Swords, Spirits, and Sweatshirts

Magic mixes with mayhem in the latest from rock star/novelist "Dr. Frank."

Tarot-card images appear in dreams to skinny, hearing-impaired teenager Andromeda Krystal Klein, who ponders their meanings while invoking ancient Egyptian deities and encountering otherworldly entities, including the spirit of her dead best friend. Given to saying “oh my gods,” Andromeda is the irresistible heroine of Frank Portman‘s new young-adult novel Andromeda Klein, which follows the Mr. T Experience singer/guitarist’s 2006 debut King Dork, whose film version is set for a 2010 release. Like Portman, who will be at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, August 27, Andromeda is smart, funny, and achingly self-aware, and “it is probable that she was the only student at Clearview High School, and perhaps the only person in Clearview itself, who had a favorite nineteenth-century occultist.”

In Andromeda’s world, “sometimes the Universe was subtle; other times it hit you over the head like it thought you were stupid.”

As for why a punk rocker writes young-adult fiction, Portman joshes: “The reason for trying to wriggle out of that question by acting like an idiot is that I don’t know the answer.” A literary agent who liked his music once told him “that the sort of characters, themes, and turns of phrase that pop up in my songs of arrested adolescent angst might make a pretty good book. I was skeptical but I said I’d give it a shot.” Although he already knew how to write songs, learning to write books was, at first, “like watching grass grow while hitting your head against a rock.” But it was a natural career move for the lifelong book lover. “Like many kids with no friends,” remembers the Millbrae native, “I spent a whole lot of time reading.” So does Alexandra Klein, of whom we learn: “Books could get her excited, not just reading them but touching them.” Her favorite volumes “were themselves talismans. … Hands laid on them could absorb their power.”

Before enrolling at UC Berkeley — where as a rocker and a KALX DJ, he became widely known as “Dr. Frank” — the teenage Portman worked at his local public library. So does Andromeda Klein, who spends two nights a week at an underutilized branch whose lack of patrons lend it the ambience of “a church or a museum, or something abandoned.” And while Andromeda’s library job spurs wild adventures, Portman’s own stint in the stacks also lit a spark: “For something to do in the downtime,” he remembers, “I assigned myself a little project of reading every book in the children’s-fiction section, from beginning to end, in alphabetical order. I didn’t love them all, but I loved a lot of them.” These included Robert Cormier’s “darker, psychological studies” and Ellen Raskin’s “ultra-wacky stuff.” It struck a nerve, so “I continued to read YA books through my alleged adulthood.”

And adulthood is the country whose borders every YA novelist must forever wander while retaining a map to those lands not quite left behind. “I have been too young, too old, then way too old,” Portman muses, “but in a lifetime of doing things I’m technically not supposed to do, few forbidden experiences have been as powerful, as inspiring, or as cool as this habit of always reading the wrong books. And now I’m writing them.” 7 p.m., free. DieselBookstore.com


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