Friday, October 18, 2013

The Brendan Halpin Reading List

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve spent the better part of the last year not-writing, mostly because of lack of time and a variety of other issues in my life.


I’ve been working on this post, off and on, for most of the year, and in this year alone, Brendan has published two books, which tells me that if I’m ever going to write this, it needs to be now.


I’ve created and recreated this introduction a dozen times, always getting bogged down in minute details that don’t really get to the meat of the piece.


And mostly related to John Green.


Here’s the deal, in very, very short.  You’ve heard of John Green.  You’ve heard of his massive bestseller, The Fault In Our Stars.  I’m sure of this because you can’t wander past any place that sells books right now and NOT see four dozen copies of it in three different editions.


And this part, right here, is where I’d got off on a four-paragraph rant how if you’ve read and enjoyed John Green, you really, really need to be reading Brendan Halpin.


I call it a rant because it wandered off on long tangents based mainly on my disappointment that Green is a total juggernaut of sales, while Halpin had to get his last book release funded by Kickstarter.


Here, by the way, is there I confess that I wanted to mention John Green (John Green, John Green) for the purely selfish reason that I hope people click on this link after looking him up on Google and subsequently discover one of my favorite authors.


Okay: Link-baiting John Green/Brendan Halpin discussion over.


(John Green.)


What makes writing about Brendan Halpin difficult is…


Well, a few things.


First, he’s a Facebook friend.  And what’s more, he blurbed my first novel.  (I asked him to, because I love his work and getting his stamp of approval is one of the highlights of my writing career.)


Second, I know he Googles himself (all authors do), so I’m sure he’ll read this at some point.  Probably a few days after I post it.  (Hey Brendan!)


Third, breaking his work up into discreet sections is an absolute bear, because the man (unlike John Green, who writes rom-com indie movies in book form, mostly with sad endings) keeps shifting his genres just enough to avoid easy classification.


And what makes it worse is, I think some of his books are absolutely essential, and they fall into a few different groupings (YA, adult and memoir).


So I’ve developed some of my own groupings, outside of genre trappings, and, well, hopefully, this list will take you somewhere you want to be.  (Like a John Green novel.  Except at the end, where someone dies or the romantic entanglement falls apart.)


Start Here:


For lack of a better way of saying it, these are the best of the best.  Most of these are not just Halpin’s best books, they are among my favorite books, period, and I’ve read all of them at least twice.


Forever Changes – If you only read one Brendan Halpin novel, it should be this one.  (Especially if you’re into John Green.)  I suspect the only reason it didn’t sell better (and eventually went out of print, Brendan has re-released it as an ebook) is because it’s a sad and scary subject matter.  It follows a girl who has cystic fibrosis.  She knows she’s only going to live another year, or two, or three.  So does she apply to college?  Does she fall in love?  What’s the point?  And how does she deal with her forthcoming death in the meantime?


I cannot state too emphatically that I think everyone should read this novel.  I made my book club read it, and of the ten or so people who came, more than half of them said it was the best book we ever read as a group.


And as for me, personally, I’ve never been able to think about death and dying in the same way.


It’s a sad novel, yes, but it’s also a hopeful one. You should read it.  (Especially if you enjoyed The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green.)


It Takes a Worried Man – This is Brendan’s memoir of his wife’s breast cancer.  It was his first book (it was started as a journal, and reads that way) and it details much of the fight.  The book originally ended in a place of uncertainty (they didn’t really know whether they were winning or losing) but his newly released version (the book went out of print and he re-released it himself) features a wrap-up that talks about the fate of everyone involved.


Long Way Back – A man’s wife dies, and he joins a gay punk band in an effort to help himself cope.  Once again, this has a certain John Green-y quality to it, but it’s about adults instead of kids.  Even though it’s fiction, it serves as a strange kind of semi-sequel to It Takes a Worried Man.  It’s about what comes next when you lose someone you love.


Losing My Faculties – This was Brendan’s second memoir, this time covering his life as a teacher.  As a teacher myself (and a child of a teacher, and a friend to teachers) I’m going to tell you this: You need to read it.  You need to read it today, and you need to realize what teachers are up against (kids, the school itself, and other teachers) and why education is more than a bit of a mess.


I honestly believe it should be part of every teaching curriculum in every university.


Then Go Here (Mostly YA):


Whereas the first group of books were the greats, these are the merely very goods.  I liked them, I would share them with people, and I would almost certainly read them again if I had unlimited time to do so. 


Donorboy – In which a girl’s two moms die, and she goes to live with the man who contributed half her DNA.  This one picked up an award for being good for young adults even though it was written for adults, and it put it on this second plateau mostly because it hits some of the same themes as his other books, but it also has a strange little sense of humor (the moms are crushed by turduckens, for example) that I suspect might sit not sit well with some readers.


It also introduces a couple of Halpin pet themes that appear in a lot of his fiction.  Being a vegetarian and gay acceptance.


A Really Awesome Mess – Over the last few years, Halpin has written a handful of books with female cowriters.  They each take one character, his male and hers female, and they alternate chapters.  Most of them are good.  This is the best of them.


In this one, the boy and girl end up in a mental health facility in order to deal with problems ranging from anger to depression to adoption to eating disorders, and those are the ones you learn about right away.  It’s the best book I’ve read this year (2013) and it contains the single best description of depression I’ve ever read in a novel.


The ending bends a little too far towards the fairytale, but overall, it’s so good I’m willing to let it slide.


Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom – A guy realizes he’s in love with his best female friend, only it turns out that she’s gay, and, yes, her name is Tessa and her town doesn’t want her to go to prom with a girl.


I think that, in life, we encounter a lot of people who we think of as an “other.”  This book is, I feel, about discovering someone you really care about is an other, and about how that changes you.  Again, it’s a co-write, and again, it’s got a fairy-tale ending. 


The Half-Life of Planets – I think the tag line was something like: A boy with Asperger’s meets a girl with a reputation, and that sums it up pretty well.  Mostly it’s about two people trying to navigate each other, and it’s a sweet little story that has issues sitting in the background, but which aren’t really the story.  Another co-write.


Notes from a Blender: Once again, a co-write, in which a boy who likes a girl suddenly learns that she’s about to be his step-sibling.


This one has the pet themes out in force, and adds blended families and a few other items that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about Halpin’s life. 


Genre Stuff:


I realize as I’m creating these categories that I’m leaving out a certain subset of Halpin’s work – namely his genre stuff.  Halpin wrote two books as Seamus Cooper, both of them HP Lovecraft comic horror novels.


I think they’re all worth a read, but they’re so off the beaten path of Halpin’s usual work that I have a hard time sticking them in a particular “spot.”  So I’m putting them here, pretty much in the middle, which is where I put them on my “favorites” scale.


Mall of Cthulhu (as Seamus Cooper) – In which our hero learns that Lovecraft’s monsters are real, and tries to fight them.


Brendan is a fan of Lovecraft, and he takes a few hundred pages to snap him on the tail end with a towel.  But, you know, in a loving way.  Mostly, if you read the reviews, he didn’t really please anyone all that much.  Hardcore Lovecraft people seemed to want something else, and people looking for a comic novel didn’t quite get into it either.


As a person who is sorta “eh” about Lovecraft, I thought this worked pretty well.


Terror at the Short (Seamus Cooper) – Here, Halpin takes a few short stories, and links them together into a novel.  This one tries to tip more towards the horror and less towards the funny, and I enjoyed it.  This was also Brendan’s first attempt to DIY publish a “new” novel, in this case another Lovecraft novel that takes place on the Jersey Shore (and has nothing to do with MTV and that show at all).


I suspect this one would work better for Lovecraft junkies, as it leans a little harder on the scary.


Enter the Bluebird – This was Halpin first solo novel in years (outside of Terror) and he chose to Kickstarter it in order to get a better cover and a copyeditor.


In it, we meet a girl with superpowers whose mom, a non-powered superhero, has gone missing.  She makes friends, starts a war with the local crime syndicate, and meets a cute boy.  And…


Really, I owe this one a longer review, but I’ve only sat with it for a day and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.  (Sorry Brendan.)


Mostly I feel like I want to take my time with it because it has a lot of things in it that are new for Halpin as a writer.  It’s a superhero story, but it’s told in noir fashion.  It’s also a YA book, more or less.  He’s talked about writing a second one, and I’m curious to see what comes of that, as a lot of this book felt like the pilot for a TV series – it sets up a main character, yes, but it also builds up a “team” that, by the end, would certainly make for an interesting ongoing series.


For what it’s worth, I’d put my money down a second time just to see where it goes.


The Good:


For lack of a better way to put it, these are some of the lighter Halpin books.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, and I think if they found just the right audience, they could have been huge hits (though I don’t think any of them were).


However, the key issue here is: Right Audience. So I’ll talk about that as I go along.


Shutout –  Shutout is a story about teen girls who play soccer.  There’s boy stuff, and friendship drama.  And I think it’s the kind of thing that would make for a cute TV movie starring a few upcoming tween girls.


But it’s a light book, and deliberately so, and I don’t know that I was the “right” audience for this one.  But if you know a girl who plays soccer, you should give it to her.  Like, yesterday.


Jenna and Jonah’s Fauxmance – This is another co-write, about two TV costars who pretend to love each other, but actually loathe each other.  You can probably guess how it ends.


Honestly, I remain SHOCKED that this one wasn’t picked up by Disney and converted into their next High School Musical franchise.  Truly.  It’s light and fluffy and fun, and I think it would be a huge hit.


How Ya Like Me Now? – This was Brendan’s first crack at YA, and for a while I tried to get it turned into a movie.  (I had a few connections at the time, all of which failed me.)  I remember liking it quite a bit, but I suspect it fell into a strange gap where it wasn’t dark enough to find a grim audience and wasn’t light enough to find a non-grim one. 


Thinking back on it now, it feels like a more racially diverse episode of Degrassi.  And I like Degrassi.  And if you like that kind of thing, this book will almost certainly work for you.


The Few, The Proud, The Ones I Won’t Reread:


Brendan Halpin sits in my top three authors list – the other two are Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.


Here’s what I’ll say for Brendan.  He’s never written a book I just flat-out hated, and/or couldn’t read.  King has written a few.  Gaiman has written a couple.


But I should note, these books aren’t bad, they just didn’t appeal to me all that much, and my interest in rereading them is pretty much nil.


However, I need to add that they might work for YOU.  I just wouldn’t start here:


I Can See Clearly Now – This was Brendan’s last book for adults, and I remember reading it and knowing that there was no way it could be a hit.  The premise isn’t bad, really, but… Okay, here’s the premise:


A bunch of people come together to create the songs for a show that might as well be called Schoolhouse Rock, but isn’t because it would probably cost money to do so.


As novels go, it’s basically a light soap opera.  It’s an easy, breezy read.  But it’s not something that would ever, in a million years, become a New York Times bestseller.  As it is, I think the “Schoolhouse” angle was probably the idea that sold it.


It’s not a hard read.  It’s not a bad read.  It’s just an interesting premise that I don’t think could ever be “great” in execution.


Dear Catastrophe Waitress – This book, also, suffers from an interesting idea that doesn’t really work.  I think it’s possible it might have come together if it were a short story, but in this case…


Here’s the gist: Two people, one male and one female, have their lives ruined when their ex-significant other writes a big hit songs about them.


This notoriety causes them no end of grief.


Again, it’s not a bad book.  But it felt long, as these two people go through something like a decade of life before they meet and commiserate over what was done to them.  It marks the first and only time a Halpin book felt “long” to me.


Odd and Ends:


Halpin has written a handful of screenplays in an effort to try something different.  Here’s a quick rundown of the results.


Don’t You Forget About Me – Halpin wrote a sequel to The Breakfast Club.  As far as I know, it never went anywhere or did anything, and since you can get it on his web site I’m guessing he never got sued over it.


I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Breakfast Club (I think I was too old when I saw it, and perhaps too cynical) so my opinion doesn’t count for much.  But I felt like people who loved the first movie probably would have loved this, wherein all the gang gets back together and we catch up with them.


Baby, I Love Your Way – In this, a guy loses everything, and becomes a busker who only sings the title song, over and over.  There are fairies, but they play a VERY small role in the story.  And it shouldn’t really work, but it sort of does.  For what it’s worth, I liked it more than the books listed in “The Few.”


Notes from a Blender: The Sitcom – In which Brendan tried to make Notes into a sitcom.  I remember I had comments for him at the time, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they were.  If I remember right, I think I was under the impression that it would have worked better as a comedy/drama, not unlike Gilmore Girls.


There’s fun stuff to be had in the script, though.


Donorboy: The TV Show – This one, on the other hand, didn’t really work for me.  I think when it comes to TV, that both of these books could have been good TV, but I think they needed someone with an expert hand to co-write them.


And there it is – 3,000 words just to tell you to read Brendan Halpin.  Because you should.  Start today!

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