Cracked.com on funny books

Today on cracked.com is an article on why it's so hard to find funny books, specifically fiction.  I'm sure some of you out there are thinking, "There's plenty of funny stuff."  The author means belly laugh funny, not clever turns of phrase.  Read point number 2 to see what I mean.

I'm going to take a stand here.  Let's make funny books a genuine genre, just like movies.  Let's set aside the comedy novels in their own section for all to find easily, instead of throwing them in with everything else.
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ALA Alex Awards:What are they exactly?

ALA announced its latest Alex Award winners for adult books that have special appeal to younger adults.  To be honest, even though this is what we do at Boys Do Read (finding anything that might appeal to boys regardless of genre or target audience), I still can't quite figure out how you can give an award on it.

I get that there are certain books on certain subjects that have a broad appeal, that can work quite well for any audience, but it still strikes me as odd that they could pinpoint 10 books that 'win'.  Based on what exactly?  Are they the best books of the year for adults? Does the public think so?  Are they the best written?

I don't have a problem with giving adult books to teens; they're all I read by the time I was 14.  It hardly stunted my emotional growth to not read the teen 'issues' books that we out there, instead going into Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett, and lots of classic Sci-Fi authors.  But looking at the award winners makes me wonder how it even works.  Who are these 'teens' that these books supposedly appeal to?  'Teens' are a huge demographic.  There are boys, girls, jocks, nerds, hippies, artsy types, hipster wannabees, wallflowers, punks, and all the other cliches that I can't think of right now.  They could hardly agree to read any of the winning books.

Ready Player One is a great example.  The book is about video games and movies, which is all fine and good, and why I loved it.  But here's the thing.  I didn't get a number of the references in it (not that it matters that much; it's still a good quest story), and I'm 31.  It's a love letter to the 80s, and I was 10 in 1990. Teens these days weren't even born yet and I would think that the appeal of the book is actually pretty limited.  There are certainly lots of kids out there who would like it, but not the majority by far.

These probably aren't bad books.  I don't know, I haven't read most of them.  It's just that the idea of this award is pretty nebulous to me.  Can anyone out there help clarify?

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And the diagnosis is...

Does your head pound when you see a shelf full of paranormal fiction? Do your eyes glaze over every time you read a synopsis about high schoolers finding out they're vampires?  Do you feel nauseated when you read reviews of books about love triangles between humans, werewolves and angels? Perhaps you are suffering from "paranormal fatigue".

Publishers' Weekly published an article titled, "YA comes of Age" back in September 2011 discussing current and possible future trends in young adult fiction publishing. They noted the continuing boom in YA literature which is possibly tied to the success of the Twilight series, but also an "industry wide case of paranormal fatigue". Apparently some editors are getting tired of the hundreds of manuscripts about vampires, angels, zombies and faeries. The article points out that some paranormal is continuing to sell, but the new trend is dystopian fiction, writers hoping for the same success of the Hunger Games Trilogy. An interview with the president of the American Library Association's YALSA about publishing trends in 2012 expresses similar thoughts that vampires are "fading" but also suggests that steampunk, in addition to dystopian fiction, might be on the rise.

I am definitely seeing more and more dystopian fiction, and though I personally prefer it over the paranormal theme, I can see the plots becoming stale unless authors come up with some unique settings and original characters that develop well throughout the story. That said, excellent writing can often save a formula plotline for me.

As for steampunk, I think it's still overshadowed by paranormal and dystopian themes. Will it be the next big thing? Some comments on the Publisher's Weekly article wondered if historical fiction or more traditional sci-fi would become popular. I think steampunk is more likely -- it probably would have more popular appeal. It has elements of fantasy (which readers seem to love these days) and potential to be pretty creative in the way technology is included. I think fiction written in true classic sci-fi and historical fiction styles will remain on the sidelines -- unless authors start cutting down the length and complexity of their plots (which, in that case, it would no longer be of the true classic styles!). But whatever the next big trend, I sure hope we can get away from endless descriptions of the protagonists' bemoaning forbidden love, unnecessary details of each character's wardrobe, and book covers that look like shampoo advertisements.
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Why Do Men Have Nipples? by Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg

Guys have always traditionally been interested in gross or weird bodily functions, and we have always provided, at least for younger kids (see Ripley's Believe It or Not et al.)  The fun doesn't stop there, though.  There are plenty of questions that remain that aren't really covered by those slightly more kid-friendly titles, ones that we aren't really likely to present to the younger crowd, like the titular question.  It's not that it's a bad question, but it can be awkward.  After all, while there is nothing wrong with feeding one's baby, it is not a comfortable subject for everyone.  But, well, here: some men have indeed put them to use. 

Why Do Men Have Nipples? is an entertaining read aimed at adult audiences written by an emergency physician and a humorist, so the topics are approached with a pretty relaxed attitude.  They are not entirely family-friendly, but I wouldn't worry too much about giving them to older teens.  This is factual, educational stuff, and in some cases could encourage young readers to take up medicine.  The human body is weird.

Learn why asparagus makes your pee smell.  And why can't some people smell it?

Why do old folks have hairy ears?

What's the deal with ice cream headaches?

There is also a follow-up book, Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?, covering more of the same, with an added touch of the Battle of the Sexes.  These are older books, but they are great examples of well-focused trivia books, and they aren't too out of date.
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World War Z: an oral history of the zombie war by Max Brooks

I have to admit, I don't really like reading stories about zombies. I like monsters, scary villains and I don't mind a bit of gore... but there's something about decaying, flesh eating corpses that turn me off. But when a teen guy at our library kept raving about World War Z, I thought I'd just take a peek.

World War Z is a collection interviews and first person accounts of a world wide human war against zombies. It's put together like a historical account, with a serious tone to make it as realistic as possible. Since it's a series of oral accounts from various people, the book doesn't read like your typical chronological novel where the plot is held together by a single narrator. This makes it a bit more choppy and I could see some readers getting bored with it at some point. I found myself randomly flipping to different sections of the book -- it's definitely not a thriller that had me biting my nails all the way through. If a reader is looking for a high octane zombie read, I'd suggest the Enemy series by Charlie Higson or Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry rather than World War Z. That said, I was actually impressed by the way the story is presented -- I thought I'd be laughing or dismissing the whole thing as melodramatic, but instead I found most of the chapters quite interesting. It had plenty of gory moments - but I didn't find this gratuitous or so repulsive I couldn't read on.  I liked the choice of perspectives included in the book: the organ harvester whose operations spread the zombie infection, the child whose parents tried to kill her to prevent the zombies from eating her, the Palestinian who believed it was all an Israeli conspiracy. Interestingly, it made me consider deeper themes like corruption, greed, politics and the different ways humans respond to threat and catastrophe. Yes -- all this from a fictional account the world being taken over by zombies! I wouldn't expect the typical teen reader to react the same way I did; I'd expect them to just think the whole zombie war idea is pretty cool (which it is).  The great thing is, these are real zombies: gross, terrifying lumps of rotting flesh that will eat your arm off -- not zombies that are portrayed as marginalized population that need to be included in your groupie at high school.

 This is definitely one I'll be recommending to teen guy readers, along with Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead and Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks. There are also plans to make World War Z into a movie in December 2012, so it's probably be a good idea to make sure you've got at least a couple copies of all three in your teen collection, as I'm sure the demand for them will only be increasing.

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Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Alex was about to start a heavenly weekend with just him and the World of Warcraft when the ceiling collapsed on him.
When he finally managed to pull himself out of the rubble, Alex stumbled out of what's left of his house and found thick layers of ashes covering everything. Then came the unbearably ear-splitting explosion noises that lasted all night long. His neighbours ushered Alex into their house, telling him that a supervolcano at Yellowstone National Park had exploded.
As civilization slowly grinded to a halt, and the selfish side of humanity reared its ugly head, Alex knew he needed to find his family, who went to visit an uncle in Warren in Illinois for the weekend. If only he had gone with them... Now he had to travel alone in these impossible conditions with minimum food and supplies. He had no idea how he was going to do this, and even worse, he couldn't help but wonder if his family actually made it to Warren in the first place.
The plausible premise of a supervolcano's eruption makes this book all the more scary in a plethora of dystopian / apocalyptic teen novels out there these days. The story of a teenager trying to stay sane in a chaotic world after a natural disaster strikes was well actualized, and even if you are not crazy about survival story, this one will hold your attention. The excitement wanes a bit in the beginning when Alex's painstakingly slow trek across the ash seems to fall into a routine of little progress during the day, coming across a house at nighfall, finding either a rifle pointing straight at him to tell him to move along, or a kindly couple who wants to keep and take care of him forever. The pace picks up quickly again though so it's all good. Alex eventually bands together with another survivor, and romance does blossom between the two, but it's totally from a guy's point of view and sits well with my stomach. Together they encounter some pretty disturbing things that make this book more appropriate for an older audience.
There is a sequel coming in October 2012, and unlike many series, this first book doesn't end with a cliffhanger, which, as much as we complain about cliffhangers sometimes, I feel that this one could have ended a little early when...well, I can't tell you, but you'll know where if you read it I think.
Check out the author's website.
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2012: The Mayan prophecies

2012.  According to some, the Mayans predicted the end of the world.  They didn't; December 21st, 2012 is just the date that their calendar rolls over to the next cycle, the same way Monday turns to Tuesday, February becomes March, and the world explodes (well, not that last one).

That doesn't stop people from coming up with all sorts of signs and portents indicating the End of Days (not Eric Walters', though).  One thing almost all of them can agree on is that it will be cataclysmic, violent, explosive, and more.  Hollywood and video games recognize that boys like big booms, so why not lets give them some books, too?

The Complete Idiot's Guide to 2012 is a good start.  As always for this series, the book is accessible and simply written.  While it does tend to take the whole thing seriously, it is still a great entry point into the whole Mayan Apocalypse.

Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization's End by Lawerence E. Joseph takes a deeper look at some of the scientific possibilities, including supervolcanoes, climate change, and changes in the magnetic field.  Again, the author takes the whole prediction thing seriously, but the information is still fascinating.

2012 and the End of the World by Matthew Restall and Amara Solari takes a more restrained look and traces the predictions to Western traditions and predictions.  This is a great door to other traditions such as Nostradamus and other European prophets of doom.

Of course, there is also lots of apocalyptic fiction the suits the theme of the end of the world, including the aforementioned End of Days, plus the Maze Runner trilogy and Life As We Knew It.  There is much more out there, though.

If you have other suggestions, we'd love to see them in the comments!

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The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner

I haven't read a whole lot of novels involving time travel -- I've usually found the whole idea of time travel both fascinating and confusing. It's not easy for me to understand gamma rays, quantum foam and theories of relativity. Fortunately, even though the Tomorrow Code refers to such concepts, scientific details are at a minimum and I can easily follow the storyline (and not get bored).

When Tane and Rebecca get the crazy idea of analyzing gamma ray bursts for possible messages sent from the future, they discover that there are indeed patterns in the data -- suggesting that they might be right about the ability to send messages through time. When they finally decode the patterns, they realize that they have lottery numbers, and yes, win 6 million dollars. But the message consists of more than lottery secrets. If they've decoded it correctly, the message has instructions to buy a submarine and stop an experiment on viruses, followed by an SOS. All of it sounds pretty outrageous and they wonder if they should actually do what the message says... until they realize the message has been signed TR -- Tane and Rebecca. If they have sent themselves a message from the future, maybe there's an important course of events they need to change -- a chance to prevent a dangerous situation they will find themselves in later on.

The book was a bit slow in the beginning and the action really doesn't come until the last part of the book. There was a good twist in the plot at the end, but I am not sure the book will hold the attention of someone looking for something that is exciting all the way through. The idea of people sending messages from the future in an attempt to prevent world disaster that humans themselves have created isn't particularly original -- I could pretty much predict what was going to happen (except for the twist at the end which probably saved the book for me). The idea of antibodies attacking humans and the theme of human environmental destruction reminded me of books I previously reviewed on this blog: Catherine Jinx's Living Hell (except that Living Hell was action packed the whole way through and had many more gory details on people being ingested by macrophages)  and David Klass' Firestorm.

All in all, I'd still recommend this novel to those looking for an easy, straight forward sci-fi read. It's interesting enough -- and vampire free.

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The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The first Sherlock Holmes novel commissioned and authorized by the Conan Doyle Estate is written by none other than Anthony Horowitz, a household name in teen lit, thanks to his Alex Rider series.  (Incidentally, you should go read his earlier works for the younger crowd. They're shockingly funny. Still can't get over Groosham Grange)

After watching the second Sherlock Holmes movie, which I find as entertaining as the first, I was inspired to pick up The House of Silk. An art dealer has asked Holmes for help. He fears that his life is in danger because he has accidentally crossed paths with the Flat Cap gang while in Boston, and now, a year later, someone in a flat cap has been stalking him. This menacing stalker is believed to be the only survivor in the gang and he's here to finish him off. In trying to solve this case, Holmes employs a few street urchins and one of them ends up being brutally murdered. From then on, it becomes personal for Holmes, but he and Watson are about to get too close to a dark and dangerous secret, and more than a few people are not too happy about that.

A good mystery is always fun to read. Fans of the genre or of Sherlock Holmes will be not be disappointed with the intriguing plot Horowitz has created. The voice of Watson is very comforting throughout the whole book. He watches Holmes' signature deduction like all of us, constantly amazed at his brilliance, and his good humour and optimism. This is a good adult novel to introduce to teens already familiar with Horowitz, and it may inspire them to go read some of the originals.
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Classic of the Day: The works of Monty Python

There's a long gap between New Year's Day and Easter.  For teen boys (and adults who choose to take vacation later in the year), that's a longggggg stretch to go without a break.  At this point in the school year, they are firmly settled, far from the beginning and even longer to the end.  What they need is something completely different.

Lumberjacks, parrots, Silly Walks.  The Spanish Inquition... (I hope you were expecting that.  Wait, what?)

Monty Python.  Yes, they are old.  Yes, PBS doesn't show weekend marathons of it anymore.  Yes, only a small group of kids really get what's going on there, but these are the same kids that read Douglas Adams or understand the references in Ready Player One.  Nerd stuff.  Classic British Humour, the patron saints of sketch comedy.  They aren't for everyone, mind you, but the kids that like them will eat it up.  That leads me to the books, of which there are many.
If you can get your hands on them, there is The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All The Words Vol 1 & 2.  These are the complete scripts to the TV series.  These really help when trying to figure what they actually say on the show, given that at times the accents get really ridiculous.  It's not a very fancy volume, but in these two volumes having the complete scripts is pretty cool.


The Pythons Autobiography by the Pythons is the oral history of the group, drawing its text directly from interviews and clips from each member (including the dead one).  This is a lot like many of the recent band biographies that take the same approach like The Beatles, U2 and Genesis.  It's more of a coffee table book, full of photos from throughout the troupe's career.  It's an enlightening book, too, as it covers their whole career up to Spamalot, the award-winning broadway play spearheaded by member Eric Idle.

Monty Python and Philosophy is part of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series that considers deeper meanings and concepts that can be drawn from or illustrated by all the nonsense.  The series is pretty hit and miss, since sometimes they have to stretch to make the relevant philosophical points, but it's still pretty neat to have the show 'legitimized' intellectually.

You might note that I don't have any books by Monty Python as a troupe.  They exist, but they are old, weird, and I haven't found any reprints to list.    The ones above are still reasonably available.  Besides, the true experience is in the TV shows, movies, and to a lesser extent, comedy albums.  There is a good chance that the books listed above are already in library collections, so keep an eye out for them.

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The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

There are two unusual things about Michael: he hasn't spoken a word since his childhood and he can open any lock or safe without a key or combination. It's these two things that make him the perfect 'boxman' -- someone who is employed by thieves and con men to break into homes and open safes. Michael never wanted to get involved in crime. In fact, with his amazing talent at drawing, he was possibly on his way to art college. But one break and enter sends him doing community service for Mr. Marsh, a man in trouble with big crime bosses and the father of Amelia, who Michael falls in love with. When Michael finds out Amelia will be in danger unless he works for the crime bosses, he agrees to take up the job as boxman. He's given a 5 colour coded pagers -- each one that goes off will lead him to a different 'job'. Soon Michael finds himself in a dangerous world of felony, murder and deception with no way out.

I rarely read adult fiction and many attempts at reading adult novels only seem to confirm that I really rather read kids and teen literature. There are exceptions once in a while though, and this would be one of them.The story is told in parts alternating between Michael's childhood and more recent events of his life, with the events converging at the end so that the complete story is revealed. I thought this was well done and made the storytelling more intriguing. The plot itself kept me interested the whole way through; there was a fair amount of mystery about what traumatic event caused Michael to stop speaking and each job he was called to provided some good action (trigger crazy security guards, thieves turning on each other, etc.). And while there is some romance and heavy issues surround Michael's past, the author never portrays Michael as overly emotional or spend an excessive amount of time taking about his feelings. I think that the whole idea of someone being able to open locks and safes without keys and combinations, and getting employed by criminals to do it is pretty fascinating -- and I would guess that most teen guys would too.
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