Inventory by The Onion A.V. Club

While targeted at older audiences (20s-30s), the Onion A.V. Club covers a broad range of pop culture topics, including music, movies, video games, comics and more.  Unlike the Onion, though, the news and stories are all real, though they still approach the subject matter with some humour.  Think of it as the online version of your local alternative newspaper, without the, ahem, 'adult' classifieds in the back or the boring local politics.

The website usually delves into the deeper recesses and lesser lights of the entertainment industry, covering bands that don't make the Top 40 and movies that don't win the weekend box office (though they still do that, though generally just to mock them): things that a lot of clever and with-it teenagers seek out to escape the norm.  For example, today's features are an interview with Mark Hamill and a video of They Might Be Giants performing Chumbawamba's Tubthumping.

More relevant to us here is the occasional features that they put up, in this case, the A.V. Club Inventory.  Roughly every week, they produce a list on a random topic, like "11 Videogames That Prompted Fear and Outrage" or "6 Keanu Reeves Movies Somehow Not Ruined by Keanu Reeves".  The lists were compiled into book format and they added a few by celebrities.

The lists are of a general theme, not so much just enumerating movies and songs, but actually giving a short discussion of the merits (or lack thereof) of the subject matter.  While they are often oddly specific (the full title is Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined by Saxophone, and 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists, with emphasis on Obsessive), they often lead to new discoveries, something kids that age are looking for, something obscure that will make them feel special.

Not all of the lists are family-friendly, but that's not unusual for books of lists, and is in fact part of the appeal, the risque.  That does mean that this is more appropriate for older teens, 16 and up, partly because of the mature themes of some of the lists, but also because the older kids are more likely to know the topics of discussion.
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Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

It's not often these days that I come across a fantasy novel that I would stay up past my bedtime to read. I was happy to discover that Beyonders is one of these books.

Jason is just a regular high middle school kid who loves baseball and animals. While volunteering at the zoo one day, he hears strange music coming from the hippo and falls into its mouth... and into the world of Lyrian. In his attempt to find his way back to his world, he stumbles on a creepy book bound in skin (complete with a blinking human eye) and learns about a magical word that will defeat the evil magician currently ruling Lyrian. He is suddenly being hunted down by soldiers, giant boarhounds, and other scary creatures and embarks on a quest to find all the syllables of the magical word before he is disposed of. Along the way he is joined by Rachel, another girl from his world who has also been mysteriously transported to Lyrian, and Farin, a creature who can detach his limbs at will. To find the syllables, they must battle man eating crabs, get across a quicksand lake, survive a treacherous swamp full of poisonous snakes and bugs, all the while trying to evade the evil magician's minions.

I was a bit wary at first since the idea of falling into a hippo's mouth seemed a bit far-fetched, but as a read on, I found that the plot moved well and that the magical world was definitely intriguing enough to keep me interested. The characters are complex enough that you're not always sure whether they are good or bad, and there's a great twist at the end. ( I don't want to reveal too much or I'll spoil it for those of you who might read this book!) While this is often classified under children's fantasy, I would recommend it to teens looking for a fast paced, easy to read fantasy.

Brandon Mull is also the author of the Fablehaven series (which I am now planning to read as well). This is the first in the Beyonders series, and I can't wait to read the sequel...
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The Phantom Limb by William Sleator

It's a strange sensation, Isaac thought as he put his hands into the mirror box. It's like he has three arms. Being a big fan of optical illusions, he is really excited when he found the box the previous owners of his house have left behind. Isaac can totally see how this can make amputees feel like they still have both arms, and take away the phantom pain.
He wishes something can make his mom feel better. She's been in the hospital for a while now, even though she's admitted with something pretty minor.  
Then he saw it. The arm moves. No, not his own, but the one reflected in the mirror. It is now waving at him.  Isaac quickly withdraws his hands from the box, but the arm... It is still there. 
After just a dozen pages, I knew I want to booktalk this. The concept is awesome.  You can either take the mirror box angle, or the serial killer one (yes there is a serial killer on the loose).  The problem though, is that the story falters with too many implausible happenings, especially the stuff at the hospital. Even the bullies don't seem very realistic.  The hospital visits get repetitive and frustrating without progressing the storyline, and it is really difficult to believe that Isaac will get dragged not once but twice for some strange procedures in the hospital.  When the most believable thing in the whole story is the ghost, there is a slight problem.
Thank you Amulet Books for making this eGalley available on netGalley.
Do you booktalk mediocre books that you know will draw potential readers in?  Tell us in the comment section.

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Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

You work in a fast food joint, you've dropped out of college, and you have no prospects for the future.  You work with your best friends, none of whom have many prospects either, so while nothing is great, it isn't that terrible either.  But as hijinx ensue with your buddies, you bust the brakelight of on an expensive car, and the guy comes in to your restaurant read to bust heads.  He sees you, and suddenly his attitude changes.

This is what happens to Sam.  It turns out, much to his surprise, that he isn't in fact a normal guy.  He's a necromancer.  And the guy whose car he busted is one, too.  Only much more powerful, the terrifying head of the local Council (of mythical and paranormal beasts and such).  And he wants Sam and his powers.

This book reminds me of a YA version of Christopher Moore's style.  I suspect the author would appreciate that comparison, and I think it's apt. Moore's books are set in the real world, with real locations and brands that help make the story more absurd when angels and demons appear and everyone in it is witty or sarcastic. Lish McBride pulls the same style here for a similar effect.

Set in Seattle, featuring real city locations, it feels more odd when the weird stuff starts, given that these are real places you could actually visit. It is firmly paranormal: werewolves, fey, necromancy, witches (real magic ones, not Wiccan), zombies, talking severed heads...  But it never loses its sense of humour, and never takes itself too seriously.  The story is told in a combination of first person from Sam and third person for everyone else, which I find an odd and initially jarring choice, but it settles in pretty well.  

Not really for serious fantasy readers, this is more humour than paranormal.  When reading the title, think of an Elton John song and of Phoebe on Friends.  You'll get what the mindframe you need to be in for this book.  
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Last Week's SLJ Books for Boys Webinar

Last Tuesday, School Library Journal hosted a webinar called "Books for Boys". Jon Scieszka moderated the talk, and representatives from Simon & Schuster, Random House Books on Tape and Candlewick talked about recent and upcoming books for boys of all ages.
Scieszka started the talk by introducing his Guys Read website, which has some pretty interesting booklists (my favourite being "At least one explosion"). They've also got a "start a guys read field office" initiative and their guys read charter.
I've included their slides here (PDF). Thanks for giving us permission to put this up, SLJ!
Which titles are you most excited about? Leave us a comment.
p.s. I know this is not really for teens, but I need to give a shout out to Mac Barnett's It Happened on a Train. It's one of the funniest things I've read.

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Classic of the Day: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

It should be obvious that I won't actually set out the plot of this book in too much detail.  If there is anyone out there who hasn't read it, I'd be shocked.  This book is required reading in pretty much every English-speaking school in the world, and probably in other languages as well.

So why should I even mention it?

Well, think about it like this:  Let's say you, as an adult, absolutely love reading, and wish you could promote every excellent book you read to 13-to 16-year-old boys.  You tell them that there is a particularly interesting book out there that involves a plane crash, a deserted island with mysterious beasts, a bunch of youngish boys and no adult supervision.  And best of all, it's violent and has been banned in many places at one point or another.  (There is also that gross pig's head on the cover which helps.)

Sounds pretty cool...  then you tell them to analyze it chapter by chapter to investigate the meaning of pretty much everything that happens.

I tell you, that's pretty much the worst thing you can do, and will make the kids never trust another adult again when they recommend a book.  Reading is now a chore, no matter how good the book might be.

So here is why I mention this classic: so that you give it to them before it is assigned in class.  I know, I know.  It's violent.  It's got language.  It's difficult. It has concepts we might not want kids to read just yet.  I say too late to worry about that.  I've already recommended Battle Royale, and we all know how popular The Hunger Games books are.  These things are plenty of the above as well.  Here is one that, should a reluctant parent hesitate to give those other books a try, would certainly not mind their kid taking a classic.

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Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising by Jason Henderson

Alex Van Helsing's last name has always been the subject of vampire jokes, and he himself has never taken the idea of blood-sucking monsters seriously -- until he is attacked by a girl with white skin and fangs. His father has told him all his life that "such things do not happen" but Alex know something strange is going on. One night, he sees one of his teachers at his boarding school sneak off on his motorcycle and follows him to discover that not only are vampires real, but that there is a network of vampire hunters, of which his family used to be a part of. The Polidorium -- vampire hunters -- have been tracking a dangerous vampire clan lord to find Scholomance, a secret vampire training centre. The next evening two of Alex's friends are kidnapped by the vampire lord. Alex and his teacher know they need to find Scholomance and rescue them before it's too late.
In an earlier posting, I mentioned how difficult it is to find vampires that are the traditional scary, blood-thirsty type found in Stoker's Dracula. The ones in this novel are more along those lines: white skin, long fangs, superhuman strength, and looking for human blood (actually it seems that some of the vampires in this story also want to eat human flesh). What's different is that these vampires mix technology and supernatural power, go through school/training (I find this kind of comical -- why would you need to go through training if you are naturally/impulsively evil already?) and are more on a quest for power and immortality, rather than vulnerable females. Fortunately, none of the vampires here are swooning for humans or going to high school (though there's reason to believe that Alex's teacher may have vampire blood in him).
The story itself is predictable and cliche, but it reads alright as a no-brainer action novel. There's the usual vampire lore with stakes, silver bullets and relics; weaponry (crossbows, guns, knives), some good chase scenes and explosions. No romance yet (though there is potential with one of the main female characters) and the writing is pretty passable. This is the first in a series.
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Auslander by Paul Dowswell

Auslander by Paul Dowswell cover
Piotr is very aware of his nakedness, even among all the equally naked boys. He doesn't know where his eyes should look, or can look, especially with all the soldiers and their rifles watching them closely.
Then it's his turn to enter the Race and Settlement Main Office. All sorts of strange medical instruments lie scattered on the table, waiting to measure him, to deliver their judgment. However, the two white-coated men only takes a quick measure of his ear and sends him away. "We hardly need to bother...he looks just like that boy in the Hitler-Jugend poster".
I don't like historical fiction. I especially don't like historical fiction about wars, so Auslander is way out of my comfort zone, but Dowswell's meticulous details and well-paced narrative draws me in and keeps me in his haunting world. I read that the author has also written several non-fiction on World War II, and you can tell he knows his stuff.
The gripping first chapters, which describes the screening process to see if Piotr is "racially valuable" and worthy of reclamation, reads like the beginning of a dystopian novel, but better, because this is not mere fiction.  The exploration of the whole "racial hygiene" and "racial science" beliefs is frightening and fascinating at the same time, and it adds another level to the story.  Piotr, renamed "Peter", the German version of his name, moves from Warsaw to Berlin and is recommended for adoption into a prestigious German family. Despite his seemingly successful  assimilation into his new family and his new world, he is an "Auslander", a foreigner, and will remain so, as he gradually and painfully realizes.  His aspiration to be a Luftwaffe pilot and to serve the Fuhrer is slowly replaced by his horrors at the "one hundred percenters" who will do and believe anything the Nazis dictate. Even though you think the author will probably let Peter live at the end of the book, his life is in danger right till the last chapter on the very last page. It's intense.
» Visit the author's website
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Trash by Andy Mulligan

It's weird how some books look like issues books, but either hide it really well or aren't issues at all.  Trash is a good example, because while it is set in the landfills of an unnamed Asian nation (probably the Philippines based on various clues in the novel) and features large populations of homeless people living in those dumps, it's pretty much a straight adventure-mystery.  I expected a lot more commentary on the plight of the people, but while you do get the sense that life sucks for thee people, it's not what the story is about.

Raphael is one of those people, living off of whatever useful refuse they kind find, spending their days digging and looking for whatever they can of value.  While there are social services provided by various NGOs and whatnot, they don't find them useful since their lives are all about immediate survival.  While picking through the trash one day, Rafael finds a wallet.  With that discovery, things quickly turn ugly.  The police come looking for it, and he hides it, bringing undo pressure from the authorities in the community.

He takes off with some friends to figure out why the wallet is so important, only to find that the owner is deceased, and a major figure in attempting to exposing the ultra-corrupt Vice President of the country.  Adventure ensues.

The book is told in a police report style, with various characters each getting a chance to put in their perspective.  It's not a long book and moves pretty quickly, and it is definitely better suited to younger teens.
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The Boy Book Problem

A recent article in the New York Times by Robert Lipsyte has set off a firestorm on boys’ reading.  He argues that there is a major lack of books for teen boys.  A lot of people (mostly women, to be honest) have had complaints about it, decrying the whole issue as sexist.  Since the issue is the bread and butter of our blog, we figured a comment was warranted.
There are tons of books for boys in Children's Lit, and lots for adults, but there is a huge gap in the teen publishing area. No one is claiming that there are zero books for boys -- we can make a list of teen books for boys (and some have), but that list is far shorter than the list would be for girls. Seriously, go to a bookstore and open your eyes.  It's not that boys hate girls or are sexist or that 'society' has told them that it isn't manly to like that stuff.  It's because, generally speaking, they actually don't like that stuff.  It strikes us as a fairly simple issue.
Would you really recommend Rainbow Magic to a six year old boy, or a Harlequin romance to a 60-year-old man?  Of course not, though we doubt anyone would stop them if they wanted it (nor should they).  Why should it be different for 16-year-olds? 
No, the problem seems to be that there is an impression that there is something wrong with society in general, that there is social pressure for boys not to want to read certain kinds of books.  While that may or may not be true, it is beside the point.  If true, how is forcing boys to read something that doesn’t appeal to them anyway going to help?  They already hold the biases of boys.  (And by the way, don’t pretend girls don’t have equally ‘evil’ biases.  Try giving her a Halo or Mass Effect novel.  Good luck with that.) They don’t want it, and they will resent you and reading in general for trying to force it, and then game over.  You’ve killed a reader.
The real task is to nurture reading in general, by giving them what they want, what they are comfortable with, what they are familiar with, even if you don’t like it.  Your definition of bad may not be the same as theirs, so you need to be flexible.  If there is something you really like that you think they should read, that’s great, but you need to work with them, create a certain level of trust where they know that you understand what they want.  That way, they will take it from you, even if there is a girl with a big fancy dress on the cover. Besides, it is not the role of the librarian to change boys’ interests by making them read what we consider books with “literary merit” (or to battle sexism by making sure readers go beyond stereotypes). Constantly evaluating and therefore judging what boys are reading may have negative effects. In fact, some research even suggests that not only is society undervaluing what boys are reading, but that boys themselves pick up the same attitude. A 2009 Canadian study by the University of Ontario that examined the personal book collections of boys aged 4-12 found that the majority of these collections were made up of science fiction, fantasy, sports stories, humorous tales and non-fiction (e.g. joke books), comics, magazines, toy books, puzzle books and gaming manuals. Boys described their favorite books (most of them chose non-fiction titles) as “not really being reading” and made a distinction between “real books” and information books. This was partly because things like computer magazines, role-playing game manuals, comic books and joke books were not held in high regard by libraries, schools and parents.
We at Boys Do Read do ‘stereotype’, because in our experience, there is a marked difference in what boys want and what girls want, though obviously there are lots of exceptions.  And remember, 2 of our 3 current contributors are women.
Ultimately, Lipsyte is asking for more books.  Since when was having more books a problem?
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Dead of Night: A Zombie Novel by Jonathan Maberry

Gibbons remembers the walk to the execution chamber. He remembers the gathering of spectators: reporters, victims' families...all here to watch him die.  He remembers the doctor giving him the lethal injection and slowly losing consciousness. He remembers dying...So why is he now wide awake, struggling to get out of a body bag? 
Dr. Lee Hartnup is the town's only mortician, so he knows of a hush-hush secret: they're bringing one of the century's most notorious serial killers back here for burial. But that day when he goes in to prepare the corpse, there is no corpse. Homer Gibbons is sitting up, very much alive, scrutinizing his surroundings.  And then all of a sudden he lunges for Doc and takes a big bite out of his face.
And so it begins... This is the way the world ends.  Not with a bang…but a bite. 

You may know Maberry from his teen books Rot & Ruin and the recently released sequel Dust & Decay. And just like in those books, there is nothing hot, sizzling or romantic about the zombies in his latest adult offering either. You've got to read some of Maberry's first-rate descriptions of the living dead. The words assault all your five senses and you just want to touch your face to make sure everything's intact.
The book doesn't feel like a mere gore fest though, because you feel pretty connected to the characters that got thrust into this apocalyptic world. Dez, the dysfunctional (understatement) cop whom you don't want to mess with, Billy the reporter who will do anything for a piece of news, JT, Dez's partner and the father-figure, and Dr. Volker, who in his twisted sense of logic and justice created the zombies in the first place. Maberry also creates a whole background story as to why Gibbons is turned, and it will satisfy conspiracy lovers. I also like how we get the narration from Doc after he's been turned into a zombie. It adds a nice "insider" look.  There is a fair bit of swearing in this book, but given the circumstances, well, do you blame them?
And this chilling piece of horror fiction brings me to a TechCrunch blog post I read about a new app called Booktrack.  The app boasts to add a soundtrack (sound effects and ambient background music) to the book you're reading. In their promo video, it shows how as you're reading the word "nightclub", you'll hear a bunch of people chatting and mingling, like you would in a nightclub. Really?  You think readers seriously need that?  It's like those kids' toys. You just have to press one little button and it plays a whole minute of noises for you.  Umm... I think we're capable of doing that ourselves, thank you very much. I definitely had no trouble picturing Maberry's zombies, and in fact, wished that they weren't so burnt into my brain right now.

To be released in October 2011. Thanks for making this advanced copy available, St. Martin's Griffin, imprint of MacMillan, and thanks Netgalley.
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Where are the Real Vampires?

I had a 10 year-old boy come to the information desk today asking for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and books by Terry Goodkind. His father said his favourite books so far were the Lord of the Rings series and that he was looking for more epic fantasy. As I searched the catalogue his father picked up a book from the Vampire Diaries series and commented, "Hey look -- you like vampires -- maybe you'll like this!" Yikes! I had to quickly warn him that this series was quite different from classic epic fantasy and that these vampires weren't the same as the Dracula found in Stoker's work. The boy told his father that Vampire Diaries was a TV show and promptly put it back on the shelf.
I then racked my brain for possible YA and children's titles that included vampires -- real scary, bloodsucking ones -- and could only come up with one or two (e.g.  Department 19 by Will Hill, Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising series by Jason Henderson).
Most of the other children's and YA novels featured vampires exploring their self identity, falling in love with humans or other supernatural beings (e.g. Evernight by Claudia Gray), as vulnerable beings venturing out into our world (e.g. Morganville Vampire series), as part of the regular paranormal society (e.g. Araminta Spooky Series by Angie Sage) or were parodies (e.g. Bunnicula series by James Howe, The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks). Not really material that would appeal to a reader looking for something truly creepy and frightening. And definitely not material for someone looking for epic fantasy.
It was hard to find the more serious, traditional YA fantasy amidst all the new (YA) paranormal fiction (he didn't want anything from the children's fiction), and I did end up bringing him to the adult section where he appeared much happier with the options. I've love to see more of that classic fantasy published for young adults -- stuff following the traditions of Yolen, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the like. While some may claim such stories are too dense and long for kids, I think we'd be surprised to find that there is an audience just waiting for this sort of thing.
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What Not to Give Teen Boys: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

There are books that are great for boys, and there are books that seem great for teen boys, but there is just something about them that I can't recommend.  I know that there is a feeling that we should never restrict what boys (or anyone for that matter) should read.  That's okay; if they want it and are interested in it, fine.  I will never stop them from taking it or reading it.  But I will not actively recommend something I can't stand behind for whatever reason.

Lev Grossman's novel is rightly compared to Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia and other fantasy works.  All the hallmarks are there:  Normal kid Quentin finds out he's a magician.  His favorite books, set in the world of "Fillory", are an analogue of C.S. Lewis's works.  It sounds exciting, and it should be.

But this is Literary Fantasy, so the setup and premise is misleading.  This isn't about magic, really.  It's about how bleak life can be.  It's about how true love doesn't solve everything.  It's about how have the freedom to do anything usually ends up making you do nothing, or worse, doing something destructive.  It's about being lost and aimless in life, and how having all your dreams come true means that you have no dreams left.  I'm not a fan of literary fiction; I prefer genre fiction and non-fiction.  I like to be entertained, not depressed.

So why don't I recommend it, since it has many of the same themes as a lot of literary fiction?  I always try to suggest material that has a strong plot that drives the story.  I find that boys prefer plot-driven stories over character studies.  I know I do, and I'm a boy. The problem here is that The Magicians doesn't even have a plot until the final third (a pretty good one, actually, for what it's worth). So much of the book is just an exploration of Quentin's young adulthood.  And he's a bit of a jerk, too.  I didn't find him particularly likable.

This book has been called a 'real life' Harry Potter.  I always wonder why there is such an emphasis on 'real life' in YA and literary books in general.  I never was a drug addict or an alcoholic.  I never experienced physical or emotional abuse.  I was and remain comfortably middle class.  Most kids I grew up with grew up like me.  This isn't all in this book, but it is in the broader genre of literary fiction.  This stuff isn't real life to me, so I couldn't really relate the themes and events of the story.

What would I recommend instead? Try Tom Holt or Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom for Sale.  Both feature regular Joes who find themselves in a magic world, but both are more plot-centric and certainly contain fewer mature themes.

And for the record, it's not that I don't recommend the book at all, or for guys; I am going to read the sequel, so I couldn't have hated that much.  I just don't think it is appropriate for teen guys.  It's more of an age thing.
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