Reading the GGNT 2015 noms: X-Men and L’il Gotham

by Tessa

Read about the whys of this series here.

I’m starting off with these 2 superhero books because it’s easier for me to write about stuff that I don’t enjoy. I like categorizing things so I made categories loosely related to how I would read things for the committee, with the knowledge that I have only the other nominations to compare them to because I haven’t been reading feverishly all year, and no teen feedback, so it really isn’t like a real committee reading experience.

One of the great things about the Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee is that there are 11 people on it, all with different tastes in comics, so hopefully no type of comic is given short shrift. Being on the committee exposed me to so many comics I never would have read. I still haven’t developed a depth of knowledge about Marvel and DC, but I do have a bit of breadth now, and a few new favorites. Full disclosure of personal biases: I’ve read enough to know that I have reservations about the usefulness of the superhero story and I might be a tad reactive to overused tropes. But I’d never say that I hate all superheroes. I just want better for them.

Batman_Li'l_Gotham_Vol_1_1

Batman: Li’l Gotham V. 1 & V.2

Dustin Nguyen, artist & writer

Derek Fridolfs, writer

DC Comics

Anticipation/expectation level: Guessing I’m going to enjoy it.  I like Batman comics, like a large number of people.  I like Dustin Nguyen’s art, and this book is no exception – just flipping through it ups the appeal.

Reality: The first volume has small stories that are all centered around holidays, some more popular and some that feel like a stretch. This seems like the one concession (other than the art) to Gotham being “Li’l” – the crimes and hijinks happen around something relatively frivolous like a holiday, so it’s cuter? Instead, it feels trivial and disjointed. And as much as the art is beautiful, it doesn’t quite fit the subject. The watercolors make the action more hectic & unfollowable, the chibi-izing of the characters, especially all the Robin iterations, make their features more indistinguishable, and creating some confusion. And Damian is annoying as usual, which doesn’t help.

Good to Know: I read these in a dour mood.

Will Teens like it?: I think younger teens will, for sure. I’d put this on the upper-elementary middle grade side of the library.

Is it Great (for teens)?: I don’t think it coalesces as a comic enough to be great, but I’d totally recommend it to a teen.

Art Taste:

Batman_Li'l_Gotham_Vol_1_1_Textless

X-Men: Battle of the Atom

Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Wood, Jason Aaron,  Frank Cho,  Stuart Immonen, David Lopez, et al 

Marvel

battleoftheatom

Anticipation/expectation level: I enjoyed the lead up to this event, All New X-Men: Yesterday’s X-Men, which if I remember correctly, was on the 2014 GGNT list. In that one, the X-Men of the past are brought into the future/present to scare them into making better choices. Also, I generally like the idea of the X-Men, and reading what Bendis writes, so I was expecting an interesting and pleasant ride.

Reality: It was so hard to force myself to finish this. The basic plot is that the X-Men from the past have stayed in the future-present because they feel they’re doing good there. But then X-Men from the future-future come in to tell them they are wrong and must go back to the past-past, but they can’t say why. No one trusts anyone, everyone fights with each other, even more future X-people become involved.Unless you are really into X-Men genealogy via time travel and enjoy the type of plot that consists of people sniping at each other endlessly, I find it hard to believe that this book holds an appeal to comics lovers who appreciate exciting art combined with an exciting story. Although if you read it as a cautionary tale about the drawbacks of being born a mutant in a world that will drive you and your kind to an extinction by infighting, then it is very interesting indeed. I found myself wishing for an alternate universe where X-Men stories were told in seasons like Star Trek, and could be enjoyed on their own. Each season’s strengths would make readers want to explore the universe as a whole, without creating events, crossovers, and time travel dilemmas.

Will Teens Like it?: Probably? Most of the teens I know read manga -this is one where I’d like to hear teen feedback.

Is it Great?: It’s a great big something.

Art taste: Standard superhero

6-battle-of-the-atom

Reading the GGNT Noms Preface: What is it and why is it.

by Tessa

For the previous 3 years, I was lucky to be chosen to volunteer as a part of the Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection list committee. This list might be unfamiliar to anyone who is not a librarian, so I’ll explain: Librarians have a professional association called ALA (American Library Association). There are divisions within it, and the one that serves librarians working with teens is YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association). YALSA’s work includes selection lists and book awards that help librarians across the country know about the best books of the year for their readers and libraries, including audiobooks, books for reluctant readers, and more. Full info is here.

The awards process is much more secretive (and prestigious) than the selection list. The selection committees read within their charge – ours was to find the best graphic novels published from September of the preceding year through December of the selection year (eg. Sept. 2013-December 2014 for the 2015 list – the list is named for the year in which it is published and NOT the year most of the books were published, SO CONFUSING). The committee members (there are 11) nominate titles by reading as much as they can get their hands on (this can be difficult for comics), solicit feedback from actual teens about the titles, and meet to discuss nominations twice a year during the ALA conferences.

The nominations list is finalized at the end of October, and the list is voted on and published at the end of January/beginning of February in the following year.

Which is all to say: being on the committee was a lot of work and 3 years was enough, but I totally miss it because it was like the best book club ever. I don’t miss having to read books whether I liked them or not (and you can see the toll it has taken on my reading pace here:)Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 10.20.57 AM

But I do miss feeling like I’m on top of what’s new in comics, despite having a fun gig reviewing at No Flying No Tights.

So I’m reading all the nominations this year and I’m going to do mini reviews here.  This is extra exciting because, even though our meetings were open to anyone at the conference, we were discouraged to talk about the books on social media/blogs, even if we didn’t explicitly say we were on the committee.

But now I’m not on the committee! Let the reviews begin – they will start tomorrow and go up every Friday.

I also want to note that anyone can nominate a book  (as long as you’re not a creator or publisher of the book)- there’s a form on the YALSA site. That doesn’t mean it’s an official nomination, but it brings it to the attention of the committee and they are then supposed to read it.

New TV Shows To Get Excited About In Fall, 2014!

TV Premieres I’ll Definitely Be Tuning In For This Fall!

gotham

by REBECCA, August 25, 2014

It’s a glorious time of year: the horrors of summer are nearly behind us and the Fall TV lineup has been announced! With one of my favorite books newly kicking ass on screen (Outlander), my expectations are high. Will this year’s shows cut it? I can’t wait to find out slash watch them anyway.

a to z

A to Z (NBC) premieres October 2. Let’s start on what will likely be a low note.

Andrew Lofland, while a guy’s guy, has always been a secret romantic . . . not above crooning to Celine Dion while driving to work, with dreams of finding “the one.” He imagines her to be just like that shimmering beauty he spotted that night in that silver dress at that concert two years ago. Zelda Vasco is a no-nonsense lawyer who has strong feelings about being her own person and prefers the control of online dating. However, when a computer glitch sends her a total mismatch, she’s asked to come in for an interview at Wallflower Online Dating, the agency where Andrew works.

Andrew and Zelda meet for the first time and despite their differences, sparks fly. She thinks it’s chance. He thinks it’s fate. After all, he’s convinced she’s the shimmering girl in the silver dress. Is it true love forever or just a detour in destiny? Andrew and Zelda will date for eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour. This program is a comprehensive account of their relationship—from “A to Z.”

The pilot of A to Z is available online now.

constantine

Constantine (NBC) premieres October 24. I’m excited about this one, but it’s a real bummer that it looks like NBC is not going to make Constantine bisexual like he is in the comic.

Based on the wildly popular comic book series “Hellblazer” from DC Comics, seasoned demon hunter and master of the occult John Constantine is armed with a ferocious knowledge of the dark arts and a wickedly naughty wit. He fights the good fight—or at least he did. With his soul already damned to hell, he’s decided to abandon his campaign against evil until a series of events thrusts him back into the fray, and he’ll do whatever it takes to protect the innocent. With the balance of good and evil on the line‎, Constantine will use his skills to travel the country, find the supernatural terrors that threaten our world and send them back where they belong. After that, who knows . . . maybe there’s hope for him and his soul after all.”

gotham

Gotham (FOX) premieres September 22. Whee! If this isn’t awesome I will be so so sad.

Before there was Batman, there was Gotham.

Everyone knows the name Commissioner Gordon. He is one of the crime world’s greatest foes, a man whose reputation is synonymous with law and order. But what is known of Gordon’s story and his rise from rookie detective to Police Commissioner? What did it take to navigate the multiple layers of corruption that secretly ruled Gotham City, the spawning ground of the world’s most iconic villains? And what circumstances created them—the larger-than-life personas who would become Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler, Two-Face and The Joker? Gotham is an origin story of the great DC Comics Super-Villains and vigilantes, revealing an entirely new chapter that has never been told. Gotham follows one cop’s rise through a dangerously corrupt city teetering on the edge of evil, and chronicles the birth of one of the most popular super heroes of our time.”

happyland

Happyland (MTV) premieres September 30. I’m not sure about this one, since the only MTV show I’ve ever seen is Teen Wolf (<3), but I’m game to try it.

MTV’s newest scripted teen drama exposes the soapy inner workings of one of the country’s most popular theme parks, revealing the less-than-magical reality of what goes on behind the scenes. Lucy is a cynical teenager who grew up in the park (her mom works there as a princess) and wants to leave so she can experience the real world. Naturally, that all changes when she meets Ian. He’s the son of the park’s new owner, who sweeps Lucy off her feet . . . until a scandal comes to light that turns both their lives upside-down.”

Jane the virgin

Jane the Virgin (CW) premieres October 13. This sounds fucking nuts, but . . . maybe also funny? Or maybe just an extended chance for me to yell at my tv, “GET AN ABOOOOOOOORTIOOOOOON!” Only time shall tell.

Gina Rodriguez stars as a young woman named Jane, and Jane is a virgin! What more is there to know? Well, okay, there is the fact that she’s pregnant because she was accidentally artificially inseminated by her gynecologist. Whoops! And to make matters even more complicated, Jane has to decide whether or not to keep the baby after discovering the sperm specimen belonged to cancer survivor Rafael, who’s not only a former crush of Jane’s, but also her new boss.”

red band society

Red Band Society (FOX) premieres September 17. This is the show that 10-year-old Rebecca really wanted when she was reading all those Lurlene McDaniel books. It’s apparently based on a Catalan show.

Red Band Society is a coming-of-age dramedy about a group of rule-bending friends and the adults who mentor them through the ups and downs of adolescence in Los Angeles’ Ocean Park Hospital. Exploring everything from strong friendships, and first loves, to humorous mishaps and heartbreaks, the series is a story of life, with an edgy comedic tone all its own.

Twelve-year-old narrator Charlie is in a coma and introduces us to this band of unlikely friends, including the “new kid,” Jordi, a 16-year-old who comes to California to seek out treatment at the renowned hospital. What Jordi soon discovers is that it’s not his illness that’s going to change his life, but his new friends. Also at Ocean Park is Leo, the 16-year-old, charming and independent “leader” of the group. Leo’s best friend is Dash, a 16-year-old “rebel” with a big personality, who is determined not to let his cystic fibrosis stop him from living his life. Also on the ward is 15-year-old “know-it-all” Emma, Leo’s on-again-off-again girlfriend who is coping with an eating disorder. Rounding out this group of patients is Kara, a “mean girl” cheerleader who shares a room with Charlie. Although her heart is failing, she is realizing for the first time that she actually has one and begins opening it up to her new friends.

You can watch the pilot online now.

Survivor's Remorse

Survivor’s Remorse (STARZ) premieres October 4. Well, Starz is kind of killing it with Outlander, so maybe this will be delightful? Even though I don’t care about sports, I love sports movies, so I’m game (get it?). Also I have a fantasy that Survivor’s Remorse might be the new Friday Night Lights . . . because it’s about sports + it’s set in Philly and Friday Night Lights ended in Philly . . .

This basketball comedy follows a young amateur baller Cam Calloway as he lands his first multimillion-dollar contract with a professional basketball team in Atlanta. Cam, along with his cousin and confidante, move to Georgia to start Cam’s career. The two confront the challenges of carrying opportunistic family members and their strong ties to the impoverished community that they came from.”

So, what will you be watching this Fall?

Oops, I Am Addicted To Witches of East End

A review of Witches of East End, based on the books by Melissa de la Cruz

Lifetime, 2013

Witches of East End

by REBECCA, August 20, 2014

witches of eastwickWhoopsiedoodle! My sister and I just accidentally scarfed the first half of a season of Witches of East End. I won’t lie: I took one look at the fact that it’s on Lifetime and the fact that it’s set in North Hampton and thought, “this will be terrible; I must watch this.” But, while I was expecting the show to be a kind of Revenge + witches, with lots of conspicuous consumption, low-cut dresses, and people having incredibly strong opinions about canapés while they ruin people’s lives, it’s actually . . . so funny. No, really. Within five minutes of the pilot, my sister and I were hitting each other and shamefacedly saying, “OmigodIlovethisshow.”

witches of east endWitches of East End is based on the books by Melissa de la Cruz, best known for her YA series, Blue BloodsNow, I’ve never read anything by Melissa de la Cruz, but I am totally not surprised that it’s based on the work of a YA author because what Witches of East End is totally winning at is not taking itself too seriously. Witches of East End could easily seem like a seen-it-all-before show about thin, pretty, white women who can do magic—and let’s face it, do we need more when we have Practical Magic?—but instead, it’s a really fun, funny family drama with a little romance and a few thrills thrown in.

Joanna Beauchamp (Julia Ormond) is an immortal witch. Her daughters, Freya (Jenna Dewan-Tatum of Step Up pedigree) and Ingrid (Rachel Boston) don’t know that they have any special powers (a change from the books, it seems). Joanna is cursed to see Freya and Ingrid die over and over and be born again—she’s lived through their lives in every century and seen them die in every way imaginable. So, this incarnation, she’s decided that she’ll keep their magic a secret, hoping to protect them from themselves. This has worked fine for the last thirty years, and the Beauchamps have been happy in North Hampton. Freya is engaged to marry rich doctor, Dash (Eric Winter), and Ingrid is pretty happy with her job at the local library.

Witches of East End

don’t mind me; i’m just smelling your face now

BUT, before you go thinking that everything is fine, dunh duh duh duh, there is a CAT. A black cat. And is not JUST a cat. It is Wendy (Mädchen Amick from Twin Peaks!), Joanna’s sister, who is a cat shifter (avec proverbial nine lives). Joanna and Wendy haven’t spoken in a century, but now Wendy has had a VISION: someone is after Joanna and they have to stop them. And with Wendy around, there’s no way that Freya and Ingrid will remain in the dark about their magic because SHENANIGANS ensue. Not only can the person who’s after Joanna shift into any form, but Dash’s estranged brother is back . . . and Freya might also be in love with him. WHAT? YOU GUYS. No, seriously, though, it’s so FUNNY. Ingrid is hilarious and so, so nerdy.

Okay, so Julia Ormond is kind of terrible (but I have fond feelings about her from Legends of the Fall and Smilla’s Sense of Snow . . .) because she just seems like a very cold person (and also her accent, which is apparently her real Britamerican accent, is whackadoo), BUT Aunt Wendy totally makes up for it. And did I mention INGRID! Best thing: it’s two sets of sisters!

Are you watching Witches of East End? What do you think?

Finally, Outlander!

A Review of Outlander (episode 1), created by Ronald D. Moore and based on the books by Diana Gabaldon

Starz, 2014

Outlander

by REBECCA, August 13, 2014

Battlestar GalacticaY’all, I have been dreaming of seeing Outlander on the big screen since I first read Diana Gabaldon’s book circa the turn of the century. Like many fans, I approached news of Starz optioning it with the mixture of hope and trepidation that always attends beloved adaptations. Would they cast it right? Would it evoke the same feelings of the book? What if I hate Claire and Jamie onscreen? Knowing Ron Moore, of Battlestar Galactica fame was at the helm made me hopeful, though, because he has such a great track record with sprawling, epic stories, of which Outlander is certainly one.

But, like many fans . . . I don’t actually have TV, much less Starz. Rather than watching episode one, “Sassanach” when Starz put it up for free viewing last Saturday, then, I waited until I came to visit my parents (who do have Starz—and a large TV) to watch. But now I have, so, though I’m late for the game I’ll be goddamned if I don’t talk about it. In list form. Because . . . mostly it’s just stuff I liked.

Most importantly, for me, I really liked Claire (Catriona Balfe). She was capable and brave and spunky without seeming like she had a chip on her shoulder. She seemed wise and mature, which she’s supposed to be, but still with a sense of humor.

I didn’t love Tobias Menzies as Frank, Claire’s husband. Since he and Black Jack Randall are played by the same actor, I really wanted someone who, as Frank, looked really appealing and cultured, and to me he looks like a villain as Frank, too, making his transformation into Black Jack less striking. He did a good job, though, and, most importantly, Ron Moore was smart to spend the meat of the first episode developing their relationship so that it will be understandable why Claire wants to get back to her own time.

OutlanderJamie. We didn’t see much of him, but he’s clearly Jamie-ish. Sam Heughan definitely looked the part and seemed to have Jamie’s tender youth and bravado pretty much sewn up. Also, you know, extremely handsome. Still, Jamie makes me slightly concerned about the cheese-factor . . .

My problem with the episode is actually a problem with genre. Diana Gabaldon’s book is not really a romance novel. It’s sweeping historical fiction at the center of which is a couple. But it’s often shelved in the romance section (I learned the embarrassing way in high school) and spoken about in terms of the romance genre. The character of Jamie isn’t actually the problem. The problem is that when viewed in romance terms, Jamie’s character has become a huge romance cliché: the strapping, red-headed 18th-century Scottish agitator who speaks with a brogue, threatens to throw women over his shoulder (in a nice way . . . ) and has, for the times, relatively progressive gender politics. It’s practically a staple now, nearly twenty-five years after Gabaldon wrote the book. So, I worry that simply by virtue of presenting Jamie faithfully, Outlander will verge into cheeseball territory.

OutlanderOf course, I would still happily watch a cheesy, romantic version of Outlander, but I don’t think that really does justice to the complex drama of the books, and it makes me a tidge worried that Starz won’t get the extra-literary viewership that it will want to justify renewing the show.

Okay, but aside from the tragic problem of Sam Heughan’s attractiveness and chest muscles, I thought the episode was great. Maybe this was a testament to my parents’ TV, but the long, sweeping shots of Scotland . . . that shit looked amazing. I loved the way the 1945 scenes were shot with a muted palette and dim or washed-out light; it makes the gorgeous natural colors once Claire goes through the stones really pop.

OutlanderThe music was gorgeous (not that I’d expect anything less from Bear McCreary, who also did the music for Battlestar), as was the cinematography. And I can already tell that I like the pace Ron Moore has chosen. It’s lingering, like Gabaldon’s books are, but not plodding. It meant that we got the great scenes of Reverend Wakefield’s housekeeper reading Claire’s palm, and the quiet moments of walking and driving around Inverness. The episode did a great job of establishing Inverness as a respite after the war—a safe place for Claire and Frank to reconnect after a long absence—which made it all the more shocking when Claire was ripped from it. Good show!

Scotland Decides 2014I am a little freaked out to see that Starz is splitting the first season, though, with episodes 1-8 running through the end of September and then going on hiatus until after New Year’s. I guess it’s good in that it will stop me from sitting in front of my computer staring and wishing I was in Scotland. Sigh. Also, I love that a show about independent Scottish clans will be airing simultaneous with the Scottish independence referendum (September 18).

Anyhoo, I was pleasantly surprised and cannot wait to snuggle back into the familiar world of Outlander! Did you see it? What did you think?

“Two brothers. One psychopath. A beautiful girl. The road trip from hell.”

A Review of In the Path of Falling Objects, by Andrew Smith

Feiwel & Friends, 2009

In the Path of Falling Objects Andrew Smith

by REBECCA, August 11, 2014

hook

Brothers Jonah and Simon have left their home in New Mexico to try and find their father, who’s in prison in Arizona, and their older brother, who’s off fighting in Vietnam. One day, tired, hungry, and scared, younger brother Simon hitches them a ride with a beautiful girl and a man who terrifies Jonah. What happens next is why your parents told you never to hitchhike.

review

The reason I love Andrew Smith’s books so much is that, no matter what story he’s telling, his characters are always a particularly potent combination of vulnerable and reckless that makes me want to read about them doing anything. In In the Path of Falling Objects, it’s Jonah and Simon. They’ve never spent more than a few hours apart and their relationship is intimate and codependent even when it’s fractious. Because they’re close in age and have always been in each other’s pockets, this road trip—their first journey away from home—catalyzes them to reject some of the things that make them similar and try on new possibilities. Especially younger brother, Simon, who sees something in Mitch, the man who picks them up, that appeals to him.

In the Path of Falling Objects is told primarily from thoughtful Jonah’s perspective. Jonah, who has always felt responsible for Simon and feels so doubly now that their brother is off at war, can tell that something is off about Mitch from the minute he stops for them, but there’s something about Lilly, the beautiful girl riding shotgun, that calls to him. So, when Mitch reveals the true depths of his psychosis, it’s not just Simon Jonah wants to protect.

Set in the southwest against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, In the Path of Falling Objects is also great historical fiction. Interspersed with the chapters of Jonah and Simon’s journey are the letters that their brother, Matthew, writes to Jonah from Vietnam. As the brothers travel farther and farther from home, Matthew’s letters reveal increasing terror and depression in response to wartime conditions. These letters, and glimpses into other characters’ perspectives, give background on what Jonah and Simon’s life was like before their mother left them alone, with no food and no money, in New Mexico.

In the Path of Falling Objects Andrew SmithAs always, Andrew Smith’s writing is beautiful and his pacing is dynamic where it should be and lingers in all the right places. I felt Jonah’s helplessness to protect Simon—from Mitch and the world he ushered in, but also from the person he fears Simon may want to become. I felt his love for Lilly, even when he knows that it’s perhaps misplaced. I felt his desire to be a good person always at war with his desperate loyalty to his brother.

I didn’t need the short sections told from Mitch’s perspective as he spiraled further and further into madness, but they didn’t go amiss either. In the Path of Falling Objects is a beautiful book about the things we do for siblings—for better or for worse—and the things we do because of them. By the end of the book, though their road trip has ended, you really get the sense that they are only poised on the edge of real change. It’s a bold ending, emotionally, but feels like the only one I’d want for Jonah and Simon.

That Was Then, This Is Now S.E. HintonThere’s a scene in S.E. Hinton’s Tex (1979) in which Tex and Mason pick up a hitchhiker who pulls a gun on them and holds them hostage. The hitchhiker is Mark, one of the main characters from That Was Then, This Is Now (1971). Though this is never explicitly stated, Tex’s English teacher (who dated Mark’s brother in That Was Then, This Is Now), mentions that she knew the hitchhiker. Because of this scene, I was thinking of Tex all throughout In the Path of Falling Objects. For the obvious reason that Mark and Mitch share some characteristics. But also because the ending of In the Path of Falling Objects made me imagine that Jonah and Simon might be the parents of characters in Smith’s later books, even if unidentified as such . . .

readalikes

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick, Andrew Smith (2011). Stick feels to me like a companion novel to In the Path of Falling Objects. Fourteen-year-old Stick has always had his brother, Bosten, to look out for him, but when their abusive father learns that Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home. Once Bosten leaves, Stick takes his dad’s car and sets out to find him, thinking he headed to Aunt Dahlia’s house in California. Without much money or any connections, Stick finds himself in, erm, sticky situations (sorry!), which he handles because he has no other choice. My complete review is HERE.

Tex S.E. Hinton

Tex, S.E. Hinton (1979). I love all of S.E. Hinton’s books, but sincere, volatile Tex reminds me a bit of Simon in In the Path of Falling Objects.

procured from: bought

“Think Twice Before Falling Asleep”: Welcome to the Dark House

A Review of Welcome to the Dark House, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Hyperion (Disney), 2014

Welcome to the Dark House Laurie Faria Stolarz

by REBECCA, August 6, 2014

hook

For seven horror fans (well, six horror fans and one traumatized girl who’s trying to desensitize herself) this will be the weekend of their lives. After submitting essays about their scariest nightmares, they’ve won an exclusive look at horror director Justin Blake’s new movie and the chance to stay at a bed and breakfast crawling with creepies. But when you hand someone else a guide to your most terrifying nightmares, don’t be surprised when they come true . . . [Come on, that clearly should've been a sentence in a blurb about this book; you're welcome, Hyperion!]

review

I’ve been on a total horror/supernatural/mystery kick lately, so I was excited to read Welcome to the Dark House (good title; good cover). I liked the premise a lot: horror fans competing to win an in-the-middle-of-nowhere weekend that’s all about their favorite horror director. It’s got the promise of thrills and chills alongside the possibility for some nerdy meta-horror fandom.

752px-john_henry_fuseli_-_the_nightmareWelcome to the Dark House starts really strong. Ivy Jensen’s nightmare is rooted in reality. Six years ago, her parents were murdered by a serial killer as she slept across the hall. After she called 911, their killer came to her room and spoke to her before police sirens scared him away, leaving her in constant fear that he would reappear and finish the job. Ivy’s fear hasn’t lessened over the years, so, at the end of her rope, she decides that she needs to somehow desensitize herself to it. Imagining that she might do so by learning what so many people seem to love about horror movies, Ivy enters the contest, even though she isn’t sure how she got put on the list to receive its announcement, and when she wins, she decides she will conquer her fears by facing them.

And it pretty much goes downhill from there. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a terrible book. It’s fun and has a few scary moments. But it could have been totally good, so I found myself getting more and more disappointed as it went along. What it suffers from are the same things that make so many horror films throwaways, and it’s frustrating to see, because a novel is the perfect medium (to me) with which to take advantage of everything that’s awesome about horror but also to add in a lot of that to which horror movies aren’t as suited.

Horror Film Problem #1. Welcome to the Dark House doesn’t go in depth enough with character development to make me care about the characters as people to care when they die (that’s not a spoiler if you’ve ever seen a horror movie). The reason that I wasn’t able to care much about the characters is that the book is written from six different perspectives, shifting every chapter. For the first few chapters this worked fine because the characters hadn’t gotten to the bed and breakfast yet. But once they were all together, there was NO REASON for a shifting perspective because . . . they’re all together. So, the shift in perspective seemed arbitrary—why have Garth tell this part of their dinner and Shayla tell this part? No reason. Because they’re all together.

Of course, there would have been a reason if the characters’ POVs deepened our understanding of them and their backstory, or if, as I always hope for in a shifting-POV book, the different characters’ views of events are quite different, revealing internal mysteries and hidden motivations. But that wasn’t the case here. As such, I was constantly having to flip back to the chapter to see whose POV it was from because the voices of the characters are not distinct from one another. This is a huge pet peeve of mine in general: if you’re going to use shifting perspective, your characters’ voices need to be unique enough that there’s never any doubt in my mind who is speaking.

It also turned out to be a problem because (no specific spoilers:) some of the characters die. So . . . it’s kind of awkward. Really, this should have been either in third-person, so we could fully experience things from all characters’ POVs or it should all have been from Ivy’s perspective since she’s established (as any horror aficionado will see) very early on as what Carol Clover calls “the final girl.”

haunted-dark-house_1680x1050_29115Horror Film Problem # 2. Like so many horror films, Welcome to the Dark House starts out as one kind of book and becomes a different kind in the third act. The first act, where our horror fans are arriving at the bed and breakfast and meeting each other, and the second act, when they begin to experience the delights of the horrors that have been planned for them there, feel very much of a piece. This makes up the first half of the book, which was both too long to glean as little depth about/investment in the characters as I did, and also too short to really develop the B&B as a house of horrors. It was, as horror goes, kid stuff.

The one exception to this is Natalie, a character whose nightmare is her own reflection. Her character has some interesting shit going on, which I appreciated, but which merely served to make the rest of the characters feel generic by comparison, unfortunately.

Halfway through the book, it decides it’s not satisfied with the B&B concept and takes the characters to an amusement part where, in order to be shown the new Justin Blake film, they must each face a carnival ride that is their own nightmare. Except there are also a bunch of random other rides that they can go on, so they just hang out for a while, lessening the suspense for no reason. Oh, and they’re locked in. In case that wasn’t obvious.

So, in order to be allowed to see the movie they must each face their nightmare ride, but no one is allowed to go on anyone else’s ride or they forfeit the chance to see the film. No idea why, except that this conceit finally makes it clear which chapter is told from which character’s perspective . . . ?

article-0-1B9A660E000005DC-455_964x633Horror Film Problem #3. Also like so many blah horror movies, Welcome to the Dark House isn’t even satisfied with one shift in frame; it has to add another one. The ending provides an ad hoc explanation of why they’re all actually there, which is thrown away so casually in one sentence that I don’t know why Stolarz even bothered. And, the final nail in the coffin, the book ends with the essays that the characters wrote to win the contest. But, why? Because we already saw what their nightmares were when they lived through them. Like, twenty pages before. (It also serves to remind the reader of a major plot thread that was never tied up . . .)

So, all in all, I think most real horror fans will find Welcome to the Dark House a predictable, unsuspenseful exercise in skimming. However, I would recommend it to folks who aren’t that into horror but are looking for a bit of a scare because it won’t feel as done-to-death for those unfamiliar with the genre, and because it really is only a tip of the hat to horror, so it’s not going to scare the bejeezus out of you.

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Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

Darkhouse (Experiment in Terror #1), by Karina Halle (2011). Y’all want a real horror novel that is also called Darkhouse? Of course you do! Karina Halle’s Experiment in Terror series is one of my all-time fave horror series. Perry Palomino has always had . . . issues with the supernatural. But when she meets Dex Foray, she’s willing to dive headfirst back into them to be the host of his online ghost hunting show. As the fear factor rises, so does the chemistry!

The Midnight Club Christopher Pike

The Midnight Club, by Christopher Pike (1994). Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side.

procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Faria Stolarz is available now.

“I Used to Think I Was a Good Person”: The Dogs of Balboa

A Review of The Dogs of Balboa by Rose Christo

Self-published,  2014

The Dogs of Balboa Rose Christo

by REBECCA, August 4, 2014

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While walking home one day, fifteen-year-old Michael Mirez sees a sexual assault and runs away in fear. Over the next year, Michael self-destructs, endlessly punishing himself for not stepping in to do more. Now, Noah Flattery, the boy Michael saw assaulted shows up at Michael’s school, and Michael sees his chance to try and make it up to him. But what starts as a relationship of guilty protection becomes so much more, and Michael isn’t sure if he can handle it.

review

Gives Light Rose ChristoAn important thing to know about the world: there is a series called Gives Light, written and self-published by the inimitable Rose Christo and, before you do anything else, you should read it. I’m telling you this because I want to improve your quality of life. (Also, you should check out our interview with the very smart and funny Rose Christo HERE.)

Whew, okay. Now that we’ve taken care of that, let’s talk about The Dogs of Balboa, a book that has a similar tone and dynamic to the Gives Light series—and what a welcome dynamic it is!

Our narrator is Michael Mirez, whom we come to know as a responsible kid who loves his older brother, Joel (who joined the army at eighteen), and sisters, respects his father, a terse Spanish lawyer, and feels protective of his mother, a wheelchair-bound former-reindeer-farmer from Lapland. Michael is kind and funny, and thinks of himself as a good person. All that changes when Michael sees a boy being raped by two men in an alley. Michael wants to intercede, but, terrified, runs to his best friend, Tamika’s, house and calls the police instead. After that day, Michael never lets himself off the hook again.

Michael’s opinion of himself changes drastically that day, and he doesn’t believe he deserves anything good in his life. His guilt even causes him to fail his sophomore year. He spends his time in Joel’s room, confessing things to him that he can’t say out loud. How everywhere he looks he sees the personal failure that’s come to define him. Rose Christo has a way with this kind of character. Her portrait of Michael’s guilt and trauma over what he witnessed and his reaction to it are exquisite.

The boy from the winter alleyway crept back into my head. I almost vomited. Truth was, that boy was always in my head. Mostly he lingered toward the back somewhere, just out of sight. It was whenever I was in danger of thinking something really hypocritical—or relaxing, even for a moment—that he made his comeback, that he reminded me I didn’t deserve respite and he wasn’t going away. He was never going away. What had happened to him was never going away. If I had just said something. If I had just opened my mouth.”

earth5Then, on the first day of Michael’s (second) sophomore year, he runs into a beautiful Native American boy smoking in the bathroom and everything changes. Because it’s the boy he saw in the alley that day a year before. And suddenly, all Michael wants in the whole world is to keep this boy—Noah—safe. It begins with Michael walking him to and from school, where they develop a rapport. Michael notices that sensitive, jumpy Noah seems to feel safe around him. But this only serves to heighten Michael’s fear that he cannot ever truly keep Noah safe; that he’d already let him down too severely.

Almost without noticing it, Noah and Michael begin spending all their time together, where they realize they’re both fascinated by space—planets, constellations, black holes. But, no matter how close they get, Michael sees every interaction as pointing out his own failure; as pointing out that he doesn’t deserve to be happy.

“A part of Noah was stolen last winter. Noah wanted to go to space to get back to himself, the unmovable, indomitable part of himself that stood still with the ethers while the earth shook. I wanted to go to space to get away from myself. I wanted to stop being Michael. Noah stood his ground while I ran away.”

The closer they get, the less Michael feels he can bear to lose Noah’s friendship, so he avoids telling Noah that he is the one who witnessed his attack. But the closer they get, the more Michael feels like he’s assaulting Noah all over again by enjoying his friendship without confessing. And, little by little, Michael is beginning to question whether his feelings for Noah stop at friendship . . .  because he’s beginning to feel something very much like love.

The image of the violent practice that gave this book its title

The image of the violent practice that gave this book its title

The Dogs of Balboa is pitch-perfect; a poignant and chilling exploration of the horror of suddenly proving to yourself that you aren’t who you thought you were, and the horror of living with the aftermath. Michael, it’s clear, did nothing wrong. But after being confronted with a version of himself that he found lacking, he is unable to live with that self. Noah has his own version of events, but Michael isn’t sure he’ll ever be able to revise his opinion of himself. Christo is a master at character-building through voice and reaction, and Michael and Noah are no exception. They are delightful, complex characters who each possess something that the other one desperately needs.

As with all her novels, Christo’s secondary characters—Michael’s siblings, Noah’s sister, their friends from school—are fully-developed and help build the world. The Dogs of Balboa explores multiple different cultures, from Michael’s mixed heritage and Noah’s Native American household, to the large Gujarati population at their school.

The Dogs of Balboa reminded me of Gives Light in some ways. An unlikely friendship between two boys that’s based on unconditional protection on one side and unconditional acceptance on the other; issues of guilt and redemption; trauma, both person and cultural; and sexual assault. But this isn’t a rehashing of Gives Light by any means, merely a very worthy and very welcome follow-up. The Dogs of Balboa is a beautiful book you won’t forget.

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012). When Aristotle and Dante first meet, they seem an unlikely pair. Aristotle is angry at the world, with a brother in prison and frustrations around every corner, and Dante is thoughtful, with academic parents and a paranoia that he’s not Mexican enough. But Ari and Dante quickly become inseparable, and this story of their relationship is a gorgeous testament to the ways we sometimes need someone unlikely in order to discover ourselves.

How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis

How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, by J.C. Lillis (2012). Psh, y’all, J.C. Lillis’ debut novel is a masterpiece of the friends –> boyfriends genre. Like The Dogs of Balboa and Aristotle and Dante Discover the UniverseHow to Repair a Mechanical Heart features two opposites who form a close friendship. Brandon and Abel have a fan vlog about their favorite tv show; now, they are embarking on a journey to see the show’s appearance at comic-cons across the country . . . and a journey of lurve. My full review is HERE and our interview with the so-delightful J.C. Lillis is HERE.

procured from: bought, as I will with EVERY Rose Christo book that comes out!

Summer Reads Pt. 2: Smile and The Book of Bad Things

by Tessa

It’s part 2 of my “books I’ve read this summer about summer” posts! Today I’m covering 2 dece reads for middle schoolers (and other people who read and like books). Unfortunately, both of them won’t be published until the end of August. Which is a great time to read books about summer in order to hold on to that summer feeling.

[Disclaimer: I'm reviewing Advance Review Copies of these books, so between now and when they're actually published, things could have changed in the book.]

Sisters

Raina Telgemeier

Graphix, 2014

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Raina Telgemeier is a godsend for realistic comics lovers who want to read stories about the middle school years. This is her follow up to her first book, Smile, which was about her totally falling on her face/mouth and having to deal with the messy dental aftermath of it for a long time, during her most awkward years.

This one’s about her sister. Actually, spoiler alert, it’s still about Raina and her feelings about her sister Amara. The framing is a road trip that she, her mom, her sister, and her little brother take, going from California to Colorado to visit family, and is punctuated by flashbacks that explain more about how the sisters grew to have their tense relationship, and why Raina won’t sit in the front seat of the van.

The flashbacks have a neat yellow filter on the pages, making it clear that the story is in the past. I wish all of the ARC I saw was in color, but that would be crazy expensive and I understand why it switched to black and white, but I’m glad I got a preview of what the coloring will be like (done by Braden Lamb, who does stuff for the Adventure Time comics!). The past sequences, with the filter, look like yellowed color photos, while the present sequences, and the present sequences capture the color of the late 80s, which is when I think this was set (maybe early 90s?), as does the fashion, of course.

Telgemeier’s writing and drawing makes me feel comfortable, like I’m reading a surprisingly interesting (and long) cartoon in a newspaper. Her family stories have the rhythm of a good sitcom, replete with punchlines and realistically wacky situations. I was so happy to slip back into those rhythms that I wasn’t bothered at first by the arc of the story. There is one scene at the end, though, that packed a big emotional punch, and it’s delivered by Amara. That made me realize that I didn’t know much about her. It’s a function of Raina not being allowed/distancing herself from Amara, so she doesn’t know what her sister is like. But it also leaves much of the book’s story obscuring half of what the book is about. It’s Sisters, not Sister, and it would have been a more powerful book for me if the big realization weren’t related to one sister not really being present in the story except as a mystery and antagonist to the other. This misstep in plotting won’t hurt the book with its core audience, though, and there are many solid scenes in there for fans to savor.

 

The Book of Bad Things

Dan Poblocki

Scholastic, 2014

bookofbadthingspoblocki

A colleague of mine brought this back from… BEA? And when I saw that it was middle grade horror and that SLJ compared it to R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and John Bellairs, I gladly took it off of her hands.

I’ve never heard of Dan Poblocki before, but he has written a lot of MG horror. Thanks for keeping the torch alight, Dan Poblocki. But you need to work on your tumblr.

The Book of Bad Things is about Cassidy Bean. She’s part of an exchange program in New York City, possibly part of a social work program, that lets her go and live with rich people in upstate New York during the summer. She’s visited one family, the Tremonts, for a couple summers, but this summer she’s arriving late to Whitechapel because the Tremonts took a while to say that Cassidy was welcome to come.

Something happened last summer to Cassidy and the Tremont’s son, Joey. They went out to the big house where Ursula Chambers, the town hermit lived. She yelled at them, and then later, Joey’s dog died, and for some reason, those two things became connected for Cassidy and Joey. Cassidy blamed herself for having the idea in the first place, and the summer seemed ruined.

Now she’s back with a new journal: The Book of Bad Things, where she writes down her fears and anxieties. Joey isn’t talking to her, and Ursula is dead. All her belongings are being raided by the townspeople, because Ursula didn’t have a family. Then, the people who took Ursula’s things start seeing her. And they start dying.

What I liked most about this book was that it wasn’t afraid to be scary and gruesome. It makes its characters question the line between reality and what they’ve seen in horror movies that feels more sophisticated to me than most horror setups in books for the younger set. Poblocki plays with the ideas of ghosts, zombies, psychic/emotional manifestations, and curses, and the real life scariness of hoarding, anxiety and hurt friendship. Sure, Cassidy’s narration is a bit stiff at times, but she’s a very serious girl, so it fits her. It also never states what race Cassidy is, so it’s possible to read her as black, which is important for many kids.

As an adult reader, I wasn’t terrified, but I can tell that if I had read this when I was a tween, it would have firmly lodged itself in my psyche.

 

 

 

 

Summer Reads Pt. 1: Celebrated Summer and This One Summer

by Tessa

 

Summer: anything can happen, freedom, transitional state of adolescence, blah blah blah. I just read a bunch of books set in summer! Two were more high schooly and two were more middle schooly, so I’ll cover them in two parts.

Celebrated Summer

Charles Forsman

Fantagraphic Books, 2013

celebratedsummerforsman

 

The cover copy calls this a “graphic novella” because it’s relatively short. I call it “self-aware nostalgia” because the narrator, Wolff, is thinking about this one time that he and his friend Mike took LSD and decided to drive to the beach from their small town in Pennsylvania (Forsman is from Mechanicsburg so I’m picturing there). But even as he’s recalling it he doesn’t think it’s magical. Yet he’s not feeling sorry for himself.

Forsman has a spare line that still manages to capture summer days that are unrelentingly hot and humid. Or maybe it’s the way he writes Wolff, who is drifting and so uncomfortable in his skin, but not ready to do anything about it, that is coming through in the atmosphere of the book. In the same way, the LSD in Wolff’s body warps his environment, so he stops knowing what’s inside and what’s outside:

celebrated2

 

More previews at Fantagraphics!

Forsman is really good at pacing his panels. Some of them unspool like frames of film, he always pauses for reactions that make the story flow as if it were in real time, giving conversations real pauses, and some, going off into pure abstraction, still follow their own logic.

I also really liked his The End of the Fucking World, and recommend it. And he runs(?) this comics press/distro called Oily that sells subscriptions and it looks pretty rad. Do more research about it than I just did here, on its site.

 

This One Summer

Written by Mariko Tamaki, Drawn by Jillian Tamaki

First Second, 2014

thisonesummertamaki

 

Hope I’m not scooping you on a review, Rebecca, because I know how much you loved Skim. (Regardless I’d like to read your review of this book, though).

I’m including This One Summer on the high schooly side of things even though it’s about two kids on the cusp of adolescence. Because Rose and Windy are obsessed with the high school/post high school kids at Awago Beach. Because it’s also nostalgic in a way, being that Rose is thinking back to previous summers compared to this one. And it has adult intrigue that Rose understands, but adults reading it will connect to on another level. I think that whatever age reads this book will get different things out of it, and it’s a book to keep coming back to to measure yourself against the feelings it gives you.

It’s gorgeous, no surprise, since Jillian Tamaki is fantastic and wonderful. It’s printed in blue inks, and the lines are brushstrokes. J. T.’s figures are simplified enough that eyes don’t have separate pupils and irises, but retain a sense of depth and weight in the space of the image, so a realism comes through. The backgrounds and splash pages are delicate, detailed, and finely observed, like obsessive studies for full on paintings, grounding the story in place.

The story is Rose’s summer at Awago Beach, where her family has been going forever. She has a beach friend named Windy, who’s a bit younger than her. This summer she has a crush on the video store clerk, he’s having drama with his maybe girlfriend, and her parents are not getting along. Her mom won’t go to the beach and she’s pushing Rose’s dad away. It’s a summer made of moments, and some of them will affect Rose in obvious, rememberable ways, and some of them are the kind that pass by and come back in embarrassment or with a laugh years later, or might never be remembered at all. Here we get to see them play out and wonder which are which. Mariko Tamki is fantastic and wonderful as well, writing another layered and immediate story, with characters that are perfectly themselves.

 

 

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