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My Kindle counter said I was only 91% of the way through George R.R. Martin’s Feast for Crows so I was very surprised while waiting for my bus to arrive at the train station and take me home this afternoon to click the next page button and discover I had finished the book. What? Turns out the rest of the book is made up of appendices, a who’s who of characters, relationships and houses. Well that was unexpected. Good thing I have plenty of other books on my Kindle and I already knew what one to read next.
Feast for Crows is the fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Is it bad of me to say I did not like it as much as the first three? Martin does a great job of continuing to develop characters and letting them change and grow or, in the case of some of them, dig their own graves. And the religious conflicts in the book between three different religions is really fascinating and well done. I also liked that most of the focus in this book is on female characters.
But the book ends in an arbitrary place with cliffhangers galore and no promise that they will be resolved in the next book. Because the next book focuses on the characters that were left out of this book. Martin found he was writing too much and so spilt what was the fourth book into two books, deciding to also split the stories of the characters. At the moment I don’t like that decision. I might change my mind after I read the fifth book. For now though it has left me with an unsatisfied feeling mixed with a little grumpiness.
Yes, I am watching the TV show of Game of Thrones that is currently airing. I started reading the series before the show began and had my own idea of what the characters looked like and all that. Now when I am reading I can’t remember my conception of them and instead have the TV characters’ images stuck in my head. Also, it is difficult to reconcile the way the book tells the story with how the show does. Some things stick closely to the book and others leave me gawping and muttering wtf? It’s always a risk one takes with books to screen.
I’ll be taking a break for a few months before I read A Dance with Dragons. And maybe by then Martin will have finished the sixth book and I can tie up the ends of all these dangling threads book four has left.
...which sets out to be a love story, a ghost story, a story about abuse, and a story about family. Of the four, the ghost story comes the closest to being successful. The idea of a ghost that can travel via and control water is scary in and of itself, and Ward really makes great, cinematic* use of it, sometimes with powerful, gushing torrents, sometimes with insidious, creeping mold. Ghost Rob’s growing strength is rivaled only by his malevolence, and Carl’s deteriorating mental state—despite clear signs of an actual haunting, at times I wondered if it really might all be in Carl’s head—adds to the tension.
As it sadly didn't do a whole lot for me, I went ahead and recommended some OTHER books that I enjoyed much more...
INCLUDING A CERTAIN SERIES STARRING MISS SHIRAZ BAILEY WOOD.
And also one that I haven't read yet, but that LOOKS really super.
Sidenote: Due to the water and the palette, this cover is pretty ambiguous... but if the girl on the cover is supposed to be Neisha Gupta, with her "big brown eyes" and skin with "honey tones", then it looks like the UK cover has been whitewashed.
It’s school vacation week here in Boston — which always makes me think about taking trips. The app 52 Fun Things to Do on the Plane (Oceanhouse Media and Chronicle Books, 2013), created by Lynn Gordon with illustrations by Susan Synarski and Karen Johnson, will come in handy for parents looking for activities to occupy their children while traveling.
The app is based on an entry in Gordon’s 52 card deck series, which now has over 80 titles — and counting — in print for kids and adults alike. With the series moving to a digital platform (52 Cool Tricks for Kids, 52 Things to Do in the Car, and others are also available as apps), you won’t have worry about losing cards while you’re traveling. What you do need to consider, however, is that you will need some extra supplies to get the most out of Plane. The app recommends you bring along plain paper, tape, crayons and colored pencils, pipe cleaners, magazines, coloring books, a favorite story book, modeling clay, chewing gum, a snack, markers, and plastic scissors (whew!) for use in a variety of games and activities. But if you’re running late to the airport and forget to pack those supplementary in-flight supplies, don’t worry; your child will still be able to enjoy some of the cards in the deck.
The app opens with a scrolling panel of fifty-two cards offering activities such as “Songs About Travel,” “Airsick Bag Puppets,” “Safety Instruction Sillies,” and “Magazine Memory.” (Some of the titles on the cards are more self-explanatory than others.) To give you an idea of the types of activities included: The “Songs About Travel” card asks you to think of as many songs as you can that mention some form of transportation. Once you’ve made a list, you can play a game of charades using those song titles. And the “Airsick Bag Puppets” card requires some of those extra supplies. You’ll be asked to draw and color a face on the airsick bag in the seatback pocket, decorate the puppet with images cut from a magazine, repeat the process to make more puppets, and then put on a puppet show using the tray table as your stage.
When you tap a card in the menu, it fills the screen; you then have the option to flip it over and see the instructions on the opposite side. Younger children may need help reading the instructions (there is no “read to me” feature with this app) and completing some of the activities (especially those which require supplies), but generally the instructions are easy to follow and enjoyable for all ages. The activities sometimes require more than one person, but for the most part you could play them by yourself. When you’ve completed an activity, just tap the back button to return to the main screen or hit the shuffle button to refresh the cards. The on/off sound option will help keep your fellow passengers happy. You can also email the activity card to a friend or save a snapshot of it in your photo library.
Simple navigation coupled with the wide range of things to do will provide young travelers with hours of entertainment (and provide parents with a less stressful trip). Safe travels!
Piece Meal is an internet journal that reviews single pieces of writing featured in literary magazines. There aren’t enough spaces in the writing world where one-good-thing is thought about. In Piece Meal we look at a single story, a poem or two, or some other piece of writing/media and provide an attentive review. We especially like the idea of giving writers without printed books a chance to be taken seriously.
Each review should be a minimum of 500 words. There is no maximum length.Check out previous reviews on our website for examples.
Feel free to relate any sociological, historical, psychological or scatological references you think will help your review of the work. We are also open to short work comparisons from the same magazine, as well as hearing review ideas you have in mind that do not fit the criteria above. We’re generally open-minded gents.
Besides recognizing writers without published books, Piece Meal is a great opportunity for writers to practice writing reviews and get their reviews published.
Each reviewer should be open to editorial comments.
We will do our best to respond as soon as we can. Feel free to email with questions/ queries.
To submit your literary review of a short story, poem(s), creative nonfiction or other media that can be found in or on print and online literary magazines, excluding artwork, video or film, send an email to:
piecemealreviewATgmailDOTcom (Change AT to @ and DOT to . )
My daughter and I both enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) Bethanie Murguia's two previous picture books about Zoe (Zoe Gets Ready and Zoe's Room: No Sister's Allowed). In this third installment, the irrepressible Zoe and her younger sister Addie pretend that a playground is a jungle. Some tension is added to the story by the fact that Mama has decreed that they'll be leaving the park in five minutes. But as it turns out, five minutes is enough time for a jungle adventure, if you have sufficient imagination.
Alternating page spreads show the jungle that Zoe is picturing, vs. the playground as it actually looks. This may be a bit confusing for the youngest readers (my four-year-old wasn't sure what was going on, the first time we read this). But once they understand the device that Murguia is using, I think that kids will enjoy it. For instance, Zoe crosses over an alligator-filled river on a fallen log. The "log" is revealed on the next page to be a wooden bench, passing near some kids playing in a puddle. Not until the final endpages do we see the full view of the park. (And I must say, it's a very nice park!)
Although this is still clearly Zoe's story, it's nice to see her sister growing a bit bigger, and more able to actively take part in things (this is clear from just looking at the cover). The "Addiebeast" runs away and hides, and the brave explorer Zoe must track her down. Addie's polka-dotted dress is echoed in the Addiebeast's spotted tail.
I also, as a parent, enjoyed the by-play between Zoe and her Mama over when they would leave the park. Zoe goes on a huge rant over how five more minutes is "NOT" enough time. At the end of the rant, Mama just says: "Four minutes!". Zoe slumps over, saying: "Is there no respect for the explorer and her quest?" But then Addie distracts her, and the game is on.
I love the green jungle palette of Zoe's Jungle, and the images of kids climbing trees and riding wild beasts, as well as the images of kids just playing in a playground. Mostly I love that Zoe's Jungle is a celebration of imaginative play, as well as a celebration of sibling bonds. Recommended, and sure to become a Baby Bookworm favorite!
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: May 27, 2014
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
FTC Required Disclosure:
This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).
We recently received the (adult) graphic novel biography Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown (May 2014, First Second). As any Princess Bride fan will know, Andre the Giant is the professional-wrestler-turned-actor who played Fezzik in the movie.
Born Andre Rene Roussimoff, he grew up in rural Molien, France, where he was too large to ride the school bus and his father was friends with Samuel Beckett (who knew?). He moved to Paris, became a wrestler, went to Tokyo, and was diagnosed (in Japanese) with acromegaly (“He’ll age prematurely. His brow and jaw will grow more pronounced. His heart and organs won’t be able to keep up with his body. His joints, too. He’ll be a cripple. Then the doctor said he wouldn’t live past forty…”). He made his way to North America, wrestled professionally, drank a ton, got in a lot of fights, was kind of an ass (used the n-word against another wrestler; turned his back on his young daughter), and died at 46. There’s some hero worship on the author’s part (from the intro: “Andre the Giant represents all that is good in professional wrestling”), but the subject’s failings are never sugar-coated. Black-and-white panel illustrations depict all the rock-’em, sock-’em action.
The book is mostly based on anecdotes from friends and colleagues, and there’s a brief section on the Princess Bride filming. Christopher Guest — the six-fingered man — enjoys shaking Andre’s gigantic hand; Andre drapes his huge hand over Robin Wright/Princess Buttercup’s entire head to warm her up; director Rob Reiner balks at a giant $40,000 bar tab. Mandy Patinkin (Fezzik’s brother-from-another-mother Inigo Montoya) is blurbed on the book jacket: “A giant of a man in every way. I am thrilled to see his story finally told!” Princess Bride fans might— and ’70s- and ’80s-professional-wrestling fans will definitely — find a lot to like in this book.
Ten years ago, Corinthe made a huge mistake. Since then, she’s been exiled from her sister Fates, living on Earth among the humans. To earn her way back into the good graces of the Unseen Ones and be allowed to return home, she is tasked with helping humans achieve their destinies: whether that means facilitating meet cutes, making someone late for work, preventing an accident, saving a life...or ending one.
I hadn't read a straight-up chick-lit rom-com in ages, and I'd forgotten just how much fun they can be.
Despite the best efforts of her best friend to convince her to go to New York City with him while he interns at a teen fashion magazine, Libby Kelting is leaving Minnesota to spend the summer before her senior year in Camden Harbor, Maine, interning at the Museum of Maine and the Sea. She'll be wearing 1791-era garb, teaching young campers about the daily life of colonial Americans, and hopefully, in her off-time, spending time at the beach in one of the many (many, many, many) cute outfits that she's dragging halfway across the country with her.
Things she didn't count on: an enormously judgmental, slut-shaming roommate; a uniform for when she's not in costume; a super-hot sailor who spouts Shakespeare and looks VERY nice while chopping wood; getting roped into sharing EXTREMELY cramped quarters with a VERY irritating budding journalist who's on a ghost hunt.
Oh, where to start? I cackled all the way through this one. For instance:
"Listen, Garrett—" "Why do you keep saying my name like it's in air quotes?" he interrupted. "What are you talking about?" I snapped. "You keep saying 'Garrett' like it's allegedly my name." "Maybe because it's not a name, but a small Parisian attic where writers live?" "Oh, as opposed to a brand of canned pumpkin owned by the Nestle corporation?" he shot back. We glared at each other.
Ahahahahahaha. Anyway, she and Garrett are very obviously well-suited to each other, and their sparring is just as entertaining as their inevitable lurrrve-falling. Also, Libby's campers are HILARIOUS.
Libby is a genuine history nerd, and as her focus is on fashion and the domestic arts, there are LOADS of interesting factual tidbits. Also, she's a wonderful example of a character who is a 'girly-girl' AND whip-smart, so yay to Strohm for that. Bonus: When it comes down to it, Libby is perfectly capable of fighting her own battles. Literally. So yay to Strohm for that, too!
Along those lines, there are some great threads about being judgemental/making assumptions about people: because Libby is interested in fashion and in boys, her roommate immediately jumps to the conclusion that Libby is an airheaded moron with red bottomosity. At the same time, Libby judges Garrett for his love of science fiction, so no-one is entirely without fault in that department—which is good, because few people are!
Cam and most of the rest of the dudebros are totally two-dimensional stereotypes. And actually, Libby's bestie Dev is also pretty two-dimensional, but I gave him a pass because he was rad.
PINK-LOVING GIRLS CAN BE SMART, TOO!, or,
Behind the scenes of Austenland, starring YA characters.
What a beautiful and curious book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine turned out to be. Rankine is a poet who had three collections under her belt when she published this book that is and is not poetry in 2004. I say it is poetry because it is beautifully lyrical and written in short pieces that could be poems except they are prose paragraphs, essays of a sort. Only each essay doesn’t even fill a page, is sometimes only a paragraph long. But each piece connects together sort of like a collage, accumulating and building up to a whole picture. Many of the poem-essays can stand alone and are gorgeous little gems:
Forgiveness, I finally decide, is not the death of amnesia, nor is it a form of madness, as Derrida claims. For the one who forgives, it is simply a death, a dying down in the heart, the position of the already dead. It is in the end the living through, the understanding that this has happened, is happening, happens. Period. It is a feeling of nothingness that cannot be communicated to another, an absence, a bottomless vacancy held by the living, beyond all that is hated or loved.
The book moves around many themes, death, grief, unhappiness, forgiveness, sadness, life, and most of all, loneliness:
It’s what we can’t do for each other.
What do we mean to each other?
What does life mean?
Why are we here if not for each other?
Even though the poem-essays are questioning, sometimes melancholic, sometimes baffled, and sometimes tragic, the book is not depressing. There is a softness, a gentleness to it that is present throughout no matter if it is about personal tragedy or the World Trade Center. And the book itself ends with a number of poem-essays on hope:
Such distress moved in with muscle and bone. Its entrance by necessity slowly translated my already grief into a tremendously exhausted hope. The translation occurred unconsciously, perhaps occurred simply because I am alive. The translation occurs as a form of life. Then life, which seems so full of waiting, awakes suddenly into a life of hope.
Loneliness never goes away, it is something that is and always will be with us, a part of the human condition. But with hope, with reaching out a hand to someone else, for just a little while we can forget our loneliness:
Or one meaning of here is ‘In this world, in this life, on earth. In this place or position, indicating the presence of,’ or in other words, I am here. It also means to hand something to somebody — Here you are. Here, he said to her. Here both recognizes and demands recognition. I see you, or here, he said to her. In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.
The whole book builds toward being “here” and recognizing the presence of someone else; recognizing another person’s existence, and what that existence entails — messy, sad, lonely, grief and hope filled life.
It is a beautiful and affirming book. The language is gorgeous. The poem-essays are often accompanied by small drawings or photos that provide additional impact. I read the book in less than a day. I had stopped about three-quarters of the way through thinking I should save the book and finish the next day. But when casting around for something else to read, nothing appealed except Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. So I finished it. I am glad I did because I think it is meant to be read in one day while all the connections and layerings are mingling around in the brain, fresh and pliable. I enjoyed the book so much I will gladly give one of Rankine’s poetry collections a go sometime.
Mystery of the Museum Mile is the first book of the new Eddie Red Undercover series by Marcia Wells. Eddie Red is a code name for Edmund Xavier Lonnrot, a sixth grader with a photographic memory and the ability to draw (well) anyone he has seen. When Eddie's talents are inadvertently discovered by the New York Police Department, he is hired to help on a special case involving art theft. He's only supposed to visit some museums and draw the people he sees, under the guidance of a grouchy but protective cop named Bovano. But of course things get more complicated, and more dangerous, than that.
So, ok, there are a couple of points here requiring suspension of disbelief. The NYPD hiring an 11-year-old? Said 11-year-old's parents going along with it? The photographic memory AND drawing skill? But personally, I found it well worth letting those points go and enjoying the ride.
Edmund (or Eddie Red, as you may prefer to think of him) is a solid character. Smart, sure, but realistically insecure about it. Loyal to his best friend, who has pretty serious OCD. Eddie breaks the rules in order to learn more about the case, but he's nervous about that. He's not your young James Bond, able to do everything. He's more your regular kid who has one particular skill. He desperately wants to solve the case so that he can make enough money to remain in his private school.
Eddie is also pretty matter-of-fact about being a young African-American male in the city. The color of his skin isn't a big deal, but it's not glossed over, either. It's an integral part of who he is, and who his parents are. This, together with his white friend Jonah's quirks, makes this a mystery that should feel relevant to a wider range of kids than many. Eddie does have a very mild love interest, which didn't really feel necessary to me, but there's not enough to it to be off-putting for younger kids.
The mystery involves following clues, putting things together, and applying a bit of geometry (Jonah is helpful here). A fair number of scenes take place in Jonah and Eddie's school for gifted kids, which I found interesting.
Here are a few snippets, to give you a feel for Wells' writing:
"People always ask how to spell my name. It's European and looks pretty unusual, but it's easy to pronounce: Lawn-rot. Some family down south owned my ancestors back in the slave days, and the name stuck." (Page 16)
"I try to follow. Sadie, our cat-who-may-be-an-evil-overlord-in-disguise, heads me off. Leaping in front of the kitchen door, she arches her back in a ripple of fur and hisses." (Page 39)
"He remains standing, staring out the window. He has quite a pasta/beer belly packed onto his tall body. This man is what my mother would call a touch cookie. Only he's more like a tough loaf of old and angry Italian break, with too much garlic mixed in." (Page 53)
There are also occasional full-page illustrations, representing Eddie's drawings of important characters in the story. Calo's pencil (charcoal?) sketches are a bit professional to actually be created by a sixth grader, but they are a nice addition to book, fleshing out Eddie's talent and giving readers a glimpse of the characters.
All in all, Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile is a nice addition to the ranks of middle grade mysteries. I look forward to Eddie's further adventures. Recommended!
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHBooks)
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
FTC Required Disclosure:
This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).
James Kochalka has always had a penchant for the outright silly. If nothing else his Johnny Boo series of books have said as much. He’s not afraid to go for the obvious gag, but at the same time his sheer willingness to get ridiculous sort of becomes his strength. I picked up The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza uncertain if it would be honestly funny or just trying too hard, and you know what? There was more than one time I thought this book was actually, honestly really funny. It’s the kind of funny best appreciated by younger kids too. Your Captain Underpants / Junie B. Jones crowd. Humor is, admittedly, so completely subjective that adults have a hard time remembering what it’s like to be a kid and to find just the most ridiculous thing in a story freakin’ hilarious. But reading about The Glorkian Warrior I couldn’t help but feel like this was one book where Kochalka really put his finger down firmly on the pulse of kid-humor. Nothing against Johnny Boo or any of his other funny books over the years but with The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza I feel like the man has finally hit his stride. His funniest and most ambitious bit of space-based lunacy to date.
It’s a slow day for The Glorkian Warrior. No amazing adventures on the horizon. Nothing much going on. And though his Super Backpack is bugging him to go out and do something heroic, until the Emergency Space Phone rings our hero is out of ideas. Turns out the phone call is from someone ordering a pepperoni pizza and, not one to back down from a challenge, our Warrior sets off to complete this mission. Granted, the only pizza he has in his possession is the partially eaten peanut butter and clam concoction in his fridge. And granted, nothing seems to go according to plan. But between busting up his Supercar, blowing up a little bully (don’t worry, he’s not hurt), acquiring a baby space cat head sucker thing, and encountering a Magic Robot capable of mucking up time itself, it’s all in a day’s work for The Glorkian Warrior and his newfound pals.
I’m not one of those children’s librarians that claims to have the sense of humor of a 9-year-old kid. There are folks out there that can say this in perfect seriousness and though I do understand where they’re coming from, it’s not really my thing. After all, there are some works of children’s literature that just baffle me with their popularity. That said, I found myself grudgingly really liking what Kochalka was doing here. It’s no mean feat to create an honest-to-goodness quest novel that fills itself from tip to toe full of silliness. The tone in this book is also consistent throughout. It has a clear vision, even if the reader does not, and even manages at the last minute to pull a little surprise coup on the reader. So while it will not be to every adult’s taste, I have absolutely zippo problem with the kiddos picking it up. Heck, I’ll be recommending it to them myself. This is for the kid who wants something along the lines of Adventure Time but without the existential philosophy.
Not that there wasn’t at least one element that struck me as particularly fascinating. Put a little time travel into a book and you’ll find folks like myself examining it from every angle, no matter how silly it is, for inconsistencies. I’ll repeat that. I, a 35-year-old woman, read a children’s graphic novel called The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza and when I hit on the time travel aspect I looked for mistakes. Just put that in your pipe and smoke it for a while. For me, the only possible problem I could come up with was the fact that if The Glorkian Warrior called himself to order the pizza, why did he call his own number thinking it was a pizza delivery place? So, yeah. Continuity-wise it’s a bit shaky, but honestly if that’s what you take away from the book you’re probably looking at it from the wrong angle anyway. Besides, I love the philosophical quandary of how The Glorkian Warrior learned about the existence of pepperoni pizza from himself rather than some outside source.
You can’t help but love a book where the Don Quixote of space is accompanied by a Sancho Panza-like talking backpack. And yes, it’ll get its own fair share of objections from various quarters. Not every parent will get it, but it’s awfully hard to find anything to object to here. It hasn’t the scatological warning signs of a Captain Underpants or the “bad” language / “bad” attitude of a Junie B. Jones. Instead it’s just a good-natured tale of a dumbo making a date with destiny. It’s not going to blow you away with its insights into the nature of humanity itself, nor would it want to. It’s just here to make kids laugh. And honestly, we could do with a couple more books along those lines these days.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
Meanwhile by Jason Shiga – Not to give anything away, but Shiga does some pretty similar things with time travel in his book with similarly goofy results. The tone of the two books is also quite similar.
Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian by Michael Rex – I’m sort of seeking out the silliest/goofiest of graphic novels, all operating under their own internal logic, to pair with Kochalka’s latest. Fangbone is a much smarter character, but that doesn’t prevent him from running headlong into danger ala our pizza delivery boy here.
Flash Gordon has been around for quite awhile. You’ve got the newspaper strip going back to the 1930s. Switching over to non-reprint comics, King and Gold Key comics periodically popped up from the 1960s through early 80s. DC’s reboot by Dan Jurgens in the late 80s. Marvel did a couple issues in the 90s. Ardden Entertainment in ’08. Dynamite in ’11. Everybody has their favorites from those runs. I’ve been partial to the Al Williamson material and have a serious soft spot for the Dan Jurgens version. All that said, Dynamite recently relaunched the franchise with a clever re-imagination and it’s jumping up the list quickly.
The King’s Watch mini-series was the relaunch vehicle for Dynamite’s treatments of the classic King Features Syndicate comic strip heroes: Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom. That series, also written by Flash Gordon writer Jeff Parker, establishes the status quo of Mongo invading Earth through portals that might be magic or might be an unknown science. At the end of the series, Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Hans Zarkoff find themselves trapped on Mongo after shutting down the portals by which Ming can access Earth. That’s where Flash Gordon #1 begins.
The comic book Flash Gordon, as well as the movies and Filmation cartoon have all been centered around Mongo. Flash Gordon visiting another planet and liberating it from the evil emperor is a classic story, but Mongo was never a constant in the original comic strip the way it tends to be in the comics. For long stretches of the strip, Ming may not appear and Flash Gordon can be more of a space opera. Whenever a comic launches, Mongo is always the first story, though. It creates a bit of a burden as the creators have to tell the classic story in their own way and try to measure up with what’s gone before.
The major tweak here is the portals. Instead of being kidnapped to Mongo by Dr. Zarkoff (i.e., the only person who really understood the threat) in a rocketship that may or may not be able to get them home, Flash and company are there in a form of sacrifice. They’ve got the mysterious crystal that let’s Ming access the Earth and they’re on the run. There are also more portals. Instead of having the various kingdoms of Mongo, the kingdoms are different worlds accessed by the portals. Ming controls Mongo and then subjugates the other worlds. Issue one finds Flash and company spending time in Arboria, now a forest world, not just a forest kingdom. It opens up the scope a bit.
The characters are slightly tweaked. Instead of a professional polo player or ex-NBA player, Flash is now a daredevil trust fund baby. Younger, brasher, but a good excuse for him to have a background in stunt flying, extreme sports and the like — he’s just been a professional adrenaline junkie who ‘s hobbies have trained him well for the situation he’s fallen into.
Dale Arden is the least changed. Still a reporter, but much more assertive than in the original
Dr. Zarkoff is now a hard drinking scientist, perhaps not quite as crazy as in some versions, but definitely cranky.
The thing that sets this comic apart from other versions is the sense of fun. This is high adventure on strange new worlds, but it doesn’t take itself overly seriously past that they’re trying to prevent an invasion of Earth. Evan Shaner is further away from the Raymond/Williamson school of art than many who have worked on Flash Gordon. He’s using a looser style, closer to something you’d see in a French science fiction graphic album. More of the Roy Crane/Milt Canniff school than Raymond school, if you want to go back to the original 1930s sources.
This comic wins on flow and tone. There’s a decent amount of characterization, too, but Flash Gordon immediately jumps on the fun train and you’re along for the ride. A great change of pace comic. Dynamite’s been doing a lot with the classic pulp characters and in many (good) ways, this is the inverse of something like The Shadow or The Spider.
To be quite honest with you, although the next thing Jeff Parker should be doing be the sequel to his Interman graphic novel (the sooner you crank that out, the sooner I stop nagging you Jeff), I would welcome Jeff Parker’s Mandrake and Phantom.
Highly recommended for anybody looking for a fun romp with aliens and monster. If you want gritty and dark, this might not be for you (but gritty and dark isn’t exactly hard to find these days).
Have you ever read a review of a book from a trusted source that gushed about a book, how utterly fantastic, original, funny, quirky it is (fill in the blanks with the descriptive words that make you say omg I have to read this book)? Of course you have. And have you then gone out and either bought it or borrowed it from the library, brought it home in a great excitement of anticipation, opened the cover, dove in and about halfway through realized the book was not even close to the heights of delight you thought it would be and in fact got lost somewhere in the foothills? Of course you have. And did you keep reading it anyway because you thought that maybe the big payoff came at the end, oh please let there be a big payoff at the end to have made it all worthwhile? Of course you have. And then when you got to the end and closed the cover did you sigh, not with satisfaction but with sadness because the payoff never came? Of course you have.
The story takes place in an unspecified future where the world is run by fast food companies that faction themselves into different philosophical traditions. For instance Neetsa Pizza, the company our hero Leonard works for, governs itself and its food by Pythagorean precepts. Leonard’s sister, Carol, works for a Scottish fast food company called the Jack-o-Bites. There are also Heraclitans, Cathars, (Roger) Baconians, neo-Maoists, and a host of other competing fast food ideologies.
But the book is not about fast food, that’s just the setting. The book is about Leonard whose gift is his receptivity and ability to listen. He sits in an all white room and takes calls from unhappy Neetsa Pizza customers, helps them feel better and gives them coupons. He has a training book on hand to help with likely scenarios. But one day he gets a call that turns out to be an unlikely scenario that sets him on a journey in which he saves the world, finds love, and travels through time. It is completely bonkers, but given that his love turns out to be Sally who is a librarian and Baconian whose job is to guard the Voynich manuscript and, who has managed to decipher some of it, the book was looking to be promising.
Does the Voynich manuscript sound familiar to you? It has been in the news lately. Cantor’s book was published in 2013 before the latest news about the manuscript. The Voynich, was supposedly composed by Roger Bacon in the 13th century and discovered in 1912 by Wilfred Voynich. The book is written in a code no one, not even top cryptologists, has been able to crack. This has many believing the book is a hoax. Though a University of Bedfordshire applied linguistics professor has recently claimed to have cracked the code.
The news added to the promise of the book, but the book did not deliver. Dancing letters, talks in the present with historical personages from the past, Jewish mysticism, time travel, Isaac the Blind, and Abulafia never melded into a story that made much sense. Sure, the world was supposed to be in danger because Abulafia got Felix, Leonard’s nephew who could stop time, to go back in time where he, Abulafia, planned on using Felix to bring on the end of days. But given that Felix comes from the future there isn’t much sense of peril because we know the outcome even though there are hints that the future might be changed.
The book could have been a fun story about finding and using your gifts to make the world a better place but all that gets lost amidst the quirkiness and fighting between the fast food companies and the mysticism. As far as I can tell, this is Cantor’s first novel. She has previously published a number of short stories in literary journals. There appear to be enough to make a short story collection and if she goes that direction I would definitely read it. The writing itself is good and her style is fun. She creates interesting characters and knows how to keep the pace moving. And she is original and obviously creative. However, all these pluses end up fighting against each other. I hope she writes another novel because she does have potential if she can manage to get all of her skills working together instead of competing for top billing.
Book: We Were Liars Author: E. Lockhart
Age Range: 12 and up
We Were Liars, e. lockhart's upcoming young adult novel, is fabulous. I couldn't put it down, particularly the last third. On finishing it, I had to go back and immediately re-read large chunks of the book. This is something I never do. Yes, it is that good.
Really, if you are an e. lockhart fan, or a fan of suspenseful young adult fiction of any stripe, that should be enough. You should stop reading here. Because this is NOT a book that you want spoiled. You want to go into it knowing as little about it as possible.
The protagonist isn't wholly likable. She's wealthy, beautiful and spoiled (with heavy parallels to the Kennedy family). She doesn't even know the names of the people who work for her extended family every summer. But it doesn't matter. She is compelling anyway - I promise.
The primary setting, a private island near Martha's Vineyard, isn't one that will resonate with most readers' personal experience. But that doesn't matter, either. Lockhart draws the island so clearly, and the characters so sharply (for good and ill) that you feel like you're there with them.
In terms of mature content, there is some kissing, and some drinking, and some talk of (but no action regarding) sex. But this is a powerful book, and I would not give it to kids under 12.
And honestly, that's all I have to say. Pre-order it, read it when it's available, and try not to read any detailed reviews in the meantime. Highly recommended for teen and adult readers, male or female. I won't stop thinking about We Were Liars for a while.
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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It’s hard to convince me to not contribute to the growing number of small press comic subscriptions–every season there seems to be even more great material I want to get my hands onto, and it’s a rather addicting cycle of excitement whenever there’s a new package at my door. Oily has proven to be an exceptionally versatile publisher with their subscriptions—the form of their pocket-size, digestible mini-comics has parlayed a habit-forming nature in their readership that stays true to the internal logic of comics. Series like Melissa Mendes’s Lou and Charles Forsman’s TEOTFW have hooked many a fan in, including myself, allowing a sense of gratification and appreciation that hasn’t always been as accessible in indie comics. There is something quite rewarding about receiving an Oily bundle; the mini-comics are neighborly crafted and packaged to make you feel welcome from the outset.
This season’s Spring Oily Bundle, a limited 200 count batch, featured 9 different mini-comics along with additional prints and art from the stylish roster of Oily cartoonists. Mixing a touch of the familiar and the new, this was an impressionably refreshing stack of work, demonstrating the inarguable benefits of reading comics in their printed format.
Noah Van Sciver’s The Lizard Laughed
The first of the loot is Noah Van Sciver’s new minicomic, The Lizard Laughed. Beginning with a quote from Martin Sheen’s 2012 shared memoir with son Emilio Estevez, Along the Way, Sciver sets up this father-and-son narrative, contorted through his trademark doom-and-gloom thematic craftship. While the recognizable tropes of bleakness and brooding malaise are definitely present, Sciver is able to input some very quiet and reflective moments within this short piece that make it surprisingly satisfying.
Harvey is the deadbeat, stoner dad who gets an unexpected visit from the son he abandoned so many years ago. Although supposedly complacent with his role as an absent father, Harvey endeavors to enact what he believes is fatherly action to Nathan, offering affection through engaging in conversation and artistic similarity, and even planning a joint rendezvous, the time-honored tradition of a father-and-son hike. Harvey’s tragic, cumbersome attempt to fill in a paternal guise is apparent at every moment of the two’s interaction, and the emotional machismo on display is unwieldy.
The ending is no surprise, and there’s a sense of crushing disappointment for both father and son. While Harvey is sure to continue in his cyclical inability to truly connect with another person, Nathan walks away from revenge, and in a way comes to grips with understanding, even in disconnect, why Harvey is the way he is. It would be flawed to associate this comic as another father-and-son narrative, the cringe-worthy air between Harvey and Nathan actually sheds light on Sciver’s creative ability to ride that line between empathy and ridicule. There’s not a lot of people, let alone cartoonists, who can exhibit the gnarled grace that Sciver does with a character like Harvey, someone who is incredulously unlikeable and irrationally mulish to boot.
Sciver pacifies the overarching tension with Harvey’s meandering tales of playful, fantastical adventures with dangerous historic sites and imaginative recounts of mystical creatures. It’s in these stories that Harvey seems the most in touch with life, his childish sensibility drawn with a touch of humor. He is swallowed by the fantasy of his surroundings, and it’s never more clear how misguided and detached from reality he genuinely is, a palpable actuality that Nathan plainly sees.
I’m unsure if Sciver meant to comment on or parody the Sheen memoir Along the Way (something tells me neither Sheen nor Estevez wouldn’t be able to connect that sad, self-deprecating psyche in quite the same way), and The Lizard Laugh is anything but a Hollywood memoir. Sciver succeeds yet again in creating a narrative that turns the focus inward; to our own shortcomings that we reject by fluffing up our own perception of wisdom, and the choice Nathan makes that allows Harvey to retain some dignity, to not be small and nothing.
Crash Trash, an uber little comic from French cartoonist Olive Booger, is a streamlined reworking of his style’s drippy, color-saturated, hysteric scratchiness as seen in Kuš! And his graphic novel, I Like Short Songs. While superficially shrunken down to a 4” by 2.25” mini-mini-comic, Crash Trash packs a whole lot of trippy detail in the comic’s anthropologic recounting of the rise and fall of a fictional 1980s gang called the Trash Boys, along with the antics and lawlessness of their home base, the district of Crashtown.
It’s at first a little jarring to see such a small comic flushed with a heavy hand of text—almost every panel is scrawled with as much space filled with script as it is image. There is no dialogue, only narration and a smattering of effects, thereby pacing the comic quite cinematically, as panel transitions move from pull back shots of the Trash Boys to close-ups of a fallen comb or cross-cutting to a colossal punt by enemy gang, the Mega Dogs. At first glance, it may seem Olive was restricted by size in the type of details he could use to fill in details, yet his histrionic prose amplifies the limited visual space, resisting an urge to rapidly read the comic. There’s a rhythmic cleverness in the way the comic moves, an ebbing and tiding in the momentum as well as in the elevation of dramatic moments. The story is neither bounded with innovation, so when particular key words are bolded, it aids in setting the scene because you’re most likely able to attribute certain visual cues.
What I’ve said so far shouldn’t discount Oliver’s artistic aspiration; his style is still largely tangible even when stripped down to its red and black risographed print. His previous work harkens a definite Charles Burns influence with the thick, oil paint execution and thematics resonating with the sordid darkness of a city’s underbelly. Crash Trash is situated with the aesthetics of raw, punk desperation of his preceding I Like Short Songs but the simplicity in his line work has taken a new mode, less garish and more nuanced. It’s very impressive to see his art pulsate even with the oppressively tight margins of space.
A lot has been said about Melissa Mendes’s Lou, the seventeen issue long pillar amongst the Oily lineup. This newest addition, titled A Very Special Lou, marks a revisiting to the series which ended in August 2013, and a warm return it proves to be. Like a childhood friend or long unseen family member, A Very Special Lou is an entirely new narrative that retains its delightful, underlying spirit of kindred nostalgia.
One of the reasons I really took to this particular issue was how it gently touched on the omnipresence of fandom for professional wrestling. I’ve always been comfortable broadcasting myself as a fan of comics, and more recently I’ve come clean as a fan of professional wrestling. Fans of comics and professional wrestling share a long, complex history of facing ridicule for following such a denigrated form of entertainment—wrestlers and superheroes are arguably a form of con-job, deemed “fake” by those who choose to stand by higher media forms, be it athletics or literary elitists. However, criticisms aside, fans of wrestling and comics share a distinctly unique concept of play, where we consume media in a way that extends the narrative fluidly, defying rigid roles between the identities of producers and consumers.
A Very Special Lou functions both as a piece about being an admirer of comics as well as wrestling through the domestic lens of childhood imagination. Referencing wrestlers like King Kong Bundy and Hulk Hogan through 6-year-old John’s fannish fascination and how it’s lived through his family, Mendes yet again accesses the real emotions that we feel as charismatic kids and continue to feel today. Through the entire Lou serialization, Mendes almost effortlessly lets the reader dip into points of their own life, spurring even the most dormant, forgotten affections.
Here Comes the Easter Cat
by Deborah Underwood; illus. by Claudia Rueda
Preschool Dial 80 pp.
1/14 978-0-8037-3939-0 $16.99 g
Cat discovers an advertisement for the Easter Bunny’s arrival on the front endpapers of this witty offering, and from the very first page he is unhappy about it. The text addresses Cat directly throughout the book, and he responds using placards, humorous expressions, and body language to convey his emotions to great effect. When asked what’s wrong, Cat explains that he doesn’t understand why everyone loves the Easter Bunny. To assuage Cat’s jealousy, the text suggests that he become the Easter Cat and “bring the children something nice too.” Intrigued, Cat plans his gift idea (chocolate bunnies with no heads), transportation method (a motorcycle faster than that hopping bunny), and a sparkly outfit (complete with top hat). But multiple naps are an important part of Cat’s daily routine. When he discovers that the Easter Bunny doesn’t take any naps while delivering all his eggs, a forlorn Cat devises an unselfish way he can instead assist the hard-working rabbit. Rueda expertly uses white space, movement, and page turns to focus attention on Cat and the repartee. The combination of Underwood’s knowledgeable authorial voice and Rueda’s loosely sketched, textured ink and colored-pencil illustrations make this an entertaining, well-paced tale for interactive story hours. And if he isn’t going to usurp the Easter Bunny, then clever Cat will just have to take over another ho-ho-holiday.
Sixteen-year-old Sophie is used to her mother's ups and downs. When she's up, she's vibrant and giddy. She's spontaneous, loves ice cream for breakfast, works tirelessly on her art, throws her cares to the wind.
When she's down, she barely speaks. She barely has the energy to move, let alone get out of bed.
Sophie has been taking care of things since she was eleven years old. Making sure her mother takes her meds, that she eats regularly, that the bills get paid, that her mother's social worker doesn't see any red flags.
One day, she comes home to find that her mother has attempted suicide. She calls 911, her mother is rushed to the hospital, and Sophie goes to live with her extended family for the duration.
Her ESTRANGED extended family.
Everything. I'm not being lazy! I really loved it, full stop. It's a sensitive, empathetic look at how bipolar disorder can affect a family; about the realities of living with depression; about how sometimes people cause more damage by trying to protect one another than by just being honest. It's about how a lack of communication and a difficulty in asking for help can make a hard situation that much harder; about misunderstandings, isolation, and about that moment of catharsis that comes when feelings that have been hidden for far too long are finally verbalized. It's about abandonment, and about how abandonment by a friend can just as painful as abandonment by family. It's about how you can intellectually understand why a person acts the way she does, but still get frustrated and angry, and about the guilt that comes out of that.
I've got nothing. It's a solid read across the board.
It made me cry, but in a good way. If you like contemporaries that deal with meaty issues without being trite, didactic, or manipulative, here you go. I've added Sara Polsky to my list of Must Read Authors.
Pottytime for Chickies and Bedtime for Chickies, both by Janee Trasler, are part of a new series of padded board books focused on issues of interest to toddlers and early preschoolers (upcoming titles discuss the arrival of a new chick, and the development of table manners). Both books feature three little round chicks, apparently parented by three farm animals (Pig, Cow, and Sheep). The parent figures all look male to me, though this isn't completely, which makes for a nice, subtle message about varied types of families.
In Pottytime for Chickies, the chicks are, as you might suspect, learning how to use the toilet. They have their own ideas about what the potty is for, however, and when left to their own devices they do things like swim in the potty (ick!), and use the toilet paper like a trapeze. Each time, one of the parents returns, passes out hugs or kisses, and tries to get them onto the right track. So, for example, we have:
Just two things.
First wipe your tail feathers,
then wash your wings.
Shut the door.
We know what the potty's for."
Followed by jumping off the back of the potty onto a pile of towels, followed by hugs and gentle redirection from Sheep. And in the space of a few short pages, the chicks figure out what to do. So, no, not the most realistic potty training book that parents can add to their arsenals. But it is pretty fun! My already potty-trained daughter pealed with laughter over the chicks in the potty.
Bedtime for Chickies tackles another common issue - the ways that kids will delay going to bed. Even as the adults are settling into their own beds, the chick are thirsty, have to go potty, and need a story, to the increasing chagrin of the three tired adults. Eventually, each chick ends up falling asleep in the lap of a similarly sleeping grown up animal (a more realistic ending than the first book).
One thing I liked about Bedtime for Chickies was the way the author teased kids, by making them think that a rhyme was coming when it wasn't. Like this:
It's bedtime for chickies.
It's bedtime for sheep.
It's bedtime for pig and cow.
Let's all go to ..."
My four-year-old immediately chimed in with "sleep." But in face, on the next page the text is:
"cheep, cheep, cheep.
We can't sleep.
We have to go potty."
The disruption in the text mirrors that disruption in the actual bedtime process. Nice.
Trasler's illustrations aren't realistic, of course, but the three round chicks are cute and kid-friendly, and the adult animals are quirky (and wear clothes). The adults come across as more nurturing in the potty book, vs. just exhausted in the bedtime book (both of which seem appropriate to me). The colors are soothing - not to bright, and the energy of the chicks is apparent on nearly every page.
I think this is a nice addition to the ranks of toddler-focused board books. These take a very light tone, and focus more on the universal humor of things kids do than on "teaching" a certain behavior. And I do love that the adult caregivers are apparently male and of different species than the kids. Not only does this make the book more visually interesting, it quietly tosses stereotypes aside (an usual thing in the board book world). Recommended new baby gifts or first through third birthdays. I look forward to seeing the other books in this fun new series.
Publisher: Harper (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copies from the publisher
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He Has Shot the President!: April 14, 1865: The Day JohnWilkes Booth Killed President Lincoln [Actual Times]
by Don Brown; illus. by the author
Intermediate Roaring Brook 64 pp.
4/14 978-1-59643-224-6 $17.99 g
This fifth entry in Brown’s Actual Times series (including All Stations Distress, rev. 9/08) begins on April 14, 1865, the day Lincoln was assassinated. Brown introduces both major actors, Lincoln and Booth, and then begins the tricky task of chronologically following each man to his death. He does so successfully, switching back and forth between the actions of both men with impeccable transitions. The text is matter-of-fact and detailed. “At about 10:00 PM, Booth reentered Ford’s through the front entrance and made his way to the second floor and the president’s box.” The illustrations, in Brown’s slightly impressionistic style and rendered in somber shades of brown, blue, and gray, create drama. There’s the despair on Dr. Charles Leale’s face as he attends Lincoln and sadness in the posture of mourners watching Lincoln’s funeral train moving slowly through America’s farmlands toward its final destination. But there’s also menace in Lewis Powell as he attempts to kill Secretary of State William Seward and in the stance of a soldier questioning eleven-year-old Appolina Dean, an innocent boarder at Mary Surratt’s house. A bibliography completes this fine book.
...I wrote aboutThe Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, and OMG I LOVE LOVE LOVED IT:
I laughed SO MUCH while reading it. Laughed and laughed and laughed. If Ethan wasn’t “stewing in the Crock-Pot of betrayal,” he was taking a “dumbwaiter ride to hell,” or becoming part of a “tornado of justice.” I loved the scenes with his triplet sisters; Ethan’s ongoing willingness to play with language (the past tense of high five is apparently “high fove”); and the many, many literary references (“...we were kicking it old-school, searching his files in the grand tradition of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”)
Feral Curse [Feral]
by Cynthia Leitich Smith
High School Candlewick 259 pp.
2/14 978-0-7636-5910-3 $17.99
e-book ed. 978-0-7636-7040-5 $17.99
Secret werecat Kayla chooses Valentine’s Day to reveal her true nature to her boyfriend, Ben. He reacts badly, to put it mildly: he runs away from Kayla, is hit by lightning on the antique carousel in Town Park while staging a ritual to “cure” her, and dies. Her small town of Pine Ridge, Texas, decides to dismantle the carousel and sell off its wooden animal figures. Soon after, Yoshi, the hottie Cat from Feral Nights (rev. 3/13), touches the hand-carved cougar for sale in his Grams’s antiques store in Austin and is instantly transported to Pine Ridge. He’s not the only shifter to suddenly appear there. Darby, a Deer; Peter, a Coyote; and Evan, an Otter, show up within a few days—each having touched the carousel animal corresponding to his shifter form—and they’re all inexplicably drawn to Kayla. This second entry in the Feral series (a spin-off of Smith’s Tantalize quartet) features as kooky a cast of supernatural characters as ever (including a juvenile yeti in addition to the various werepeople and the occasional human), but they’re all relatable in various ways and easy to root for. Debut character Kayla — level-headed, religious, but also quietly proud of her shifter nature — holds her own, nicely complementing Yoshi’s swagger, Wild Card shifter Clyde’s newfound confidence, and human Aimee’s resourcefulness. Witty banter peppered with pop-culture references keeps the tone light even as the stakes ramp up.
The first and only time I had the privilege of meeting author Bridget Zinn was during Kidlitcon in Portland a handful of years back. About my age, she was sweet and funny and quiet and one of so many kindred spirits I met that weekend, my first ever... Read the rest of this post
I like a kid’s book with ambition. It’s all well and good to write one about magic candy shops or goofy uncles or simpering unicorns or what have you. The world is big and there’s room for every possible conceivable type of book for our children you can imagine. But then you have the children’s book authors that aim higher. Let’s say one wants to write about zombies. Well, that’s easy enough. Zombies battling kids is pretty straightforward stuff. But imagine the chutzpah it would take to take that seemingly innocuous little element and then to add in, oh I dunno, BEOWULF. N.D. Wilson is one of those guys I’ve been watching for a very long time. The kind of guy who started off his career by combining a contemporary tale of underground survival with The Odyssey (Leepike Ridge). In his latest novel, Boys of Blur Wilson steps everything up a notch. You’ve got your aforementioned zombies as well as a paean to small town football, an economy based on sugar cane harvesting, spousal abuse, and rabbit runs. It sounds like a dare, honestly. “I dare you to combine these seemingly disparate elements into a contemporary classic”. The end result is a book that shoots high, misses on occasion, but ultimately comes across as a smart and action packed tale of redemption.
There is muck, then sugarcane, then swamps, then Taper. The town of Taper, to be precise, where 12-year-old Charlie Reynolds has come with his mother, stepfather, and little sister to witness the burial of the local high school football coach. It’s a town filled with secrets and relatives he never knew he had, like homeschooled Sugar, his distant cousin, with whom he shares an instant bond. Together, the two discover a wild man of the swamps accompanied by two panthers and a sword. The reason for the sword becomes infinitely clear when Charlie becomes aware of The Gren. A zombie-like hoard bent on the town’s obliteration (and then THE WORLD!), it’s up to one young boy to seek out the source of the corruption and take her (yes, her) down.
I had to actually look up my Beowulf after reading this. The reason? The opening. Wilson doesn’t go in for the old rules that state that you should begin your book with some kind of gripping slam-bang action scene. His first page? It reads like an ode. Like a minstrel has stepped out of the wings to give praise to the gods and to set the scene for you. Only in this case it’s just the narrator telling you what’s what. “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.” Read that line aloud for a second. Just taste and savor what it’s saying. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Like you’ve read it somewhere else before (particularly that “look for the” part). Then there’s that last line. “Out here in the flats, when the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, there can be only quick. There’s quick, and there’s dead.” So I looked up the beginning of Beowulf just to see if, by any chance, Wilson had cribbed some of this from his source material. Not as such. The original text is a bit more concerned with great tribal kings past, and all that jazz. That doesn’t make Wilson’s book any less compelling, though. There’s a rhythm to the opening that sucks you in immediately. It’s not afraid to be beautiful. It begs to be heard from a tongue.
And while I’m on the topic of beautiful language, Wilson sure knows how to turn a phrase. If he has any ultimately defining characteristic as a writer it is his complete and utter lack of fear regarding descriptions. He delves into them. Swims deep into them. Can you blame him? Though a resident of Idaho, here he evokes a Florida that puts Carl Hiaasen to shame. Examples of some of his particularly good lines:
“As for the church bell, it crashed through the floorboards and settled into the soft ground below. It’s still down there, under the patched floor, ringing silence in the muck.”
“Charlie looked at the sky, held up by nothing more than the column of smoke he’d noticed during the service.”
“Charlie stopped at the end, beside a boy with a baby face on a body the size and shape of someone’s front door.”
And I’m particularly fond of this line about new siblings: “When Molly had come, she had turned Charlie into a brother, adding deep loves and loyalties to who he was without asking his permission first.”
The book moves at a rapid clip, but not at the expense of the characters. For one thing, it’s nice not to have to read about a passive hero. From early in the book, we know certain things about Charlie that are to serve him well in the future. As the story says, thanks to experiences with his abusive father, “he could bottle fear. He’d been doing it his whole life.” This gives Wilson’s hero a learned skill that will aid him in the rest of the story. And when there are choices to be made, he makes them. He isn’t some child being taken from place to place. He decides what he should and should not do in any given moment and acts. Sometimes it’s the right choice and sometimes it’s wrong, but it is at least HIS choice each time.
The sugarcane fields themselves are explained a bit late in the narrative. On page 64 or so we finally get an explanation about why the boys are running through burning fields to catch rabbits. For a moment I was reminded of Cynthia Kadohata’s attempts to explain threshing in her otherwise scintillating book The Thing About Luck. Wilson has the advantage of having an outsider in his tale, so it’s perfectly all right for Charlie to ask why the only way to successfully harvest cane is to burn it, “Fastest way to strip the leaves . . . Stalks is so wet, they don’t burn.” Mind you, this could have worked a little earlier in the story, since much of the book requires us to take on faith why the rabbit runs occur.
It’s also an unapologetically masculine story as well. All about swords and fighting and football and dangerous runs into burning sugarcane fields. The football is particularly fascinating. In an age when concussions are becoming big news and people are beginning to turn against the nation’s most violent sport, it’s unique, to say the least, to read a middle grade book where small town football is a way of life. Small town football almost NEVER makes it into books for kids, partly because baseball makes for a better narrative by its very definition. Football’s more difficult to explain. Its terms and turns of phrase haven’t made it into the language of the cultural zeitgeist to the same extent. For an author to not only acknowledge its existence but also give it a thumbs up is almost unheard of. Yet Boys of Blur could not exist without football. Charlie’s father went pro, as did his stepfather. The book begins by burying a coach, and there are long seated animosities in the town behind old high school football rivals. For many small towns, life without football would be untenable. And Boys of Blur acknowledges that to a certain extent.
The women that do appear are few and far between, but they are there. One should take care to note that it’s Wilson’s source material that lacking in the ladies (except for the big bad, of course). And he did go out of his way to add a couple additional females to the line-up. It’s not as if Charlie himself doesn’t notice the lack of ladies as well anyway. At one point he ponders the Gren and wonders why there aren’t any girls. The possible explanation he’s given is that much as a selfish man is envious of his sons, so would a selfish woman find her own daughters to be competition. Take that as you may. We veer close to Caliban country here, but Wilson already has one classic text to draw from. Shakespeare can wait.
Charlie’s mother would be one other example of a woman introduced to this story that gets a fair amount of page time. On paper you’d assume she was just a victim, a woman who continues to fear her ex-husband. But in reality, Wilson gives her much more credit. She’s the woman who dared to get out of an untenable situation for the sake of her child. A woman who managed to find another husband who wasn’t a carbon copy of the first and who has done everything in her power to protect her children in the wake of her ex-husband’s threats. And most interesting, Wilson will keep cutting back to her in the narrative. He doesn’t have to. There’s a reason most children’s fantasy novels star orphans. Include the parents and there’s a lot of emotional baggage to attend to. But Wilson’s never liked the notion of orphans much, so when his story cuts back to Natalie Mack and what she’s up to it’s a choice you go along with. In Wilson’s books parents aren’t enemies but allies. It goes against the grain of the usual narratives, wakes you up, and makes for better books.
Where do heroes find their courage and resolve? In previous books Wilson had already gone underground and into deep dark places. In Boys of Blur he explores the dual worlds of cane and swamp alike. Most epic narratives of the children’s fantasy sort are long, bloated affairs. They feel like they can’t tell their tales in anything less than 300 pages, and even then they end up being the first in a series. Wilson’s slick, sleek editing puts the bloat to shame. Clocking in at a handsome 208 pages it’s not going to be understood by every child reader. It doesn’t try for that either. Really, it can only be read by the right reader. The one that’s outgrown Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. The one who isn’t scared off by The Golden Compass and who will inform the librarian that they can’t possibly impress him or her because they’ve read “everything”. This is a book to stretch the muscles in that child’s brains. To make them appreciate the language of a tale as much as the action. And yes, there are big smelly zombies that go about killing people so win-win, right? Some may say the book ends too quickly. Some will wonder why there isn’t a sequel. But many will be impressed by what Wilson’s willing to shoot for here. Like the boys in the cane, this book speeds out of the gate, quick on its feet, willing to skip and hop and jump as fast as possible to get you where you need to go. If you’ve read too much of the same old, same old, this is one children’s book that’s like no other you know out there. Gripping.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from author for review.
Like This? Then Try:
Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi – Lots of similarities, actually. Particularly when it comes to beating down zombies in cane fields / corn fields.
Beowulf by Gareth Hinds – Undoubtedly the best version of Beowulf for kids out there, this is Hinds’ masterpiece and is not to be missed.
The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton – Bear with me here. It makes sense. In both books you’ve mysterious African-American men hiding a secret of the past, scaring the local kids. I draw my connections where I can.
First Line: “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.”
Bedlam Hospital has a disturbing problem: every night, at precisely Twelve Minutes to Midnight, the inmates begin feverishly writing gibberish—on paper, on the walls, on themselves; in pencil, in ink, in blood. In the morning, none of the inmates have any memory of their actions, and every night, the madness spreads further. Having exhausted every medical avenue*, the authorities turn to Montgomery Flinch, an author who has recently taken England by storm with his macabre tales of terror published in the Penny Dreadful.
Little do they know, Montgomery Flinch doesn't exist. The stories are actually written by thirteen-year-old Penelope Treadwell, the orphaned heiress who owns the Penny Dreadful.
But Penelope isn't going to let a trifling detail like THAT prevent her from investigating...
Loads of atmosphere, action, and tense moments.
Details like the secret door leading to the SPOILER, and the mysterious, beautiful widow are nice nods to the genre and suggest a real affection for it.
Edge doesn't condescend to his audience: he doesn't over-explain plot points, and he never actually spills the beans about the specific events the prisoners are writing about. Deciphering those texts isn't necessary to enjoy the story, but they'll make a nice Easter Egg for any readers with a basic knowledge of twentieth-century history.
I got the impression that Edge was shooting for Late Nineteenth-Century Verbose and Flowery, but there's a distinct lack of rhythm in the prose. For example: "Behind him, Alfie failed to hide the smirk on his face as he took a sip from one of Monty's discarded glasses before grimacing in sudden disgust." In other words, much of the book feels like one big run-on sentence.
There's nothing in the way of character arc or growth: at the end of the story, the main characters are exactly who they were at the beginning. (I suppose that could be chalked up as a nod to the conventions of the genre, but as always, I don't like that as an argument, as it suggests that genre fiction is somehow 'lesser' than 'literary' fiction. Anyway.)
For a smart girl, Penelope is amazingly slow to put two and two together. Also, three-quarters of the way in, a plot point requires her to suddenly possess Crazy Science Skills which she explains away by saying that she's 'always' had a strong interest in science. It was so out of left field that I wrote NANCY DREW MOMENT in my notes.
Nutshell: Plenty of atmosphere and action, but no character development or emotional depth.
*I think? Hopefully this wasn't their first choice of solution?
Vertigo’s new fantasy-ish title Hinterkind recently released its first trade paperback collection, The Waking World. If you only glanced at the covers, it’s probably not what you’re expecting. Oh, sure it’s got the mythical monsters you’d expect to see in something like Vertigo’s elder statesman title Fables, but there’s a layer of science fiction, a layer that’s very close to zombie apocalypse and a bit more political intrigue than you might expect.
Writer Ian Edginton and artist Francesco Trifogli have created something that appears to be a bit more than the sum of its otherwise familiar parts. Honestly, it reminded me the most of Planet of the Apes, but we’ll circle back to that.
Hinterkind is set 15 minutes into the future. Mother Nature struck back against the humans in the form of a super flu virus. Some people were naturally immune and they survived, gathering together in small communities in the ruins of the old cities. What they don’t initially know, is that the creatures of fairy tales have also returned. Led by the Sidhe (elves if you want to be common about it), the “Hinterkind” as they call themselves are ready for some revenge on the humans who drove them all into hiding those many years ago. They’d also like to eat them. Of course the humans are all a bit isolated and may not have quite figured that out yet.
The narrative goes primarily in two directions: the viewpoint of a group of survivors in the ruins of New York City and the viewpoint of the royal class of the Sidhe, who are more or less organizing the Hinterkind. The human survivors are the world building story as they start to realize there’s a whole lot more going on in their world than they previously thought. On the Sidhe side, there’s considerable variance of opinion on who should be running things and what should be done with the surviving humans.
There’s also, from both perspectives, events that really read like somebody took Ronald Reagan’s old campaign line about the scariest sentence in the English language being “we’re from the government and we’re hear to help” and really ran with it.
Why did this book remind me of Planet of the Apes? A couple reasons. The ruins of the world and the hunted humans which both somewhat jibe with the zombie apocalypse feel. There’s a sequence in the tpb that can’t help but remind me of Beneath the Planet of the Apes and the politics of what should be done with the humans strongly resonates with the BOOM! sorely under-appreciated Planet of the Apes series a couple years back, which dealt with the political relations between apes and humans before the humans started losing the ability to talk.
Hinterkind is awash with SF/F tropes and there are many different things you could pick apart here as possible influences. It’s very early in what’s obviously a much longer tale. The “waking world” title refers to the Hinterkind waking up and returning and the humans slowly waking up to the fact they’re not alone and in a pretty bad spot. The table is set for the two narratives to take off. We see the initial skirmishes and conflicts appear. Where it’s immediately going isn’t entirely clear, nor is it quite certain how quickly the threads will collide.
I liked it well enough. Hinterkind does well in scope and carving out enough of its own identity. What to compare it to for recommendations, though. That’s a hard one because it combines so many things. The press releases likes to compare it to Game of Thrones, probably based on the Sidhe skulduggery and having a couple different narrative threads. I can see it, but I’m not sure that’s the most apt, this being post-apocalyptic and having many more magical creatures running around. Game of Thrones meets Planet of the Apes might be the better Hollywood style tagline. If you like fall of civilization stores and don’t mind mixing your science fiction and fantasy, that’s probably a good cognitive place to start.
On the other hand, if you don’t want scientists in your fantasy, this will probably cause you angst.
Perhaps the most important thing to say is Hinterkind is not some boiler plate Fables replacement, something you could have thought when it was rolled out. It is it’s own thing and an enjoyable one if you’re not a purist to one particular sub-genre.