Book Review: You

Novels about video games often run the risk of being too immersed in the gaming culture to establish a solid story, or they go the other way and become so little about the game that the story never connects.

Austin Grossman’s novel, You, mostly avoids those pitfalls as he weaves a story of a game design company with an interesting backstory. The narrator, a childhood acquaintance of the founders of Black Arts gaming, has come back for a job as a game designer after failed attempts to find a foothold in life. The company is on the edge of ruin, taken over by a investor looking for quick profits, and the company’s glory days are far behind it now, with the death of one its visionary programmers and the exodus of a senior partner.

Oh, and a nasty bug is loose in the game worlds, and it may very well destroy the virtual universe created by the company. Also, through some crafty programming and marketing that led the company to build software for e-trading, the bug may very well precipitate a financial Black Monday on Wall Street, too. These plot points move the book along, and Grossman’s experience in the game design field is evident. But is the human stories told here, of various characters as  the narrator, Russell, remembers what it was like to be part of this group of young outcast high school Dreamers who wanted to change the world, and saw their chance with video game design.

There were some scenes when I started to lose the thread, particularly when Russell gets visited by the four archetypes of heroes from the games he is playing (in order to find the bug, which creates sword that destroys everything) and designing (Russell is the lead designer for a new game). But mostly, Grossman keeps the story moving forward, and the enigma of Simon, a character who has died but whose legacy infects everything in the company, the game and the book (including the creation of the bug) is intriguing, and I wish there were more about him. But maybe Simon as a mystery is part of what drives the narrative here.

You works as a novel, and a primer on the inside of a game design company.

Peace (in the pages),


Graphic Novel Review: Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant

Now here is a pleasant surprise: a female protagonist in an adventure/action graphic novel story, whose wit and expertise carry the day. In Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, by Tony Cliff, the heroine — Delilah Dirk — meets up with Erdemoglu Selim (the lieutenant), strikes up a friendship in the midst of escaping one trap or another, and moves on to even more danger in her life as a freewheeling spirit whose never known to pass up the possibility of treasure, no matter how dangerous it might be.

This book by the  publishing company of First Second evolved from a webcomic series that Cliff has been developing and publishing online, but I enjoyed the adventure book without knowing a single thing of the backstory of Delilah Dirk.  Her swashbuckling energy drew me right into the story. In fact, I found it fascinating to catch a glimpse of her character through her actions, although Cliff focuses more on Selim as the psuedo-narrator of the story here, which begins when Selim is kicked out of his job because of Delilah, is almost executed because of it and then has his life saved by the story’s heroine.

There’s a breathless rush of action here, sort of like Indiana Jones, and the artwork is beautiful. We never quite resolve how a woman of Delilah’s talents conflicts with the mores of the Turkish society (male-dominated) but I appreciated Cliff’s restraint from developing a love interest between the two main characters. In fact, Delilah is not sexualized at all, although she is beautiful in mind, spirit and intelligence. Plus, she’s the most skilled sword fighter in the book.

And did I mention her flying ship?

There’s a lot to appreciate in Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant and I look forward to more adventures.

Peace (in the book),


Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

“Adult stories never made sense. They made me feel like they were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?” — unnamed narrator, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

There some authors, that when they publish something new, I am so ready to devour their stories. Neil Gaiman is one of those writers, although I came late to his books in just the last few years. His style and sense of the world is so unique that, even with his quirkiness (or maybe because of it), his books find a way to draw you in and give in to imagination. I still think Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is one of the best examples of young adult fiction published in recent years, even if it does begin with a brutal murder.

His latest – The Ocean at the End of the Lane — has faint echoes of other classics that capture childhood in a story for adults. Namely, A Wrinkle in Time resonates throughout The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That’s a good thing, in my mind, and Gaiman plays with our sense of time and timelessness in unexpected ways in this story of a young boy whose neighbors have a certain magic that brings something awful into the world. The nameless adult narrator, remembering a time when he seven years old, tells this tale to us, and while the first part of the book moves slowly, it sets the stage for everything else to come.

This is a “coming of age” sort of book, but not quite, as Gaiman explores the fierce perceptions of childhood, and how adults see the world one way, and their children, another. I suppose this is true. What Gaiman explores is the dichotomy of adults viewing childhood as a safe place, while children know otherwise. There is danger and chaos lurking around every corner of our imagination, and the slightest mistake — say, forgetting to hold hands with the girl who tells you to never let go of her hand — can uncork things unimaginable and set the world on tilt.

This novel is a short one, fast-paced, and by the time you hit the middle, you’ll be racing for the end. If you are like me, the resonance of magic will linger for some time, and it may have you looking at your own children a little differently. Keep them safe, will you? And I would suggest that this book is for adults, not children, although it comes under the guise of a children’s story. But perhaps Gaiman would disagree, and argue that keeping children sheltered is not what we want to be doing. He’s not afraid to expose the dark underpinnings of the world, and maybe stories are a way to understand what we don’t quite understand.

Peace (in the magic),

Book Review: Crafting Digital Writing

Image from Heinemann

Note from Kevin: I need to add a few disclaimers here before I start my review of Crafting Digital Writing by Troy Hicks. First of all, I know Troy and have presented with Troy and consider him a friend and colleague through the National Writing Project and beyond. Second, he sent me this book for free because one of my students and her work is featured in a chapter. I am also mentioned as her teacher. Third, I am a huge fan of Troy Hicks as a writer and thinker, and I appreciate his views on the world of digital writing. Personally, I would scoop up anything he has to say.


So, this is not an unbiased review.

Like his last book — Digital Writing Workshop — Troy Hicks puts a deep lens on what it means to be writing in the digital age, and what it means to be teaching students who write in a digital age. Where his last book drew parallels between our traditional sense of the Writing Workshop format and writing practices with digital tools, Crafting Digital Writing focuses on the art and craft of using technology and media to communicate, to tell stories across various media and to present information to an audience, local and global. The subtitle “Composing Texts Across Media and Genre” gives a nice teaser to what is inside this book.

I appreciated how Hicks opens up the book with a look at what we mean by writers’ craft, and then urges teachers and their students to start small and slow down in order to really notice and make visible the elements of digital writing that goes beyond just copying and pasting text and putting it onto the Web. That, he argues (and I agree), is not what we mean by digital writing. He also wisely charts out the various narrative, informational and argumentative texts that one might use, drawing connections to the Common Core in a meaningful way.

“Craft is key to good writing, whether that writing is word on a page or involves additional media.” — Troy Hicks (16)

The format of the chapters of this book involve sharing mentor texts from students, with Hicks using a heuristic model known as MAPS, in which the reader is invited to consider mode, media, audience, purpose and situation. Hicks returns to this theme again and again, giving us helpful reminders of what we need to thinking about in terms of craft and teaching and expectations around digital media texts. MAPS provides a lens from which to think about digital writing.

The chapters here range from topics such as creating web texts, to presentation design, to using audio for voice, to composing text as video, and even a chapter around social media. In each, Hicks is a thoughtful tour guide, being honest in the limitations of the technology and student use of that technology as well as holding out possibilities for pushing the way young people write in new directions. He’s honest in his view of student work, too, noticing the weak points as much as the strong. There’s a heavy dose of realism in this book as well as much inspiration for teachers.

All in all, Crafting Digital Writing is a worthy read. It provides more than examples; it provides a path forward for teachers who see their students writing in all sort of formats not necessarily valued by educational systems. Hicks situates those kinds of writing within the framework of learning and creativity, urging us to think about how we can engage our students in meaningful, thoughtful, and exemplary writing. He asks us to expand our notions of writing and then develop ways to teach it.

“We need to ask our digital writers to work with intention. This requires that we keep thinking, taking risks, learning from our mistakes, and working each day to model and mentor them in the craft of digital writing.” — Hicks (177)

As in most of his ventures, Hicks has set up online spaces for sharing resources and student work featured in the book and for sparking discussions in a Google Plus Community. (You can even preview the book at the publisher’s site)

Peace (in agreement),


Book Review: Super Pop

I’m a sucker for top ten lists. You? And the Internet is overrun with them, partly because the format of online writing (short text, links, horizontal reading habits) lends itself towards listing. But this is not about a website, but a book (remember those?) that writer Daniel Harmon has put together with his own lists about Pop Culture.

It’s great.

Super Pop! (Pop Culture Top Ten Lists To Help You Win at Trivia, Survive in the Wild, and Make It Through the Holidays) is a treasure trove of fascinating insights, laugh-out loud humor and such a wide range of topics that this book would be perfect for the beach or any other place where you store books for quick reads (I keep a few in my van for when I am waiting around for my sons’ sporting events to get started). Harmon does a great job of engaging the reader, and his view of the world of Pop Culture is vast and wide-ranging, sharing out movies, books, websites, video games, music, and a whole lot more. He seems to have his finger on the pulse of the pop world, and while the format is a listing, Harmon’s writing is what carries the day for each item on the list, drawing connections that go beyond the grouping.

From topics such as “Lose Yourself in a Good Story” to “Models of Soulful, Hard-hitting Dialogue” to “Songs Guaranteed to Melt Your Frozen Heart” to “Touchstones for Quirky, Like-Minded People,” this book will have you thinking, remembering and maybe searching for that movie, music or book reference that Harmon has brought to the surface in an interesting way.

Super Pop! is a super read.

Peace (in the lists),


Book Review: The Fairy Ring (or Elsie and Frances Fool the World)

What an odd little book.

The Fairy Ring (or How Elsie and Frances Fool the World) by Mary Losure is a non-fiction account of two young girls in England who fooled the world, as the title suggests, by taking staged photographs of themselves with fairies. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (he, of Sherlock Holmes fame) was drawn into the hoax by the young girls. As with most trouble, it all began rather innocently enough, with Frances and Elsie using a camera to take a picture by a remote glen, using cutouts of fairies with wings in the picture.

This is 1917, and in England, some of the most intelligent scientific minds thought that fairies might be real — just outside the realm of the known — and even though we can look at the photos the two girls took (and there were not many, only four or five), it is clear that the fairies are not real. But to someone who wanted to believe, and to a world that had not yet understood the manipulation of media, the photographs were proof of the existence of fairies.

It soon got out of control (media frenzy, spurred on primarily by Doyle’s public writing about the photographs) and the girls soon regret their hoax, but by that time, it was too late to come clean and too big a deal in the world, and in their family, to tell anyone the truth. In fact, it is only in old age that one of the two girls finally tells her grandchildren the truth of the matter, and the truth of the staged photos slowly trickles out into the world decades later.

And yet, even years later, Frances truly did believe that she saw fairies in the woods — real fairies — just not the ones she and Elsie fake photographed.

Losure does a nice job of using source material here to bring us into the heads of the girls, and to the setting of the hoax. While her writing is a little clipped (almost as if she were going for the Hemingway’s style, so that sentences are short and ideas are too the point), she unfolds the narrative in a linear way that allows the reader to forgive the girls and shake our heads at the BigWigs of the British community that took advantage of the girls’ childhood for media fame. It was important that she show us the photos, and she does.

The Fairy Ring is a solid example of creative non-fiction, and would fit right in a middle school classroom. I could even envision some “media manipulation” projects along the way, as well as some examination of modern day hoaxes (I guess there will always be a way to suck in the public.)

Peace (in the tale of the fairies),



Book Review: (Giving up on) The Westing Game

I suppose we all have books that others rave about, but which we can’t seem to like or get into. For me, it’s The Westing Game.

Three different times over the years, I have valiantly tried to read this award-winning book by Ellen Raskin and all three times, I have tossed the book aside in frustration and confusion, and as a result, serious boredom. Seriously, I don’t get the fuss. Now, I consider myself a pretty strong reader, and I have always loved mysteries (my childhood went from Encyclopedia Brown to Ellery Queen in a heartbeat). This novel  is about a dead millionaire (Sam Westing) who has left his fortune to one of his 16 heirs, but they all must play the “game” in order to figure out who killed Westing  before they can claim their $200 million inheritance. The heirs are all paired up and given partial clues to a game, and each team must start from there.

On the surface, that sounds fine. A good mystery to unfold, and the use of chess as a metaphor — that’s right up my alley. I can get into that. It even sounds a bit like 10 Little Indians by Agatha Christie, right?  (note: one of my students made that remark to me when I was book talking The Westing Game).

Unfortunately, Raskin seems more intent on adding layers of characters and clues and complexity just for the sake of the act of doing so, and not for the sake of story and character development. I didn’t care a whit about any of the characters (not even Turtle, whom I know I need to be rooting or) nor could I keep track of the little asides that Raskin writes into the story which clearly as clues for the reader, but which don’t connect with each other and are too many in nature, causing an overwhelming sense of “red herring” disease.

No, I do not like The Westing Game.

But I should note that I have had students who have liked it and rave about it, and another of my colleagues who used to teach it loved it. Which makes me believe it just must be me and my own style of reading. I can live with that, even if it does leave me a little confused and wondering what it is that I am missing here.

Still, three times … and I’m out.

Peace (in the clues),


Book Review: Field Guide to Writing Flash Non-Fiction

I’ve long been intrigued by flash fiction — shorter pieces of writing that utilize inference and character to drive home an idea or a story in a short amount of time and brevity of words. Mostly, though, I have thought about it terms of fiction. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Non-Fiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore, is a perfect introduction to the approaches that a writer might take when considering flash non-fiction — writing about the real but in a creative vein.

The book is a series of chapters in which published authors talk about the craft of flash non-fiction, and its place in the field of writing and reading. Topics range from image and detail, to finding your voice, to the use of language, to the concept of discovering a structure for your narrative. Each chapter has a short introduction, followed by not only a demonstrative piece of flash non-fiction but also some ways that the reader might “try out” some strategies.

It’s this part that intrigues me as a teacher, and a writer, and I appreciated those three components — overview, sample, suggestions — coming together in this collection. This field guide opened my eyes to some interesting possibilities for writing non-fiction in shorter bursts, but still making those pieces meaningful, insightful and worth reading. And I would be not be truthful if I am not making connections in my mind from this collection to the Common Core’s push towards more non-fiction reading and writing, in the content areas. In some ways, flash fiction is a natural fit for teaching about non-fiction writing. Students would not get overwhelmed by the length of the assignments, and yet, they would be learning about how to notice the world, use critical thinking and convey important messages about their topics.

I have explored this idea of shortened forms of writing before and continue to be intrigued by the possibilities.

Peace (in the small but powerful writing moments),

What’s Your Summer Reading Pile Look Like?

Summer Reading Stack

(My short list of books)

It’s not too late, but it will soon be, to send a photo of your “to be read” photo of the books you hope to read this summer. The Nerdy Book Club – one of the best clubs on the face of the planet — is pulling together a visual project of photos of books on people’s “to read” list. The deadline is tonight (June 1), so get cracking!

More information is at the Nerdy Book Club site. (You read? You’re a member.)

Peace (in the books),


Book Review: Star Jumper (Journal of a Cardboard Genius)

I was wondering how my 8 year old son, the youngest of three boys, would react to Frank Asch’s Star Jumper as a read-aloud. I knew he would like the sense of adventure (he did) but the story revolves around an older brother so desperate to leave home because of his incredibly annoying little brother that he builds a space ship (The Star Jumper) in an attempt to put the universe between himself and his little sibling.

My son didn’t even flinch, and the older brothers didn’t say a thing (they often hover on the outskirts of read-aloud). Hmmm. Maybe he is not that annoying, I was thinking, only to break up a squabble later on in the day. OK, then. Maybe they (older boys) are not the cardboard genius types, as is Alex, the main character, in Star Jumper (Journal of a Cardboard Genius). Asch spins a quick tale here, as Alex designs his spaceship and other assorted equipment needed for his adventure (The Atom Slider, the Microblaster, the Duplicator) out of cardboard, assorted plastic parts and … duct tape.

This is the first in a series of books about Alex, and my son and I read this first one in a single day. I sort of wish I had grabbed a few more at the library, but I guess that just gives us another excuse (as if we need one) to head to the library again this week. We both liked the sense of imagination at work, even if Alex comes across as too self-centered and the little brother, Jonathan, is  … well … pretty annoying.

In the end, Alex does not launch into space, as he has planned, because another turn of events unfolds (a girl) but I suppose that’s why Asch has written a series here. Star Jumper has a brisk plot, which was perfect for a one-day read-aloud.

Peace (in the stars),