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1. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

cover artWhen I began reading The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, I did something I usually don’t do. I posted how great the book is and how everyone needed to, right then and there, request a copy from the library or buy one of their own. Now that I have actually finished it, I still stand by that assertion.

The book is a graphic novel like no other I have read (which is more than some and less than a good many). Sure the stories are told with great black and white drawings, some of them very detailed like the visual explanation in the appendix of how the Analytical Engine would have worked if it were ever built. Wait, appendix? A graphic novel with an appendix? Yup. And that is just one way this book is different. It also has footnotes and endnotes. In fact, the graphic part of it is almost beside the point. To be sure, the graphics tell a story, but the real action, where all the fun and humor is, is in the footnotes and endnotes. Crazy!

Padua has clearly done extensive research, she even got a scholarly slam dunk by finding a letter in an obscure archive somewhere that settled a dispute about just how much Ada Lovelace had to do with Babbage and maths and the Analytical Engine and computer programming (a lot!). Booyah! And Padua clearly enjoys her subjects as well, expressing great knowledge and affection for them and all their quirks and foibles.

Since Lovelace died when was 36 and the Analytical Engine was never built, Padua takes liberties with the story, moving the pair to a pocket universe in which Ada lives and the Engine is built. Still, she remains true to certain biographical events, even quoting them directly at times in the stories. When she veers far off course there is a handy footnote to tell us so.

I say stories because that is what these are, short stories in graphic form. So we have a story about the Person from Porlock, one in which Lovelace and Babbage meet Queen Victoria and give her a demonstration of the Analytical Engine. Except the Engine crashes, (even when computers were only theoretical there were provisions for what to do when they crashed) and Ada runs off to fix it and save the day while Babbage bores the Queen with stories about how great he is. The Queen, not understanding why the Engine is a useful thing is losing interest until Lovelace’s programming produces a picture of a cat. Heh. Cats and computers belong together apparently. We meet George Boole whose Boolean logic will be familiar to both computer geeks and librarians. And there are often hilarious run-ins with many other famous personages.

One that a good many of you will be familiar with is George Eliot. She and Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Carlyle and others are summoned for a “mandatory spell-check” of their most recent manuscripts. Lovelace really did theorize that the Analytical Engine should be able to analyze symbols as well as crunch numbers. Eliot’s manuscript gets fed into the Engine but it being her only copy she immediately changes her mind. Thus follows a long pursuit through the workings of the Engine to try and get the manuscript back. But horror of horrors, the Engine uses “destructive analysis” and the manuscript gets ripped to shreds! And then it crashes the Engine. The huge joke at the end of this is that there had been a tussle at the beginning and Eliot and Carlyle got their manuscripts mixed up and it is actually Carlyle’s manuscript on the history of the French Revolution that is destroyed. In real life Carlyle’s manuscript was indeed destroyed. He had given it to his friend John Stewart Mill to read. The only copy. Mill left it sitting out and the servants thought it was waste paper and used it for starting fires. Oops. Carlyle had to rewrite the who book, but personally, from what I have actually read about the incident in other places, it was probably for the best because the rewrite by accounts was better than the original. Still, Carlyle was devastated and I don’t remember if he and Mill continued to be friends afterwards.

Anyway, this is a right fun book. Babbage and Lovelace were real characters even before they were fictionalized in a pocket universe. If you would like a taste of the book including a few stories that didn’t make it in, there is a website! The Science Museum of London also built Babbage’s Difference Engine, the precursor to the Analytical Engine, in 1991 and because of the magic of the internet, you can watch a video demonstration:

Is that thing ever loud!

If you are looking for something fun, geeky, madcap and sometimes just plain silly, you can’t go wrong with The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.


Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews Tagged: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, George Eliot, madcap adventures, Thomas Carlyle

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2. Nina George & Robert Kurson Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

The Little Paris BookShop (GalleyCat)We’ve collected the books debuting on Indiebound’s Indie Bestseller List for the week ending June 28, 2015–a sneak peek at the books everybody will be talking about next month.

(Debuted at #11 in Hardcover Fiction) The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George: “Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.” (June 2015)

(Debuted at #13 in Hardcover Fiction) The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: ” A strange sort of summation. Strange sort of epilogue. Strange sort of laughter, inspired by our time, which is comical because it has lost all sense of humor.” (June 2015)

(Debuted at #15 in Hardcover Nonfiction) Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson: “Finding and identifying a pirate ship is the hardest thing to do under the sea. But two men—John Chatterton and John Mattera—are willing to risk everything to find the Golden Fleece, the ship of the infamous pirate Joseph Bannister.” (June 2015)

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3. Review of the Day: The Case for Loving by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls

CaseLoving1The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage
By Selina Alko
Illustrated by Sean Qualls
Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
$18.99
ISBN: 978-0545478533
Ages 4-7
On shelves now.

When the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015 that same-sex couples could marry in all fifty states, I found myself, like many parents of young children, in the position of trying to explain the ramifications to my offspring. Newly turned four, my daughter needed a bit of context. After all, as far as she was concerned gay people had always had the right to marry so what exactly was the big deal here? In times of change, my back up tends to be children’s books that discuss similar, but not identical, situations. And what book do I own that covers a court case involving the legality of people marrying? Why, none other than The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by creative couple Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. It’s almost too perfect that the book has come out the same year as this momentous court decision. Discussing the legal process, as well as the prejudices of the time, the book offers to parents like myself not just a window to the past, but a way of discussing present and future court cases that involve the personal lives of everyday people. Really, when you take all that into consideration, the fact that the book is also an amazing testament to the power of love itself . . . well, that’s just the icing on the cake.

In 1958 Richard Loving, a white man, fell in love with Mildred Jeter, a black/Native American woman. Residents of Virginia, they could not marry in their home state so they did so in Washington D.C. instead. Then they turned right around and went home to Virginia. Not long after they were interrupted in the night by a police invasion. They were charged with “unlawful cohabitation” and were told in no uncertain terms that if they were going to continue living together then they needed to leave Virginia. They did, but they also hired lawyers to plead their case. By 1967 the Lovings made it all the way to The Supreme Court where their lawyers read a prepared statement from Richard. It said, “Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” In a unanimous ruling, the laws restricting such marriages were struck down. The couple returned to Virginia, found a new house, and lived “happily (and legally) ever after.” An Author’s Note about her marriage to Sean Qualls (she is white and he is black) as well as a note about the art, Sources, and Suggestions for Further Reading appear at the end of the book.

CaseLoving2“How do you sue someone?” Here’s a challenge. Explain the concept of suing the government to a four-year-old brain. To do so, you may have to explain a lot of connected concepts along the way. What is a lawyer? And a court? And, for that matter, why are the laws (and cops) sometimes wrong? So when I pick up a book like The Case for Loving as a parent, I’m desperately hoping on some level that the authors have figured out how to break down these complex questions into something small children can understand and possibly even accept. In the case of this book, the legal process is explained as simply as possible. “They wanted to return to Virginia for good, so they hired lawyers to help fight for what was right.” And then later, “It was time to take the Loving case all the way to The Supreme Court.” Now the book doesn’t explain what The Supreme Court was necessarily, and that’s where the art comes in. Much of the heavy lifting is done by the illustrations, which show the judges sitting in a row, allowing parents like myself the chance to explain their role. Here you will not find a deep explanation of the legal process, but at least it shows a process and allows you to fill in the gaps for the young and curious.

It was very interesting to me to see how Alko and Qualls handled the art in this book. I’ve often noticed that editors like to choose Sean as an artist when they want an illustrator that can offset some of the darker aspects of a work. For example, take Margarita Engle’s magnificently sordid Pura Belpre Medal winner The Poet Slave of Cuba. A tale of torture, gore, and hope, Qualls’ art managed to represent the darkness with a lighter touch, while never taking away from the important story at hand. In The Case for Loving he has scaled the story down a bit and given it a simpler edge. His characters are a bit broader and more cartoonlike than those in, say, Dizzy. This is due in part to Alko’s contributions. As they say in their “About the Art” section at the back of the book, Alko’s art is all about bold colors and Sean’s is about subtle layers of color and texture. Together, they alleviate the tension in different scenes. Moments that could be particularly frightening, as when the police burst into the Lovings’ bedroom to arrest them, are cast instead as simply dramatic. I noticed too that characters were much smaller in this book than they tend to be in Sean’s others. It was interesting to note the moments when that illustrators made the faces of Richard and Virginia large. The page early in the book where Richard and Mildred look at one another over the book’s gutter pairs well with the page later in the book where their faces appear on posters behind bars against the words “Unlawful Cohabitation”. But aside from those two double spreads the family is small, often seen just outside their different respective homes. It seemed to be important to Qualls and Alko to show them as a family unit as often as possible.

CaseLoving3Few books are perfect, and Loving has its off-kilter moments from time to time. For example, it describes darker skin tones in terms of food. That’s not a crime, of course, but you rarely hear white skin described as “white as aged cheese” or “the color of creamy mayonnaise” so why is dark colored skin always edible? In this book Mildred is “a creamy caramel” and she lives where people ranged from “the color of chamomile tea” to darker shades. A side issue has arisen concerning Mildred’s identification as Native American and whether or not the original case made more of her African-American roots because it would build a stronger case in court. This is a far bigger issue than a picture book could hope to encompass, though I would be interested in a middle grade or young adult nonfiction book on the topic that went into the subject in a little more depth.

Recently I read my kid another nonfiction picture book chronicling injustice called Drum Dream Girl by the aforementioned Margarita Engle. In that book a young girl isn’t allowed to drum because of her gender. My daughter was absolutely flabbergasted by the notion. When I read her The Case for Loving she was similarly baffled. And when, someday, someone writes a book about the landmark decision made by The Supreme Court to allow gay couples to wed, so too will some future child be just as floored by what seems completely normal to them. Until then, this is certainly a book written and published at just the right time. Informative and heartfelt all at once, it works beyond the immediate need. Context is not an easy thing to come by when we discuss complex subjects with our kids. It takes a book like this to give us the words we so desperately need. Many thanks then for that.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Misc: Don’t forget to check out this incident that occurred involving this book and W. Kamau Bell’s treatment at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café.

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5 Comments on Review of the Day: The Case for Loving by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, last added: 7/3/2015
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4. Monday Review: GLORY O'BRIEN'S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE by A.S. King

Summary: I don't know why I put off reading this one for so long. I really love A.S. King's writing, and every time I read one of her books I'm pretty much blown away. This one's no exception. Trying to summarize it is only going to make it sound... Read the rest of this post

0 Comments on Monday Review: GLORY O'BRIEN'S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE by A.S. King as of 1/1/1900
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5. E.L. James & Aziz Ansari Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

greyfrontWe’ve collected the books debuting on Indiebound’s Indie Bestseller List for the week ending June 21, 2015–a sneak peek at the books everybody will be talking about next month.

(Debuted at #1 in Paperback Fiction) Grey by E.L. James: “Christian Grey exercises control in all things; his world is neat, disciplined, and utterly empty—until the day that Anastasia Steele falls into his office, in a tangle of shapely limbs and tumbling brown hair. He tries to forget her, but instead is swept up in a storm of emotion he cannot comprehend and cannot resist. Unlike any woman he has known before, shy, unworldly Ana seems to see right through him—past the business prodigy and the penthouse lifestyle to Christian’s cold, wounded heart.” (June 2015)

(Debuted at #4 in Hardcover Nonfiction) Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg: “At some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love. We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection. This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history. With technology, our abilities to connect with and sort through these options are staggering. So why are so many people frustrated?” (June 2015)

(Debuted at #12 in Hardcover Fiction) The President’s Shadow by Brad Meltzer: “To most, it looks like Beecher White has an ordinary job.   A young staffer with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.,, he’s responsible for safekeeping the government’s most important documents…and, sometimes, its most closely-held secrets. But there are a powerful few who know his other role. Beecher is a member of the Culper Ring, a 200-year old secret society founded by George Washington and charged with protecting the Presidency.” (June 2015)

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6. A Month Of Venturing Into The DC You: Week Four

Superman 41

Here we go, it’s the final week! Let’s cut straight to the chase and talk DC’s Week 4 of their “DC You” initiative.

After last week, I’m feeling pretty good, and ready to read! What do they have in store for me?

Side-note: my LCS didn’t get Teen Titans this week, so it is omitted from this list. I didn’t want to buy it anyway, to be honest.

aquaman #1

Aquaman #41: My second shot with a Cullen Bunn book after Lobo landed with a thud. The last time I tried this Aquaman title was when Jeff Parker was on board, and I had trouble getting into even then, and I often enjoy Parker’s writing. Conceptually, Bunn is doing something interesting: the usage of a flashback-dual narrative structure isn’t new but it remains somewhat enticing, though the idea of it probably grabbed me more than the story itself. I don’t think Bunn is a particularly gifted dialogue writer, and I still generally find Aquaman mostly a bore, but if it keeps up this format, I’ll be down for another issue maybe….maybe. I’m at least curious to see if both threads pick up steam, provided that they continue to exist and it wasn’t just a first issue thing (I’ve read no interviews to know either way). There’s a bit of this new Aquaman tonally that also somewhat reminds of Kurt Busiek‘s far too short-lived Conan inspired run. I like that, on the other hand Trevor McCarthy‘s art was rather messy, and somewhat unclear, reminding me a bit of his rushed Batwoman arc where he took over for Amy Reeder.

Verdict: On the fence

Batgirl

Batgirl #41: I legitimately think Batgirl gets better every single issue, which for a mainstream superhero comic, is a pretty rare feat. This installment was another winner and provided one of the best looks at the new Batman status quo, while still relaying a “big” story through the lens of what Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr have laid down from the beginning of their run. Also of note, this is the first issue that Stewart did not provide layouts for Tarr, so what we get here, and in subsequent issues to come, is all Tarr. There’s one moment of male gaze that’s probably going to catch some ire, and it’s a weird miscalculation. But outside of that one panel, I’m a big big big fan.

Verdict: Already on my pull and staying there 

Deathstroke

Deathstroke #7: Yikes, what a disaster this book is. Sub-Image 90’s garbage. To add insult to injury, Hephaestus is completely out of character from how he was presented in the Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang Wonder Woman run, one of the best New 52 launch titles. This book is representative of the kind of stuff that people accused the New 52 of being: obsessed with EXTREME storytelling. Tony Daniel is a gifted artist, and at times (“Batman R.I.P.”) produces really nice looking work, but as a writer…well, at least he’s relegated to a book I don’t care about at all, and have no reason to at this point.

Verdict: Stopping here

Flash 41

The Flash #41: Good lord, the exposition! It had been a minute since I’d read a Robert VendittiVan Jensen co-written comic, but wow, was this an awkward read! I’m not sure if previous issues of their run tried as hard to tie into The Flash television series, but they’re really bending over backwards here to shoe-horn in not only the “father wrongly imprisoned” subplot, but also a Joe West stand-in. Brett Booth, who I am decidedly not a fan of, doesn’t help much, but the painfully overwritten narration and dialogue isn’t his fault. Perhaps for those who have been reading this run regularly, this issue pays off better, but I found myself rolling my eyes more often than not.

Verdict: Stopping here

Gotham by Midnight

Gotham By Midnight #6: A decent read, and I think Juan Ferreya makes for a slightly clearer if somewhat duller artist for this “supernatural side of Gotham” series than Ben Templesmith. Ray Fawkes, whose creator-owned work I generally enjoy, really hasn’t quite grabbed me during his DC tenure and this issue doesn’t do much to change that. This is basically a book I like more in theory than in actual execution, having tried a couple of different issues at this point. I want to like a Jim Corrigan/Spectre series so badly, but I’m just not sure this is ever going to be a book that scratches that itch for me. I sure liked the ghostly imagery though!

Verdict: Stopping here

Grayson 9

Grayson #9: Remember how much I liked Batgirl this week? I think I liked Grayson even more. I know I go on and on about it, but the Tom King scripted issues of this series are absolutely some of the best adventure comics DC has released in years. From the hilarious opening bit that takes a different angle on the first issue’s train sequence, to the introduction of a new cabal of spies that has pretty big ramifications to DC’s larger espionage picture, to more tongue in cheek moments between Dick and Agent 1, this is basically the DC comic that I never knew I needed in my life. Now that I have it, I never want to let it go. I’m also glad to see Mikel Janin on a book better suited to his talents, as King gives him some wonderfully cinematic moments here. That two-page spread of the necklace heist was my favorite action beat of the week.

Verdict: Already on my pull-list and staying there

GL Lost army

Green Lantern: Lost Army #1: Now here was a surprise! I really don’t care about Green Lantern much at all, and I generally checked out of the character about a year into Geoff Johns‘ New 52 run. I’ve dabbled here and there since, but I’ve never felt much of an urge to return. Even this month’s opening chapter to the “Renegade” storyline only somewhat intrigued me enough to probably pick up next month’s offering. Here, Cullen Bunn does the flashback thing again, but it works a good deal better this time, playing with the story tropes of LOST (which in turn was riffing on Watchmen). These “stranded in an unknown galaxy” stories can either go really well (Legion Lost) or really badly (Star Trek: Voyager), but Bunn has produced a solid enough cast to start out with, that I think this is a title with stronger promise than anything else he’s working on right now. It’s nice to be excited about a Green Lantern book again, and if they can capture the wonder and unknowns of space exploration, this’ll be one to keep an eye on. I already somewhat think that’s the case already.

Verdict: Going onto the pull-list

JL 3001

Justice League 3001 #1: Totally impenetrable, good Howard Porter art though. I really don’t have much to add here, as I find this book about as shrug-worthy as I did when I picked up the first three issues of Justice League 3000. I just don’t think it’s a strong enough title for me to tough out its learning curve, and this new Justice League simply doesn’t engage me at all.

Verdict: Stopping here

Superman 41

Superman #41: Good, though maybe a little stiff, as I’m finding many of the recent better DC runs’ first issues have been. I’m fascinated by how this story gets to where Superman is in Action Comics, and I think Gene Luen Yang is going somewhere cool with the character. I especially like just how human Clark is when faced with a threat that his powers can’t do anything about. You can’t solve everything with your fists, and that sort of existential crisis is just the kind of tale that can get me re-engaged with Superman again. For the first time in a long time, DC has two worthwhile Superman titles, I’m very glad to see it.

Verdict: Going to the pull-list

We Are Robin

We Are…Robin #1: Badly conceived teenage dialogue masks what could have been a pretty enjoyable read. I like the fact that Duke Thomas is the star of the book, but I found everything that came out of the character’s mouth to be cringe-worthy. I bet if you took the dialogue balloons away, you’d have a pretty enjoyable tale of teenage rebellion in the face of a city-wide catastrophe. It’s amazing how badly one aspect of a story can drag the whole thing down, but there it is. How funny is it that 58 year old Paul Levitz can better capture that youthful voice than not-even-40 Lee Bermejo was able to?

Verdict: Stopping here

So that’s it! I’m done! What did I think of the DC You launch month on the whole? The Batman line is stronger than ever, with a number of great titles under its belt, Superman is off to a cracking start, both Justice League books are pretty enjoyable and DC’s has a number of titles on the fringe that are must-reads. I’d say on the whole, DC’s commitment to creator vision this time around has led them to a much more successful launch than the New 52. Will sales show it? Who knows, but I sure had a great time reading these books (for the most part) and I’m so glad that I’m finally re-energized about DC Comics again.

The Essential New Titles: Black Canary, Constantine: The HellblazerDoctor Fate, Green Lantern: Lost Army, JLA, Midnighter, The Omega Men, Prez, and Starfire.

And, of course if you’re not already reading Batgirl, Grayson, or Gotham Academy, you’re really missing out.

Thanks for sticking with me on this journey!

6 Comments on A Month Of Venturing Into The DC You: Week Four, last added: 6/29/2015
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7. Review of the Day: Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith

9781626720541Return to Augie Hobble
By Lane Smith
Roaring Brook (an imprint of Macmillan)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-62672-54-1
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Here is what we can say about Lane Smith – he does not go for the easy emotional pass. There are countless author/illustrators out there for whom risk is an unknown concept. The idea of writing a book, to say nothing of your first middle grade novel, and making something new and strange of it, would put them off entirely. For Smith, it’s all in a day’s work. Indeed he’s made a name for himself in waltzing merrily into the children’s literary unknown. Had he debuted his first novel and it had been some earnest and meaningful tale of a slightly bullied boy who is dealing with a death and befriends the local pixie dream girl who teaches him to love again (currently the most popular plot in 2015 as long as you occasionally switch up the genders) then his fans would have felt a deep sense of betrayal. That said, to avoid the falsely “meaningful” by creating a book devoid of meaning is a step too far in the opposite direction. A little meaning is the glue that holds even the silliest and most esoteric work for kids together. In Return to Augie Hobble Lane Smith embraces that which makes him Lane Smith. Yet while he is clearly unafraid to take risks and try new things, he seems oddly reticent to give his creation a true and beating heart. Does it need one? That’s a question best answered by each individual reader.

Augie Hobble hasn’t the worst life you’ve ever heard of, but on a scale of sucks to ten it scores fairly low. It’s one thing to have to go to summer school because you can’t seem to finish one crummy school project. It’s another thing entirely to be convinced that you’re turning into a werewolf. Working in his dad’s run down fairy tale theme park (called, appropriately enough, “Fairy Tale Place”) Augie at least has his best friend Britt and their mutual intention of building a tree house to distract him. But things are not always what they seem. Pets are disappearing, there are some weird government agents flitting about, and then mysterious writing appears in Augie’s notebook from an unknown hand. Mysteries of this sort can be hard to come by. And when the true story behind the mysteries comes to light, the truth is clearly stranger than any fiction Augie could have imagined.

This is Smith’s first foray into the middle grade world but it’s hardly his first time playing with expectations and forms. His work on Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man remain to this day original, eclectic, and odd. But watching Smith pen his own books been interesting. It’s little wonder that he was at least partially behind the blog Curious Pages “recommended inappropriate books for kids” with a big old picture of Struwwelpeter standing at the top. His picture books have ranged from a diatribe against the electronic world (ending with a word that gave a certain sort of parents apoplexy) to American history gone goofy to a meditative consideration of a life well spend (topiary in abundance). The aberration amongst these books, if it could be called that, was the last book I mentioned, Grandpa Green. In that book Smith slowed his rapid rate, and took stock of life and living. It seems that with “Return to Augie Hobbie” he is now returning to his fast paced existence with a vengeance.

There’s a lot to enjoy about the book, starting with the setting itself. For a time I decided to gather together all the information I could about all the children’s literature related statues in America. Little did I expect that this search would plunge me into an unexpected exploration of fairy tale and nursery rhyme themed parks for kids that preceded and existed in tandem with early Disneyland, only on a much smaller, creepier, scale. So many of them continue to operate today, and so they were pretty much tailor made for an eerie, unnerving book of this sort. If you were to create a book that was essentially “The X-Files” for kids, I can think of no better setting.

It will surprise few to learn that Smith is at his strongest when he’s at his creepiest. And in terms of creepy thrills, there’s an early mystery in the novel that taps into something fearful and primal at our core. Augie keeps a journal with him most of the time. After he experiences a shocking loss he finds to his consternation that someone is scribbling in his beloved book. Suspects abound but the writing itself turned out to be my favorite part of the story. There is true horror in misspelled childlike crawls. If it doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end then you are made of sterner stuff than I.

Interestingly, it was Smith’s exploration of death that took me out of the book the most. A couple spoilers are going to start cropping up in this review so if you haven’t already signed off and you want to be surprised then I suggest you do so now. When Augie’s best friend Britt dies of an allergic reaction to peanuts, he becomes convinced that he himself is the accidental murderer. Augie is plunged into guilt and when it looks as though his friend’s ghost is somewhere near I wondered where Smith was going. Could the ghost just be an extension of Augie’s guilt? Nope. And all of a sudden Britt’s appearance wipes away what had all the promise of an interesting look at guilt and grief and coping. Not that I wanted this to turn into some introspective Newbery-esque treatise on the healing powers of family or anything. I mean there are friggin’ werewolves in them thar hills. But by the same token I was uncomfortable with how something that was so serious for a second became altogether too light too quickly. All I really wanted was a single moment between the two boys that felt real. Like they understood what their new roles were and had decided to take them on. Even the silliest book has room enough for a little heart, however brief. To excise it from the storyline does the title a disservice.

The other difficulty I had with the book involved the ways in which the central mysteries are solved. And it happened anytime the fantastical moved out of the possible into the real. Now I’ll be the first to admit that you cannot create a work of fiction built entirely on mysteries and mysterious occurrences without eventually saying what’s going on. A book that’s all mystery and no answer is simply a cheat. On the other hand, it takes an enormous amount of talent to reveal a mystery without inspiring in your audience that feeling of deflation that comes whenever a magician explains how he did a trick. The fact of the matter is that while Smith is exceedingly talented at setting up his mysteries, once they crossover from mystery to reality, they lose something. The first time this happens is when a character turns into a werewolf before our very eyes. Until that moment, we’ve had no absolute proof that there’s anything more than wishful thinking on the part of the hero going on in terms of the story’s mysteries. In fact, the revelation is so unexpected that I was left wondering if maybe Smith changed his mind in the course of writing the book and decided to go whole hog on the fantasy elements. When he commits to the bit he commits to the bit, and after the werewolfing of a character everything is pretty much up for grabs. Examples.

I think what Smith may be going for in this book is an intellectual play on fantasy akin to Daniel Pinkwater and his books. The difference between the two lies in how Smith straddles the form. On the one hand he has moments that could break into genuine emotional beats if he’d let them. On the other, if he wanted to really let go and embrace his love of the absurd, there’s room for that as well. Instead, he commits to neither. Moments that should engage the reader’s heart are left feeling empty while the absurdities have a caged in, closed feel. To be frank, I either wanted this book to let Smith’s freak flag fly or to give my heart something to care about. In the end, I have neither.

By the end of the story I had to come to the conclusion that the only way this book makes any sense is if it’s the first in a series. If Fairy Tale Place is meant to be the backdrop to a wide range of freaky happenings, then this is just setting up the premise. Three kids, one of whom is dead, solving supernatural mysteries is interesting. Would that we could just jump to those books and skip this one in the interim. It’s by no means a bad book, but with its fuzzy focus and off-kilter sense of its own audience, I question how many kids are going to engage. A noble, if ultimately unbalance, attempt.

On shelves now.

Source:
Galley sent from publisher for review.

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8. Jimmy Fallon and Annie Barrows Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

DadaWe’ve collected the books debuting on Indiebound’s Indie Bestseller List for the week ending June 14, 2015–a sneak peek at the books everybody will be talking about next month.

(Debuted at #2 in Children’s Illustrated) Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA written by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordonez: “Your baby’s first word will be…’Dada!’ Right?” (June 2015)

(Debuted at #11 in Children’s Illustrated) The Daddy Book by Todd Parr: “Some daddies work at home Some daddies work far away Some daddies teach you to walk Some daddies teach you to ride a skateboard All daddies love you!” (April 2002)

(Debuted at #12 in Hardcover Fiction) The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows: “In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom.” (June 2015)

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9. A Month Of Venturing Into The DC You: Week 3

JLA #1

It’s that time again, as I delve into Week 3 of DC’s set of relaunched titles that have been dubbed as “The DC You”. This week marks a few changes worth noting up front, I had limited time in my pre-HeroesCon planning (which I’ll be attending for The Beat all weekend), so I’m only covering the new #1’s. My apologies to fans of the current Wonder Woman team, Secret Six, etc…but I’m throwing this together as quickly as I can before I hit the road. If anyone has thoughts to add about the books I didn’t get to this week or any of the below, hit me with them in the comments section, I’d love to hear what you think!

Again, my disclaimer, none of the below discombobulated and poorly thought-through ramblings should be considered actual reviews of any kind. And here we go…

Black Canary #1

Black Canary #1: This was probably the book that I was most anticipating, outside of Gene Luen Yang‘s Superman. I love Brenden Fletcher‘s work on everything he’s touched so far, and Annie Wu is artistic dynamite. I left this first issue mostly satisfied, Wu’s trademark dynamics are definitely in place and you can sense what Fletcher aiming for in a sort of Bryan Lee O’Malley-esque way. Much like the first relaunched issue of Batgirl that Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr took over, there’s some clumsiness in establishing the new status quo and nailing the right voice for its central character. But also like Batgirl, I expect this to become a really fun ride from the second issue on. It’s good, I just expect it to get a lot better now that the preamble is out of the way.

Verdict: Going onto the pull-list

Doctor Fate #1

Doctor Fate #1: If you had told me that DC stalwart Paul Levitz would be the ideal candidate to write the story of a young Egyptian med student’s traversing of the Campbell mono-myth, well…I wouldn’t have believed you, especially given how my poor Legion of Superheroes ended up into the trash-bin in the New 52. But hey, guess what? Doctor Fate might be the best his writing has been in years. Sure, there’s a little strain as you can see Levitz attempting to hit some of that more youthful cadence, but his scripting goes down far better than Scott Lobdell‘s last week. But it’s Sonny Liew‘s art that makes this introductory chapter pop off the page. The same gorgeously rendered figures that populated The Shadow Hero are on display here, and the elements of Egyptian myth are wonderfully rendered in Liew’s hands. If Levitz lets his artist run wild, we’re in for a real treat.

Verdict: Going onto the pull-list

Doomed #1

Doomed #1: Speaking of Mr. Lobdell, I had a morbid curiosity about Doomed. Just before the announcement of DC’s new line of titles, there were reports that the publisher’s leadership was angling for “blue sky pitches” from its various creators. This left me wondering what a writer whose work I generally dislike would produce if he was making his ideal DC Universe book. This first issue of Doomed is basically angling for a Spider-Man riff. It’s better than Red Hood/Arsenal in that this issue is not achingly horrible, but it’s still not particularly good. The attempts at humor are groan-worthy at best (and really wrong-headed at their lowest points), and no character talks like an actual human. But, I will give Lobdell and DC their due for introducing another person of color as a lead. In a month that saw veteran workhorses like Levitz and Dan Jurgens try to stretch their storytelling legs a tad, this is probably the closest we’ll get with Lobdell.

Verdict: Stopping here

Harley Quinn and Power Girl #1

Harley Quinn and Power Girl #1: While I felt just tad out of the loop having not read the Harley Quinn arc where these two popular characters initially teamed up, the narrative boxes at the beginning of the issue did a nice job catching me up (and frankly, put to mind how silly it is that DC doesn’t do recap pages). This was a good deal of fun, with a bit of a 70’s cosmic comics meets Space Quest. It’s basically Harley and Kara jumping from fantastic situation to fantastic situation in deep space. It’s light, pretty funny, and Stephane Roux puts in some gorgeous facial work, though Paul Mounts’ colors are what really pulled it all together for me. If you’re a Harley Quinn reader or dug the previous Power Girl series, you pretty much know what’s on tap here from Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner and Justin Gray. I’d say that’s a good thing.

Verdict: In for the next issue

JLA #1

Justice League of America #1: So, Bryan Hitch is a really good comic book writer. I had no idea. After this first issue, I’m very much on-board with his iteration of the Justice League. This is a straight-forward, yet supremely action packed Justice League tale, and it figures that the best showcase for Hitch’s talents would be something he scripted himself. He’s not the most subtle writer, but this first issue works as a terrific introduction to the seven founding members of the New 52 JLA and firmly establishes their personalities in a way that the Geoff Johns/Jim Lee relaunch fumbled with. You can sense that there’s also a grander plan at work here, with character based sub-plots being seeded that have the potential to lead in some very interesting directions. Maybe what I appreciated best, beyond the near-panoramic art work, was Hitch’s understanding of stakes. This is a JLA that struggles against even the Parasite, so what in the world are they going to do against an even bigger threat? There’s finally a sense of danger in a Justice League comic, which is something I haven’t felt in a long time. My hats off to you Mr. Hitch, this is easily the big surprise of the new relaunch.

Verdict: Going onto the pull-list

Martian ManhunterMartian Manhunter #1: Solo J’onn J’onzz books have had a pretty tough go at it, with John Ostrander having the only somewhat extended run with the character on his own. Post New 52 hasn’t been any kinder to our favorite Martian. Enter Rob Williams, the 2000 AD stalwart, along with Eddy Barrows. How do they fare? I’d say solidly. They’re taking J’onn in a very horror influenced direction that somewhat reminds me of Swamp Thing, and it’s actually the only new DC title thus far that’s really tackled that genre. On the other hand, I need another White Martian story like I need a hole in my head, and it seems like this tale is headed to that well again. But, plotting exhaustion aside, I really enjoyed Williams’ voice for J’onn and the idea of “the life he’s built up around himself as fiction” is a pretty compelling one. I won’t commit fully yet, but I can probably swing another month of this.

Verdict: On the fence

prez1-cov

Prez #1: After finishing this comic, I immediately put it down and described it in painstaking detail to my significant other in excited tones. Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell‘s revival of one of the oddest titles in DC history is an entertaining political satire, that while taking shots at some fairly easy targets (the two party system, trending culture, apathetic voters) does so in a way that had me chuckling and made it feel just a smidge more daring than your typical Big Two comic. This is especially all the more apparent when you compare Prez‘s approach to real world issues vs. that of the far more milquetoast attempts at social/political relevance that the publisher has instituted in the past. Additionally, Caldwell’s panels are packed with little details that shouldn’t be glossed over either – anyone familiar with the artist’s Wednesday Comics entry should know what to expect. I hate that Prez is a limited series, but at least the set end-point will allow this team to make their mark and hopefully breathe this kind of life into another moribund DC property. Plus, this will probably be among the lower selling relaunch titles from this month, unless word of mouth is particularly strong. Here’s hoping!

Verdict: Going onto the pull-list

Robin son of batman

Robin: Son of Batman #1: Patrick Gleason was always the draw of the most recent run of Batman & Robin for me. That he was taking over the adventures of Damian Wayne as writer/artist had me quite curious what his scripting chops would be like. As a fan of cartoonists going it alone, I admire DC continuing to trust in all the tools of their illustrators, even if it’s produced only mixed results thus far. For Gleason’s part, I thought this was fun issue that veered into “a boy and his monster” territory between Damian and his pet Man-Bat, Goliath. Gleason picks up right where he and Peter Tomasi left off, and that could be a bit tough for new readers, as references are made to Damian’s resurrection, his relationship to the Al Ghul family, and a character that appeared in the first six issues of Batman & Robin. But, if you can hang with slightly heavy backstory, it’s an enjoyable read and now that Gleason is basically unfettered here, his layouts are lusher than ever. I liked it enough to come back next month to see where it goes next.

Verdict: In for the next issue

This week’s must-reads: Black Canary, Doctor Fate, Justice League of America, and Prez

Next week: I finally get my Yang Superman, Batgirl and Grayson are back (!!!!), Cullen Bunn takes over Aquaman, and WE! ARE! ROBIN! *BUM bum bum bum-bum-bum*

2 Comments on A Month Of Venturing Into The DC You: Week 3, last added: 6/20/2015
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10. The Last Bookaneer

cover artWhen I received an email from the publisher wanting to know if I’d like a review copy of Matthew Pearl’s newest book The Last Bookaneer I thought sure! I mean it’s about book pirates and even better it promised adventure in pursuit of a final novel and masterpiece by Robert Louis Stevenson. It seemed like it could be Treasure Island with books instead of gold doubloons.

The elements are all there for a swashbuckling tale. An ailing Robert Louis Stevenson is living in Samoa and reportedly working on a novel, sure to be his last and sure to be a masterpiece. The International Copyright Act of 1891 has been passed and goes into effect on July 1st, a law that will effectively cut off pirating of British books in America. We have two of the last great bookaneers, Penrose Davenport and Belial, each wanting to get their hands on Stevenson’s manuscript and sell it to an American publisher for a small fortune before the copyright act goes into effect and ends their careers for good. A rivalry, a race against time, planning and scheming to get into the Stevenson household and, once the book is completed, steel it and make a getaway. Doesn’t that sound exciting?

Unfortunately, the story plods along and most evenings managed to make my eyes start drooping within ten to fifteen minutes of picking up the book. The biggest problem is the way the story is told. Edgar Fergins, bookseller and former assistant to Davenport is our narrator. He befriends a young railway waiter, Mr. Clover, and begins dropping hints of his colorful past. He even takes Clover to see a trial of a man who turns out to be Belial, Davenport’s rival. But we don’t know this until later, much later. Fergins is helping with the trial as he is an expert in all things bookish including identifying documents and handwriting. When Fergins is severely burned in a fire at the courthouse that destroys all the trial evidence, Clover visits him regularly to help nurse him back to health. During these visits Fergins narrates the final showdown between Davenport and Belial.

It takes a very long time to get going because we are treated to Fergins’ backstory and how he came to be Davenport’s assistant, lots of bookaneer backstory that hints at excitement and treachery but ultimately has nothing to do with the current story. We also get lots of backstory about Davenport, a big, handsome man who fell in love with Kitten, one of the few women bookaneers. She was older than Davenport and also his mentor. Her death torments Davenport and is meant to provide him a brooding, emotional depth that just doesn’t work, especially when we eventually, very late in the book, get the whole story of what happened. It all turns out to be rather anticlimactic. And Belial, we don’t know much about him at all. At times it seems that just when the story is about to get exciting it is abruptly interrupted by Clover asking questions. This is done in such a way that occasionally makes it difficult to tell that it is Clover speaking and not some weird non sequitur.

When we finally get to Samoa and meet Stevenson, he turns out to be a bit of a thin, cardboardy, one-dimensional character. He is called “Tusitala” by the “natives” which means teller of stories. He has a large estate and presides over it and all of his Samoan servants as a benevolent patriarch. The Germans are the ones who first colonized Samoa and the plot gets side tracked with politics and hints of Stevenson supplying arms to the Samoans and fomenting a rebellion against the Germans. There are also mostly naked, beautiful Samoan women, cannibals, heads on stakes and other pointless diversions that sometimes made be feel like I was reading a very bad retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

In addition to attempting to be an adventure tale, The Last Bookaneer tries to provide commentary on copyright law and the book and publishing world, some of it in jest. For instance, we get remarks about bookselling being a dying and unprofitable business. But we also are treated to comforting comments about the joys of reading:

Books could function in two different ways he told me one time, ‘They can lull us as would a dream, or they could change us, atom by atom, until we are closer to God. One way is passive, the other animating—both worthy.’

When it comes to copyright, the bookaneers see themselves as liberators of books, providing access that would have otherwise been denied or at the least, made difficult or expensive. But yet there are authors trying to make a living who are harmed by what the bookaneers do. Even Stevenson at one point in the novel rails against those who have stolen his right to income from his own work. It is an echo of the digital copyright battle happening today with publishers and a good many authors on one side and pirates on the other with the reading public caught in the middle. Perhaps in an attempt at seeing things from both sides, Pearl himself makes no judgment in spite of the novel being about book pirates.

In a sort of afterword, Pearl acknowledges that he did not make up the name of bookaneer. It was first used by the poet Thomas Hood in 1837. Nineteenth century publishers really did hire agents to obtain potentially valuable manuscripts before copyright laws caught up with them. Pearl took the idea and ran with it. Or, tried to run with it but manages at best an awkward, hopping kind of gait. It’s a real shame the book didn’t turn out to be the one I wanted to read. It would probably make a good beach or poolside book, one where it doesn’t matter if you don’t pay much attention, get it covered with sand or splashed with water or fruity cocktail. In fact, it might be really perfect for with a cocktail or two while sitting in the shade of an umbrella, a clear blue sky above and a long, lazy warm afternoon before you. If you feel your eyes begin to droop, let them and enjoy the nap.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Book pirates, Bookaneer, Matthew Pearl

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11. Thursday Review: EXQUISITE CORPSE by Penelope Bagieu

Summary: This graphic novel isn't technically a YA book, but since it's about a 22-year-old young woman trying to muddle along in early adulthood, it makes a great crossover title. And because I loved it so much I want to hug it, I'm going to review... Read the rest of this post

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12. The Dead Ladies Project at Public Books

C_Crispin_Dead_9780226278452_JKT_ift_REVISED

From Nandini Ramachandran’s review of The Dead Ladies Project at Public Books:

The Dead Ladies Project is part of a long literary tradition of single ladies having adventures. As a genre, it has had to contend with the collective energies of late capitalism (which tries to convert all adventure into tourism), patriarchy (which tries to make all single women into threatening and/or pathetic monsters), and publishing (which tries to repackage and flatten all women who write into “women writers”). It does, on the whole, remarkably well, perhaps because it’s written by insightful people who have resisted, for an entire century, the call to cynicism. It’s easy, these days, to be jaded about human relationships, to believe that they have been fabricated and marketed and focus-grouped into torpor and that no one remains capable of an authentic emotion. Jessa Crispin, like so many writers before her, flatly refuses to believe that. She insists on the fleeting, transcendental passion, the abjection of unrequited longing, the thrill and terror of waking up in an alien city. She insists, further, that a woman can revel in all that tumult.

(I choose this excerpt as the best teaser for the book, yet a part earlier on, a sort of prelude in which Ramachandran relays the mise-en-scène of the spinster’s myth, that consuming-qua-shrill narrative surrounding a woman with “too much plot”—I feel you.)

Read more about The Dead Ladies Project here.

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13. When Mystical Creatures Attack

mystical creaturesWhen Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds is a book of connected short stories that is hilarious and sad. Or maybe it’s a novel, but if it’s a novel it isn’t a typical one. There are basically three main characters. Ms. Freedman is a young, fresh-faced English teacher assigned to teach at one of the poorest schools in Texas. She is idealistic. She will change lives and save souls through the beauty of literature. Janice Gibbs is one of Ms. Freedman’s students. She is smart but a trouble maker. She has ambition, makes it to editor-in-chief of the school literary journal El Giraffe for a brief time before her penchant for trouble cause her to be removed from the position. Cody Splunk is also a student in Ms. Freedman’s class. He too is smart and in love with Janice who likes him as a friend and enlists him as a companion on a few crazy adventures. Cody also likes to write stories and there is one particularly funny one that takes place in a wax museum.

Janice and Cody’s stories pretty much move forward in time. Ms. Freedman’s move back and forth. We begin in the midst of Ms. Freedman’s unraveling. At first it seems it is all from the stress of the classroom but gradually we discover there is more to it. Janice plays a part in that stress and somehow manages to steal Ms. Freedman’s diary which we later get to read. Whether it is because she feels guilty or she is basically a good kid or a combination of both, Janice becomes a regular correspondent with Ms. Freedman after the teacher leaves in the middle of the semester for a stay at Bridges, a psychiatric wellness center.

Bridges is one of those horrible chirpy places that turns regaining one’s mental health into a capitalist system of earnings and debt. Approved behavior earns points and you can buy things with your points from cookies to release from the program. Other behaviors take points away and Ms. Freedman quickly finds herself in debt for refusing to comply with the sickly blandness and for always referring to her doctor as Dr. Bin Ladin.

Meanwhile Janice is getting into and out of trouble at home, at school, and in the family way. But she keeps in contact with Ms. Freedman and Cody keeps in contact with Janice, all of them trying to save each other without knowing how but doing the best they can anyway. And that is what makes this book so wonderful, it has heart. Despite the quirky, dark hilarity, everyone is reaching for salvation in one way or another, and trying to save others too:

‘Have you been bargaining?’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘I’ve been bargaining. If they find her safe, I have to go say a rosary every day for the rest of my life.’
‘I don’t believe in God.’
‘I don’t believe in bargaining. … I always bargain though.’
‘I thought she could do it. I thought if she tried harder. If I tried harder.’
‘Some things you can’t do by trying.’
‘What else is there?’

Early in the book Ms. Freedman in one of her journaling therapy entries writes about a story Dostoevsky tells in The Brothers Karamazov about a woman who only did one good thing in her life, she once gave a turnip to a beggar. The woman dies, goes to Hell and cries for mercy. Her guardian angel reaches out a turnip to her to see if the one good deed is strong enough to lift her out of Hell. The woman grabs hold and is yanked from the flames. But someone has grabbed her ankle and someone else grabbed the ankle of the other person and so on. The woman looks down and sees the chain of souls. She begins to kick and thrash, trying to get free of them and in the process the turnip breaks and she falls back into Hell.

This story is countered at the end of the book with some revisions. This time a woman gives an apple to a hungry girl. The angel extends the apple to her in Hell, she grabs on and as she is pulled from Hell, someone grabs her ankle and a long chain of souls is formed. The woman sees them all and holds onto the apple even tighter, holds on for all she is worth and Hell is emptied.

The title of the book comes from the first chapter. Ms. Freedman gives the class a writing assignment. The prompt is to name their favorite mystical creature and what they see as the greatest socio-political problem of our time, then write a one page story in which the mystical creature resolves the problem. The chapter is made up of the students’ stories. They range from “How the Minotaur Changed the Legal Drinking Age to 16” to “How the Giant Squid Made Me Stop Being Pregnant” to “How Pegasus Created World Peace.” Writing assignments, therapy journal entries, emails, letters, short stories, even a chapter composed of recipes from the fundraising cookbook of Methodist Women of Piggot, Kentucky (Dark Night of the Soul Food, Render unto Cesar Salad), all serve to tell the story and make you laugh as well as want to cry along the way.

I found out about this book thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations. If you are looking for something a little off the beaten path, When Mystical Creatures Attack! is a good one.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Kathleen Founds

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14. Review: Seeing Ghosts and Robots in “Empty Zone” #1



Empty Zone #1By Nick Eskey

 

Writer: Jason Shawn Alexander

Artist: Jason Shawn Alexander

Color: Luis Nct

Letters: Sherard Jackson

Publisher: Image Comics

 

 

Have you heard about the story set in a neo-noir dystopian society somewhere in the not so distant future? Most of you are probably nodding your heads in an emphatic yes.

Adding to that list is Jason Shawn Alexander’s first issue of Empty Zone.

Though the setting isn’t original, the story and the artwork make this comic a fantastic read. Think if the movie Blade Runner, the movie Tank Girl, Vertigo’s Sandman comic, and the anime Ghost in the Shell had a torrid love affair. Empty Zone would be the reason all of them have to submit to a paternity test.

The protagonist’s name is Corrine, a young and sexy woman who moonlights as super soldier for hire. Her easy-on-the-eye looks hints nothing at her enhanced abilities (save for her giant robotic arm of course). Her constantly reoccurring nightmares make her a haunted woman. But in this future where technology is advanced and society is crumbling, bad dreams are not the only things haunting her.Corrine with...?

As the story goes, this first issue does well in introducing us to the characters, but still holding enough back that we are left wanting to learn more about their personalities and motives. The strange scenery and events leaves many questions to be answered, setting up what may be a good run for the series. As I mentioned, the atmosphere may not be original, but the writing makes up for that. The twist introduced at the endCorrine and Robot bounty hunter also sweetens the deal.

Writing aside, the artwork could carry this comic alone. Each panel looks like it should be framed on the wall. A lot of care went into the drawing, inking, and coloring (to which Jason Shawn Alexander wears the three hats of creator, writer, and artist). The facial drawings remind me a little of the rotoscoping used in A Scanner Darkly. Rotoscoping is essentially tracing over a film frame by frame. Everything from body articulation to facial expressions is highly detailed and close to real life. Objects and scenery are equally as well done. Overall, this thing deserves to be appreciated.

Empty Zone is a great addition to comics and collections. The artwork and writing is well done, with the pace taking readers for a fun joyride that doesn’t move too fast or slow. Fans of dark comics, as well as science fiction books and movies will surely enjoy this series. Image Comic’s Empty Zone hits local shelves June 17th.

1 Comments on Review: Seeing Ghosts and Robots in “Empty Zone” #1, last added: 6/17/2015
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15. Press Release: Children’s Artists for Gun Safety

Politics and children’s literature are, to a certain extent, inextricable.  The education of our children is so closely tied into our understanding of what education could and should entail (and for whom) that it is innately political.  But there are other issues that are affected by politics too.  Children’s author/musician/performer Bill Harley is familiar to many for his good work over the years. Now he’s sent out the following call for better gun laws in our country.  For those like-minded authors and illustrators amongst you, this may be of interest.

What can artists do to speak out for a better world? Artists for Safe Kids (ASK) is asking artists who write, illustrate, sing, and perform for children to sign the accompanying statement, hoping to make a difference. We are thinking about other activities and projects to develop, but for now, we’re asking as many artists as possible to sign on to this statement.  If you sign, we’ll let you know what we’re up to, and you can decide for yourself what level of participation you’re comfortable supporting. As it is now, the only thing that will happen is that your name will appear when we make a public statement. If you’re  interested in doing more, let me know (billharley1@gmail.com), and please consider passing it on to others you think might be interested.

Bill Harley

Children’s Writers, Artists and Performers  for Gun Sanity

As artists, writers and performers who work with and for children, we have witnessed with growing concern and despair the tragic effect of gun violence on children. We call out for a saner, more rational gun policy in our country, states and communities.  We join with other voices calling for comprehensive universal background checks for gun purchasers, better screening for mental health problems, better gun safety regulations for gun owners to keep children safe from accidental firings, and a limit on semi-automatic weapons and large magazines. We ask you to join us in this call for a safer world.

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16. Review of Tad and Dad

stein_tad and dadTad and Dad
by David Ezra Stein; 
illus. by the author
Preschool   Paulsen/Penguin   40 pp.
4/15   978-0-399-25671-4   $16.99   g

Poor Dad. Poor Tad. Neither frog is getting any sleep in his (lily)pad. Tad loves his dad so much that he can hardly bear to be away from him, even at night. Whether Tad is a wiggling tadpole, swimming everywhere with his dad, or a jumping frog with legs, he doesn’t want to sleep alone. “‘Why are you in my bed?’ said Dad. ‘So you won’t miss me,’ I said.” Parents everywhere, especially those with night-wandering, bed-sharing toddlers, will laugh with grim identification when Tad starts to swim and grow and jump and catch his own breakfast, just like Dad, but still crowds onto Dad’s lilypad at bedtime. And, when night comes and the growing froglet dreams and practices his new skills in his sleep (“So that’s what was kicking me…”), little ones will chuckle at Tad’s enthusiasm and Dad’s growing exhaustion. Relaxed circular and rectangular frames signal Dad’s more mature bearing, while Tad’s energy is uncontained, often filling the whole spread. Stein uses color to great effect to show the lap-listener that this little gem is both a celebration of the father-child relationship and a good-night book. See Tad and Dad snoring together on the last page? The world is blue and black, lit only by the moon. ’Night, Tad. ’Night, Dad. Like every good go-to-sleep book, this one will hold up to many repeat readings.

From the May/June 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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17. Review of the Day: In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van

InaVillage1In a Village by the Sea
By Muon Van
Illustrated by April Chu
Creston Books
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-939547-156
Ages 4-6
On shelves now

We talk a lot about wanting a diverse selection of picture books on our library, bookstore, and home shelves, but it seems to me that the key to giving kids a broad view of the wider world (which is the ultimate effect of reading literature about people outside your immediate social, economic, and racial circle) is finding books that go into formerly familiar territory and then give the final product an original spin. For example, I was just telling a colleague the other day that true diverse literature for kids will never come to pass until we’ve a wide variety of gross out books about kids of different races, abilities, genders, etc. That’s one way of reaching parity. Another way would be to tackle that age old form so familiar to kids of centuries past; nursery rhymes. Now we’ve already seen the greatest nursery rhyme collection of the 21st century hit our shelves earlier this year (Over the Hills and Far Away, edited by Elizabeth Hammill) and that’s great. That’s swell. That’s super. But one single book does not a nursery rhyme collection make. Now I admit freely that Muon Van and April Chu’s In a Village by the Sea is not technically a nursery rhyme in the classic sense of the term. However, Merriam-Webster defines the form as “a short rhyme for children that often tells a story.” If that broad definition is allowed then I submit “In a Village by the Sea” as a true, remarkable, wonderful, evocative, modern, diverse, ultimately beautiful nursery rhyme for the new Millennium. Lord knows we could always use more. Lord knows this book deserves all the attention it can get.

On the title page a single brown cricket grabs a rolled piece of parchment, an array of watercolor paints and paintbrushes spread below her (to say nothing of two soon-to-be-necessary screws). Turn the page and there a fisherman loads his boat in the predawn hour of the day, his dog attentive but not following. As he pushes off, surrounded by other fishermen, and looks behind him to view his receding seaside home we read, “In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house.” We zoom in. “In that house high above the waves is a kitchen.” The dog is now walking into the house, bold as brass, and as the story continues we meet the woman and child inside. We also meet that same industrious cricket from the title page, painting a scene in which a fisherman combats the elements, comforted by the picture of his family he keeps beside him. And in another picture is his village, and his house, and in that house is his family, waiting to greet him safely home. Set in Vietnam, the book has all the rhythms and cadence of the most classic rhyme.

InaVillage2When it comes to rhymes, I feel that folks tend to be fairly familiar with the cumulative form. Best highlighted in nursery rhymes likes “The House That Jack Built” it’s the kind of storytelling that builds and builds, always repeating the elements that came before. Less celebrated, perhaps, is the nesting rhyme. Described in Using Poetry Across the Curriculum: A Whole Language Approach by Barbara Chatton, the author explains that children love patterns. “The simplest pattern is a series in which objects are placed in some kind of order. This order might be from smallest to largest, like the Russian nesting dolls, or a range of height, length, or width . . . A nursery rhyme using the ‘nesting’ pattern is ‘This Is the Key to My Kingdom’.” Indeed, it was that very poem I thought of first when I read In a Village by the Sea. In the story you keep going deeper and deeper into the narrative, an act that inevitably raises questions.

Part of what I like so much about the storytelling in this book is not just its nesting nature, but also the questions it inspires in the child reader. At first we’re working entirely in the realm of reality with a village, a fisherman, his wife, and their child. But then when we dive down into the cricket’s realm we see that it is painting a magnificent storm with vast waves that appear to be a kind of ode to that famous Japanese print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”. When we get into that painting and find that our fisherman is there and in dire straits we begin to wonder what is and isn’t real. Artist April Chu runs with that uncertainty well. Notice that as the fisherman sits in his boat with the storm overhead, possibly worrying for his own safety, in his hands he holds a box. In that box is a photo of his wife and child, his village, and what appears to be a small wooden carving of a little cricket. The image of the village contains a house and (this isn’t mentioned in the text) we appear to zoom into that picture and that house where the sky is blue and the sea is calm. So what is going on precisely? Is it all a clever cricket’s imaginings or are each of these images true in some way? I love the conversation starter nature of this book. Younger kids might take the events at face value. Older kids might begin to enmesh themselves into the layered M.C. Escher-ness of the enterprise. Whatever draws them in, Van and Chu have created a melodic visual stunner. No mean feat.

For the record, the final image in this book is seemingly not of the cricket’s original painting but of the fisherman heading home on a calm sea to a distant home. What’s so interesting about the painting is that if you compare it to the cricket’s previous one (of the storm) you can see that the curls and folds of the paper are identical. This is the same canvass the cricket was working on before. Only the image has changed. How is this possible? The answer lies in what the cricket is signing on the painting’s lower right-hand corner. “AC”. April Chu. Artist as small brown cricket. I love it.

InaVillage3So who precisely is April Chu? Read her biography at the back and you see that she began her career as an architect, a fact that in part explains the sheer level of detail at work in tandem with this simple text. Let us be clear that while the writing in this book is engaging on a couple different levels, with the wrong artist it wouldn’t have worked half as well as it now does. Chu knows how to take a single story from a blue skied mellow to a wrath of the gods storm center and then back again to a sweet peach colored sunset. She also does a good dog. I’ll say it. The yellow lab in this book is practically the book’s hero as we follow it in and out of the house. He’s even in his master’s family photograph.

One question that occurred to me as I read the book was why I immediately thought of it as contemporary. No date accompanies the text. No elements that plant it firmly in one time or another. The text is lilting and lovely but doesn’t have anything so jarring as a 21st century iPhone or ear bud lurking in the corners. In Van’s Author’s Note at the end she mentions that much of the inspiration for the tale was based on both her family’s ancestral village in Central Vietnam and her father’s work, and mother’s experiences, after they immigrated to American shores. By logic, then, the book should have a bit of a historical bent to it. Yet people still fish in villages. Families still wait for the fisherman to return to shore. And when I looked at April Chu’s meticulous art I took in the clothing more than anything else. The mom’s rubber band in her hair. The cut of the neck of her shirt. The other fishermen and their shirts and the colors of the father’s. Then there was the way the dishes stack up next to the stove. I dunno. It sure looks like it’s set in a village today. But these things can be hard to judge.

There’s this real feeling that meta picture books that play with their format and turn the fourth wall into rubble are relatively new. But if we look at rhymes like “This Is the Key to the Kingdom”, we can see how they were toying with our notion of how to tell a story in a new way long long before old Stinky Cheese Man. I guess what I like most about “In a Village by the Sea” is how to deals with this duality. It manages to feel old and new all at the same time. It reads like something classic but it looks and feels like something entirely original. A great read aloud, beautifully illustrated, destined to become beloved of parents, librarians, and kids themselves for years to come. This is a book worth discovering.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent by publisher for review.

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18. Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Peyton's crimes and convictions had skewed the view people had of my entire family. People in the neighborhood either stared or made a point of not looking at us; conversations at the pool or by the community bulletin board stopped when we came into earshot. It was like stepping into a fun house of mirrors, only to find you had to stay there. I was the sister of the neighborhood delinquent, drug addict, and now drunk drinker. It didn't matter than I'd done none of these things. With shame, like horseshoes, proximity counts.

Readers who have felt overshadowed by an older sibling or overlooked by their parents will relate easily to Sydney, the protagonist of Sarah Dessen's latest novel, Saint Anything. Sydney's charismatic older brother, Peyton, was the apple of their mother's eye - until he started acting out. Now he's in jail, sentenced to seventeen months for driving drunk and hitting and paralyzing a young boy.

Shortly after the sentencing, Sydney begins her junior year of high school. Legal fees have severely altered her family's budget, so she switches from private school to public. Ready to be anonymous, she welcomes the change. Instead of going the expected route of reinventing herself and/or lying to people about her brother or her family, she stays true to herself and keeps her head above water rather than wallowing or whining. Kudos to Dessen for letting her character remain authentic and genuine.

Because of that, Sydney finds people who accept her for who she is: specifically, Layla and Mac. Both are perceptive, Layla in a more direct way, while Mac stands quietly just one step away, ready to protect and help his loved ones whenever they need him. Layla, in the same grade as Sydney, is lively, lovely, and unlucky in love. Mac, Layla's brother, is one grade up. They understand family entanglements and obligations: their mother suffers from MS and is often resting at home; their father runs the family business, a pizza place called Seaside; and their older sister, Rosie, once a promising figure skater, recently had a brush with the law. The more time Sydney spends with Layla and Mac, the more comfortable she feels with them and in her own skin. She starts hanging out and helping out at Seaside whenever time allows.

Meanwhile, Sydney's mother Julie, always organized and ready to put a positive spin on things, tries to stay involved in her son's life - and you'd think by the way she was acting, he was away at school or on a long trip, rather than in prison - while she's still somewhat oblivious to her daughter. Julie can't wait to go to Family Visiting Day at the jail, Sydney doesn't know if she wants to. Julie trusts Peyton's friend Ames, who gives Sydney the creeps. Ames (supposedly) cleaned up his act and keeps in contact with Peyton, so Julie sees him as an extension of her son and uses him as a sounding board and messenger. Sydney doesn't like how Ames looks at her, how he stands a little too close; he makes her uncomfortable, especially when he jumps at the chance to be her chaperone when her parents are away. The attention she wants but doesn't get from her parents and the attention she gets but doesn't want from Ames becomes trapped in the same four walls.

Sarah Dessen always gives her characters dimensions and realistic attributes. Rather than simply being Sydney's support group, the supporting characters in Saint Anything have their own storylines and interests (ask Layla how she likes her french fries; consider Mac's hobbies, or those of Sydney's long-time friends Jenn and Meredith). Some orbits cross and interact while others are separate. There is also music, though not as prevalent as in some of Dessen's other works, more of a gentle underscore here and there, playing in the background at the pizza joint, then at in the Chatham home, then growing louder as Sydney gets to know a local band. Dessen's dedicated readers will notice subtle connections to characters and places from her previous novels, further enriching the world she's created.

The title comes from something Sydney is given, something that gives her hope. For anyone who is searching for that hope: may you find it, and share it, and never lose it.

My favorite quotes from this novel include:

"There's no shame in trying to make stuff work, if how I see it. It's better than just accepting the broken." - Mac to Sydney, page 244

I would have love to know how it felt, just once, to have something fall apart and see options instead of endings. - pages 244-245

You only really fall apart in front of the people you know can piece you back together. - Page 387

When faced with the scariest of things, all you want is to turn away, to hide in your own invisible place. But you can't. That's why it's not only important for us to be seen, but to have someone lookfor us, as well. - Page 401

"I can go with you," he said. "If it would make it easier."
"It would," I told him. "But I think I need it to be difficult."
- Page 415

If you like Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, you will also like The Opposite of Invisible by Liz Gallagher and The Queen of Everything by Deb Caletti. If this was your first foray into the world of Sarah Dessen, make sure to check out her backlist. Click here for my reviews of all of Sarah Dessen's novels.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Sarah Dessen
Booklist: Tough Issues for Teens
They Tried to Ban This Book Today, or, There's a Sticker on the Cover of This Book: Reacting to the Challenge of Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Roundtable: Sarah Dessen Novels
Roundtable: Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Playlist: This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
Author Spotlight: Sarah Dessen

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19. Cover Reveal: Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin

Folks sometimes ask me if I’ll ever do cover reveals of debuts.  It’s an interesting question.  Often the books that I’m doing cover reveals of are by authors or illustrators that I admire.  If I’m doing a review of someone new, how do I know they’re any great shakes?  I don’t, of course, but sometimes you appreciate a book for reasons above and beyond your familiarity with its creator.  Take the case of today’s reveal.  Called “Rules by Cynthia Lord meets Counting by 7s“, it’s set in Manhattan.  That’s nice but if I’m going to be honest I was probably also attracted to the fact that the name “Thyme” is in the title and it reminds me of the old Edgar Eager title Time Garden.

CountingThyme

Here’s the publisher description:

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

You can also follow its author, Melanie Conklin, on Twitter at @MLConklin.  Many thanks to

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20. Review of Unusual Chickens for the 
Exceptional Poultry Farmer

jones_unusual chickens for the exceptional poultry farmerUnusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
by Kelly Jones; illus. by Katie Kath
Intermediate   Knopf   213 pp.
5/15   978-0-385-75552-8   $16.99
Library ed. 978-0-385-75553-5   $19.99   g
e-book ed. 978-0-385-75554-2   $10.99

Moving to a farm inherited from her great-uncle may not be city-girl Sophie’s first choice for improving her family’s financial situation, but she’s determined to make the best of it. Chickens would make the farm more interesting, so when she finds a flier in the barn advertising the titular fowl, she writes in. Responses from “Agnes” at Redwood Farm come in the form of an extensive correspondence course in chicken-raising, and in the meantime decidedly unusual chickens find their way to the farm: Henrietta has telekinetic powers, and Chameleon is aptly named. Sophie quickly becomes devoted to her flock, but so does Ms. Griegson, a neighbor with her own interest in chickens with superpowers. It’s new-girl Sophie’s word against Ms. Griegson’s in a town unused to new people, especially new families with one white and one Mexican American parent; to the townspeople’s credit, they ultimately give Sophie the benefit of the doubt. The epistolary format consists mostly of letters in Sophie’s earnest voice; often the addressee is either her late abuelita or her great-uncle Jim in various iterations of the afterlife (“Mictlan”; “Heaven’s Dance Party”; “Valhalla, maybe?”). Sophie’s unique way of figuring life out on her own makes her easy to root for and provides entertainment beyond the inherent humor of chickens. Black-and-white illustrations match the mostly light feel of the text.

From the May/June 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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21. The Circus Mirandus Blog Tour: How Hard Is It to Write a Circus That Isn’t Creepy?

CircusMirandusWhen I was asked to participate in the current Circus Mirandus Blog Tour, I was intrigued.  You know how sometimes a publisher will fall in love with a debut novel and then promote the whozitz out of it, hither, thither, and yon?  Well, that’s what Penguin has done with this title from first time author Cassie Beasley.  And whenever that sort of thing happens, I get very skeptical.  So I approached the book expecting to find it overwritten or cloying or to have something wrong with it.  What I found instead was fresh and fascinating.  The kind of book I’d recommend left and right to any kid.  And one thing about it struck me as very interesting indeed.  You see, most of the circus middle grade books I see are creepy in some way, so I feel like making a book about a circus that a kid might actually want to go to (heck, live in!) is enormously difficult. 

For this blog tour I asked Ms. Beasley one very simple question: How do you manage to write a non-creepy circus?  Here is her answer:

“When I say that my novel is about a boy trying to find a magic circus, most people respond with enthusiasm. Maybe it’s just that they don’t want to puncture my cheerful debut author bubble, but I like to think they’re genuinely excited by the idea of a circus story. For me, the mention of circuses calls to mind a fantasy world of sequined costumes and cotton candy, and I think it does the same for many others.

Sometimes, though, I meet potential readers who have a different reaction. They want to know if Circus Mirandus is a “creepy” book. They want to know if I’ve written a horror story.

CircusMirandus4I was surprised the first time someone asked. I initially thought the questioner must be concerned about the fact that my main character, Micah, is trying to save his terminally ill grandfather.

“No,” she said, when I started to explain my thoughts on character death in children’s literature. “I mean the circus. Is it scary?” She paused. “Are there clowns?”

The question actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the role of the circus in fiction. Real-life circuses are meant to delight, but fictional circuses often seem to be designed to do the opposite. An entire page at the (infinitely distracting) TV tropes site is dedicated to the “Circus of Fear,” and the number and variety of evil circuses listed is impressive.

Circuses, traveling fairs, and carnivals are, in some ways, a natural choice for the author in need of a disquieting setting. For one thing, they are supposed to be cheerful places, and transforming something lovely and innocent into something sinister is the basic stuff of horror. A T. rex chasing you is only frightening. A clown chasing you is frightening and also wrong.

And even when we exclude the murderous clowns, a circus still contains so much potential creepiness. It can be a transient and turbulent beast that arrives in an otherwise stagnant environment and starts to change things around. People alter their daily routine. Children sneak out of their houses to see the show. The town is suddenly a temporary home to masked strangers who will perform peculiar feats for a few nights and then depart.

CircusMirandus3And the performances themselves, the glitz and the mystery, create an otherworldly environment that is magical but fraying at the edges. A carnival is a pretty lie. Regular, imperfect people hide under the face paint, and electric cables power the rides, and sometimes if you look at just the wrong moment you see the magician sneaking around the edge of the curtain instead of vanishing into thin air.

Some people find this incongruity disturbing. Others relish it. It can be fun, after all, to be creeped out.

Having said all of that, my own circus is not menacing. Circus Mirandus is meant to be a place of joy and wonder. It’s where Micah thinks he will find the help he needs to save his grandfather. Most of the darkness in the story comes from Grandpa Ephraim’s illness, which is the sort of everyday horror that many children face. I don’t think it would have been right to distract from that with a terrifying fantasy world.

So, the magic is real, and it is (mostly) used benevolently. At Circus Mirandus, the aerial artists fly without the aid of wires, and there is no risk that any of the children in the audience, even Micah’s analytical friend Jenny, will see through the Lightbender’s illusions.

To the surprise of no one who has met me, Circus Mirandus is the world child-me would have created for herself if she had been given unlimited power.

This doesn’t mean the circus is perfect, as Micah will discover, but it is a force for good in the world. What conflict the circus creates is not the result of something sweet turned rotten, but that of something longed for that is almost out of reach.

CircusMirandus2I think Micah might tell anyone curious enough to ask how extraordinarily difficult it is to believe in something like Circus Mirandus in this world, especially when the people around you are telling you that your situation is hopeless. I think he might say that you need great reserves of courage to find it. I think he might tell you how hard it can be, once you’ve finally made it, to hold on to the magic.

So, though creepy circus stories abound, mine is not one of them. My circus is a dream world, one that I have tried to fill with the kind of magic that every young person searches for at some point.

For Micah, that search is rewarded in ways he doesn’t expect. But I believe that his decision to make the journey to the circus is ultimately more important than the fact that he reaches it. If there is one idea I want readers to take away from Circus Mirandus, I think perhaps it is this: that at the limits of magic (and even magic has its limits), in that place where we face the darkness, there is only the choice that Micah has to make.

Despair? Or hope?”

Many thanks to Ms. Beasley for her in-depth and fascinating answer and to the good folks at Penguin for inviting her here in the first place.

About Cassie Beasley: website/twitter/goodreads

CASSIE BEASLEY is from rural Georgia, where, when she’s not writing, she helps out on the family pecan farm. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. CIRCUS MIRANDUS is her first novel.

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22. Review: THE FOUR POINTS #3

The Four Points #3

TheFourPoints-v1_03-Aspen

 

Story: Scott Lobdell

Art: Jordan Gunderson

Colors: Valentina Pinto

Letters: Josh Reed

Publisher: Aspen COmics

 

 

 

Team stories are probably the hardest to tell in comics, maybe anywhere. To enjoy any tale; the reader needs to know whose story it is. A perfect example would be when you watched The Mighty Ducks, the movie was the redemption story of Gordon Bombay, but we’re made to believe this is a movie about a hockey team. That film also exemplifies how once we know whose story it is the supporting characters need to have a delicate balance that doesn’t steal the focus but keeps them from being trees in the background. The Four Points by Aspen Comics has been that right team story and it doesn’t even have Emilo Estevez or Joshua Jackson in it.

Four Points is the story of a mental patient named Gia who through both a gift and a curse is forced to bring together three volatile elements to save the world from the approaching horsemen of the apocalypse. These elements are in fact complete strangers from around the globe. A Russian wind rider named Ivana, the fire goddess Ara, and the publisher’s most recognizable face Aspen Matthews. So far this dysfunctional group has survived a confrontation with the horseman known as War. In issue #3, the team is in the middle east investigating a plague ravaging the population. It’s easy to guess which horseman they’ll have to deal with in order to put an end to the suffering, but where the book poses its heavy questions is in the hard choices they’ll have to make if they want to stop it. If you’ve read any of the Fathom volumes, you already know Aspen Matthews is a morally centered agent of life. Her affiliation to Gia’s crusade will be tested if she’s forced to play the role of assassin. In the end, more questions about this ominous threat are raised as these Four Points struggle to aim in the same direction.

Writer, Scott Lobdell isn’t particularly known for lacing his stories with political undertones. It’s why Four Points feels different from most of the work he’s done. He’s brought together female characters of radically different cultural backgrounds and melts the pot in front of the readers eyes. The big questions of Four Points surround Gia and the messed up mindset she inherited from her family. Finding out where the voices in her head come from is just part of the appeal. There’s a hook in how much mistrust the other three have for each other but know they can’t save the world alone. Sure it’s been done lots of times before, but when done right it’s still good every single time.

Lobdell has always been a writer whose story can be greatly deterred by subpar artwork. Fortunately, artist Jordan Gunderson is solid here. Any Fathom story needs to have the spirt of a Michael Turner book. Gunderson imitates the iconic artist’s most notable trait without cloning it, sex appeal. Turner had a gift for drawing the most gorgeous female characters and giving them allure without crossing the line of cheap. The sultry eyes and powerful posture are well used in this book. Gunderson still has some room to grow when it comes to the faces in smaller panels but his larger detail work makes up for it.

If you’re on the fence about trying Four Points, you definitely have to start at the beginning. The story is one of the best put out by Aspen so far this year. It’s a familiar dive into the fantasy pools they like to swim in, but it manages to do a lot of fresh things. Despite a bit of an abrupt ending, Four Points #3 is worth picking up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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23. Endless Spanish app review

endless spanish coverThe cute monsters from Originator‘s Endless Alphabet, Endless Reader, and Endless Numbers are back…en español! Endless Spanish (May 2015) follows much the same format as Endless Reader to teach basic Spanish vocabulary. There are two modes, “Spanish immersion” or “Spanish with English translation.”

Begin at A and work through the alphabet to Z, or start anywhere you like by choosing a letter from the main menu.

endless spanish menu

The narrator pronounces a word beginning with the selected letter as that word appears in lowercase. Los monstruos dash across the screen, scattering the letters; drag them into the correct order. As you drop each brightly patterned, monster-featured letter into place, the letter says its sound in a silly voice, followed by the narrator saying its name.

A sentence using the featured word in context (e.g., for amigo, ¡Los monstruos están muy contentos por tener un amigo nuevo!) appears and is read by the narrator. Then the featured word is knocked out of the sentence; it’s pronounced again as you place it correctly. One or two other Spanish sight words such as algo (something), bonito (pretty/nice), muy (very), and que (that), which are presumably included in additional letter packs, are highlighted in each phrase as well. The sentence is followed by a brief, humorous animation explicating both the word’s meaning and the gist of the sentence.

endless spanish animation

“The monsters are very happy to have a new friend!”

Tap to repeat the narrator’s pronunciation of the featured word or the contextual frase as many times as you’d like. In English-translation mode, the narrator gives you the English counterpart of the word/sentence, too.

The silly monsters and the funny situations they get themselves into introduce new vocabulary in an engaging way. Upbeat background music, sometimes with a bit of mariachi flavor, adds to the app’s friendly feel. I’ve been trying — and failing — to brush up on mi poquito de español; perhaps I’ll add Endless Spanish to my rotation of Spanish-language learning apps alongside Mango Languages and Duolingo. Endless Spanish is certainly more fun!

Available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch (requires iOS 7.0 or later). The free preview gives you one word for each letter of the alphabet up through F: amigo (friend), bien (good/well), casa (house), dijo (said), encontró (found), and flor (flower). Additional words must be purchased separately ($4.99/pack). Recommended for preschool users and up.

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24. Judy Blume and Stephen King Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

In the Unlikely Event Cover (GalleyCat)We’ve collected the books debuting on Indiebound’s Indie Bestseller List for the week ending June 07, 2015–a sneak peek at the books everybody will be talking about next month.

(Debuted at #3 in Hardcover Fiction) In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume: “In 1987, Miri Ammerman returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life. Thirty-five years earlier, when Miri was fifteen, and in love for the first time, a succession of airplanes fell from the sky, leaving a community reeling.” (June 2015)

(Debuted at #4 in Hardcover Fiction) Finders Keepers by Stephen King: “The genius is John Rothstein, an iconic author who created a famous character, Jimmy Gold, but who hasn’t published a book for decades. Morris Bellamy is livid, not just because Rothstein has stopped providing books, but because the nonconformist Jimmy Gold has sold out for a career in advertising.” (June 2015)

(Debuted at #8 in Hardcover Nonfiction) Gumption by Nick Offerman: “To millions of people, Nick Offerman is America. Both Nick and his character, Ron Swanson, are known for their humor and patriotism in equal measure.” (May 2015)

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25. A Month Of Venturing Into The DC You: Week Two

starfire

It’s that time again! Just like last week, I picked up every issue DC Comics put out of their current “DC You” initiative, and I’m here to present my scattered and unorganized thoughts in a few sentences. Again, none of these should be construed as reviews really, it’s just a quick glimpse at one fan’s thoughts on the newly evolving line of comics from his long-time favorite publisher.

Also, just a point of clarification, I bought all of these with my own money. Not one comp copy was involved in the writing of this piece, if that sort of thing means anything to you.

batman 41

Batman #41: I’m not fully sold on the Jim Gordon as Batman take yet, but this new arc continues the rather fun zaniness that’s been part and parcel of the Scott SnyderGreg Capullo run since “Zero Year”, and Capullo continues to be one of the best artists at the Big Two. His work pops in a way that so few superhero illustrators can manage, and he just keeps getting better. I also can’t say enough about FCO Plascencia‘s colors. The new status quo is intriguing enough, and I look forward to seeing how it spills over into books like Batgirl, Grayson and Detective Comics (see below).

Verdict: Already on my pull and staying there

batman superman 21

Batman/Superman #21: I love Greg Pak‘s work on Action Comics, so it vexes me a bit when I can’t seem to reconcile the great work he does there and the fairly pedestrian stuff he cranks out for this title. The new shift for Superman, which inevitably is the character this title has focused on in greater detail, hasn’t really done much to refresh a series that can’t escape a feeling of staleness and bland superheroics. Being envisioned by the house-stylings of Ardian Syaf doesn’t help either.

Verdict: Stopping here

catwoman 41

Catwoman #41: I missed the boat on early issues of the critically acclaimed, but fairly under-read (and promoted), Genevieve Valentine Catwoman run. I think I may have assumed too much to think that I could just jump on-board here. It’s really well written, you can tell Valentine has a pretty elegant control of prose, but I’ll be damned if I knew what the heck was actually going on. I found it difficult to keep up with who each character was, and what purpose they served in Selina’s world, though in ensemble-based crime fiction, I sometimes bump into that barrier. I’m maybe intrigued enough to try again, with the hope that familiarity will breed some affection, but I can’t say I’d recommend it for the first timer.

Verdict: On the fence

constantine the hellblazer

Constantine: The Hellblazer #1: Riley Rossmo can do no wrong, and the Dante‘s Inferno-inspired spread found within is the kind of panel layout that will always grab my attention. This is a really fun reintroduction to the John Constantine that we used to see back in the Vertigo days, rather than the New 52 superhero that had populated books like Justice League Dark and the previous Constantine title. I like this more arrogant and amorous John, and the fact that DC is putting out a book that pushes their general boundaries of content within the main line is nice to see. It’s a bit over-written, with its themes hammering you over the head (especially in a secondary character’s denouement), but I’m mostly sold provided that one big flaw is rectified in subsequent months

Verdict: Going onto the pull-list

Detective Comics 41

Detective Comics #41: I really like Francis Manapul and Brian Buccelatto as an art team, frankly as far as “cape comics” go, there are few better. As writers though, I’ve had more trouble with their output. Their angle on the Jim Gordon as Batman take is solid enough: a book about Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya will always grab my attention in some form or fashion. But I’m not sure I found enough here to really hook me between a few iffy narrative conceits and some dialogue that didn’t quite land with me. Additionally, while I think Fernando Blanco does a decent enough Michael Lark, I’d be more excited about this title if Manapul was penciling it himself still.

Verdict: Stopping here

earth 2 society

Earth 2: Society #1: I had hopes that perhaps with a fresh start, Daniel Wilson might be able to employ something worthwhile into the literal new world that the Earth 2 characters are now inhabiting. How wrong I was, as this was basically unreadable. I liked the Johnny Sorrow appearance at least, but it was basically negated by Terry Sloane sprouting mechanical wings.

Verdict: Stopping here

Gotham Academy 7

Gotham Academy #7: I can’t even begin to pretend like I’m not in the tank for this book. I love it, and even when it has fill-in artists like Mingjue Helen Chen, the title is able to uphold its cinematic qualities. Chen’s work here reminds me a good deal of Irish animator Tomm Moore, and her gorgeous cartooning provides a perfect spotlight for secondary character “Maps” and the meet cute that occurs between her and Damian Wayne. There are a couple of spatial hitches where I was bit disoriented as to what was happening in a panel or two, but otherwise, this is a pretty great all-ages adventure.

Verdict: Already on my pull and staying there

harley quinn 17

Harley Quinn #17: Maybe it’s The Naked Gun fan in me, but I always laugh at a good beaver joke, and this one had me guffawing a bit. I hadn’t read an issue of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti‘s take on Harley since its debut issue and this month’s offering had me wondering why I hadn’t. It was humorous, zinged with energy, and Chad Hardin‘s art looked way more suited to the material than I remember it. I thought the Gang of Harleys was a pretty fun idea too.

Verdict: In for the next issue

red hood arsenal 1

Red Hood/Arsenal #1: The idea of a “buddy comedy” comic book isn’t a bad one, it works well for titles like Archer & Armstrong, and in theory Jason and Roy should be diametrically opposed enough that it should make for some solid hinjix. Unfortunately, with Scott Lobdell at the helm, you may as well dash those hopes. It’s funny, looking at Denis Medri‘s art, I could see a fairly effective intro tale being weaved here if someone else wrote the dialogue. But Lobdell’s attempts to give an edge to every character voice makes them all sound like the same person. It’s better than Earth 2: Society, because I could at least tell what’s going on, but it reads like a comic that Poochie from The Simpsons would write.

Verdict: Stopping here

section 8 1

All-Star Section Eight #1: Yeah, this was pretty awesome. I never read Hitman, I should probably get on that (it’s 99 cents a pop on Comixology right now after all), but I thought what Garth Ennis and John McCrea were up to here was hilarious. It’s a bit “inside baseball” in the way a good Ambush Bug comic might be, particularly in its shoutouts to the 90’s “Bloodline” event and the various iconic Batman poses being used to pretty great effect, but it’s all presented in a way that shouldn’t detract from a new-comers enjoyment much. I mean, who doesn’t find a Batman that’s too cheap to pay a $3 ATM fee endearing? Yeah, Hitman, I need to read it.

Verdict: Going onto the pull-list

starfire

Starfire #1: I think I may have liked this better than even Harley Quinn this week, perhaps because I was entering at ground zero, but I have some affection for well done “fish out of water” stories and this is a particularly good one. There’s a great deal of damage control that needed to be done with Kori in the New 52, and I’m confident Conner and Palmiotti are well on their way to rectifying those issues. It’s Starfire getting into hijinx in a trailer part in Key West. This is my kind of jam, and I’m really appreciating the story-telling corner that this team is building for themselves.

Verdict: Going onto the pull-list

suicide squad 7

New Suicide Squad #9 – It’s hard to separate the real world inspiration for this story from the potential of the narrative. On paper, the idea of a group of supervillains going undercover into a bigger hive of evil-doers to take them down is attention grabbing enough (and as a big fan of COPRA, I’m primed to love a Suicide Squad story), but the parallels between this League of Assassins splinter group and the real-world ISIS rubs me the wrong way, and fairly bland sub-Rags Morales like linework pretty much put my interest in this book out of its misery.

Verdict: Stopping here

This week’s must-reads: Batman, Constantine: The Hellblazer, Gotham Academy, All-Star Section EightStarfire

Next week: Sonny Liew draws Doctor Fate, Martian Manhunter gets a solo series, the Batgirl spin-off Black Canary takes flight, and I try to reconcile mentally why I’m buying anything from the current Wonder Woman run.

 

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