Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: One-Off Fantasy/Magical Adventures

by Tessa

Read about the whys of this series here.

Possibly my favorite genre of comics, and one of the larger lists to be culled from the nominations this year – graphic works are suited for describing the fantastic if done well, and there’s a lot of fun and variety in these selections, so if yo u find your attention waning partway through, please take a break and come back to appreciate the back end of the list with fresh eyes.

singnoevil

Sing No Evil

JP Ahonen, writer

KP Alare, artist

Abrams

Anticipation/Expectation level: Another one I’m on hold for – excited to read this! Although the comics I’ve read about people in bands are usually disappointing, this one looks like it could be fun.

Art Taste:

singnoevilpreview

giganticbeard

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

Stephen Collins, writer and artist

Picador

Anticipation/Expectation level: Based on the title, pretty high?

My Reality: It’s one of those gentle stunners of a book that is somewhere closer to adult picture book on the graphic novel spectrum. A fable-like story about an island named here where everything is in its place, surrounded by a sea that leads to There, an unknown place of frightening chaos. An inhabitant of the island has one hair on his chin that goes haywire, causing problems for all of the island’s society and culture.

The text is gentle, with a sure tone and an almost-rhyming feel. It is very rhythmic and I sang part of it to my cats as part of their integration therapy. The art is penciled, with a sense of lighting that adds to the otherworldliness and gravity of the story. Collins balances the softness of his pencils and the lulling of his words with the helplessness of the unknown that lurks beneath both. It is a treat.

Will teens like it?: Yes, it doesn’t have an immediate hook apart from the great title, but it’s not hard to get into and provides its own rewards.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes – much like The Arrival, this is the kind of book that isn’t marketed towards teens but would be great to use in a book club, to introduce to an arts loving teenager or foist upon a book club with success, because there’s not really an impediment to getting something from it other than the thought that it might not be like what one is used to reading.

Art Taste:

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

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Buzz!

Ananth Panagariya, writer

Tessa Stone, artist

Oni Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: It looked fun, but I knew nothing of it going in. I like the name Tessa.

My Reality: Like Hicks’ and Shen’s Nothing Can Possibly Go WrongBuzz! is a solid entry into the teen high school slightly off adventure comic market. It’s easy to pick up off the shelf and recommend because it’s a new concept (underground spelling bees) running on standard tropes (outsiders who used to be insiders take on powerful conglomerate with the help of a talented newbie, betrayal from sort of within happens). And there’s nothing that is objectionable unless you object to a hint of magic. The action starts quickly and escalates quickly and the art is dynamic, hitting a spot between Faith Erin Hicks and Brian Lee O’Malley (as does the tone of the story). In short: fun.

For me, the action was a bit too quick and I never felt any resonance with the characters or their struggles, everyone was a bit too blithe. However, I don’t really count my feelings as meaning much because I’m not the ideal audience for this book. I don’t think it’s meant to be resonant, and I don’t think it has to be to be a successful comic. In fact, as a teen services librarian I wish for more of these fun, one-off books for my shelves.

Will teens like it?: Yes.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

buzz_panels

breathofbones

Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem

Steve Niles and Matt Santoro, writers

Dave Wachter, artist

Dark Horse

Anticipation/Expectation level: I’v always been a fan of golems.  I was interested to see what this book would do to distinguish itself in the saturated WWII market. (Pretty sure there are even already books about golems in WWII).

My Reality: A straightforward tale, as far as a tale about using a Golem against Nazis goes. A boy loses his father to World War… One, I think. Or two. Anyway, enough time that he grows up a bit in between. He’s waiting in a small village with his grandfather and other elderly people, all Jewish or mostly Jewish. He’s still waiting when a plane crashes outside of town. This is bad, because it is an Allied pilot who will bring scrutiny from Nazis. There is barely enough time to flee, so his grandfather entrusts  him with the secret of golem-making, and makes a Golem.

In keeping with the folsky, mythical vibe of the Golem, the tale is focused on the elemental parts of the story: good over evil, nobility over greed, sons discovering their strength in the absence of fathers and father figures. The Golem itself is elemental: the protection of earth and faith. The historical detail of the story adds another layer of pathos and dignity. And the art is gorgeous: detailed, black and white with a nice flowing sense of space and shadow, highlighted by brushy washes of grey and black. Unfortunately, by focusing on the elemental parts of the story, the story ends up being kind of forgettable. It’s evocative during reading, but might fade from the mind over time, merging with other golems or other WWII tales.

Will teens like it?: I can see some teens liking it.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s good. I don’t know if it crosses over to great. For teens. But I bet someone else could argue it.

Art Taste:

bobtag1p3

lilychen

The Undertaking of Lily Chen

Danica Novgorodoff, writer and artist

First Second

Anticipation/Expectation level: High, because I read Slow Storm and Refresh, RefreshI loved those books and was excited to read a longer work with a more clearly defined plot from Novgorodoff.

My Reality: If The Undertaking of Lily Chen were a movie it would be a fast talking movie in the mold of 30s and 40s flicks and it would be a farce, only set in China and having to do with a less-loved son finding a corpse to bury with his dead, too-venerated older brother. It’s a strange mix but one that works – Novgorodoff is good at finding the groove in uneasiness.

The main story is a chase/road trip type format, with Deshi Li dealing with the abrupt and violent end of his brother (by his hands), his place within his family, and his desperation to find a corpse or someone to murder to become a corpse bride. He runs into Lily Chen, who is brassy and adventurous in contrast to Deshi’s sad and anxious mode. She is trying to get to Shanghai from the poor countryside by any means possible. She becomes Deshi’s target and companion. The story, as it is, is not the strongest part of the book. The central idea of the ghost marriage as an impetus is interesting, but not enough to sustain the whole book – that would fall on Deshi’s shoulders, and he never really proves himself as a main character. Lily, being the titular character and the more naturally active person, is compelling, but so concerned with her movement away from her past that it’s hard to admire more than her gumption.

What really pulls everything together is the art. Sweeping, melancholy vistas of mountains. Twlight and dawn-light. Out of body experiences. Novgorodoff mixes delicate watercolors with pen-line shadows and outlined characters, the exaggerated with the realistic, creating a world slightly beyond the real.

Will teens like it?: Yes. It’s intriguing and well-paced.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes  – the shortcomings of the characterization are balanced out by the art and themes that emerge near the end.

Art Taste:

lilychen lilychen2

MoonheadCoverFull

Moonhead and the Music Machine

Andrew Rae, writer and artist

Nobrow Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: I like Nobrow.

My Reality: This hit all the sweet spots for me. Palpable depictions of awkwardness that lead to heartwarming scenes of celebration of being weird. Joey Moonhead has a moon for a head. No one talks about it, but he and his family are the only ones who are visibly different from all the other humanoids. Joey is out of it and kind of shy, but he wants to build a music machine for a talent show. His first attempt is pitiful but he is discovered by a new friend – a ghost-person, dresssed in a sheet, who is kind of a musical genius, and he blows off his long time buddy to pursue the dream.  I found it to be relatable, a story that has been told, but a heartfelt, personal take on it that works. Rae’s art is all clear lines with a great sense of storytelling beats through the pacing of the panels. And he draws great creatures.

Will teens like it?: Teens might think it’s too weird or off their usual path, but I bet they would like it if they gave it a chance. Or they might think its message is too simple.

Is it “great” for teens?: I think it’s great!

Art Taste:

Moonhead_Page14-600x402

moonheadpreview

downsetfightcover

Down Set Fight!

Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, writers

Scott Kowalchuk, artist

Oni Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: Verging from neutral to vaguely wary about sports content.

My Reality: Down Set Fight! is unapologetically a book about fighting. To be specific, it’s about a football player who is most famous for fighting on field and has abandoned his career and aged into being a high school coach. Until mascots start seeking him out to fight him. (There’s also a back story with his sleazy dad.) The fun the writers had dreaming up the mascots is readily apparent, and although there’s a mystery element to the plot, it is really all about Chuck fighting mascots and figuring out why they want to fight him. It’s all done with a sense of whimsy and over-the-top violence that isn’t gruesome or realistic in anyway, and I admire that.

Will teens like it?: You could sell this to a teen.

Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t know if it’s great. I’m on the fence.

Art Taste:

pachyderms

BEAUT_DARK_cover-full

Beautiful Darkness

Fabien Vehlmann, writer

Kerascoët, artists

Drawn & Quarterly

Anticipation/Expectation level: Read a preview of this last year and really, really wanted to read it.

My Reality: Possibly one of the best books I’ve read, period. It is beautiful and terrible – terrible in the sense of being deeply frightening. Or maybe the right word is horror, or is there a word of witnessing the consequences of bad decisions or acts of god(s) and being struck by the impassive blankness of nature? It’s that. There are very visceral moments in here that will stay with a person.

So, the book is about these tiny fairy-ish people who emerge from the body of a dead girl in a forest. It’s not clear who they are or how they ended up in the body but they now have to survive in the forest. Some are oblivious to the dangers, some scheme to get power, some try to help out, some go out on their own. The team of Kerascoët is the perfect choice to illustrate this world, with their sure, delicate pen lines and richly colored, realistic backgrounds.

Why should I say more when you could be reading this book?

Will teens like it?: Yes. It might scar younger readers, but will also fascinate them.

Is it “great” for teens?: I mean… it’s great.

Art Taste:

BEAUTIFUL-pg61-817c1

Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: Sci-Fi

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reading these here.

I had 4 sci-fi titles bunched up together. Two of them are not going to make it to my eyes in time.

ringworld

Ringworld, an adaptation of the sci-fi classic by Seven Seas, could not be procured even through my library system’s excellent ILL department, and I don’t think I’d like it enough to spend money on a digital copy. I would if I were actually on the committee, but luckily I don’t have to. It sounds like a cool idea, and I am tempted to read the original prose novel.

rust3

I am sad that my library does not have Rust V.3: Death of the Rocket Boy, by Royden Lepp, because it’s been out since May of 2014. This is a series, originally published by Archaia, that I’ve been following since it first came out. Each of its volumes has made it onto the Great Graphic Novels list, and last year the 2nd volume was in our top 10. I want to read the next (last?) installment of this story in an alternate historical time about a jet-pack/boy and his adventures in Canadian farmland. But I’m willing to bet that it makes it on the list again this year. I would buy a copy but it wouldn’t make it to me in time. Bad planning, me.

But anyway, on to what I did manage to read:

boom_woods_v1

The Woods Volume 1: The Arrow

James Tynion IV, writer

Michael Dialynas, artist

BOOM! Studios  

Anticipation/Expectation Level: It was on my radar but I didn’t know anything about it other than the cover looked cool.

My Reality: I had so much fun reading this. In many ways it’s very much a classic high school adventure, but the high school is suddenly transplanted to an alien planet with an extra-mysterious conspiracy added in (I will say no more about that). There’s a survival/road-trip element as a group of the students head out with a super-smart loner at their head, following him because he says he knows whats going on and because the scene inside the school itself is turning into a shitshow, with the gym teacher using all of his Machiavelli against the go-getter Student President, with the principal as a pawn between them. The jocks, nerds, and everyone in-between have roles to play. It gets heavy in a couple of places, but mostly maintains its humor within the tense situations. I loved the coloring here – very purply and saturated.

Will Teens Like It?: Yes, I can see myself booktalking this one for summer reading or something.
Is it “great” for teens?: yes.

Art Taste:

dinosaurnow ourfuture

alexada_tp_v1

Alex + Ada Volume 1

Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, writers

Jonathan Luna, artist

Image

Anticipation/Expectation Levels: Pretty much the same as The Woods.

My Reality: Yay! This is speculative sci-fi that explores technology, identity, AI, android rights, loneliness, responsibility, and grandmothers who mean well. Luna’s style of drawing is perfect – very realistic and flat, with an eye for subtle changes in facial expressions. I almost feel like Alex is too good to be true, but I have to remind myself that there are guys out there who wouldn’t be total creeps in this situation. And he may change in the following issues. If you can’t tell from the cover and my rambling, Alex is gifted a robot companion by his grandma because she thinks he is being depressed for too long after his breakup. Alex is weirded out that Ada, the android, has no opinions and defers to his wants and needs. So he decides to figure out what to do about it.

Will Teens Like it?: Yes

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

AlexAda03_mnchmnch

Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: Fun Fantasy series – Adventure Time, My Little Pony, Three Thieves, Skyward, Zita and Philemon

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reading these books here.

Today I’m taking a look at the light fantasy series that have been nominated this year.

fionna_cake_tpb_cvr

Adventure Time with Fionna & Cake

Natasha Allegri, artist and author

KaBOOM! Studios

Anticipation/expectation level: High. I can’t remember how, but I was following Natasha Allegri’s livejournal before she graduated from undergrad and was pleased to see that she got a job on some show called Adventure Time. 

My reality: Yep, this book is the whole package. It’s gorgeous, it has humor and heart (see, respectively: when Lumpy Space Prince uses a wishing wand to make himself beautiful, the whole conclusion which I won’t spoil for you). Allegri’s genderswapped Adventure Time universe is as strong as the original, keeping the basic dynamics of the characters’ relationships the same, but still creating original situations. Cake is not Jake, but is how Jake would be in cat form. There are also little shorts at the end from writers and artists like Lucy Knisley and Noelle Stevenson. How do these comics all turn out so well? The only part that didn’t work for me is a short digression about a cat and its nine lives, which was sort of related but came out of nowhere.

Will teens like it? I know some teens who are already all about Bee and Puppycat, so yeah.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes – I realize it’s hard for me to be objective, but I did read these comics before I watched Adventure Time and greatly enjoyed them, so I think that knowledge of the show isn’t a huge stumbling block.

Art Taste:

FionnaCake_01_preview_Page_07-600x923

check out Natasha Allegri’s tumblr, you won’t be sad. There’s a small pitch for a show called Cat Mommy

allegrifionnamarshalllee

adventuretimev5

Adventure Time, Volume 5

Ryan North, Writer

Braden Lamb, Mike Homes, Shelli Paroline, artists

KaBOOM! Studios

Anticipation/expectation level: I could safely predict that I’d like this. The first 3 made it onto GGNT 2014. I’m wondering why Volume 4 wasn’t nominated? (I did go ahead and read it, and it isn’t the strongest volume but it’s not so off game as to not be nominated, but anyway).

My reality: This one is all Bubblegum – and Lemongrab. It’s a bit about how Princess B struggles with feeling like she’s a ruler when she has to rely on Finn and Jake so much, and a little about her mistakes in the past… and how they ALL COME TOGETHER. Again, it can be read as a standalone adventure.

Will teens like it?: They do.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes

Art Taste:

AdventureTime_21_preview-10

MLP_TPBv5-cover-659x1000

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Volume 5 

Katie Cook, writer

Andy Price, artist

IDW Publishing

Anticipation/expectation level: Low-ish. I’m old enough to have lived through the first Ponies craze, but wasn’t inspired to watch the show or the documentary about the people who love the show, even though I don’t have anything against it.

My reality: Volume 5 of the comic series is about Celestia’s history with an alternate version of Equestria/Canterlot, and the trouble it is causing everyone. She enlists the special pony brigade or whatever they are called to help fix it before reality as they know it is destroyed. The main points of the universe were easy to pick up on. I still don’t know each pony’s name, but it didn’t affect my reading of the comic as far as confusion goes. It was a nice story about friendship and magic where the stakes were suitably high. One thing that annoyed me: I was a bit irked that, in a universe built on the concept of friendship, the small dragon always gets forgotten and ignored. What is up with that? Double standards.

Will teens like it?: I think this would be popular with younger teens.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s a solid comic. It wasn’t transcendent or something I’ll independently enthuse about. But I can’t say it’s not perfectly positioned for its audience and age group.

Art Taste: mlpmultiverse

kingsdragon

The King’s Dragon

Scott Chantler, artist and writer

Kids Can Press

Anticipation/expectation level: I’ve read two other volumes of this series (called the Three Thieves) and always found them to be exciting, well-plotted, and drawn with a lively, accomplished hand. Actually I’ve read all the volumes but the first one.

My reality: It might be strange to read The King’s Dragon and go back to catch up on the story, because this volume focuses on a man who has so far been the villain of the tale, the man chasing the titular Three Thieves, Captain Drake. It gives us his backstory and, as usually happens with these things, makes him a more sympathetic and complex character. There’s very little movement in the story’s plot – most of the action occurs in flashback. But I still think that it would be easy to read this apart from the other books and not feel lost. It is Captain Drake’s story. Chantler does pacing well, and his is very cinematic. I could almost hear the strings of the suspenseful soundtrack as I moved back and forth in his memory. It’s a series that should get more attention from readers.

Will teens like it? Yes, even though it’s primarily marketed for middle grade readers, it’s a good adventure for anyone.

Is it “great” for teens? Yeah!

Art Taste:

KingsDragonThe_2206_spr2

returnofzita

The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

Ben Hatke, writer and artist

First Second

Anticipation/expectation level: I’m an unabashed Zita pusher to parents, teachers, aunts, and all other readers.

My reality: As a fan of the series, the last book paid off. But it’s been awhile since I read the 2nd installment, and I couldn’t recall each member of the ragtag team’s situation/quirks from where they were left off. For the most part, this is Zita’s story of defeating someone hellbent on destroying Earth out of spite and escaping a prison camp, so the intermittent flashes to her other friends all over the galaxy aren’t that much of a distraction. But they do eventually come into play. For someone coming in cold to the universe, the story won’t have much extra emotional resonance, and the emotional hook depends on being familiar with Zita’s journey. But the main things that I love about Zita are there: absurd humor, lots of cute and weird creatures, struggle overcome by pure will and help from friends, triumph over evil, and there’s the extra punch of wistfulness at the end.

Will teens like it?: It might read younger, but I think teens will like it.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s great if you’ve read the other volumes. Alone, I don’t know if it’s great.

Art Taste:

zitaworkcamp

SKYWARD_CVR_NOTFINAL_TRADE_1SKYWARD_CVR_TEMPLATE_TRADE_2-674x1024

Skyward Volume 1: Into the Woods 

Skyward Volume 2: Strange Creatures 

Jeremy Dale, writer and artist

Action Lab Entertainment

Anticipation/expectation level: All that I knew before I read this was that its creator had suddenly and tragically died. And that people had really liked the comic.

My reality: From reading the letters from fans printed in the collected editions, I can see what people like about this title. It’s a new fantasy world. It’s imaginative, filled with warrior rabbits and other magical stuff. It’s got a bit of joking camaraderie. It’s built to be a fun ride – a search for a missing boy by the forces of good and evil caught in a war that’s much bigger than him, etc. It feels familiar. For me, it felt too familiar and it wasn’t my type of humor or art – but at least the clothes are equal opportunity painted on. When characters are alone they tend to narrate whatever they’re thinking, which always strikes me as unnecessary. I can see the merits for readers, but this one didn’t do much for me.

Will teens like it?: I don’t know if I can see heavy investment potential, but there’s nothing here that would be an immediate turnoff.

Is it “great” for teens?: I think this is decent.

Art Taste: Comparing the pencils to the colored version, I’d have to say that I prefer the pencils. The coloring makes everyone look really shiny and covered in vinyl and obscures a lot of the artistic talent.

skyward

castawayonthelettera

Cast Away on the Letter A

Fred

TOON books

Anticipation/expectation level: Neutral. TOON Books does interesting stuff. When I got this in at the library, it was very slim like a picture book and looked like it was a reprint/revival of a classic european adventure comic. (The introduction confirmed this).

My reality: Philemon is hugely popular in France, a beloved character. In his introduction to general American eyes he explores a well on his rural French property that keeps burping up messages in bottles. He finds himself stuck on the letter A in “Atlantic Ocean” – a fantastical adventure befitting such an illusory place ensues. I appreciated the imagination and history that come with the comic, and I’m glad that more European comics might get printed over here and find a wider audience, but I’m not going to rave about it to teenagers.

Will teens like it?: Due to the length and lightness of the story, plus its cultural cache, I think this will appeal to mostly young readers or adult readers. The pacing and plot don’t fit modern teen comic book standards.

Is it “great” for teens?: Nah

Art Taste:

fred-slide4

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.

 

 

Fire & Flood: A Race For the Cure

A Review of Fire & Flood (Fire & Flood #1) by Victoria Scott

Scholastic, 2014

Fire & Flood Victoria Scott

by REBECCA, March 31, 2014

hook

yay, montana“Tella Holloway is losing it. Her brother is sick, and when a dozen doctors can’t determine what’s wrong, her parents decide to move to Montana for the fresh air. She’s lost her friends, her parents are driving her crazy, her brother is dying—and she’s helpless to change anything. Until she receives mysterious instructions on how to become a Contender in the Brimstone Bleed. It’s an epic race across jungle, desert, ocean, and mountain that could win her the prize she desperately desires: the Cure for her brother’s illness. But all the Contenders are after the Cure for people they love, and there’s no guarantee that Tella (or any of them) will survive the race.” (Goodreads)

review

Victoria Scott’s Fire & Flood is perplexing. I could tell from the first page that I was going to dislike it, but I’m a sucker for an adventure story (and the cover’s beautiful), so I read on. There are several truly major problems with the novel.

brimstone!

brimstone!

1. There is absolutely no explanation given for the Brimstone Bleed and no world-building around it for the first, oh, 85% of the novel. Then, when the origin/motivation of the Brimstone Bleed is explained, it is absurd and ridiculous. As a result, the entire time I was reading about the characters going through the Brimstone Bleed, I was like, “What in the hellfire is going on and why would I possibly care?”

2. I don’t care. At all. Given that we have no context to care about the world or the plot, it only makes sense that we’d have to care enough about the characters that all that wouldn’t matter. Nope. Tella’s brother, whom she’s running the race to save, is a total blank about whom we know nothing. Tella is a bloody nightmare. There are a million reasons I dislike her as a character (her intense superficiality and terrible sense of humor are but a few of the petty ones), but mostly I just could not possibly care less whether she lives or dies. There is nothing remotely appealing or unique about her. The author’s one attempt to make her palatable is to suggest that she is the only one out of 122 people who likes animals. Seriously?

3. The structure is obviously in service of the marketing of a series as opposed to the book. “The Brimstone Bleed will last three months and will take place across four ecosystems: desert, sea, mountains, jungle,” we learn (19). I didn’t know right away this was a series, so I started out thinking it was a standalone, but it became clear pretty quickly that there wouldn’t be time to get to all four ecosystems in one book (and, P.S. neither fire nor flood really feature here, so that didn’t give anything away). Fire & Flood features the jungle and desert ecosystems, and it’s a very choppy structure that leaves off after the second ecosystem without any ending whatsoever. There’s a kind of vague outward gesture that suggests the stakes might be higher in book two, but it’s a perfunctory gesture at best.

desert foxHere’s why I’m perplexed, though, as opposed to simply irritated that I wasted my time on Fire & Flood. While the entire first half, including the jungle ecosystem section is laughably terrible, the second half is more compelling, quick-paced, and has a few instances of pretty cool micro-plotting. This chunk—the desert ecosystem—reads much more like a survival story and less like a crappy, lazy, riding-the-tails-of-Hunger-Games dystopia. So, if Victoria Scott can actually write moments like those in the second half of the novel, I’m so confused as to why the first half is so incredibly weak and uninteresting.

This, along with the total lack of world-building and the lack of an ending, makes Fire & Flood read as a first or second draft rather than a finished novel. There are certainly those who will down Fire & Flood along with the slew of slapdash, apolitical neo-dystopias that litter the YA landscape, but it’s one of the more uneven and unpleasant books I’ve had the displeasure of reading lately.

readalikes

Proxy Alex London

Proxy (Proxy #1) by Alex London (2013). Where Fire & Flood completely fails at world- and character-building, Proxy slowly constructs a complex and intriguing world peopled with exciting characters. Check out my full review of Proxy HERE. The sequel, Guardian, comes out in May.

The Testing Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing (The Testing #1) by Joelle Charbonneau (2013). The second half of Fire & Flood reminded me of the final component of the test in The Testing, where the candidates have to journey from busted up Chicago back to the University.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publishers (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Fire & Flood by Victoria Scott is available now.

Morsels: Delightful little things I’ve recently read.

by Tessa

There are few things more miraculous to me than a really good picture book. It must be economical in prose and relatively bold in picture, but immediately suggest a whole world and character, or cast of characters. It has to have details that mark it as a unique thing, but carry a universal message so it can be quickly resonant to its readers. Comfort and novelty in a well-designed, beautiful package.

I just read a slew of good, short books. Some are picture books, some are books with  pictures. But they all share a talent for attention-catching. Here are my morsels:

1. Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

hermanandrosie

I was tipped off to this title by super-librarian Betsy Bird’s Fuse No. 8 review on SLJ. As usual, her review covers all the bases illuminatingly, but I’ll add my personal likes.  The basic plot is that Herman and Rosie love similar things (Herman: “potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean” Rosie: “pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape. . . and watching films about the ocean.”), and live near each other. They both are sustained by their music and their routines despite feeling sort of lonely. . .until things fall apart. Will they find each other?

I’m not a NYC-fetishiser, but I do enjoy a city-in-the-winter, lonely-in-a-crowd vibe, and this captures it. Gordon’s palette ranges from bright blue piercingly sunny winter days to muted brown snowy nights. Nothing’s ever too bright; he brings the duality of neon and worn down floorboards of ajazz club to the picture book. He plays around with the page, repeating formats occasionally, but not over and over. Because the story is about 2 characters who are experiencing similar life journeys (and who obviously must meet by the book’s end!) there’s a lot of mirroring going on, in a seamless fashion. The art itself is full of collage and faux-scribbly elements, with a base of watercolory wash.

2. Fata Morgana by Jon Vermilyea

fatamorgana

Koyama Press and I both described this as “a feast for the eyes” . . . independently! Actually, I said “visual feast” and they said “feast for the eyes and mind”. Potato potahto. The day after I read this I looked up what Fata Morgana means, and listen to this: according to the Oxford Dictionary of Weather, 2nd ed. (by STORM DUNLOP!!), Fata morgana is a specific type of mirage, “in which the image of the actual surface appears in the form of a wall. The effect occurs when the temperature profile has an inflection, but is also relatively gentle. The atmosphere exhibits lensing properties but these are astigmatic, resulting in a redistribution of brightness within the image, often creating the effect of light and dark arches, and distant buildings.” and, according ot the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 2nd ed., comes from “a mirage seen in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily and attributed to Morgan le Fey, whose legend and reputation were carried to Sicily by Norman settlers.” And if you don’t know, now you know.

Jon Vermilyea‘s Fata Morgana is a wordless, mostly plotless book of not-quite-psychadelic fever dreamscapes. So I’d say the title is apropos. Vermilyea’s cartooning suggests the weight of its characters. It has a real density to it, and he covers every landscape with intertwining details that push to the forefront of the page, forming a wall of round, drippy lines forming trunks and faces and bridges and who knows what. The coloring is bright, mixing pastels with bold, almost neon tones. It’s disorienting at times, and my only wish is that it were a series of fold-out posters so the gutter hadn’t gotten in the way.

3. The Bramble by Lee Nordling & Bruce Zick

thebramble

Fun fact: It turns out that Lee Nordling was the comic strip editor for Nickelodeon’s Rugrats comic. It’s not apparent right away, but after knowing that, I can see the influence of the Rugrats in the human characters of The Bramble. But the kids in this story skew more towards older picture books. They could exist anywhere from the 70s to now, and that’s what I like about them, with their skinny limbs, bulbous noses, and giant heads.

The Bramble is printed in blues and browns, and concerns a boy, Cameron, who bravely tries to make friends by crashing a game of tag, but is obliquely muscled out of his notions of friendship by the other boys refusing to play along with him. Instead, they just shout “You’re It!” over and over. Dehumanizing, no? Funnily enough, there’s a giant bramble patch right at the edge of the park. A creature is spying on the failed tag game, and Cameron catches a peek of it. In its haste to hide itself, it leaves its necklace behind. So Cameron follows it into the Bramble to return the necklace.

Thus follows a not-so-vaguely Wild Things type adventure. Cameron ends up defeating a weird sentient blob/tongue/wave thing by using the same bullying Tag tactics that were used by him, which endears the creatures of the Bramble to him and makes him more confident and able to leave the Bramble and befriend the bullies.

Clearly I have issues with that part of the story. What resonated with me was the wordless sequences where Cameron opened himself up to rejection, was rejected, entered a new, strange situation, and this time found acceptance. The emotional tone was spot on there, and it’s worth taking a look at the book just for that. I’m excited to see more picture books take a darker tone at times, since the shelves can sometimes feel glutted with pastel bunny love fests (they have their place, for sure,  but shouldn’t be the only thing out there.)

4. The Hole by Øyvind Torseter

thehole

“The Hole has simple, expressive drawings created by pen and computer, and there’s a hole punched right through the book, so it exists in real life, even if it can’t be explained.” – Enchanted Lion Books description

So, apparently Enchanted Lion Books has been around since 2003 and I’m just learning about it via The Hole. Now I have a whole backlist to discover!

The guy in The Hole has moved into an apartment. It has a hole, and the hole keeps moving. Of course, the hole is not moving, the drawings are moving. But the drawings are reality, if the reader accepts it, so the hole is moving. We see the dude realize what’s happening, call someone about it, capture the hole, and take it somewhere (I won’t spoil it, ha ha.) The one simple conceit is magical in and of itself, and Torseter’s simple lines and open spaces make it more charming, like you’re watching someone drawing the story for you (very Harold and the Purple Crayon!) There are some good photos of the art at the Brain Pickings review.

5. Hilda and the Troll by Luke Pearson

hildandthetroll

Hilda’s been around a while. This is the Flying Eye Books edition of Nobrow’s Hildafolk. Luke Pearson also wrote and illustrated Hilda and the Bird Parade and Hilda and the Midnight Giant, the former I’ve read and really liked, the latter of which I am looking forward to reading. He says that The Midnight Giant is “a follow up to Hildafolk, my 24-pager of one year ago, but it’s more of a reboot than a sequel and is hopefully the first of a series of albums exploring the same world.”

I had no trouble reading them out of “order” – Hilda is a self-assured girl and goes about her world so matter of factly that I couldn’t help but folow with a sympathetic attitude. (As in, my brain tuned into her vibes or something).

In this adventure, Hilda goes out to draw rocks, finds a troll rock (a troll that is in rock form), puts a bell on its nose for safety, and falls asleep instead of getting back to her house. The troll wakes up, and Hilda has to find her way home and also find a way to make things right with the troll. Trolls hate bells and she has set it up for eternal torment, because its arms can’t reach the bell on its nose to remove it.

The magical Scandinavian world here is a delight. It’s our modern world, but a more tuned into things like trolls and horned foxes and tree men. I love Hilda -she’s serious about her self and her interests, and still realistically a kid. She learns to see a bit more about her assumptions in this book, and her carelessness, and in the Bird Parade this learning continues. And she knows the value of being cosy in a rainy tent:

hil5

I hope all of you have something nice to read while sitting on a couch or in a tent, watching the snow fall or the rain drizzle or the breeze blow things around.

Why Aren’t You Reading… The Tapestry Series by Henry H. Neff?

houndofrowanthesecondsiegethefiendandtheforgethemaelstrom

by Tessa

Maybe you’re already reading this series, about a boy named Max who finds out that he’s the son of an Irish mythological figure, and goes to magical boarding school in America (not in that order) and then the world irrevocably changes because the wrong book gets into the wrong allegedly-demonic hands,  in which case RAD, can we chat about it together?

BUT – I’m guessing that lots of people haven’t – at least it hasn’t been written up in the many places that I go to hear about books. Granted, there are way more places to go read about books that it’s just not possible for me to visit. There are a couple of reasons that may explain this – the series is older middle grade and the first two books read very much like American Harry Potter, so I feel as though it may have been dismissed as reductive in some people’s minds.

There are some very compelling reasons (I hope) to give The Tapestry series a second look if you weren’t into the first book or a first look, if you haven’t  yet heard of it.

Pros:

– Irish mythology!

Ever since I read The Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland, collected by Jeremiah Curtain, I’ve been into the meandering, tough, hyperbolic, funny stories from that country. Even though I know I’m mispronouncing all the names when I read it in my head. Max finds out (spoiler alert?) that he’s the sun of Lugh Lámhfhada, an Irish god associated with the sun and athleticism, which means he’s the half-brother of Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, which is why he’s known as the Hound of Rowan (Rowan being the American Hogwarts stand-in here). Not that you have to know anything about Irish mythology to read the series, I just enjoy that Max has a grounding in a mythology that exists outside of the books.

Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain via Wikipedia

Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain via Wikipedia

This also means that Max is a real badass. He’s full of Old Magic and a member of the Red Branch (magical CIA type people) and although he wields the Gae Bolga, a sword/spear embedded with the terrifying bloodlust of Cúchulainn, he’s a pretty thoughtful kid thrust into a world where he has to make life or death decisions for, like, the entire human race.

Actually there are 3 children of Old Magic in this series. They all have their own strengths, and their own secrets. The magic is well spread out among the students and teachers and the political intrigue is well done.

– Totally epic, metal demons

Demons are a big part of this series. They are trying to infiltrate Rowan to steal a powerful book that can rewrite REALITY ITSELF… and they eventually do. But they don’t turn the world into a stereotypical hell. It becomes more feudal, and more pastoral. But still with tentacled horrors that live inside wells and terrorize families. As the present becomes the past… with demons, things are correspondingly more epic. It recalled the lyrics of metal bands such as the brutal (read:rad) Absu. This is from a song off of 2009’s Absu:

The old woman of Nippur
Instructs Ninlil to walk the banks of Idnunbirdu
She thrusts he magic (k)
To harvest the mind of the great
mountain-lord Enlil

The bright-eyed king will fall to your anguish
His soul lures the hexagonal room
He who decrees fates – his spirit is caught
His soul lured to the hexagonal room

Nunbarshegunu
A silk veil strewn over you
Your face is the cosmos
You hide it in shame

I admire an author who is not afraid to change the entire nature of the Earth. Neff does it and pulls it off without becoming too lost in the large canvas he’s created.

A new kind of adversary

Astaroth is the main antagonist, although the political intrigues of the demon world shift around during books 3 and 4. He’s firmly not in the Eye of Sauron all seeing all evil all the time camp. He’s an activist godlike figure. Like if NoFace from Spirited Away had all the powers of Old Testament God but not all the wrath – Astaroth pretends he’s a softy but really the world is just his plaything. He’s doing it for humanity’s own good. He thinks humanity is better without choices. His face is an always-smiling white mask.

an imagining of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) - via Wikipedia

an imagining of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) – via Wikipedia

Cons:

– The first book is deceptively Harry Potter-like (with a dash of Riordan’s The Olympians)

I dunno, this isn’t a huge con for me, but it’s worth noting. Also, if you read the first book and were not into the Hag “humor”, it is much diminished in the others.

– The illustrations can take away from the story sometimes.

I hate saying this because Henry Neff is the writer AND illustrator, so these are the representations of the images that inspired the story that I enjoy reading so much… however, there have been times when seeing the illustrations takes the wind out of the much creepier thing I was thinking of in my brain, inspired by the prose.

– His website uses Papyrus as a title font.

 

Obviously the pros are much stronger than the cons, so what are you waiting for?

Whatever, punk rock: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada Imogen Binnie

Nevada

Imogen Binnie

Topside Press, 2013

review by Tessa, with comments from Rebecca

characters

in NYC

Maria Griffiths- still wants to write the ultimate zine that explains what it means to be a trans woman, but hasn’t yet. feels a little trapped in her union job at a bookstore. feels a little trapped in her head.

Steph – Maria’s increasingly distanced girlfriend

Kieran – a fellow bookstore worker and catalyst for life changes in Maria and Steph’s relationship

Piranha – an agoraphobic, pill-savvy and wise friend to Maria.

in Nevada

James – a boy stuck in the worst city ever and maybe stuck in a male body

Nicole – thinking her way out of Star City’s claustrophobic social norms, and an increasingly frustrated girlfriend to James

hook

Maria Griffiths is a little tired of everything—her job, her girlfriend, thinking about being trans. She is starting to think that her new life philosophy should be about irresponsibility.

nevada2

worldview

The first time the reader meets Maria, she’s being unsatisfactorily choked during sex by her girlfriend. Then she fakes an orgasm. To say she has intimacy issues would be an understatement. It’s like Maria wants to find intimacy but someone gave her a map that omitted it entirely, so how is she ever going to find it without some serious luck?

It’s not like Maria hasn’t done relatively well for herself. She’s union at her job, she’s really good at riding her bike, and she successfully figured out that she was transgender and transitioned. But life isn’t a series of radio boxes ready to be clicked, leading to fulfillment, and something’s missing for Maria.  She doesn’t know if she wants to be saying something to a wider audience or be left alone to make bad decisions.

Luckily or unluckily, her distance from her girlfriend Steph leads Steph to tell a little lie about cheating, which makes Maria start thinking about where her life is, and where her life used to be when she was growing up in small town Pennsylvania, getting high on heroin and passing out in crash-pad houses – knowing there was more out there — “There was a Borders and hour away and sometimes somebody would manage to get a zine onto their magazine rack, so she knew that there was more going on than classic rock radio and getting fucked up.” (27) – but not being able to escape yet.  She’s not making those bad decisions now, but she’s really not making any decisions—until some bad things naturally start happening, because the scale of Maria’s life tips just over into uncertainty, and she embraces it.

did this book achieve its intentions?

Have you ever, like me, wished you could have a real-time transcription of your thoughts?  Imogen Binnie’s narrative style is as close to that as I’ve found, except it’s not in first person. It’s like Binnie read Maria’s thoughts and wrote a journal of Maria in third person, and I find it is a very fun and effective way to get to know Maria.

Here is Maria thinking about what she wishes people knew about trans women

(and please note all quotes are from the ARC and could be changed when the final copy comes out NEXT WEEK woot!):

“It’s worth pointing out that trans women in real life are different from trans women on television. For one thing, when you take away the mystification, misconceptions and mystery, they’re at least as boring as everybody else. Oh, neurosis! Oh, trauma! Oh, look at me, my past messed me up and I’m still working through it! Despite the impression you might get from daytime talk shows and dumb movies, there isn’t anything particularly interesting there—although, of course, Maria may be biased.

She wishes other people could understand that without her having to tell them. It’s always impossible to know what anyone’s assumptions are. People tend to assume that trans women are either drag queens and loads of trashy fun, or else sad, pathetic and deluded pervy straight men- at least, until they save up they money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point we become just like every other woman? Or something. But Maria is like, Dude, hi. Nobody ever reads me as trans any more. Old straight men hit on me when I’m at work and in all these years of transitioning I haven’t even been able to save up for a decent pair of boots.

This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in Manhattan.” (10-11.)

This quote showcases Binnie’s lovely (not kidding) use of colloquialisms like “Dude” and her slipping in and out of “I” to “she”, and it showcases the way that being trans isn’t what the book is about. To me, that’s the hallmark of a good read – Nevada is a portrait of Maria at a crux in her life. Maria is trans and it informs the past and current course of her life, and she thinks about it a lot, so it’s not like it’s not in there. It’s just that the “issue” is in service of the character and not the other way around. So it’s not an “issue”, it’s a part of a person, just as cancer functioned in The Fault in Our Stars and class functioned in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and being a lesbian was part of Starting From Here, and how the encroachment of meth failed to function in A Plague Year.

Imogen Binnie

Imogen Binnie, photographed by Julie Blair/Topside Press

One of Rebecca’s favorite things about Nevada, and I’m inclined to agree, is how Binnie “evokes a really particular (and very self-conscious) demographic (microdemographic?). these are characters who are really familiar to me but I’ve really never read about them in another book. And I’m so glad there is now a book about them.”

One of the ways that I see this happening is how engaged Maria and the other characters are in literature, theory, and philosophy. They think about it so much it becomes part of their in jokes, as in this part of Kieran and Maria’s friendship:

“Kieran heard that Maria liked Kathy Acker so he started doing shitty Kathy Acker impressions at her and normally she responds with shitty impressions of James Joyce, who Kieran is really into. She’s supposed to say, Yes I say Maybe Whatever Yes Sure Fine Yes Whatever Sure, but right now it’s not like she even wants to talk to him. It’s stupid, anyway-he is supposed to be this End of Gender gender tough genderqueer radical, but was James Joyce working to undermine patriarchy. Kieran will talk about all the reasons that yes, Joyce was working to undermine patriarchy, but the actual answer was no, James Joyce was a patriarchal fuck and dead white man worship is a function of patriarchy. But fuck that conversation right now.” (31).

Much of Nevada is in Maria’s head. There are glimpses of other narrative voices, but hers is the main one.  (Binnie’s style also makes it a little more work than ussual to differentiate the nuance in each voice as well, which may be a drawback to some, but I enjoyed it so much I noted it and moved on). Reading Maria’s paragraph-long musings is bracing, funny, and hypnotic. At times in the book it’s like she and I were simultaneously looking up from her thoughts to realize that there was an entire world out there, with fresh air and ways to forget her obsessions, even though her obsessions are an interesting space in which to spend time.

nyc bookstore cart - by flickr user markhurst

nyc bookstore cart – by flickr user markhurst

Rebecca notes, sagely, regarding characterization, that “Binnie is ruthless in regard to her characters, which I love. We’ll read about maria’s thoughts about how she thinks Steph is oblivious of something and then twenty pages later, Binnie will show us a glimpse of Steph and it’s clear that Steph is actually totally aware. No character is safe from Binnie’s narrative’s edge and it’s a joy to see how incisively she understands her characters’ perspectives, and also how totally capable she is of seeing their weaknesses.”

Although Nevada is a novel about adults worrying about adult things, like possibly being fired and how they’re going to pay rent if they break up with someone they’ve been in a relationship for four years with, and how that also will affect their personality, it also contains themes that run through many YA novels. In some ways, Maria feels like she never had her adolescence because she was trying so hard to protect herself by suppressing herself, so her journey in Nevada is the journey of trying to make herself open up to adolescent experiences.

The plot is divided up into two parts—her crumbling but triumphant escape from New York City and a snapshot of her travels, presumably cross country travels.  It’s in this second part that Binnie shows Maria as she’s seen by another person—a probably transgender Wal-Mart clerk named James.

Through her interactions with James, Maria tries out the guise of mentor and the task of audibly explaining her experiences to an outsider to her world. And while the ending thankfully shies away from identity-road-trip conventions, it doesn’t eschew the connection that both Maria and James are looking for. I was left with the feeling that both of their lives were opening up a little more, that they were accepting other potentialities for their life, even if getting there would be uncomfortable or painful. I’d be happy to go along with them and find out what happens, but unfortunately, the book ends.

readalikes

I’m pulling these from books I’ve read, but please check out the great lists that are available on Goodreads on the subject of trans memoirs and fiction!

girl_original

Girl by Blake Nelson – for the evocation of a strong character through voice (and: girl in a state of life transition).

hard-love1

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger – While Wittlinger has other books specifically with trans characters, Hard Love’s theme of figuring out how to separate linked feelings is apropos for many of the relationships in Nevada.

a-e-4ever-Ilike-Merey

a + e 4ever by ilike merey – intimacy issues + exploring sexuality and gender performance + close friendship + the intensity of being a teenager = a messy, real graphic novel

Girls-Visions-and-Everything

Girls, Visions, and Everything by Sarah Schulman – Lila spends a summer purposefully wandering without purpose around New York, bearing witness to the way she and her friends live before it becomes unaffordable, getting into adventures and finding ways of loving people.

And Imogen Binnie has a blog, which can also be read.

I received this book from Topside Press with no expectations or remuneration on either side

There But Not Back Again . . . Yet: Movie Review of The Hobbit

A Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson (2012)

The Hobbit Peter Jackson

by REBECCA, January 7, 2012

My dad first read me Lord of the Rings when I was in kindergarten because I was constantly begging to be read to and he figured he might as well kill two birds with one stone: read me something really long so I’d stop asking for new books, and get to revisit a series he wanted to re-read. My theory: he kind of thought I’d think it was boring and let him off the hook. Either way, I loved it, and he loved re-reading it. And, later, of course, I read The Hobbit. I didn’t love it as much as Lord of the Rings—it didn’t have the same depth, the same epic quality that had so captivated me. Instead, it was a small story, a story about one person taking a chance and exceeding his expectations, about a gang with one seemingly modest goal: take back what was once stolen from them. Still, if Aragorn was my first literary crush, Thorin Oakenshield was my second (imagine my confusion when I saw the animated version in the late 1980s and they had animated Thorin to look like my grandfather; awkward).

The Silmarillion J.R.R. TolkienWhen I learned that Peter Jackson and the team were back in NZ on the Lord of the Rings’ old stamping ground to film The Hobbit I had mixed feelings. On one hand, why mess with a world that you’ve executed so beautifully ten years before? On the other, I’m a sucker for seeing geekdom come to life, so I took the path less traveled: excitement. But then I learned that Jackson was making another trilogy instead of one film and my heart sunk again. Why would you set a film version of a small story to the same scale as the film versions of an epic trilogy? (I wouldn’t.) But then I began to read articles explaining that Jackson was including material from The Silmarillion and some of Lord of the Rings’ Appendices and I got excited again—how great for some of that oft-lost stuff to see the light of a studio set! That’s all to say that when the lights dimmed the other day and I finally got to see The Hobbit, I was conflicted, and more than ready to know one way or the other.

And, predictably I suppose, it was a pretty mixed bag. I saw The Hobbit with my parents and my sister and their consensus was that the movie was definitely “entertaining” and “enjoyable.” I agree. But I mostly agree as someone thinking of The Hobbit as merely one more piece of what I’m increasingly beginning to think of as “The Jackson-Tolkien Complex”; that is, Tolkien’s novels and paratextual materials, the art of people like Alan Lee and John Howe, whose visions thrilled me as a kid and went on to greatly inform Jackson’s films, the Lord of the Rings movies, and, now, The Hobbit films.

That is to say: while entertaining and enjoyable,  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a great film in its own right; removed from the Jackson-Tolkien Complex it doesn’t really stand on its own for what I think are pretty predictable reasons.

The Hobbit is a quest story, which means that it doesn’t break down into any kind of neat tripartite system that would lend itself to a trilogy. As my dad said, “I didn’t expect it to end where it did. I kind of forgot it was being made in three movies, so when it ended, I was still waiting to see what was going to happen with the dragon.” Without major restructuring of the plot, there would be no way to really signal what the three phases of the story are. Jackson ends the first film with the lyrical image of the thrush knocking a snail on the rock of the lonely mountain to forecast what will happen later, but there was no dramatic structure to the film.

Thorin Oakenshield The HobbitNow, don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with a movie that takes its time: I will watch Braveheart, Gladiator, or Last of the Mohicans any day of the week. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ended . . . well, unexpectedly. And, while Jackson has, indeed, added bits and bobs from The Silmarillion to flesh out the backstory, The Hobbit speeds through some scenes while lingering overlong on others. While the dinner scene that introduces the dwarves functions just like the scene in the book—to exaggerate the dwarves’ bufoonishness and Bilbo’s contrasting prudish domesticity—it is unnecessarily long and rather cartoonish. It does, however, create a nice contrast for the entrance of Thorin Oakenshield in all his long-maned glory (a perfectly proud Richard Armitage).

Jackson has shot The Hobbit using high-frame-rate projection (48 frames per second rather than the typical 24, for the first time ever). While this looks beautiful in many of the middle-ground and closeup scenes, for the sweeping and swooping extreme long-shots of Middle Earth that take up the first 20 minutes or so of The Hobbit, it results in the vertiginous effect of the foreground looking distractingly blurry (I didn’t see the film in 3-D because it makes me sick, so I can’t comment on what effect the higher speed had on that technology). The other problem, which I’m not sure whether to ascribe to projection speed or CGI effects, is that the new settings Jackson et al have developed for the film, while beautiful, take on the appearance of mere backdrops because we see so little of them. When the dwarves are captured by goblins, we see their home, a huge tent city in the hollow of a mountain, lined with tiers of lean-tos. While this setting is detailed and full of action, because we spend so little time there and see so little of it close up, it has the feeling of a video game background populated with a slew of CGIed goblins rather than, say, the fully brought-to-life Shire.

Bilbo Baggins the HobbitThe acting was typical of Peter Jackson’s casting in Middle Earth, I think. When played straight, everyone is pretty good; when going for laughs, they aren’t nearly as subtle as they should be, as if Jackson wants people to know that just because he’s making epic movies about battles of good and evil it doesn’t mean he’s lost his sense of humor (even if that humor is of the banal the-fat-dwarf-breaks-his-chair-hardy-har-har variety). Andy Serkis’ Gollum is even better than it was in Lord of the Rings, its briefness merely highlighting his marvelous range. And while he’s playing essentially the same role as Dr. Watson on Sherlock, Martin Freeman is absolutely pitch perfect as Bilbo and every time one of the dwarves made a stupid joke or there was yet another cut to the “pale orc” standing and looking evil I wished we could just go back to watching Bilbo be delightful. The award for the best (and most unexpected) character appearance goes to Sylvester McCoy’s wizard, Radagast the Brown, who speaks to animals, knows hedgehogs by name, and has a line of bird shit running down the side of his face from the birds he keeps in a hair-nest under his hat (huzzah!).

So, all in all, a mixed bag. A treat, I think, for those of us who know The Hobbit well and simply enjoy watching a beloved world come to life; but perhaps a miss for the uninitiated, the impatient, or the narratively-conscious. Final result: made me want to go back and watch all the special features from the Lord of the Rings dvds. See you in twenty-six hours!

The Hobbit

What about you? What are your thoughts about The Hobbit or the Jackson-Tolkien Complex?

Perfect Is As Perfect Does: Review and GIVEAWAY of Origin

A Review of Origin by Jessica Khoury and a GIVEAWAY!

Razorbill (Penguin) 2012

Origin Jessica Khoury

By REBECCA, September 24, 2012

characters

Pia: genetically engineered to be immortal, Pia is working to become a scientist so she can make more like her

Eio: boy from the nearby village, he teaches Pia that some things are more powerful than scientific logic

Uncle Paolo: Pia’s main teacher and mentor, he cares only about creating a race of immortals

Sylvia: Pia’s biological mother, she too sees Pia as a means to an end

Uncle Antonio: treats Pia like a real girl rather than just a science experiment.

Aunt Harriet: a new arrival to the jungle, she brings with her a boarding school girl’s knowledge of escape routes and lies

hook

Pia is genetically engineered to be immortal. The first successful one of her kind, she has grown up in Little Cambridge (Little Cam for short), a research facility in the middle of a jungle, where she is being groomed to join the team of scientists whose job it is to create a race of Pias. On her 17th birthday, a storm gives Pia the chance to enter the jungle beyond the walls of Little Cam for the first time. There, she meets Eio and begins a relationship with him and the other Ai’oans (the native tribe near whom Little Cam was settled). Little by little, Pia begins to doubt the total scientific detachment she has always been taught to value, and as she does, Little Cam begins to disgorge secrets that make Pia doubt that its single-minded devotion to science is as pure as she once believed. In the end, it may come down to a choice between being perfect and being human.

worldview

In Forever Young Adult’s review of Origin, Jenny suggests that this is a novel that will appeal more to some younger readers (teens, that is), and I absolutely agree, because Pia’s mindset is very sheltered. Pia knows nothing of the world outside Little Cam, not even which jungle she’s in (the Amazon). She isn’t taught history, politics, or the humanities. She can draw, but learned to do so to render specimens. She didn’t grow up with any other kids. She knows that nothing can hurt her and that she’ll never die. As such, she’s incredibly naive and non-analytical. Despite the author telling us that she is genius-level smart, we never see her intelligence in any way except her memory of chemical compounds and the Latin names for plants.

For all of these reasons, Pia is, for me, a totally unappealing character. I think she’s sympathetic, sure, and I imagine that many people will be able to identify with her frustrations about not having access to the secret of her own immortality, and her immediate attraction to Eio. But, while I’m sympathetic to the fact that Pia has been treated like a science experiment, it doesn’t make reading about her any more interesting. And, while I enjoyed learning about the secret backstory of Little Cam (because, of course, as well all know, every scientific facility that a main character thinks is squeaky clean is hiding a horrible, gruesome past), it was just one variation on a theme I’ve read many times before.

Just after finishing Origin, I was telling my sister about it, trying to explain why it had bored me. Because, don’t get me wrong: Origin is well-written, totally competently-plotted, and has a fair amount of world building. But it felt completely brittle to me—a novel engineered to be enjoyable by combining the right ingredients, just as Pia is engineered to be perfect. A strong effort in all the particulars that shattered at the slightest nudge. In particular, I was explaining to my sister that it’s the characters that really made it fall flat for me. Pia is brilliant and immortal. Brilliance and immortality are concepts that totally interest me. Yet, Pia’s immortality had no impact. Partly because she’s 17 and most 17-year-old characters don’t have to worry about mortal threats anyway; partly because she has never experienced what death is (except in lab animals) so it’s a merely quantitative characteristic for her; partly because until pretty late in the book she views immortality as a totally desirable trait; partly because everyone in Little Cam is brilliant, so it’s a meaningless distinction? Probably all of the above.

Ender's Game Orson Scott CardAnd unlike the genius of a character like Ender from Ender’s Game (who my sister cited as another character whose genius is often described as cold and detached), who is valued because of his ability to innovate, Pia is valued for her ability to execute. She’s been fast-tracked to single-mindedly dedicate her life to the scientific pursuits for which her mentors have trained her. In this way, Jessica Khoury sets up what will be a book-long battle for Pia, between, on one hand, perfection, detachment, and the noble work of creating her race, and, on the other hand, imperfection (humanness), love, and happiness. In short, that is (as Khoury sets it up), the battle between science and nature, the battle between scientist and “savage”, the battle between knowledge and intuition, and the battle between control and impulse.

Friends, say it with me now: binaries aren’t real. Therefore, they make boring tensions in books. So, while I think that this might be a great read for someone who hasn’t had much exposure to the idea that science and nature are connected rather than opposite, or that there are different kinds of knowledge, some of which come from study and some of which come from intuition or peer-wisdom, to those of us who’ve thought such thoughts before, Origin is pretty flat.

what was this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

I feel confused about the book’s intentions because, as I mentioned, it struck me as kind of a paint-by-numbers book that took things the author or publisher knew would be appealing and applied them formulaically. If the intention here is purely to entertain, then I think many people will be entertained. The plot moves quickly and there is suspense. Oh, and there’s a jaguar that is Pia’s pet, so that’s fun to think about. There’s a romance . . . kind of. I think this is what the kids are calling “insta-love.” I was totally weirded out by Eio. For one thing, Pia has no exposure to the notion of beauty in humans, except that people tell her she’s perfect looking (in the context of being perfect in every other way, too, though). Yet, she still refers to Eio’s “abs”! I found this outrageous. Even if she had a biological reaction to the play of muscular strength under skin, I refuse to believe that she—scientist that she is—would shorten a scientific name for a muscle group and use it to describe something attractive. There, I said it. That’s been bugging me for days.

Scott Westerfeld Uglies SeriesBack to business: Eio is a nice guy. He certainly loves Pia (we don’t know why—being able to love immediately seems to be part of his “jungle-ness”), cares for children, is polite to his elders, and does brave and idiotic things, like risking his life to “save” a girl who cannot die. But . . . there’s just no other way to say it: Khoury has made Eio the stereotype of the noble savage, and made him “more attractive” than the other Ai’oans (with their “flat noses” and “slant[ed]” eyes) by giving him mixed parentage (113). Meh, I dunno, y’all. I just thought Origin had it wrong on all counts. It was squirmingly exoticizing when describing the Ai’oans and their charming native myths, and it was annoyingly anti-intellectual in the picture it painted of science. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as taken by a story of science pushed too far as the next person. It’s just that there are so many books that have done it well (Frankenstein, the Uglies Series) and Origin sets up false binaries and then depends on us buying into them to wring suspense from their demolition. And did I mention that the ending is mega-predictable?

So, this is Khoury’s first novel and it got the Penguin treatment (meaning, who knows if she was asked to commercialize certain elements, etc), so I’m curious to see what she does next. Overall, I think Origin is a very competent novel that will likely appeal to a wide audience. I just don’t happen to part of that audience. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t be! So:

GIVEAWAY!

Because I like you so much, I want to give one lucky reader my copy of Origin! There are four easy ways you can enter to win. Just remember to tell me how you entered in the comments or your entry can’t count! You can:

1. Follow us on Twitter (@we_eat_YA)

2. Follow Crunchings & Munchings via email (go to the right sidebar of the blog and enter your email where it says “follow blog via email”)

3. Follow us on Facebook

4. Link up to crunchingsandmunchings.wordpress.com somewhere on your blog

I’ll announce the winner here in one week!

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher with no compensation on either side. Origin is available now.

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