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

BUZZV1_-_4x6_COMP_FNL_WEB_large

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: Reboots and continuations of superheroes

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reading these books here.

And now back to superheroes. I feel like there are more traditional superheroes than usual on the list, but am too lazy-slash-busy-with-other-life-things to go and look at old lists to back up the claim. My perspective is likely skewed. You may be anticipating more dissatisfaction but I liked all of these except for one – the one that you might thing I’d most like. Coincidentally, Brian Michael Bendis wrote none of them. I kid, I kid. Speaking of kids and what they grow up to be:

NEW SERIES, OLD CHARACTERS

QW_001_COVER_SOOK

Quantum and Woody, Volume 1: The World’s Worst Superhero Team

James Asmus, writer

Tom Fowler, artist

Valiant

Anticipation/Expectation Level: Went into it blind. Liked the goat on the cover.

My Reality: I found myself laughing aloud at this. Even though the premise is that Woody is a blundering ass who thinks he’s charming – which usually is a grating character type – and he causes his adoptive (Black) family heartache and problems, up to and including getting him and his adoptive brother new powers. Woody is grating, but not so much that he ruins the comic.

In looking up info about the book I saw that it is a reboot of a beloved 90s comic, so that is a fact. In the original comic Quantum and Woody are not brothers – I think the change is a good decision – it adds that Spiderman tinge of responsibility to the goings on. And there are probably other nods to the original that I didn’t get, having never read it. But that didn’t matter to me. I enjoyed it for its sense of fun and absurdity, and deadpan humor mixed with over the top situations.

Will teens like it?: I think they would. If they can find it.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

quantumandwoody

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Volume 6: City Fall, Part 1

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Volume 7: City Fall, Part 2

Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz and Mateus Santoluoco -some combination of writing and art I have not been able to define because IDW’s website is super slow and Amazon and Goodreads are no help to me.

IDW

Anticipation/Expectation Level: Although my most popular piece of writing and the thing I will be remembered for after I die is probably my defense of the TMNT movie from 1990 (and I think that’s great), I am not invested in the Turts in the wider world of popular culture. Except for the Original NES video game. It was fun to watch my sister play that. So I had never read the original comic or the new comic. I thought it might be fun, though.

My Reality: I confess that I read City Fall Part 1 and got bored during City Fall Part 2 and stopped reading because no one was forcing me to except myself. I think this is because of my personal reading tastes and not a failure of the comic. I think Eastman’s woodblock-influenced art is a compelling style and so is the other dude’s. There’s action, betrayal, pizza, quips, and pizza quips. April is, like, a teenager or something, and there’s a new girl who is kind of shady but also kicks ass, so I don’t see why it’s not a good comic. And it has good reviews from people who have followed it, so I’m going to defer to them. I feel like it’s not that exciting, but I don’t have any good arguments to put forth supporting my claim. I just wasn’t into it.

Will teens like it?: Inconclusive – I haven’t heard any teens talk about TMNT, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like these books.

Is it “great” for teens?: Clearly I’m not thrilled by it.

Art Taste:

tmnt001

 

silversurfer1

Silver Surfer, Vol. 1: New Dawn

Dan Slott, writer

Mike Allred, artist

Marvel

I haven’t read this yet because the holds list is long and there are only 2 volumes in the whole library system, and I guess people don’t read comics as fast as I thought they did. I predict that I would probably like it based on liking Slott’s writing on Superior Spider-Man and that I dig the cover.

redsonja1    redsonja2

Red Sonja vol 1: Queen of the Plagues. 

Red Sonja vol 2: The Art of Blood and Fire

Gail Simone, writer

Walter Geovani, artist

Dynamite

Anticipation/Expectation Level: Gail Simone is cool, even though I wasn’t into her Birds of Prey.

My Reality: Art of Blood and Fire came out in November and doesn’t even have a record in my library system yet, so I have no hope of reading it before the end of January unless I pay for a digital copy, and that’s not in my budget, sorry, so I’m basing my review on only the first volume.

Queen of Plagues is a tight origin/near-death/mythos-establishing story. I’m glad that for most of this Red Sonja was out of her customary chainmail bikini because it just makes me feel cold to see that. Volume one covers aspects of Sonja’s childhood, coming of age, and present state of confronting a plague and someone *important* come back from her past with a new, life-threatening attitude regarding Sonja. It’s not confusing in the book.

Superheroes, whether sci fi or fantasy, have been brought low as a plot point many times. So much that it might be seen as a tired trick if not written well. Simone writes it well in Red Sonja. Geovani backs it up with tight art – not exploitative but not going against the hyperbolic nature of Sonja’s existence. She’s not cheesecakey but she does wear a bikini normally. Geovani manages to make that not seem weird and objectifying.

Will teens like it?: I see lots of teens into the fantasy adventure stuff, and I think they would like this.

Is it “great” for teens?: It is grandiose, well written, and nicely illustrated, so yes.

Art Taste:

Layout 1

msmarvel

Ms. Marvel V.1: No Normal

G. Willow Wilson, writer

Adrian Alphona, illustrator

Marvel

Anticipation/Expectation Level: Very high.

My Reality: Lived up to the hype! Gosh, I loved this. Again, classic themes done well. Kamala Khan is struggling with her identity in multiple ways: as a Muslim kid in her family, as a Muslim kid in Jersey teen culture at large, and as a nerdy teenager among other teenagers. Then she becomes Ms. Marvel and is struggling with her secret identity, and how it intersects with her racial and cultural identity. Khan lives in a universe where the Avengers et al are real, so there’s also a real fanfic come to life element to her journey.

I have written here about how I was a big fan of Wilson’s novel Alif the Unseen, so I was glad to see her as a writer here. She makes it feel authentic and hyper-real, and Alphona’s art is the perfect complement, with thin pen lines and faces that can move from realistically modeled to frowny faces in a panel or less – both styles are gorgeous and fun. I’m also a fan of the coloring work.

Will teens like it?: They better because I’ll be shoving it in their hands.

Is it “great” for teens?: Heck yeah.

Art Taste:

kickass

ShadowHero-Cov-final2

The Shadow Hero

Gene Luen Yang, writer

Sonny Liew, artist

First Second

Anticipation/Expectation Level: Gene Luen Yang! High expectations. Also Sonny Liew is fantastic.

My Reality: It might be easy to believe that Yang dreamed The Shadow Hero up on his own, but it is based on a golden-age comic book whose origins are fantastic in and of themselves – its writer was not allowed to make his hero Chinese, so he just never showed the guy’s face! And a turtle like shadow follows him and is never explained! Click through from the cover image to see more info on Yang’s site.

The new imagining of The Shadow Hero is more complex and narrative based than its forebear. Set in 1930s Chinatown in San Francisco, it involves a young man, Hank Chu, who just wants to follow his dad and manage a grocery, a Chinese mob situation, ancient animal spirits and a mom who just wants a brave superhero son to be proud of, because after all, Americans have superheroes, so Chinese-Americans should, too! And her husband isn’t standing up to his extorters.

Liew does a great job evoking the era, and his customary great job drawing small-featured, a bit physically exaggerated characters who can change moods by just a subtle crook of an eyebrow or twist of the mouth.

Will teens like it?: Yes, but they might not rush to grab it off of the shelf because of its old-timey look.

Is it “great” for teens?:  Yeah.

Art Taste:

Shadow_New-1024x576

CONTINUATIONS

Batman_-_Death_of_the_Family

Batman Vol 3: Death of the Family

Scott Snyder, writer

Greg Capullo, artist

DC Comics

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I like Batman and Scott Snyder writing Batman, usually.

My Reality: Scary and grotesque, just how we like Joker stories, I think? Snyder keeps putting Batman in situations that play on his weak humanity. Joker’s story plays out very much like a serial killer drama, and that’s really what he is. In this case, gritty superheroism isn’t tiring to me.

Will teens like it?: Yes. Especially if they’re into Hannibal

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s a great example of a dark superhero book, so yes.

Art Taste:

jokercreep

 

We’re in the home stretch! I even got a free Crunchyroll trial so I could read some more manga. See you next week.

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

Reading the Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: Already reviewed from Telgemeier, Tamaki(s), Pope, and Smith

by Tessa

Read about the whys of this series here.

Sometimes you eat too much pizza. Sometimes you review a book on a nominations list that you were planning to write mini reviews on. Sometimes you do both when the mini-reviews are to be written. I already did the work, so you can clicky click to the reviews!

sisterstelgemeier

Sisters

Raina Telgemeier, writer and illustrator

Graphix (Scholastic)

I reviewed it on here!

Excerpt: “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. . .”

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes. Telgemeier is my go-to author for realistic teen comics, and this one is no exception.

RiseofAuroraWest-200x300

The Rise of Aurora West

Paul Pope, Writer

J.T. Petty, Writer

David Rubin, Illustrator

First Second

I reviewed it on No Flying No Tights

Excerpt: “The daughter of Arcopolis’s late science hero, Haggard West, the gritty Aurora has a room full of secrets and a calling to kill the monsters that have overrun her city. The Rise of Aurora West is a bracing piece of the fantastic. It will retain fans of theBattling Boy world with a compelling mix of new backstory and connections to that which is to come.”

Is it “Great” for teens?:  Yes. I love the adventure, danger and mystery in the world that Pope has created, and Aurora has a complex and emotionally layered story to tell. (Just wish it were in color).

thisonesummertamaki

This One Summer

Jillian Tamaki, illustrator

Mariko Tamaki, writer

First Second

I reviewed it here!

Excerpt: “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.”

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes. I think everyone should read this. It’s gorgeous. Read it. Read it. Read it.

barbarianlord

Barbarian Lord

Matt Smith, writer and illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

My review is over at No Flying No TightsHere’s a small excerpt:

“Those who come to Barbarian Lord looking for a simple adventure will find their fair share of fights, trolls, political machinations, and swords. However, some readers may be put off by its formal language and sentence construction (e.g. “Your gods are as grim as your land. You should look to Skraal, who flies over your mountain god and must then be his better”). For those who love traditional storytelling and the epic deeds of gods, monsters, and men, there is much to enjoy herein. Barbarian Lord subverts expectations by delivering more than it seems at first to offer—just as Barbarian Lord is more than a brutish warrior beneath the grimace.”

Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t know! I definitely like it. I can see some teens getting into it. Once more of them read it I’ll get back to you….

Caught Between Two Worlds: Otherbound

A review of Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

Amulet (Abrams), 2014

Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

by REBECCA, June 11, 2014

hook

Every time Nolan Santiago closes his eyes, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a servant girl bound to a cursed princess in a world far from his own Arizona town. Amara has no idea he’s there. Until, one day, their worlds collide, and they realize that although all they want is to be rid of one another, their worlds are bound in a way that only working together can hope to untangle.

review

Whee! I’ve been so, so bloody disappointed with all the YA fantasy I’ve been reading lately, so much so that I’ve started and abandoned five or six fantasies in the last month or so. I had high hopes for Otherbound, though, and I am so thrilled not to be disappointed. Corinne Duyvis‘ debut novel is impressive and original. But, most important to me, it has stakes—the lack of which in a number of books I’ve reviewed have been driving me wild with confusion and frustration lately.

Nolan Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Nolan, by Corinne Duyvis

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the deal. Nolan’s parents, teachers, and doctors all think he is epileptic, diagnosing his departures into Amara’s world as micro-seizures. He has tried medication after medication, but nothing seems to have an effect on the seizures—because, of course, they aren’t seizures. He’s been visiting Amara’s world since he was a kid. Indeed, one of his early experiences of Amara’s world, while he was riding his bike, was so distracting that he was caught under the wheels of a car and lost his foot. So, although he is invested in Amara, her fellow servant Maart, and Cilla, the princess they serve against their will, Nolan pays a huge price for his implication in their world. His parents struggle to afford medications that don’t help him, his teachers and classmates don’t even notice when he barely makes it though the day it’s so common, and everyone in town knows to look out for his seizures. Nolan’s life isn’t wholly his own even when he’s in his own world.

Amara Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Amara, by Corinne Duyvis

Amara was taken from her home as a child because of her mage-like ability to heal herself and tasked with safeguarding Cilla, the princess who escaped her family’s overthrow with a curse that will kill her if she spills even one drop of blood. Amara’s job is to absorb the pain of the curse into her own body, should Cilla accidentally spill her blood, since Amara can heal herself. She and Cilla have been bound together so long that Amara has trouble knowing whether her feelings for Cilla are hatred, pity, friendship, or perhaps something more like love. She has no idea that Nolan has been with her, looking through her eyes and feeling what she feels, until one day he manages to take over her body—to make her body run when she’s in danger but has passed out.

Cilla Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Cilla, by Corinne Duyvis

When Nolan is finally able to control Amara’s body enough to explain that he is there (servants in Amara’s world have their tongues cut out and communicate through sign language), Amara is horrified to realize that what she once thought were private thoughts, sensations, and feelings, have been observed. But she and Cilla may need the insights Nolan has, as a longtime observer, to discover who cast Cilla’s curse and how to break it so that she and Amara—and Nolan—have a chance at living free lives.

When I say that Otherbound has stakes, I mean that there are real personal risks to and for characters, both physically and mentally. But there are also stakes because of Duyvis’ worldbuilding. Duyvis uses the class system of Amara and Cilla’s world to raise questions about the ability of a servant and a princess to ever enter into friendship or love as equals. Ethnicities, in Amara and Cilla’s world mean different things than they do in Nolan’s, but power and race and gender and pain are all bound up in both. Yet Duyvis never falls back on allowing these to be demonstrative of any fixed meanings about characters, groups, or places.

Otherbound starts a bit slow, especially because it shifts between Nolan’s and Amara’s worlds so quickly, but as the mystery ratchets up and the stakes grow, it really takes off. There are twists and turns, but never red herrings or deliberate obfuscations for the purpose of confusing the reader. For me, Nolan’s was the more interesting story. While I was taken in by Cilla and Amara’s adventures, I cared more about the boy attempting to live a life split between two worlds, always struggling to reassure his parents and sister that, maybe, just for today, his seizure medication is working and they can watch a movie or practice Nahuatl together. Otherbound is a story about connections and the ways we become tethered together, implicated in each other’s lives whether we choose to or not.

Otherbound will appeal to fans of contemporary YA, queer YA, fantasy, and adventure stories. Oh, and you should check out Corinne Duyvis’ website to see more portraits of her characters (she went to art school—no, seriously, look at some of those gorgeous pencil drawings!). Duyvis is also an organizer of Disibility in Kidlit, which is an amazing resource for all things disability in YA.

Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

readalikes

Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMannFade Dream Catcher Lisa McMannGone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher series by Lisa McMann (2008–2010). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

Skin Hunger Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of MagicSacred Scars Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of Magic

A Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey (2007–present). Duey’s series (which I ADORE!) alternates quickly between perspectives in an attempt to solve a mystery of magic too. My full review of Skin Hunger is HERE. The third book in the series is slated to come out this summer.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis will be available June 17th.

Down but not meowt: Claws by Mike and Rachel Grinti

clawsgrinti

Claws

Mike and Rachel Grinti

Scholastic, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters

Emma Vu

Helena Vu

Mr. & Mrs. Vu

Jack the Magic-less Cat

Hook

One day Emma’s older sister Helena is around and life is happy. Then Helena goes missing, and her family is quickly losing all its money in trying anything to find her – including associating with crags, or magical creatures, a culturally-shunned segment of the population. It isn’t long before Emma takes advantage of her parents’ distracted and stressed out state to accept the help of cats in order to pursue her own investigations.

UK cover!

UK cover!

Worldview

So, unfortunately I haven’t had time lately to read much middle grade fantasy so I’m not even going to try to couch my comments in relation to the field as a whole. I’m just going to tell you why Claws grabbed me.

It’s set in a world where magic is known but not socially accepted, except by excitable teenagers who watch a show called Gnomebots, read Tiger Beat style magazines about the glamorous (literally) lifestyle of fairies, and read dubious information about the magical world on CragWiki. However, most people avoid crags and, therefore, Emma’s first encounters with them are a little scary and not what she expected. The book opens with Emma and her parents moving into a decrepit house next to the big forest that took over a human city some years ago. Crags live near there, but most humans have relocated. Emma’s parents have had no luck with normal policework in finding Helena, her father has lost his business, and he’s ready to try the magical underground for any information on his missing daughter.

Emma finds that her next door neighbors are a boring snake-man who has a lecture for everything and a hag who has had all of her teeth pulled so she won’t eat any more children – doomed to a life of unfulfilled hunger- but that doesn’t stop her from trying to lure Emma into her house.

magic cat photo by flickr user SuziJane

magic cat photo by flickr user SuziJane

Pretty much immediately, Emma finds that a cat has been living in her family’s new house, and he doesn’t intend to stop doing so. Cats are magical creatures and can talk in this world, and this cat, Jack, has done something to get him kicked out of his pride. But he also has a way to transfer the pride’s power to Emma. He wants her to do this, and in return, he’ll help her find Helena.

I loved reading a good fantasy grounded in reality that didn’t exalt magic but still made it exciting, dangerous, and fun. Each crag that Emma meets has his or her own personality, and the crag world, apart from the class tensions between it and humans, has clear tensions between creature groups and within peer groups. The Grintis pack all of this effortlessly into 250 pages. The reader doesn’t have to work to see it happening, but it’s not explained in expository dialogue, either (thank goodness).  The facts that are presented straightforwardly come in quotes from CragWiki at the beginning of every chapter, and serve to deepen the world.

Does this book fulfill its intentions?

Claws hit a sweet spot for me, readingwise. Emma doesn’t hesitate very long before accepting Jack’s deal. I could easily see the book veering off in a much different alternate-future direction, where it spends the first book with Emma hemming and hawing about her decision, in order to stretch out and become a trilogy.  Instead Emma goes for it. In a sense she has nothing much to lose – her friends at school have turned against her now that she lives in an undesirable area, and she’s lonely all the time – she misses her sister and her parents are fully preoccupied and brokenhearted for the same reason. But I feel like she also decides to accept Jack’s offer of the Pride Heart because it’s exciting. I’d be willing to bet that most 12 year olds have an innate sense of their own impending destiny – who among us wouldn’t have accepted the chance to assume the source of power for a pride of magical cats? (Cat-allergic peeps aside.)

My cat is obviously magic.

My cat is obviously magic.

Once her decision is made, Emma is set up for a crash course in Adventure and Split Second Decisions, and after a few false starts it seems she’s well-suited for it. I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, but I will say that the end set-piece, which takes place in a faery-run high rise in the human downtown, is a particularly well-done example of the ways in which the faerie can be simultaneously attractive and deeply, primally scary. It involves something called eye-puppets.

In addition, Claws was refreshing because it provided intrigue and a personal-growth story with real emotion and imagination, and, because of its target market, had none of the love triangle or sexy urban werewolvery that has become so tiresome to me, even secondhand from reading reviews. I could read it and wholeheartedly enjoy it in the moment as a grown lady, and also think about how much I would have loved it as a younger person.

Disclosure/Digressions

– I met Rachel Grinti at a local conference where I was co-presenting something and she gave me a copy of Claws for free cuz she’s nice. I’m so glad that she did.

-Emma’s parents are Vietnamese-American and when she’s feeling tired of her new family life as The Girl With the Missing Sister and worn down by her new cat magic responsibilities she reminisces about the better times when her family would make homecooked meals. I think it’s safe to say that this is the only book I’ve read that could make me want to eat banana pudding.

Readalikes, as far as imaginative worldbuilding goes.

KieselWarTeachersKids

The War Between The Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids by Stanley Kiesel

The world of this book isn’t strictly magical, it’s just weird and surreal and things matter of factly happen that you as a reader know are totally crazy but you don’t care because it has hooked you with its very weirdness. A girl eats a janitor and it blew my mind that that could even happen in a book.

how-to-ditch-your-fairy

How to Ditch Your Fairy  by Justine Larbalestier

The fairies in this book are very much fairies and not faeirie as in Claws, but Larbalestier brings the reader into her sort of complicated world–where everyone has an invisible fairy that bestows specific luck or powers onto their human, and it’s luck of the draw whether you get a good one or a useless one, or just a really annoying one–with ease.

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?

Dear Year, Thank You for Entertaining Me.

by Tessa

It was just around this time last year that Rebecca and I were seriously working on our as-yet-untitled blog, and it’s the perfect time to say that I’m thankful that it became real. So thank you, Rebecca, for having the idea and being the best blog-mate & book discussor, and for moving to my home state so we could hang out more. (I know, it was because of your sister, but leave me my delusions).  Thanks also for making my to-read list so much longer. Seriously, I feel comforted knowing that if I hit a reading slump I have Rebecca-recommended books to rely on.

And thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has read, visited &/or commented on our posts at Crunchings & Munchings. It’s exciting to be a part of the discussion.

I am also thankful for the many books I got to read this year, some of which I reviewed, and some of which I just enjoyed. And some of which I decided to not say anything about so as not to be rude.  They were all fun in one way or another. But I’m going to call out a few types in particular.

Are you looking for gift ideas for your loved ones?  Consider ALL OF THESE as possibilities:

1. Subtlety in Speculative Fiction & Movies

It’s possible that my definition of speculative is broader than other people’s. But I feel like a book that delivers a subtle promise of a world not quite aligned with ours, but in all other respects exactly like it still counts, and that’s why Burn for Burn worked for me, and why I’m not comfortable calling it paranormal just yet.  And why I lurrrved The Scorpio Races with its island out of Anne of Green Gables–but with carnivorous horses.  I am so glad that R. did it justice in her review. Alif the Unseen illuminated a world of Middle Eastern violence and a second world just overlapping it, to great effect.

Shadoweyes was a speculative graphic novel that hit it out of the park as far as future iterations of the world and young adult struggles were concerned, nodding to its inspirations but keeping it real and fresh as far as what society would really be like (violent, diverse, but still with shows about sparkly ponies to become obsessed with).  On the middle-grade end of the spectrum, the secret society fighting a diabolical mind control plot in The Mysterious Benedict Society was exactly what I needed to read and charmed the dickens out of me.

And let’s not forget Chronicle and Looper, two very worthwhile speculative movies from very recent times, that go with the human story first instead of being all spectacle. And the most fun I had writing a post this year was about an old favorite: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s not a subtle movie, but I did speculate as to why anyone would try to remake it and why it could never be as good..

2. Three Cheers for Realistic Fiction

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

I’ve always loved switching off between speculative worlds and immersive portraits of real lives that could never be mine, and this year didn’t disappoint. The Fault in Our Stars knocked it out of the park.  Past Perfect helped me through a hard time in my life. A book we’re reviewing next week, Starting From Here, was a lovely surprise that I read in a day. Oh, and The Freak Observer made me sad and hopeful in all the best ways.

Also, I read three books of realistic fiction that deserve their own category:

3. Funny Books!

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

It’s Kind of A Funny Story, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson all had moments where I actually loled. Not that other books that I read didn’t have humor in them (Past Perfect was also very funny), but these in particular had globs and globs of humor.  Maybe not globs. Icing layers?

(Can I also add that it kind of perturbs me that I find these 3 books so funny, since they all have boy protagonists? Is this some kind of unconscious gender bias on my part?)

4. Getting Back to the Classics

In my job I don’t always give myself time to go back to books that I remember and love, but Crunchings & Munchings gives me a legitimate excuse to do just that.  So I had a wonderful time re-exploring Girl, the Dark is Rising sequence, and Remember Me, as well as rounding up my favorite scary stories and boarding school books.

5. Great Series

  

I mentioned Burn for Burn and the Mysterious Benedict Society above, and they totally count, but I also read other parts of series or finished up series this year that were intriguing and satisfying in turn – ones that I couldn’t find a way to blog about.

Dustlands by Moira Young I read Rebel Heart last week. It’s the sequel to Blood Red Road, a story set in the far future in some unnamed desert where a tough, closed-off girl has to fight her way to her kidnapped brother. In Rebel Heart we learn more about the world, and the girl, Saba, learns more about how she can betray herself and be herself. It’s like if Monsters of Men and the Hunger Games had a baby and you could tell that the baby got the best traits of both of them but was its own wonderful thing.

Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore  I’m a total Graceling realm fangirl and Bitterblue came out this year. It was probably one of the most satisfying fantasy novels I’ve read this year, or in the past couple of years. The lady knows what she’s doing. I love them so much I can’t really talk about them.

Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau I finally finished this series!  I’m constantly recommending it to people, because it’s all-ages and covers a lot of ground as far as worldbuilding and subject matter go.  It starts underground with a kind of ramshackle utopia gone stale, then goes aboveground and has its characters become the outsiders learning to survive in a homesteading situation, then goes into the past with a little story about what happens right before the world irrevocably changes, in an oblique and tense way, and then goes back to the future for the last book, which is the most hopeful and the least believable. I’m glad I read all of them.

The Diviners by Libba Bray – I wasn’t sold on the romance in this book, and it seemed more coincidental than fated that all the characters who mattered happened to run into each other and become friends/acquaintances/lovers over the course of the book, but it reminded me of The Alienist by Caleb Carr and captured a certain feeling, of a new cultural movement that is sparkly and exciting but also comes with feeling a little lost, that I loved. And there are creepy moments galore.

Honorable Mention: Weird Graphic Novels.

I don’t mention many of the graphic novels I’ve been reading and loving on here much, because most of the time they are aimed squarely at the adult market, and I don’t disagree with that designation.  But I’ve read so many fun, weird-ass graphic novels this year. Filled with crust punk courier mice, psychadelic wordless lands, a president who accidentally becomes a penis, an opus about quietly philosophical birds (and the people who feed them donut crumbs), AND MORE. And I’m so happy that they exist.  So if you ever want any recommendations, send me an email.

And finally, I am thankful for my Turkey on this Thanksgiving.

xo.

Alif the Unseen: Hack the Planet (and all connected realms)

Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters

Alif – teenage hacker, selling online anonymity to the highest bidder
The Hand – whatever mysterious part of the semi-dictatorial/monarchical government that wants to destroy the hackers and gain control of everyone’s secrets and therefore lives
Intisar – rich Arab girl who knows a little too much about ancient secrets (also is sort of stringing Alif along even though she’s arranged to be married)
Dina – Alif’s serious & smart neighbor & friend since childhood, pulled inadvertently into the political turbulence caused by his chosen profession.
Vikram – an out of this world underworld contact who sees fit to help Alif and not eat him, thankfully

Hook

Alif’s life is falling apart a little. The government’s men in black have found an advisor who actually knows what (s)he’s doing and all the best hackers are being shut down. It’s the worst possible moment for Alif, as his one true love totally broke his heart, then sent him a really old book called The Thousand and One Days that makes the Hand’s pursuit of him even more frantic. He’s got to find out how it all connects before he loses his mind or dies or a little of both.

Worldview

Alif’s world is never named, but it is populated with Muslims and Hindus and full of references to the class differences between Arabs and Indians and how Alif can’t get anywhere because he’s half one and half the other.  The reader can feel free to assume that it’s a fictionalized version of a general Middle East – it’s only described as “The Persian Gulf” — with all the political unrest and religious and cultural heritage that implies.

One of the things I loved about reading Alif the Unseen was how the world was immediately itself but never explicitly named, which gave it a real world grounding with a sheen of fairy tale.  The prologue opens the story in ancient Persia, with a conversation between a jinn and a manuscript writer, full of dankness and mysticism loaded with real dirt and organic necessity:

“‘Why?’ Reza had asked the creature desperately. ‘Why won’t you let him see you?’

In response, the thing had grown teeth: row after row of them, crowded together in a sickening grin.

. . . The thing seemed amused. It had appeared without a sound, and sat quietly within the confines of its chalk-and-ash prison at the center of the room, regarding Reza with yellow eyes. Reza suppressed a shudder. The sight of the creature still filled him with warring sensations of horror and triumph. When Reza had first summoned it, he had half-disbelieved that such a powerful entity could be held at bay by a few well-chosen words written on the floor, words his illiterate housekeeper could sweep away without incurring any harm whatsoever.”

After introducing the fact of the jinn, the book moves into the present, from one chalk word that traps a jinn so that it will have to come back night after night to tell its stories, to a device that can send as many words as one likes out into the world and never guarantee a response.  A reality grounded with a smartphone set up with a bypass of the “encryption installed by whatever telecom giant monopolized its patent. It displayed the fourteen text messages [Alif] had sent to Intisar over the past two weeks, at a self-disciplined rate of one per day. All were unanswered.”

Wilson smartly builds her world so that it doesn’t have to explain itself.  Dina knocks on Alif’s wall in an Arabic message – the Arabic script shows up within the text matter of factly and without footnote.  The reader is never told what “praying maghrib” means, what a chaiwalla is (though we can guess) or what article of clothing a thobe could be, in that annoying way that authors can insert a word in another language and immediately translate it, as if that’s how code-switching people speak, for the benefit of invisible readers watching their lives unfold. The references are part of Alif’s life, and he doesn’t have to explain them to himself. The reader can decide whether to look it up – it’s not there to make the narrative more “exotic”, it’s there because it’s his reality.

When Alif is thrown into the knowledge that his world and the world of the jinn both exist, it’s pretty rad. Pret-ty rad.

What is the book’s intention? Does it achieve that intention?

The back of my copy of Alif the Unseen (it’s an ARC, okay, so check the real thing out and make sure I quoted everything correctly) calls it “cyberpunk adventure with the enchantment of Middle Eastern mythology”.  Well, copywriter, I don’t know about “cyberpunk”. That puts me in mind of Billy Idol.

Alif combines a tense chase-based plot set in a society rife with baddie government spies and underground freedom fighters.  I’m glad that Wilson chose Alif as her protagonist – he’s a smart teenager with the misguided idealism of neutrality – he doesn’t care who uses his skills as long as they pay him.  He’s young and inexperienced enough that I can laugh at this line of his and still believe it would really come out of his mouth:

“‘You can’t marry this chode,’ he said hoarsely, ‘You’re my wife in the eyes of God if no one else.’”

Don’t judge the book by that line, by the way – it’s an example of good characterization through embarrassing dialogue.

So instead of a spy thriller set in the oh-so-trendy Arab Spring or an updated Kite Runner-esque allegorical knockoff, we get something so much better. A story with a conflicted narrator I can believe in, who has a real friendship with a real girl who lives a life according to religious beliefs that are portrayed in a real way, with respect but also through Alif’s slightly cynical teenage eye.  You can feel the years of friendship between Alif and Dina, and the ways that they have put the armor of stereotypes on each other as they grew up and a little apart, but how they can’t ever really believe that armor.  Alif lends Dina his fantasy novels (Philip Pullman!) and chats with her on his roof, and I could feel the comfortableness between them, and also the tiredness that had already sprung up from knowing where they were bound to go in life.

It’s Alif’s involvement with the studious, beautiful, and ultimately fickle Intisar that changes those courses, and sets them off through the city and into the blurred borderlands between worlds.  Along the way there’s a seriously ridiculous hacking scene that deserves top billing with the stuff that goes on in the classic movie Hackers, or even Lawnmower Man.  It’s forgiveable, because the rest of what Wilson writes is nimble and exciting. She argues culture and political morality through the reality of her characters and their world – sure, at a couple points the fabric of the story wears through a little and we see the bare philosophical points sticking through, but mostly I’d say that you’re in for a fun and substantial reading experience, one that’s probably unlike most of the other books published this year.

Disclosure

I wrote this review referencing an Advance Reading Copy, so any mistakes in quotation are mine, and you should buy a copy of the real book or get one from your library today.

Comment

Isn’t G. Willow Wilson a really cool name?

Readalike

Daughter of Smoke and Bone / Laini Taylor – similar mix of fun and meaty story with Issues Underlying, and the whole World Beyond This One

Boarding School Books Redux

by Tessa

While I’m a public school girl, I did enjoy the boarding school-like atmosphere of several successive summer camps that culminated with four weeks at a camp that actually did require uniforms and really was a boarding school during school months.

See if you can spot me:

I can say that R.’s well-laid out conclusions about the appeal of such spaces and their stories, listed in last Friday’s post, were borne out even in that short time.

I’ll leave a list of summer camp books for another time (and I promise you it will include the Babysitter’s Club).  For now, consider this list an addendum of evidence as to the power of the boarding school as setting.

Fantasies

The Tapestry Series / Henry H. Neff

Yes, this is an American Harry Potter type story–Max McDaniels discovers his (Irish) magic heritage and is sent to Rowan Academy in Virginia, where he has adventures and also finds that a great evil is awakening in the world, but also its own thing. Neff incorporates the whole world much more widely than Rowling and goes in a different direction with his evil–Max is fighting demons instead of a twisted human, and his journey is much closer to the questing of Finn McCool.  Neff actually abandons the boarding school format in Book 3 (but still read it, because there’s a scene with a creeping thing a well that is just fantastic).

And I see that a fourth book is coming out this October. Word.

The Magicians Series / Lev Grossman

The Magicians is set in a world where everyone knows about Harry Potter, the series. And then our mopey, can’t-get-his-shit-together protagonist, Quentin, finds out that there really is a school of magic, and that he has a chance to get in. But magic is much more scary and complicated than wand-waving, and graduation is even more complicated than magic. Or, it’s even more complicated when you know you have magic and you have to figure out if it even means anything in the long run.

Mysteries

Gemma Doyle Trilogy / Libba Bray

Gemma Doyle is orphaned and taken from her home in India to Spence Academy, where she uncovers a secret world and a secret about herself. And a cute boy.  It’s a tart, fun historical mystery with equal parts bitchery and girl power.

Sure, the third book is flawed and maybe you’d be better making up your own ending, but the richness of the world that Bray invents still makes it something I’d recommend reading.


Or if you want a boarding school mystery set in London with both historical and supernatural elements, but don’t want to read this, you could dive into The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. It’s got Jack the Ripper and quite a cliffhanger. (It looks like the second book, The Madness Underneath, will be published next year.)


Books of Fell / M.E. Kerr

Or there’s always the option of a prep school mystery involving a secret society, seen through a townie outsider’s eyes. . .  It’s set by the ocean, too.

Infinite Jest / David Foster Wallace

There are really two boarding schools here – the Enfield Tennis Academy and the recovering addicts of Ennet House.  AND SO MUCH MORE. As Publisher’s Weekly described it:

“set in an absurd yet uncanny near-future, with a cast of hundreds and close to 400 footnotes, Wallace’s story weaves between two surprisingly similar locales: Ennet House, a halfway-house in the Boston Suburbs, and the adjacent Enfield Tennis Academy. It is the ‘Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment’ (each calendar year is now subsidized by retail advertising); the U.S. and Canada have been subsumed by the Organization of North American Nations, unleashing a torrent of anti-O.N.A.N.ist terrorism by Quebecois separatists; drug problems are widespread; the Northeastern continent is a giant toxic waste dump; and CD-like ‘entertainment cartridges’ are the prevalent leisure activity. The novel hinges on the dysfunctional family of E.T.A.’s founder, optical-scientist-turned-cult-filmmaker Dr. James Incandenza (aka Himself), who took his life shortly after producing a mysterious film called Infinite Jest, which is supposedly so addictively entertaining as to bring about a total neural meltdown in its viewer.”

Two bookmarks are required to read this, and yet I still wished it were longer.

Realities


Breathless / Jessica Warman

Breathless also works the outsider perspective, but as a coming of age tale, no mystery but the mysteries of human socialization and family dynamics. I’ve recommended it here before. Because it’s really good. Katie’s a girl with a talent but she comes from a family with their own problems, and she has to work out from under the feeling that she doesn’t deserve good things in life.

Prep / Curtis Sittenfeld

I pointed out in my home library post that this book was a life-changer for me. People either love Lee or want to slap her because they’re frustrated with her. I identified with her way too much for comfort, which ended up being a helpful psychological journey where I worked out some issues via the story. What made that possible was Sittenfeld’s excellent, incisive characterization and writing that drops you into prep school without calling attention to itself, but doesn’t hide its skill. In that way it’s very much like the voice in Girl.


Withering Tights / Louise Rennison

And yet, not all boarding school books are total angst fests. Tallulah Casey, the girl who narrates Withering Tights, does fret about things when she starts her first year of Performing Arts College in brooding, moor-y rural England.  But it’s the kind of fretting that sets up slapstick-y gags and hilarious misunderstandings.  Withering Tights is the start of a new series, so it’s a good go-to for breaks from Infinite Jest.

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