Swim the Fly by Don Calame

Swim the FlyThis review is cross-posted at The Well-Read Child.

After reading Swim the Fly, it did not surprise me one bit to find out that author Don Calame is a long-time screenwriter.  This book is begging to be brought to the big screen as a slapstick teen-boy comedy.  It has it all – raunchy humor, ridiculous situations, bodily functions, naked girls.  It also comes as no surprise that before starting his screenwriting career, Mr. Calame spent four years as an elementary school teacher.  This is a man who understands what kids – and especially boys – like, and he delivers it in spades.

Every summer Matt and his two best buddies, Coop and Sean, set a goal for the summer.  Usually it’s something silly – skinny-dipping in Perry Lake, collecting a thousand golf balls, or getting their hands on a copy of Playboy.  This summer Coop has upped the ante.  This summer they are going to see a real live naked girl.  And somewhere along the line, Matt has set himself another impossible goal – he has to be able to swim the 100-yard butterfly in time for the championships.  The butterfly takes strength and speed – neither of which Matt possesses.  But swimming the fly might be his only chance to impress Kelly, a gorgeous new addition to the swim team.

The many plots that the boys use in their attempt to see a real live naked girl are predictable and hysterical.  All the pre-requisites are there – the girls’ locker room, the binoculars, the closet-hiding, and nude beach, the cross-dressing – but of course these plans do not end the way the boys expect them too, and many surprise the reader as well.  And Matt’s desperate tries to swim – or get out of swimming – the butterfly are equally side-splitting, mostly because of the addition of a trainer named Ulf.

The reason that this book works as something beyond a summer teenage romp is Matt.  He may not show it often, but the boy has some depth – an unexpected sweetness comes through more and more as the book progresses.  He even shows some (gasp!) respect for the women in his life.  Because of Matt, even a reader who doesn’t go in for fart jokes can enjoy this book.  And for the fart-jokes lover, this will be a classic.

Don Calame on the web.

Swim the Fly on the web.

And an extra: Bookends has posted some very funny pictures of Swim the Fly and their local swim team.


An Open Letter to Lisa McMann

Dear Ms. McMann,

Please stop writing books.

This is a very serious request. To this date, you have written and published two novels, Wake and Fade. Because of your books, I have on two occasions been compelled to read deep into the night, and in this manner I have lost two good nights of sleep. I can only conclude that any further books written by you will lead to long nights with the bedside lamp switched on, frantically reading. I will not have it! I must firmly request that you stop at once.

If you insist on continuing with your flagrant book-publishing, I have a few suggestions that may alleviate the problem.  Please take the following requests into account in any and all future books.

1. If there is one thing on which I really must insist, it is a general loosening-up of your writing style.  This tight, exciting prose will be the death of me!  If every sentence did not compel me to read the next, perhaps I would be able to put your books down long enough to get a few good hours of sleep.  Perhaps you could insert some clunky dialogue?

2. Your characters must – MUST – be less compelling.  In fact, it would be best if Janie and Cabel could be excised completely, and less interesting characters could be inserted in their place.  If I am forced back inside of Janie’s head, where I can see the fascination, terror and exhaustion that are caused by her ability to see other people’s dreams, I will most certainly not be able to put your book down.  And Cabel, with his terrible past and his willpower and determination to do good, both in his relationship with Janie and in his work,  is much too sympathetic a character.

3. In a related note, the tumultuous romance between Cabel and Janie is much too intense.  If you persist in writing about these characters, their relationship must be taken back a notch.  As it currently stands, their emotions are too strong!  Their sense of discovery of themselves and each other is too genuine!  Their frustrations with one another are too palpable!  Their sex is too sexy!

4. Slower pacing is a necessity in any future novels.  Constantly throwing your readers from horrific nightmare to sweet and sexy romance to exciting mystery causes agitation and suspense, forcing the reader to keep turning pages until the very end of the book.

Thank you for your time.  I look forward to not reading your books in the future.

Sleepily yours,

Laura Koenig

Saturday Links

  • I love the manga glossary at Graphic Novel Reporter.   It’s so critical to have access to these kinds of really clear definitions when you’re trying to make good purchasing choices, especially if you’re not as familiar with the genre.  (Hat tip to Finding Wonderland)
  • At Carol’s Corner, Carol has a couple of good posts about reading stepladders – booklists that not only point a young reader to similar books that he or she might like, but that also show thematically similar books on a higher and lower reading level.  It’s a great way to help kids take the next step while still giving them something that is familiar in terms of theme and will keep their interest.  These ladders could be a really useful tool.
  • The Book Whisperer has a great post on identifying and engaging gifted readers, and keeping these children engaged in reading.  Like many of the posts that came out of the wonderful Share a Story – Shape a Future event, this post has a lot of direct, practical advice.  Her lists of types of books that will appeal to many gifted readers, which includes examples for each category, is excellent.  (Hat tip to Jen Robinson’s Book Blog)
  • Gail Gauthier explores why children and young adults find mysteries comforting, and why they often use mysteries as a gateway to adult literature.  I think the points she explores here can apply to a lot of other genre fiction, as well.
  • Interesting Washington Post article about “Supergirls” and how parents should respond to a child who will not allow herself to make mistakes. I don’t agree with everything in the article – there aren’t really many helicopter parents out there?  I worked in a college registrar’s office until fairly recently and I would very much dispute that claim.  But there’s some genuinely good advice sprinkled in there.  (Hat tip to YPulse’s twitter feed)
  • Do yourself a favor and read Editorial Ass‘ comments on racism by omission in the publishing industry.  This is important, and it starts thinking about actions that we can all take to create change.   In the post, Editorial Ass also points out a blog I hadn’t seen before – White Readers Meet Black Authors.  Awesome.
  • And finally, thank you thank you thank you to Alice for reminding me of this old SNL clip, which features Jesse Jackson reading Green Eggs and Ham as only Jesse Jackson can.  I am physically incapable of being unhappy when I watch this.  I’m curious – what children’s book would you most like to hear Jesse Jackson read?  As for me, I will be waiting and hoping for him to pull out Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.  Anyone who can make this happen has my devotion forever.

A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

A Curse Dark As GoldThis is not a simple re-telling.  Rumplestiltskin serves as the barest bones for the tale Elizabeth C. Bunce builds in A Curse Dark As Gold.  She picks at the nagging questions and inconsistencies that are at the heart of the disturbing fairytale – what could possess any person to give up their own child?  why does Rumplestiltskin want the baby?  what is so important about a name? – and finds answers.  She fills in the gaps, and with what she finds in between those gaps she crafts a fully realized story.

On the death of Charlotte Miller’s father, she suddenly becomes responsible for the Stirwaters Mill.  And since the Mill is the livelihood of almost every person who lives in the town of Stirwaters, being responsible for the Mill means being responsible for a lot of people.  Charlotte is a very young woman, but she is resourceful, persistent, and above all, stubborn.  When her sister asks whether the Mill will be closed, Charlotte’s reply is only “‘Is it Sunday?’  I asked, and when she shook her head, I gave my answer: ‘Then we do not close'” (page 6).  She is single-mindedly determined to save the Mill, and the town.  Charlotte is also decidedly lacking in superstition, unlike most of the townspeople in Stirwaters, who whisper about a curse on the Mill.  No male heir has ever lived to inherit Stirwaters, and the Mill seems to have its own mood and desires.  Charlotte’s resistance to acknowledging the Miller curse slowly crumbles in the face of insurmountable evidence as she realizes that she must confront the curse before it destroys her family and her home.

The magic in this story creeps in gradually.  It is tied closely to local tradition and superstition – the corn dollies that are found in every house, the herb bundles delivered by the midwife – but the curse itself is built on the tragic history of the Mill.  I wish I could talk about the curse’s history without giving away the story, but suffice to say that this is a world where actions have true consequences, both in everyday life and in the story’s magic.  Bunce tells the story behind even the most reprehensible characters and their actions.

I did have one major complaint about the book: if the most unbelievable thing in a fantasy novel is the love interest, you may have a problem.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved Randall. He’s sweet!  He’s rich!  He’s supportive of nontraditional gender roles (you know – for the 1700s)!  He wanders into Charlotte’s life at the perfect time!  He’s completely incapable of doing anything wrong!  Yup – didn’t believe him for a second.  I did, however, appreciate that their marriage is far from perfect as it strains under the weight of the many secrets Charlotte keeps from Randall.  It is shown as something you have to work at – even when married to someone as ridiculously accommodating as Randall.

The book’s greatest strength is its setting.  Bunce has clearly done her homework – the details of life and work at the mill are precise, and they provide a wonderful sense of time and place.  I came away from the story with a more clear picture of Stirwaters than of most of the characters.  And that is fitting – the Mill is as important as any character in the book, and it has its own personality and presence.  Sometimes that presence is protecting, and sometimes it is malignant, but it always hangs heavily over Charlotte and her actions.  Even after finishing the book, it is difficult not to feel concern for Stirwaters and its residents.  Early on, Bunce gives a glimpse of the developing industrial revolution when Charlotte visits a steam-powered mill, and it is grim.  This is what lingers over the people of Stirwaters, curse or no curse.  It is a tribute to Bunce’s storytelling that I genuinely care whether the town can survive and thrive in the new world that is being created.

Elizabeth C. Bunce on the web. (Check out her excellent booklists!)

A Curse Dark As Gold on the web.

Friday Links

  • This article about how hand gestures can help kids learn math skills is totally fascinating.  It really does show how important attention to detail is in teaching and learning.  You think hand gestures would help me remember my bus pass in the morning?
  • Rick Riordan announced the first few casting decisions for the Percy Jackson movie.  I’m very excited about this – it just seems like one of those series that will translate beautifully onto the screen.  Percy looks suitably heroic, I think, and Grover is just adorable.
  • And speaking of musicals based on children’s books, tickets for musical of Coraline will go on sale later this month.  Neil Gaiman and Stephin Merritt!  Yes!  (Mr. Gaiman twittering about the two of them hanging out this week set my little fangirl heart all a-flutter.)
  • I’ve been enjoying R.L. LaFever’s recent blog posts on writing, and her newest one on using setting to create a habitat for your characters is no exception.
  • This is smart, smart, smart.  Proof that some publishers do get it.
  • A very sobering report about the rise in suicide rate among black teens.  Especially noteworthy is the fact that many of these teens have shown no signs of psychiatric disorders.  As the article points out, it’s hard to tell from that whether suicide is rising among black teens with no psychiatric disorders, or whether we are missing warning signs of disorders among black teens.  In either case, it’s something to pay close attention to.  (Hat tip YPulse)

Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta

mudvilleLike a lot of kids who have a strat-o-matic game hidden under the bed, Roy McGuire likes to analyze things with statistics.  They offer a tidy way to explain away some of life’s little anomalies.  Take the case of Walt Dropo, who had twelve hits in twelve plate appearances in 1952.  That’s a major league record.  You never, ever expect a batter to have twelve hits in twelve consecutive plate appearances.  But as Roy explains it,

The odds of that are like one in two million, but there’s been way more than two millions tries, if you think about all the baseball players and all the games they ever played in, so it had to happen eventually.  Dropo was just the guy who did it. (pg. 7)

So while it may surprise everyone else, it’s no surprise to Roy that it has rained in Moundville every single day for the last twenty-two years.  It’s just like Walt Dropo.  With all the cities in the world, and all the rainy days in history, someday there was bound to be a place where it rained every day for twenty-two straight years.  It just so happens that Moundville is that place.  It’s statistics.

Of course, very few things in life can really be explained away so easily.  And like in so many great books about baseball, a hint of magic lingers around the baseball game between Moundville and rival Sinister Bend that was rained out on the Fourth of July twenty-two years ago.  When the rain suddenly stops, twenty-two years later to the day, a reply of that legendary baseball game becomes inevitable.

Arriving home from baseball camp, Roy is surprised to find a strange boy in his home.  His name is Sturgis, and it turns out that he is Roy’s new foster brother.  And while they develop a bond as foster brothers, they are also forging a different bond – that of a pitcher and a catcher.  The two boys have a complicated relationship, that can swing quickly from companionship to antagonism – which is exactly what you might expect when two young teenage boys are suddenly thrown into a house together.  But things are complicated further as the boys untangle their histories, which are more intertwined than it first appears.

The trio of men who live in the McGuire household are a joy to read about.  Roy’s dad is a treat from his kitchen adventures – spam manicotti one night, green bean and water chestnut chili the next – to his can-do attitude.  He’s the kind of guy who starts a water-redistribution business when the rains start, and switches right over to landscaping when they stop again.  He is also a very sweet father, and you can see his influence in Roy’s steady leadership and dry sense of humor.  Sturgis is tougher to sum up.  He probably does it best himself, when the rain finally stops.  Roy urges Sturgis to join him outside in the sunshine:

‘Didn’t you say yourself that it would probably start up again?  What if it’s the only nice day for the next twenty-two years?’

‘There’s a short story like that by Ray Bradbury,’ he says.  ‘It takes place on a planet where the sun only comes out for a few hours every seven years.  One kid spends the whole day stuffed in a closet.’

‘And you want to be that kid?’

‘Yeah.  I always identified with that kid.’ (pg. 63)

Sturgis has had a tough life, and fitting in is not something that comes easily to him.  But while he is certainly moody and sometimes aggressive, he is also hard-working, thoughtful, and extremely talented.  While the plot of the book is built on some wonderful magic, the characters feel very real.

Initially when I found out that the nasty rival team was from a traditionally Sioux town, and that the town had the very big-bad-guys name of “Sinister Bend,” I was worried about the portrayal of Native American characters in the book.  But I’m pleased to say that those worries were unfounded – players on both sides of the rivalry were complex both in their character and in their relationships with each other.  No character is without his or her flaws – even Roy’s incredibly kind and optimistic dad makes his mistakes – but even the most supremely flawed characters in this book are sympathetically human.  And the relationship between the citizens of Moundville and Sinister Bend are woven together in much more complicated ways than Roy, or the reader, realizes.

Kurtis Scaletta’s blog.

Mudville on the web.

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel

starclimberMatt Cruse is out of his element, in more ways than one.  Whether he’s trying to gain traction in the grueling astralnaut training program that will determine the crew of the first vehicle into outer space, or attending posh garden parties to meet his sweetheart Kate’s parents and society friends, Matt can’t quite seem to fit in.  And then comes the part of the story where he is very literally out of his element, as Matt goes off on another one of his wild adventures.  But the ship in this adventure is a little bit different – it’s an elevator to the stars.

Airborn and Skybreaker, the first two books in Oppel’s series, have at their heart Matt’s passion for flying, and his skill and heroism when he is in the air.  Removing Matt from the airships he loves so much and knows so well takes something away from the final book in the series.  I missed the intense joy that Matt feels when he is flying – it is such a defining part of his character that he doesn’t seem quite whole when he is out of the air.  Matt is still a wonderful character, and his determination, resourcefulness, and desire to be good are still here in full force, but I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing.

By bringing Matt and Kate back to their home town, Oppel injects some unease into their usually sweet relationship. Tensions that have been quietly simmering during the first two books make their way to the surface, especially in regards to Matt’s concerns about the class and economic differences that separate them.  Kate is still vivacious and charming – and self-involved to an extreme.  It is easy to see why Matt loves her, and also why he sometimes becomes so frustrated with her in this book.  The many twists and turns of their relationship make the end of the series that much more emotionally satisfying.

Did this book reach the heights of Airborn and Skybreaker?  I felt that it did not quite get there – but those were exceptional books.  Starclimber still kept me awake until two in the morning on a work night – and I was more than willing to concede those hours of sleep for the conclusion of this exciting series.

Starclimber on the web.

Kenneth Oppel on the web.

February ’09 Reading Log


Middle Grade

Graphic Novels


Adult Fiction

Adult Non-fiction

Didn’t Finish

Currently Reading

My Reading Goals

I’m hoping that putting my monthly reading goals up in a public place will help me stick with them.  And it doesn’t hurt that I met them all this month – makes it much less embarrassing to put them in the same post as my reading log, anyway.  As you can see by my list above, I tend to read a ton of YA fiction.  To diversify what I’m reading, my goal is to read at least one book each month that meets each of the following categories.  It’s fine if the same book counts for two categories.  Let me know if you think there’s something I should add!

  • Middle Grade
  • Graphic Novel
  • Non-fiction
  • Adult fiction or non-fiction
  • Fiction featuring a main character of color
  • Fiction or non-fiction about Japan (This goal is just until my trip in August)