enthusiasm for what he considers an adventure, but little did he know that the wilderness has something else in store for him, and he is going to find out who really is Jack London, if he survives the ordeals.

I sneaked a peek at the plot prior to reading (really, why do I do that all the time to give myself expectations?), and I knew the authors have weaved in a couple legends, and this survival story will turn supernatural. The first hundred pages or so are well written, and it will thrill many readers that enjoy this type of story, but it's not really my cup of tea, so I was anxiously waiting for something "different" to happen. Once the story takes that strange turn though, I find myself wishing that Jack is back fighting nature. The wolf as Jack's spiritual guide doesn't quite work for me.  I don't mind the inclusion of the Wendigo, a flesh-eating monster, but it almost comes in too late in the book. Also, I prefer one scary villain, but the attention is divided when Jack encounters of the temptress Lesya and has to find a way to escape, and the subplot takes away the horror of the Wendigo.

Even though the book is marketed to teens and upper-elementary kids, it reads more like an adult book. It's difficult to like a book when the main character is not someone you particularly care to root for. Also not quite sure if Jack London fans will want to read this because of the strange mixture of fantasy and historical. 

Allegedly a movie deal has already been made, and the sequel Sea Wolves will come out in Feb 2012.
Author websites: Christopher GoldenTim Lebbon
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Good vs Evil graphic novels

Stone Arch Books, imprint of Capstone Press, recently released a new series of comics/graphic novels called Good vs Evil. Each book has two storylines, one pictured above each other. The top panels show the story from the antagonist's point of view (in reddish hues), while the bottom panels reveal the perspective of the protagonist. You can read each line one at a time or look at both top and bottom panels at the same time. What results is an interesting glimpse into the different perspectives held by different characters.

I've read two books from the series so far: Alien Snow and The Awakening. 

In Alien Snow, a young boy, Noah, enters a shop to buy a spaceship model. But instead of selling him the model, the shop owner makes Noah look into a snow globe and traps him inside it. It turns out that the shop owner is an evil alien collecting human specimens.

The Awakening is set in Tokyo, where a girl finds a tape player at the subway. When she turns the music on, a monster under the subway wakes up and hunts her down.

At the end of each book is a 'visual glossary' that points out details in the illustrations that give you clues about the story's setting and foreshadowing as well as particular drawing techniques and their purpose.  'Visual questions' are also listed at the end of the books -- questions about the illustrations, plot, title, and author's intent in using certain images. For example, one question suggests that the reader run the words 'alien snow' together when saying it to see if they can figure out another meaning to the title (sounds like 'aliens know'). Include is also information on how the book (or comics in general) are created, from manuscript to pencil drawings to adding colour.

I really liked how the stories were told mainly through illustrations (there's very little narration or dialogue) and the endings were open ended (and a bit bizarre and disturbing!). I found that these aspects, combined with the different perspectives pictured by the two storylines, really made me engage with the plot more, requiring me to slow down to decipher what was really going on. At first glance I thought the double storyline would be a bit gimmicky, but after actually reading the books, I found I liked comparing the different viewpoints. I think this series opens the way for some good discussion and would be great for upper elementary/teen bookclubs or school novel studies. And I think think kids and teens will totally eat them up...

Thank you to Stone Arch Books, imprint of Capstone Press, for making copies of these books available to the Boys Do Read Blog writers. 
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Upcoming Winter 2012 Teen Books for Boys

It's that time of the year to go through the Winter catalogues and see what we have in store for the guys this season. Here are a few titles that jump out so far, and descriptions included are from publishers. What have you seen that looks like it's got potential? Please leave us a comment. 

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha
March 2012 Penguin Young Readers Group
Nice cover! Sophisticated and mysterious. And Jack the Ripper. Need I say more.
Carver Young dreams of becoming a detective, despite growing up in an orphanage with only crime novels to encourage him. But when he is adopted by Detective Hawking of the world famous Pinkerton Agency, Carver is given not only the chance to find his biological father, he finds himself smack in the middle of a real life investigation: tracking down a vicious serial killer who has thrown New York City into utter panic. When the case begins to unfold, however, it's worse than he could have ever imagined, and his loyalty to Mr. Hawking and the Pinkertons comes into question. As the body count rises and the investigation becomes dire, Carver must decide where his true loyalty lies. Full of whip-smart dialogue, kid-friendly gadgets, and featuring a then New York City Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, Ripper challenges everything you thought you knew about the world's most famous serial killer. 

Kill Switch by Chris Lynch
April 2012 Simon & Schuster
Cover looks kinda boring, but the espionage plot sounds pretty good, and Chris Lynch is a pretty good writer.
All Daniel wants to do is spend one last summer with his grandfather before he moves away for college and his grandfather’s dementia pulls them apart. But when his dear old Da starts to let things slip about the job he used to hold—people he’s killed, countries he’s overthrown—old work “friends” show up to make sure he stays quiet. Was his grandfather really involved in a world of assassinations and coups, or are the stories just delusions of a crumbling mind? On the run from the police (and possibly something worse) before he has time to find out, Daniel may have to sacrifice everything to protect his grandfather from those who would do him harm. 

Lexapros and Cons by Aaron Karo
April 2012 Simon & Schuster
By a stand-up comedian, and film rights have been sold already.  Hopefully it's good funny and not the unnatural kind.
High schooler Chuck Taylor knows his OCD is out of control. The weird routines that he relies on to keep himself together are scaring everyone off. Yes, he shares a name with the icon behind the coolest shoes in the world—but even he knows his complicated system for which pair of "Cons" he’s going to wear on which day is completely nuts. The shrink his parents make him see isn’t helping, partly because her patient only pretends to take the drug she’s prescribed, and partly because he doesn't like the fact that she wears sneakers in their sessions.
Bad things are definitely going to happen to Chuck. But maybe that’s a good thing. Because in order to get a handle on his life, win back his best friend, and have a chance with the amazing new girl at school, he’s going to have break some hardcore habits, face his demons . . . and get messy.

Playground by 50 Cent
November 2011 Penguin Group
Thirteen-year-old Butterball doesn't have much going for him. He's teased mercilessly about his weight. He hates the Long Island suburb his mom moved them to and wishes he still lived with his dad in the city. And now he's stuck talking to a totally out-of-touch therapist named Liz.
Liz tries to uncover what happened that day on the playground - a day that landed one kid in the hospital and Butterball in detention. Butterball refuses to let her in on the truth, and while he evades her questions, he takes readers on a journey through the moments that made him into the playground bully he is today. 

The Final Four by Paul Volponi
March 2012 Penguin
Four players with one thing in common: the will to win
Malcolm wants to get to the NBA ASAP. Roko wants to be the pride of his native Croatia. Crispin wants the girl of his dreams. M.J. just wants a chance.
March Madness is in full swing, and there are only four teams left in the NCAA basketball championship. The heavily favored Michigan Spartans and the underdog Troy Trojans meet in the first game in the semifinals, and it's there that the fates of Malcolm, Roko, Crispin, and M.J. intertwine. As the last moments tick down on the game clock, you'll learn how each player went from being a kid who loved to shoot hoops to a powerful force in one of the most important games of the year. Which team will leave the Superdome victorious? In the end it will come down to which players have the most skill, the most drive, and the most heart.

Of course there are going to be sequels:
Fugitives (Alexander Gordon Smith's Escape from Furnace series. See review)

Seeds of Rebellion (Brandon Mull's The Beyonders series. See review)
Invisible Sun (sequel to David MacInnis Gill's Black Hole Sun. See review)
Ruins (Orson Scott Card's Pathfinders series)
Run (sequel to James A. Moore's Subject Seven. See review)
The Dragon's Apprentice (James A. Owen's Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series. See review)
A Million Suns (sequel to Beth Revis' Across the Universe. See review)
The Rising (sequel to Will Hill's Department 19. See review)

More to come in the next few weeks...
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Fable: The Balverine Order by Peter David

Not all video game adaptations are created equal.  That is to say, some are actually halfway decent.  I've mentioned previously Mass Effect novels and how while they have appeal based on source material, they aren't actually very good.  I will review others soon that are even less flattering, including Assassin's Creed and Bioshock.  (Don't take this to mean you shouldn't let boys read them.  I know, I know, don't give junk when there is better stuff available.  But remember, better stuff doesn't always mean appealing stuff, and you have to start somewhere.)  With Fable: the Balverine Order, I've found one that's actually pretty entertaining.

Set in the fictional land of Albion, where magic (called will) and pre-Victorian technology such as rifles and pistols co-exist, mythical beasts may well be real.  One of these beasts is the balverine, and giant wolf-like creature, sort of like a more evil werewolf.  Thomas, the son of a town merchant, claims his brother was killed by one of these beasts, and when he comes of age, he decides to head out on a quest with his loyal servant/best friend James to find and kill it.  Of course, all is not what it seems and they find themselves mixing with angry giant women, pirates, and mysterious folks of all types.

The plot isn't original at all but it doesn't really matter.  It's a pretty standard quest, with the guys going from point A to point B to point C pretty efficiently, meeting most of the problems you would expect in this kind of story.  What sets it apart from other video game books is that if you didn't know that's what it was, there is no giveaway.  The writing is casual and straightforward, nothing complicated, and foreknowledge of the game world is unnecessary.  It's also pretty funny, too. (The game has its moments, too.  Conversation in the game is handled via "gestures" such as thumbs up, laugh and, of course, fart.)

The games the novel is based on (Fable, Fable II and Fable III) are pretty popular, but I wouldn't say they are the most appealing to teens.  I wouldn't put this in a collection as the only game tie-in since other books like Halo and World of Warcraft have more obvious appeal, but it probably would have the broadest appeal to the general public, non-gamers included.
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The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If you don't already think clowns are creepy, you will after you read this book. (Oh and before you read any further, a spoiler alert, as I do talk a bit about the book's ending!)

It's 1943 and 13 year old Max and his family have decided to move away from the danger of war in the city to a house on the coast near a small town. The moment they arrive at the train station at the town, Max feels uneasy about the move. It's not just the anxious looks on his mother and sisters' faces that unsettle him -- it's the strange clock at the station that seems to move backwards and the unblinking cat that appears to be waiting for them.

Through his new bedroom window, Max sees an overgrown garden with white statues just a little ways from his house. Intrigued, he breaks through the rusted gate and discovers that the they are statues of different members of a circus troupe -- a lion tamer, a strongman, a female contortionist... and in the middle of the garden is a stone clown, arm extended in a fist. At his feet is the symbol of a six pointed star. When Max looks at the clown a second time, he realizes that the clown's hand is now an open palm instead of a fist.

It's the beginning of a frightening chain of events: strange voices in the house, keys turning and closets opening by themselves, stone angels coming to life. When Max's new friend shows him a shipwreck with the same six pointed star and a dangerous accident puts his younger sister in the hospital, Max realizes he needs to find out what really is going on -- quick.

Zafon does an excellent job at creating a dark, ominous mood -- you get a real sense of foreboding as the tension grows with each mysterious incident. I found the plot to be pretty succinct and it felt more like a short story than a full length novel (214 pages, with large text and wide spacing). I like how it didn't have a typical happy ending where the protagonist saves the day by defeating the enemy and the author wasn't afraid of ending with some loose ends. That said, I felt that some of the more intriguing elements of the story (e.g. why clocks were going backwards, the meaning of the six pointed star, how the Prince of Mist became immortal) could have used a bit more explanation.

I must say I was happy to read a story where the paranormal was actually sinister and dangerous.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon is the author of the Midnight Palace (YA) and the internationally known adult novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game.

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This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel

This Dark Endeavor:  The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel
How far would you go to save someone you love?  Victor Frankenstein finds out when his twin brother Konrad is on his death's bed and no one can figure out why he is sick. Stumbling across a secret library in his mansion, he discovers his family's dark secret and dabbles in alchemy to make the Elixir of Life to cure his brother. Will he succeed?
Incidentally, CBC Books had a "Kelley Armstrong recommends" column the other day and she reviewed this book. She said, "It help fills a void in the girl-dominated young adult market by telling a story that should be an easier sell to boys, while still appealing to girls." She's right about the girl-dominated part (and I don't know why people still argue that YA lit serves male and female readers equally), but to me, this book is more like, "well, girls will like this, and boys may read it too". I don't think this book has "it".  It has potential for sure, and when I first read about the plot, I was excited too to meet the twins, but the story moves too slowly, and it feels like forever in between the scenes that have stuff happening. Those rare scenes, exciting as they may be, are not enough to hold my interest. I also don't care much for the characters. The love triangle is particularly irritating, not to mention that both guys seem a bit wishy-washy compared to Elizabeth, the fiesty cousin that they're both in love with, which bugs me 'cause males need strong characters and models too.  I remember being fascinated by the real Frankenstein when I finally read it years ago, but I find Oppel's prequel lacking in all the delicious details. Feels like everything is saved for some sort of sequel.
For a much better portrayal of a pair of brothers trying to create life and living with the consequences of playing god, try the manga Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa.
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Classic of the Day: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

With the recent passing of Steve Jobs, there has been much about what he helped do to create the modern world.  Much of the focus is on his more recent achievements, such as helping conceive the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, but his influence starts much farther back, in the early days of microcomputing with the Apple I.  His influence reminded me of previous visionaries.  To whit, Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick and  2001: A Space Odyssey.

Published in 1968 as a companion work to the film of the same name, it was ahead of its time in many of the predictions it made.  While not particularly accurate on a large scale (no bases on the moon, no tourist travel to space stations, etc.), computers were represented relatively accurately in their abilities.  Sure, there are no superintelligent computers out to kill us, but they do play a mean game of chess.

The story itself is about the evolution of man from its apelike origins to space exploration, all due to a big black monolith that just sort of sits there, in Africa, then the moon, and finally orbiting Jupiter (or Saturn, depending on which version you are reading).  And then some weird stuff that no one understands.

Why should teen boys like it?  Well, there isn't anything in particular that is exciting about it; there is no high-paced action.  But it is a bit of a local story, so to speak, even if set in space.  It's our space, in our solar system.  And most of it is perfectly plausible.  Space travel is slow and boring and lonely, so even if it is science fiction, it is still realistic.  It's sort of the best of both worlds, fulfilling the fantastic heroic adventure wish of being an astronaut that a lot of boys have while still being something they could realistically hope to achieve (until the end, anyway).

The book is slow, though it does make more sense than the movie.  The sequels (2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey) are more conventional narratives with less philosophical musings, and 2010 was also made into a movie.

It is recommended to the nerdier kids for sure.  It's not a long read, but it is heavy, so 16 and up is best.

Incidentally, Arthur C. Clarke is credited with coming up with the geostationary communications satellite (one of the reasons TV, GPS, cellphones, and other stuff like that work).  He is also responsible for one of my favorite quotes, Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  Like the iPhone.
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Shadowmagic by John Lenahan

Conor is sitting in his living room watching TV one day, when two mounted warriors charge in, attempt to kill him with a spear and then take him and his father captive. He wakes up in the ancient magical land of Tir Na Nog -- a world of talking trees, spells, and mythical creatures like banshees and imps. It turns out that his mother, who he believed was dead, is a exiled sorceress (and alive), and his father is a runaway prince of Ti Na Nog. A prophecy has stated that Conor is dangerous to this magical world and, indeed, it seems that everywhere Conor turns, someone is out to get him (particularly his dad's evil brother). Fortunately he finds some allies in a banshee named Fergal, the princess Essa and Araf (an imp) who joins him in his journey to find his parents and the Fillilands, where he will be safe from his attackers.

This book got my attention because a commentator stated that the story was like Percy Jackson being "hurled across the dimensions into Middle Earth"... I think a lot of us are on the lookout for a YA series (or single novel) with the action, humor and good plotlines of Riodan's books, and of course, I decided to give this a try.  It does has a fairly light-hearted mood and there are some funny moments (mostly funny thoughts or comments by Conor), but I didn't find the characters or magical world as interesting as the ones in Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. They just didn't have the same intrigue and depth. While the plot doesn't move quite as quickly as Riodan's, it does jump into the action right away -- the book opens with Conor already captured and asking questions about why people are trying to kill him. The story was intriguing at some points, but a bit too predictable for me. More avid readers, and especially those who have read a lot of fantasy, might not find this substantial enough.

All in all, I wouldn't say this is a Percy Jackson equivalent, but reads alright as a light fantasy, and I'd recommend it to those looking for a quick, simple read.
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