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Brian L's Staff Picks
Monday, July 1, 2013
I love Paul. I love the black-and-white, curvy casual style in which his stories are illustrated. I would learn to read French if I were to learn that the Paul stories would no longer be translated into English. I've read Rabaliati's other semi-autobiographical stories, and have enjoyed following Paul's life in Canada from his summer job as a camp counselor to moving into his first place with his fiance in the city to his becoming a father. Rabagliati adds a new dimension to Paul's story by focusing on his in-laws, with emphasis on his wife's father, Roland.
The story opens with Paul and family gathering with his wife's two sisters and their families at his parents-in-law's home, and Rabagliati captures little truths in this reunion that will bring smiles to readers as they identify with the experience. There's the burst of joy and excitement at seeing everyone followed by an evening of first finding a place to sleep and then attempting to sleep through the night in a basement filled with adults and children.
As I read this opening and felt it ring true to my own experience, I reveled in the connection I felt to this story and to its author. Thus engaged in the story, I read on, not expecting to repeatedly experience such a deep connection. Any reader whose watched a loved one grow old and weak with age and disease is likely to experience a similar connection.
Paul's father-in-law Roland is diagnosed with prostate cancer, prompting a move from that home where the family gathered early in the book to an apartment in the city. Paul joins Roland for a walk (and a secret, forbidden cigarette), and is treated to a brief biography of his father-in-law, from his youth to his retirement and terminal diagnosis. Eventually, Roland's wife is struggling to take care of him by herself and the family decides to move him to hospice. Roland has company from the family every day, but his condition deteriorates and he gradually becomes less able to communicate with them. Inevitably, Roland dies.
I was reminded of my grandfather's final months in hospice, and I appreciate the realism with which Rabagliati infuses his story--from the sad moments to the unexpectedly hilarious ones so needed while families grieve the loss of one who has yet to die. I recommend this story to anyone (whether they've read any previous Paul stories or not) and I believe that it has the power to help those grieving similar losses.
I suppose I'm resorting to pleading here, but take an hour or so to read and enjoy this book, and then tell your friends about it. Paul and Rabagliati ought to be at least as well known as the Charlies Brown and Schultz, and better loved.
Monday, May 6, 2013
In Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, a book seller takes his son Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he finds among its labyrinthine stacks a book by Julian Carax called The Shadow of the Wind. It's the best book he's ever read and he wants to learn more about the author and read more of his books, but he discovers that not much is known about the author and that copies of his books are notoriously difficult to find. Daniel isn't satisfied with this and endeavors to learn more.
And from here the story plunges into depths I cannot hope to adequately describe with any conciseness, nor would I want to deprive you of discoveries you would make diving in yourself. Zafon's set his story in a post-civil war Barcelona that's so real--not that it's endlessly described, but that all of his characters have been influenced by it. The characters and setting are so expertly entwined together.
Speaking of the characters, they form this amazing web of connections and parallels. The cast is enormous (at least to my reading habits) and I would occasionally forget who someone was, but my confusion wouldn't last long--the relationship of a forgotten character to another easily placed him/her in context. I'm very impressed at the distinctiveness of all of these characters, and the clever parallel relationships Zafon created between them.
I've heard that this is a book for book lovers, and I would second that. I've heard that this book has a little bit of everything--mystery, horror, adventure, fantasy--and while I may agree with that, I would not use it as a selling point for this book. I wouldn't want to send anyone into this story looking for elements of those genres. I would want to send them in knowing that they will be engrossed by a fascinating plot, engaged by human characters, and thrilled to see the treasure at the bottom of the deep, dark story.
This book was recommended to me by a teen, but isn't a young adult novel. I'd recommend it to any reader who likes finding treasure in this reading hobby.
Monday, March 11, 2013
I'm finding it difficult to begin a review of this book--this story packed into this little volume is large in scope and dense in detail. The story told is of a group of smart folks coming together as friends and being friends when one member finds evidence of life in Alpha Centauri. Another member, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz then makes a proposal to the Society of Jesus that this group travel to this other star system, find the planet these other beings live on, and go meet them. They make the trip, they make contact, but as you'll learn in the opening of the story, only Emilio Sandoz returns to Earth.
Russell is good at providing those little hooks along the way to keep you reading. Why did only Emilio return? Why does he act so strangely? What's wrong with his hands? What are the being who live in Alpha Centauri like? Little hints are given, you're steered one direction, then taken another.
But it's not just the suspense that keeps you locked in to this story. The characters are deeply drawn and authentic--very easy to connect with as a reader. You care about what's going to happen to them next.
I want to note also that Russell's ideas of the future have aged nicely for a work of science fiction published in 1994. You may notice a lack of mobile phones, but characters use tablets that are easy to associate with today's popular tablet devices.
But is this book for you? Do you like stories of exploration? Of individuals forming unofficial families together out of friendships? Do you like to wonder about life on other planets? Answers in the affirmative suggest that you would enjoy reading Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore mixes books and research with romance and friendship to make a fun, light story. Pop culture references make this book feel a bit like Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, but the prevalence of Google and ereaders ground the story in the present.
Robin Sloan's narrator, Clay, is an employed designer, thanks to the most recent market bubble bursting. Desperate for a job and passing a narrow, tall bookstore with a hiring sign, he pops in and speaks with the owner, Mr. Penumbra. He gets the job, but wonders at the small selection of books that are for sale and would appeal to the general public versus the more obscure books that are borrowed by members. How does the store stay afloat if they sell so little?
Another fortuitous event, aside from employment, occurs at the bookstore. Clay meets Kat, an ambitious designer and programmer at Google, who found one of his ecoupons and is cute and may be interested in him. Not many new visitors came as a result of his coupons, but Clay talks up the place to his friends and roommates in order to get some of their business. These friends are unique and make great characters to fill out a cast of what eventually becomes something of a small adventure.
I'm being vague to avoid spoiling anything. I can safely say, however, that fans of the fore-mentioned Ready Player One or Douglas Coupland's JPod will likely enjoy Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Like those books, Penumbra presents a young male protagonist and the relationships and friends that keep him afloat. Honestly, though, I'd recommend this to any fiction reader.
The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012)
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
The short version: This informative book should appeal to supporters of both wealthy job creators and 99%-ers, as well as anyone interested in current events or the way money shapes our world.
Chrystia's Freeland's Plutocrats surprised me--I was fascinated by her analysis of how the super rich came to be, how their actions are shoring up their position, how they think about wealth and the less wealthy, and how they affect the rest of us. But I was most impressed and surprised by Freeland's commitment to producing an unbiased text. That's not to say there isn't a bias--a major point of the book is that the growing income inequality in the US is bad for the US, especially the middle class--but this isn't an opinion piece. She neither mocks the wealthy, nor plays the part of Robin Leach taking us into their fabulous lives.
Freeland pulls a wealth of history (US political and economic policy history, global economic development history, etc.) and economic theory (everyone from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman and current academics) into the story of how the global super rich came to be. And it's not just the risky entrepreneurs who were in the right place at the right time, like the Indian founders of InfoSys who were faced with a growing class of English-speaking educated people who could provide over the phone tech support for a much lower price than workers in developed countries. One chapter covers superstars, including investors, musicians, and chefs, and the premiums they command from those who can afford hiring them for private party performances (like the banker birthday party appearance by Elton John).
As I mentioned, her commitment to balance is amazing. She includes quotes from plutocrats arguing that the outsourcing of American jobs to developing countries is a good thing because it will help create a global middle class, while maintaining in her conclusion that income inequality--both in the US and overseas--is harmful politically and economically to those at the bottom. This timely, well-researched and expertly written documentary of a global movement would appeal to anyone interested in current events and economic issues. Readers looking for a partisan piece--supporting the job-creating super-rich or struggling 99%-ers--could learn quite a bit from reading this, but be disappointed in its lack of evidence-less claims and charged rhetoric.
Monday, January 14, 2013
I came to become a fan of Ivan Coyote through seeing videos of her telling stories. My interest in reading her first novel, Bow Grip, comes from feeling connected to her as a person through her stories. You can have this same experience easily as she's got quite a few videos embedded on her site at: http://www.ivanecoyote.com/videos
But you don't need to know Coyote to read this book. Unlike her collections which contain autobiographical stories, this story is fictional. It centers around Joseph, a man in Drumheller, Alberta, who runs an auto shop and trades a car to a man called "The Cowboy" for a cello, the precipitating event of the story. Joseph feels it's a good trade as his mother and sister have been on him to get a hobby as a way to get his mind off his wife, Allison. She left him with the wife of another Drumheller man to live in Calgary, and Joseph has been understandably down about this.
Joseph winds up having a human adventure. The man he traded with disappears, and Joseph finds evidence of a woman he's connected to who may be living in Calgary. Also, while he's there searching for him, he might as well drop off the last of the books his wife left at their home. And why not seek out a cello teacher? No way is he going to find one in a little town like Drumheller.
In Calgary, Joseph befriends all sorts of people, and this connecting with others forms the heart of the story. At the beginning, I mentioned that I grabbed this book because I am a fan of Ivan, that I feel connected to her through her stories. Interestingly, this story is all about humans connecting with one another, and the ability to heal provided by these connections. And Joseph seems to learn about himself even as the reader learns how he interacts with and reacts to others.
It took this book to make me realize how much other stories I've read lately amplify the human experience to an unnecessary degree, not to mention how aggressively they thrive on conflict and the negative aspects of life. This is an excellent, quiet, authentic story that can make you feel human, happy, and whole.
Friday, January 11, 2013
Volume 1 of Bakuman introduces Moritaka Mashiro, an 8th grade student with decent grades and a habit of drawing in his notebooks during class. His drawing talent is noticed by Akito Takagi, fellow and best student in Mashiro's class. Takagi attempts to persuade Mashiro to join him in creating manga--he'll write and Mashiro can draw. Takagi's a skilled operator and manages to get Mashiro's crush, a classmate named Miho, involved, climaxing with a humorous scene in which Mashiro ultimately agrees to Takagi's plan. They know it will be grueling and require sacrifices, like giving up on any sort of elite schooling, but at the end of volume 1 they're dedicated to their goal.
This is an interesting story and I may grab subsequent volumes. The characters are enjoyably authentic, the artwork is high quality among manga, and the story is inspirational--how can I not pull for these young men facing terrible odds? The characters' view of the role of women is questionable, but growth in this area may be part of the overall story--they're in middle school, so I expect they'll grow over the course of the 20 volume series.
I'd recommend this to any teen or adult manga fan. I notice that this series is not as popular as other current manga titles at our library, but it might see more use if Death Note fans knew that Bakuman is by Death Note creators Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata.
Friday, December 21, 2012
Libba Bray's The Diviners mixes mystery and supernatural horror and sets in Prohibition Era New York. The effect is excellent--if I were a wine connoisseur and this book were a wine, I'd note hints of HBO's Carnivale, Stephen King's novels, and a liberal peppering of 1920s slang. I'll hold back from getting cutesy using the slang in this review.
Evie lives too fast. This leads to her using her unique ability to learn about people from their objects, publicly while drunk, and causing a scandal in her Ohio hometown. Her parents send her to live in New York with her uncle, Will, who runs a museum of folklore and occult curiosities, and his assistant, Jericho. Evie's thrilled to be there--she goes out with her friend and neighbor, Mabel, to speakeasies and films, and meets Theta, a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies who gives them free tickets and joins them in their partying.
Other characters are woven into this story, including budding poet Memphis Campbell and his brother, Isaiah; Theta's piano-playing roommate Henry; and, of course, the murderer.
Evie bullies her way into joining her uncle when the police seek his assistance in investigating the first murder. Arcane symbols on the victim's body require the expertise of someone knowledgeable in the occult. But then, there's Evie's ability to see and learn things about people by touching their belongings--is she brave enough to touch a corpse? Would her uncle, if he knew about her ability, let her? And if he does, can they catch the killer before he strikes again or does something much worse?
This is the first book of a series, and I'm looking forward to the next book. I enjoyed the suspense and adventure of the story, as well as spending time with each of the well-defined characters and exploring Evie's, Memphis's, and Theta's New York. I'd recommend this story to fans of Stephen King, fans of supernatural mysteries, and any reader (teen or adult) undaunted by thick books.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
I really loved this book! One of the blurbs on the back references Charles Portis, and the voice of this story's narrator, Eli Sisters, reminded me very much of the narrator of True Grit. I feel like I got to know Eli better, and liked this story better than True Grit, not that they need to be compared as they are both enjoyable stories. But, if I'm left with only the two books to read and have to choose one to read first, this would be the one.
Eli and Charlie set out from Oregon City on a mission to assassinate a man for the Commodore, who claims the man stole from him. The story is the journey to get to that man, with a lengthy satisfying resolution afterward. Along the way, the brothers engage in a couple scuffles, Eli grows attached to his horse as well as tooth powder and brushing his teeth. Charlie frequently gets drunk and rides hungover.
It's the character of Eli that keeps the story going. His narration provides insights on his growth, and the evolution of his character will resonate easily with readers. He's a quiet character that comes off as simple to others he encounters, despite his complexity. But his simple actions make him so human--he falls for women he's only just met, diets on a whim, is hurt by cutting words from his older brother who he still looks up to, and goes into a rage when he loses his temper.
Combine all that with deWitt's skill in composing scenes. There tends to be only one scene in a chapter, which can make them very short and create an episodic effect when reading. It's almost like a well-done television series in that each chapter could be an enjoyable story on its own, but the larger story arc of the characters has you return for each episode.
DeWitt paints humorous, tense, gruesome, and violent scenes with equal skill, keeping a consistent tone and avoiding exaggeration. It's very skillfully done, and I love how easily shifts would occur. One moment you're chuckling at the image of Eli brushing his teeth with another enthusiastic convert to tooth powder, and the next you're fearful about how he could behave toward her.
I'd recommend this title to any lover of fiction. Even though it is a Western story, its character-driven nature should make the story appeal to readers who avoid the genre. And the jacket art definitely helps to sell it as "not your grandfather's western" (although he'd probably enjoy it, too).
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
The short version: A science fiction and fantasy adventure featuring excellent characters, intrigue, and deceptions that will grip your attention such that you'll neglect the things you need to do in order to read more.
Orson Scott Card's Pathfinder is a fantastic science fiction/fantasy adventure story that slowly unfurls in such a way as to make it difficult to describe without ruining the pleasure a reader would derive from reading it all themselves. I'll try to avoid spoilers, but aim to do better than the vague jacket copy, reproduced verbatim at the top of the book's Goodreads record.
Pathfinder tells two stories simultaneously. Each chapter begins with a little bit of Ram Odin's story. He's commanding a spaceship loaded up with humans in stasis, traveling to a distant habitable planet so that, should something horrible happen on Earth, the humans won't go extinct. The ship is run by various AIs--computers handling the complex calculations required to make an experimental leap through a fold in space and expendables (robots) who provide artificial human interaction to help keep Ram sane, as well as act as interpreters between the ship's computers and Ram. Ram's ship is supposed to arrive at the new planet before the others, and should the experiment jump through the space fold work, it will take much less time than the hundreds of years the other ships are expected to take. But something doesn't go quite as planned during the jump through the fold.
After Ram's story, each chapter then follows a young man named Rigg, who at the beginning of the story works as a fur trapper with his father. As the two go about laying and checking traps, his father schools him on languages, sciences, history, culture, and more, much to Rigg's annoyance. What goes does it do a fur trapper to understand the banking industry in the distant capital, Aressa Sessamo?
That's not the only odd thing about Rigg's life. He also has something like a magical ability. He can see the paths that people and animals leave. Seeing isn't the right word--he can sense them, as well as their age and vaguely the sort of person or creature who made them. Almost. He can't see his father's path.
It's not long after you meet Rigg that he finds himself traveling with village friend Umbo off to bigger cities to discover more about himself and his past. His father had kept secrets from him, and while this story does not build up to big reveals, it is definitely more fun for you to read the story and learn about these secrets yourself.
Card's characters are excellent and the adventure is fun. The world he's built in Pathfinder is fascinating and stirs the imagination--I would wonder after putting the book down "what would it be like if this happened," and enjoy the Card's answer to it. There's also an enjoyable amount of speculation about time/space travel and physics that have the potential to make readers curious enough to seek out other information on the topic. I'd recommend this to teens and adults who enjoy adventure stories, especially those who like fantasy and/or science fiction adventures. If you're in this category, be warned that you may get sucked into this story and need to exercise some self-control to put it down and do chores or go to sleep. I'm really looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Ruins.
Monday, November 19, 2012
The short version: The story of a break up from the very beginning of the relationship, starring authentic characters and presented in a unique format--each chapter starts with an object from a box of mementos Min collected and is giving to her ex-boyfriend, Ed. For more details, read on.
Minerva Green is being driven to the home of her ex-boyfriend Ed by her best friend Al to deliver a box of mementos she collected over the course of their short relationship. Each chapter of Daniel Handler's Why We Broke Up begins with a painting of an object from the box and is followed by Min's written explanation to Ed of what the object and its significance is. Frequently, these objects are launching points for the narrative of their relationship. The movie ticket leads into the story of their first date and the poster Ed steals from the theater continues the story of that day. Other items are one-offs, with a single story attached to them. It's a fun and unique way to tell this story, and Handler writes very convincingly as a young woman in high school.
Despite the structure of the book around these objects, the story flows easily. Ed and Min meet at a party that Ed wasn't invited to, have an instant attraction, and exchange numbers. They are from different social circles, Ed being a captain on the basketball team and Min spending most of her time with a small group of film aficionados. She wants to be a film director. He wants to win the state championship. There are times while reading the story that Min feels like a friend who you realize cannot see that this is not a long-term relationship, which is a big credit to Handler's ability to make her, Ed, the other characters, and the details of their relationship so authentic and Min's love for Ed so genuine.
One element of Handler's writing I enjoyed involved Min withholding the information about an object until late into her writing about it. There's a suspense of curiosity that builds around the object--How does that play a significant role in her story?--and it's a fun change to the formula of a chapter.
I'm struggling to think what readers I'd recommend this to. It would appeal to both teen and adult readers who like realistic fiction, obviously, but they would also have to enjoy a story that breaks the mold.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
The short version: This is an excellent collection of articles by the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test that will satisfy fans of those books, as well as those who enjoy off-beat journalism and stories like those that air on This American Life. For more details, read on.
Lost at Sea collects past articles by writer Jon Ronson. I like Ronson, having read and enjoyed both Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Psychopath Test, in addition to enjoying his appearances on This American Life. His reading voice is infused with curiosity and mystique.
On his recent Daily Show visit, Ronson was dubbed by Jon Stewart an "investigative satirist," which is wrong. His articles and essays do carry humor, but he doesn't mock his subjects. It just happens that Ronson is drawn to odd, outside of the mainstream subjects. Like a sports writer follows sports, Ronson follows potentially cult-like groups, conspiracy theories and theorists, celebrities gone awry, and such.
A few examples from Lost at Sea. "The Name's Ronson, Jon Ronson," documents his attempt to live a James Bond film via a road trip in an authentic Aston Martin. "A Message from God," concerns the Church of England's Alpha Course, a controversial Christian conversion course aimed at Agnostics that some call brainwashing. "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes" documents his search through the deceased reclusive auteur's extensive and detailed archive. "Santa's Little Conspirators" takes him to North Pole, Alaska, shortly after a Columbine-like plot was foiled where he finds sixth graders responding to letters sent To: Santa, North Pole. "Is She for Real?" questions the authenticity of Sylvia Brown's psychic predictions, which Ronson attempts to ask Brown about directly while on a cruise with her. The title story, "Lost at Sea" is one of those investigations of potential conspiracy, as Ronson investigates Disney Cruise Lines's seeming lack of effort to uncover what happened to a young woman who disappeared from one of their ships.
Ronson's articles are fantastic. A writer who puts himself in his stories, he knows true objectivity is impossible, yet gives space for the various viewpoints he presents without mocking his subjects. There is an element of British humor on occasion, that display of cringe-worthy discomfort when he presses a question you might be thinking as the reader, but couldn't bring yourself into such a conflict in reality.
This is a very satisfying collection of Ronson's articles that will appeal to fans of his books, and those of Sarah Vowell (to whom this book is dedicated), Jack Hitt, and listeners of This American Life.
Friday, November 2, 2012
Maria Semple relates the tale of where Bernadette went and why using emails, letters, reports, articles, and other short pieces created by or relating to the characters. Interspersed are passages of Bernadette's daughter Bee's narration. With all the variation in modes of writing, I was surprised at how smoothly this story read.
Also available as downloadable audiobook in WMA format.
Monday, October 29, 2012
The Age of Miracles is the story of Julia as she comes of age in suburban California, featuring bullies, young love, cliques, loneliness, parental troubles, bra shopping, soccer practice, grandpa, and reading in the library during lunch at school.
I forgot to mention that while Julia suffers the above, the rotation of the Earth is drastically slowing. Circadian rhythms are thrown off by the changing pattern of light and dark, affecting humans as well as birds and other animals. Weather and tidal patterns are altered, and there are other ecological tragedies seen through the eyes of the young narrator. The global problems are enough, but social problems arise from the changes as well--the definition of a day turns very political when you consider that financial markets must close some time, and normalcy in the economy is a requirement to prevent total chaos.
And there's so much more. The narrator is small, but this story is huge, yet somehow the author tells it in fewer than three hundred pages. I am amazed by this book, and it is easily my favorite of this year.
But a warning--this is not an adventure story. This is a coming of age story, told from the perspective of a middle-school student. I've seen criticism that the author could have spent more time and effort on documenting the changes that affect the planet were it to slow, but our narrator is not the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day.
I would, however, love to know what research the author did in constructing her setting. Did she talk to scientists or read reports projecting the outcome of such a situation? Or did she come up with this on her own? Either way, it's very imaginative and I would recommend it to anyone, especially to fans of Cormac McCarthy's The Road on account of the skillful writing and the similarity in placing something normal (a father/son road trip, a girl coming of age) in an apocalyptic setting.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
The short version: You like doing things outdoors--hiking, hunting, cross country skiing, etc.--and read up on those hobbies. You've had a close relationship with a pet. You don't mind reading about the end of the world as we know it. If that's you, you'll like this story.
The details: The world in Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is a lonely place. A virus has decimated the US population. In a small airport in Colorado, Hig, along with his dog Jasper and fellow resident Bangley, persists. He sleeps outdoors with Jasper snuggled on his leg. He flies his Cessna around on patrols once a day, playing through loudspeakers that anyone who comes near the airport will be killed. Sometimes, he helps Bangley enforce this death sentence. They don't trust any of the few other survivors who come near the airport.
Hig hunts and fishes. He flies to a nearby Mennonite village to visit and deliver Sprite, but keeps his distance--signs up warn that they have "the blood."
Three years ago, while flying, Hig picked up someone on the radio at the Grand Junction airport. Events in his life make him want to fly out now. Why, Bangley wants to know, what do you want?
That's the most important question of the book. It drives the narrative. Hig is alive almost without reason. He loves nature and poetry, he's not cold enough to be the sort of relentless killer Bangley is. He may not have survived to this point ten years after the virus hit if it weren't for Bangley. But what is he doing surviving? What does he want to continue living for? The story answers the question satisfactorily.
Heller's writing conveys his own love of nature. I confess to skimming his descriptions on occasion--I wanted to get back to the action. He also writes skillfully from the first person perspective of someone who's been mostly alone for a decade. Hig's thoughts wander and sometimes it's hard to tell if you're in the present or past, but it's not confusing for long. Sometimes it's hard to tell if Hig's thinking or speaking, which fits his state of mind perfectly.
If you enjoy nature writing and outdoor survival, or end of the world stories with a human slant like The Age of Miracles or The Road, you might see what you think of The Dog Stars.
Friday, October 26, 2012
The short version: This collection of the compelling first 12 issues of the mystery-horror comic book series set in a twisted boarding school is a satisfying hook that will make fans of readers who enjoy grim graphic stories with a dash of the fantastic, like The Walking Dead or The Unwritten. Enticed? Read on.
Nick Spencer's Morning Glories is one of those comics that keeps you in the dark about what's going on. I'd say it keeps you guessing, but it would be a rare success for any reader to guess the what's happening in an issue/chapter. And this is fun--an excellent hook.
This volume introduces six teens heading off to Morning Glories Academy, a prestigious college prep school, where they do few of the things you'd expect to see in a story set in a school, like attend class, go on dates, or give mom a weekly update phone call. Instead, they're cut off from communicating with their parents, nearly drowned in a locked room that fills with water, injected with green stuff, planning to make tear gas, and that's just in the first couple of issues.
The school is collecting teens who were born on May 4th. Why? Dunno. Some of them aren't the ones they're looking for--their eyes haven't been opened or something. More mysteries. Why do the school teachers seem to be evil and experimenting on kids? Who is the Headmaster they keep referring to? At this point, he's like Jacob from Lost--potentially an invisible being who expresses his dissatisfaction with teachers by slashing them up. And you'll read on because you want answers--it's apt that Damon Lindenhof wrote the intro, as the first season of Lost inspires the same sort of story-addiction.
The characters are interesting. At the beginning, they're brought in as stereotypes--the good, smart student; the spoiled rich boy; the catty snob; the Star Wars referencing, awkward guy; etc. Luckily, they develop a bit in these first 12 issues, while the torturer/teachers remain mysterious in their motivations and histories.
The story flows well and fast. There's action in addition to the mysteries, and Spencer will leave a scene hanging, brings a separate one to an equally compelling point and returns to the first, tugging each along a little at a time, driving you to zip through the pages to get to the end of a story arc. And it was good, so you start the next one. And probably finish it.
Which makes this a difficult book not to read in one sitting. The creepiness of the teachers, the mad science of the school, the surprising violence and intriguing back stories of the characters are all, in my opinion, the story's best qualities, but could be the worst if you prefer gentler fare. If you like horror stories/films, David Lynch-style mysteries where you've no hope of knowing what's going on, and stories featuring high school students/politics, you'll probably get into The Morning Glories.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Ned Vizzini's The Other Normals tells the story of Perry Eckert, a young math whiz whose divorced parents' lawyers agree that it would be cheaper to send him to summer camp than to feed him at home, and since he got kicked off the summer math team, there's no reason to keep him around. Also, socializing with other kids at camp could be good for him--his parents and brother think he spends too much time alone creating characters and reading rulebooks for the role-playing game Creatures & Caverns. It's sadder than your usual stereotype of a tabletop role-playing game geek (and I use the term geek as a proud game geek myself) because RPGs are intended to be played by more than one person.
Perry goes to camp and runs into a fantasy creature like the one he plays in C&C who takes him to the world of the Other Normals--an alternate dimension version of earth that's still very closely tied to Perry's earth. He has adventures there, crosses back over to camp, goes back to the other normals, back to camp, continues to rack up adventures hand over fist, all supplemented with a healthy dose of Vizzini's humor.
It's a fun, light fantasy X coming of age story. I'll acknowledge that I'm not a young adult, and that this contributed to my personally finding the story to be less than satisfying. The humor was occasionally too similar to an Adam Sandler movie (or whoever the current equivalent would be--Kevin James?) for my taste. You do have to suspend belief for a magical conduit to another dimension that involves mushrooms and a car battery, but even so Perry sometimes behaves in an over the top manner that's forehead-slappingly unbelievable (SPOILER - highlight to read: a scene in which Perry's love interest at camp accuses him of being a boy, not a man, involves him dropping his pants in front everyone at the camp dance). If that sounds like the sort of thing that makes you chuckle, and you enjoy adventure and fantasy world building, visit The Other Normals for yourself.
(US 2012, UK 2010?!)
Saturday, October 6, 2012
The quick version: The most fun fantasy story--perhaps the most fun novel--that I've read all year, and despite it's "young adult" label, it doesn't feel like a YA novel. Keep reading for the detailed review.
Why is this series not simultaneously published in the US?
Jasper Fforde's The Last Dragonslayer is a perfect start to a humorous, imaginative fantasy series. In the Ununited Kingdoms, magic is on the wane, possibly linked to the dwindling number of dragons. That number has dwindled to one, and the once great wizards and sorceresses of Kazam Mystical Arts Managment have been reduced to using their powers for menial, mundane work, like finding missing cats or rewiring homes.
Jennifer Strange, foundling and indentured servant at Kazam, has been running the company since Mr. Zambini disappeared months ago. She's an enjoyable narrator and character, with all her smarts, independence, and well-delivered quips. Her good humor is very helpful as prophecies surface about the impending death of the last dragon. Does it mean magic will end? What will happen to the magical people in her service? Will the Transient Moose disappear?
This is a terrific blend of fantasy and humor, and though directed at young adults in the US market, it does not feel like a young adult novel--there's no coming of age, no message, no dominating insecurities, and blessedly no romance or love triangles. It's just a light, fun, fast read that I enjoyed so much that I could easily read it again. I'll have to get a copy for my personal collection.
Saturday, September 29, 2012
Review in brief: A comic book enthusiast and artist documents her senior year in college a page a day. Strongest recommendation to students interested in becoming artists themselves, but recommended generally to those between the ages of 14 and 35. The full review starts now.
I don't think there's any way for me to describe Natalie Nourigat's Between Gears in a way that conveys how much I enjoyed it.
Nourigat took on the ambitious project of creating a page-a-day graphic novel diary of her senior year at the University of Oregon. The ambitiousness of the project comes through the story of this year, as you learn that she has a thesis to write in addition to jobs to apply for, commissions to finish, and cons to attend--which involves lots of preparation in creating and printing artwork, minicomics, and so on. And then there's life--a necessary tonsillectomy, family visits, relationships with friends and her sorority to maintain, dating, college classes, ridiculous neighbors you only find in campustown, some dating, alley cats, partying, TV shows, movies, music, and her intense appreciation for fashion and shopping. Some entries are fun--drunk Natalie or Natalie being harassed by her responsible side are particularly amusing. Other entries are deep and emotional--one that comes to mind presents three gray, still images and the simple line, "Why do I feel this way?"
I was not an art student in college. I was not a woman in college, not part of any Greek organization, and not particularly social and into parties. But I found this story highly-relatable and authentically reminiscent of my senior year in college--on a basic level, being a college student can be a universal experience. Compound this feeling of connection by the little window Nourigat gives you into her personal life, and I challenge you not to fall in love with her a little bit.
And this says nothing about her artwork. Her style is fun and flexible, veering from realism to chibi depending on the tone she wants to create and this harmonizes brilliantly with whatever context she depicts. At times, her work brings to mind Craig Thompson, Kazu Kibuishi, and occasionally Adrian Tomine. At other times, I feel like I'm reading a well-drawn manga. But the style is uniquely hers, and recognizably so.
While I honestly feel that anyone could pick this up and enjoy it, I think readers between 14 and 35 would get the most out of it. This diary was composed in 2010, and Nourigat makes pop culture references that may be out of reach to older readers--heck, I wouldn't be able to identify the Pokemon theme song if my younger brother hadn't watched it growing up. To younger readers, those not yet Freshman in high school, college may seem to be a distant daydream, and they may be uninterested in classes, papers and the like. High schoolers and college students will appreciate this glimpse into Senior year, and those who've graduate in the last decade-and-a-half will enjoy reliving the experience in someone else's shoes.
Friday, September 21, 2012
John Green’s Paper Towns imagines a unique high school queen bee named Margo Roth Spiegelman and the mystery of finding her. Quentin Jacobsen narrates the story, beginning with a childhood memory of finding a dead body in the neighborhood park with Margo. While Quentin and Margo grew apart over the years, he holds a flame for her and she holds the high school’s ruling class back from bullying Quentin too much.
That’s how things are until Margo appears in Quentin’s room covered head to toe in black and makes him her accomplice in a night of adventure and revenge. Then she disappears. But she left clues, and Quentin tries following them to find her. As he searches for her location, he learns things about her that lead him to consider whether he really know her. Who was she? Does she want to be found?
Like all John Green books, Paper Towns reads easy. It’s hard to put down and over before you know it. There’s a cast of characters you wish you knew in real life, like Quentin’s Wikipedia-editing obsessed band geek friend, Radar. And there’s the question for you to mull over, about whether you can ever really know someone—that’s the one thing that keeps it from being a light read, but it’s nevertheless a fun read and recommended for any teen readers.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Every so often, I'll try a manga. As the young adult librarian, I feel like that's something I should do. I'll hear from teen patrons that they love a title more than life itself and give it a try. Then, often, I'll miss whatever it was that made the manga so great--it's okay, I'm at a different place in life than the teens I work with, but I'd prefer to relate to them through shared love of a story.
That's why I'm hoping they'll enjoy Bunny Drop. It's a series we recently began collecting by Yumi Unita about a young professional named Daikichi who impulsively takes custody of his recently deceased grandfather's lovechild, Rin. Daikichi is single and inexperienced at parenting, not to mention the responsibilities of adulthood. Still, he manages to care for her and it's fun to watch their relationship evolve. The story's touching and funny, though occasionally marred by clumsy translation. It's compelling enough that I powered through those instances to see what happens next. Does Daikichi learn to care for a child? Does he put her above his career? Will he ever find out who her mother is? Will his family accept Rin? Can Rin learn to open up to others?
Really, this manga isn't just for teens. The concept is similar to About a Boy, except Daikichi isn't rich and he's actually related to Rin. If you enjoyed the sweetness and humor of that book/movie, and you don't mind reading a comic book from back to front, give Bunny Drop a whirl.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Budo is six years old, but he looks like an adult. To the people who can see him, that is--he is an imaginary friend, visible only to his human imaginer Max and to other imaginary friends. Imaginary friends are born from people's, pimarily chilrden's, minds and come out looking like pretty much anything--a fully formed person like Budo, a spot on a wall, a robot, whatever. One day, they're imagined and exist, knowing what their humans think they know.
Max is different from other third-graders. He doesn't interact well with others, doesn't like to be hugged or touched, and has serious difficulties in dealing with the smallest changes to his daily routine. He also imagined Budo to look like a normal adult who can pass through doors, and brings his imaginary friend to school with him every day. He has special sessions outside of class with other different students and Mrs. Patterson.
Max begins keeping secrets from Budo relating to Mrs. Patterson, and while Max enjoys having his first secret, Budo knows there's something wrong about this. Then Mrs. Patterson crosses the line, and Budo is the only person able to save Max. Except, of course, he can't talk to anyone other than Max and other imaginary friends, so how can he save his human friend?
I enjoyed the imaginativeness of the story, but when that novelty started to wear off I was compelled by the suspense of Max's situation. I did not like feeling like certain characters should have come to certain solutions sooner, but as I was already suspending disbelief in reading a story told by an imaginary friend, I fought through it. This whimsy isn't for everyone, but if the concept piques your interest, you'll likely read Matthew Dicks's Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend from cover to cover, too.
Thursday, September 6, 2012
When Cameron is diagnosed with Mad Cow disease his life changes drastically. No longer is he the social pariah shunned by his twin sister, nor is he an embarrassment to his parents. The school he hates puts on a pep rally especially for him that he gets to watch on his living room television, just before he passes out and is taken to the hospital.
I’ve skipped over a few points, like how Cameron’s been terrorized by giant beings made of fire and stalked by a punk-rock angel. Dulcie, the angel, catches up with him in the hospital and explains that he is needed to fight the fire giants by locating one Dr. X, who also happens to be the only person who can cure him.
But he can't go alone. He must convince his hospital roommate and fellow student Gonzo to go with him. Gonzo is a hypochondriac be-afro'd dwarf who inevitably joins Cameron on his travels to New Orleans and on into Florida. Along the way, they meet a jazz trumpet legend, a group of scientists trying to break into parallel universes, a happiness cult, a garden gnome statue who claims to be the Norse god Baldur who's been trapped in statue form by Loki, and others. All the while, they are pursued by the authorities, the fire giants, and a snow globe manufacturer’s division of bounty hunters.
Libba Bray writes a hilarious story and does so with some serious talent. It's fantastic to see some of the repeated images in the adventure, understand their connection to Cameron, and know what's really happening to him. I truly appreciate her decision not to trick the reader or take an easy way out—you’ll have to read the book to understand what I mean here, as I’m verging on giving too much away as it is.
I think most teens and many adults would enjoy this story--I certainly know teens who will laugh at the random caroming of the plot and sometimes bizarre humor of this story. Drug and alcohol use, plus some profanity, may lead gentler readers to abandon the story, but others are likely to find it as much fun to read as I did.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
I liked Meg Rosoff's There is No Dog. It's a funny, somewhat scattered, odd little story that I wasn't expecting. I think when you read the blurb on a book that tells you God is a stereotypical teen boy, you get some expectations--like seeing a preview for a Will Farrel movie. I expected much more zaniness than this story brought, and I appreciate that the humor was more understated.
Rosoff takes the idea that God is a perma-teen named Bob seriously. He Gods the planet earth with the assistance of an older gentleman, Mr. B, who feels he was robbed of the promotion to rule the planet himself. He can't stand Bob's mood swings and laziness, not to mention Bob's tendency to fall for mortals on a whim. Mortals like Lily, who pray for love and are heard by Bob, who then attempts to fulfill their prayers himself to fight off his loneliness and boredom.
Lily works in a zoo on earth with a grumpy boss named Luke, and they're doing their best to help the zoo cope with the crazy weather--flooding and hail in the British summer--which is caused by Bob's mood. Mr. B has been after Bob to fix the off weather, but Bob will do it later.
How did such a layabout get to be the God of his own planet? He got his job as a result of his mother's winning a game of poker. She won the God of Earth job and handed it to her son. At a later game of poker, she bets and loses Bob's pet Eck, a betrunked penguinish creature he'd created long ago, of which Eck is the lone remaining example. She loses it to a God who plans to eat it, but his goddess daughter doesn't want him to. This is troublesome, because he's afraid of looking like a weenie if he caves in and doesn't eat the thing.
One final thread brings in Lily's mom, who hassles Lily to date and find a suitable mate. She gets to meet Bob when he's courting Lily, and is somewhat put off by him. She talks with Lily's god-father, the local pastor she'd once held a flame for, while they care for flood refugees in the church, and they conspire to confront Lily about her bizarre boyfriend. But can they prevent a mortal girl from falling in love with God?
Rosoff's humor-writing chops are strong--there are some very funny moments in this story. The danger is that the premise is so absurd that she has to work to bring the hilarity up to match it. I think she does well, but humor is a matter of taste--mine is undoubtedly different than yours. I would definitely read Rosoff's next humorous story--she's not bad at writing them.
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