Friday, September 30, 2016

Graphic Novel Round Up by Ambrea

Recently, I’ve been on a reading jag involving comic books.  I don’t know why, but I’ve been on a comic book binge like never before—and, honestly, I couldn’t be happier.  I love comic books and graphic novels.  I read them when I was younger, but I fell out of step with them during high school and college.  I rediscovered them thanks to a local establishment (Mountain Empire Comics, in case you were curious) and a very special series named Spider-Gwen.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s a glimpse at some of the comics I’ve been reading up on:

Lumberjanes is a delightful adventure series featuring five very talented young women:  Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley.  At Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types, these friends spend their summer solving mysteries, exploring secret caves, fighting three-eyed foxes and, in general, uncovering the mysterious creatures lurking in the woods around camp.  The first volume, Beware the Kitten Holy, is a hilarious debut for the series that captures all the humor and vitality of these characters possess while simultaneously creating a story that’s both fun and compelling.  Yes, it does border on absurd, but I enjoyed every minute.

In particular, I enjoyed getting to know the characters.  Jo is highly intelligent, specializing in mathematics and puzzles, and she’s absolutely fearless; April is dramatic and witty, and she has more than a few surprises up her sleeves; Molly is an incredible archer (which does come in handy during their various misadventures), and she has an unexpected companion I was more than happy to meet in later issues; Mal is cautious, but she’s incredibly detail-oriented and highly skilled at crafting plans, even on the fly; and Ripley, while na├»ve and childish, is a ball of energy willing to take on any task—even if it means riding like a rodeo cowboy on the back of a raptor.  They’re great characters to meet, and I enjoyed following them as they took on the supernatural creatures around camp and discovered how far they’re willing to go to preserve their friendship.
The new Thor, which features a masked heroine taking the place of the god of thunder, is pretty fantastic.  Starting with Thor:  Goddess of Thunder, the series explores the political and social relationships between the different realms of Asgard and Midgard—and, of course, features a kick-butt heroine wielding Mjolnir.  It picks up where Original Sin left off and, while it doesn’t go into a lot of detail about previous events, it manages to give readers enough detail that they can continue unimpeded.  Although some of the Norse mythology woven into the story can get a bit complex, it’s a decent place to start the series and it’s a great stepping stone into the world of Asgard.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading about the new Thor.  She’s much the same as her predecessor:  serious, snappish, slightly egotistical; however, she has a better sense of humor, which I found I appreciated, and she has a closer connection to the human world.  Moreover, I loved listening to her internal narration.  Although her voice is modified by the magic of Mjolnir, readers have the opportunity to hear her own unique, internal voice that’s more easily accessible and relatable.  She speaks as a human being would, a quality that helps to mark her apart as a hero and a god but also a mortal.  She’s something special, something vastly different from the other gods and goddesses of Asgard—and I’m intrigued to see where her story will lead.
I actually liked reading the new Archie series; in fact, I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected.  I’ve never been a big fan of Archie, rather I have always been and will always be an ardent admirer of superheroes—like Batman, Spider-Gwen, Ms. Marvel, Superman, Daredevil, and Squirrel Girl.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by The New Riverdale and I was pleased to know Archie was in the hands of Mark Waid.  This latest incarnation of Archie is both humorous and fun, paying homage to the original series while creating a brand new world with intricate relationships and infinite new complexities.  It’s actually pretty great, and I enjoyed my time spent in Riverdale.

I also enjoyed reading Afterlife with Archie, a spinoff series that features Riverdale in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world.  Riverdale is ground zero thanks to a well-intentioned spell by Sabrina, and Archie’s life will never be the same.  Not only does the volume offer an intriguing blend of horror and reality, it gives you a new perspective on the characters everyone knows and loves.  Seriously, you’ll never look at Jughead the same way again.  It’s absolutely gut-wrenching to see the gradual collapse of Riverdale and it tore at my heart to see the safe, calm serenity of Archie’s world turned upside- down, but it was so good.  The story is solid and stands on its own, which I appreciated since I have zero experience with Archie and his friends.
For centuries, the residents of Fabletown have lived in secrecy, living below the radar after the Adversary chased them from their mythical kingdoms.  Snow White, along with King Cole, keep Fabletown running smoothly—until Rose Red, Snow’s sister, winds up dead.  Between Fabletown and the Farm, Snow will be kept on her toes and, along with Bigby (who is otherwise known as the Big Bad Wolf), she’ll have to solve a heinous murder…and hope she can keep the peace in the process.  Or she might just die trying.  Altogether, Fables is a fascinating series full of all the characters, fairy tales, myths and legends that everyone knows and loves.

Sometimes fun, sometimes explicit, Fables offers a new twist on old favorites and creates a unique world with quirky character and strange villains, all mixed together with a dash of political intrigue.  It was always interesting to watch their lives unfold, to see how their relationships would further develop, since everyone literally knows or knows of everyone else.  All the denizens of Fabletown have a history with one another:  Everyone fears Bigby, because he was once the Big Bad Wolf who gobbled up unsuspecting travelers in the forests, and yet he’s Fabletown’s enforcer; Bluebeard is a homicidal maniac who has managed to ingratiate himself into the political and social scenes of Fabletown; Snow White is sister to flighty Rose Read, first wife to a promiscuous Prince Charming, and right hand to King Cole, mayor of Fabletown; Little Boy Blue is an assistant to Snow, helping to keep Fabletown running smoothly; Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame) is a con-artist and computer hacker with a less-than-stellar record.  And that’s just the tip of the ice berg!
Batwoman begins with a little prequel called Elegy, which details Batwoman’s origin story and her most recent tang with the dark side of Gotham; however, I picked it up with the first volume, Hydrology.  In Hydrology, Batwoman is confronted by a sinister spirit known as La Llorona, or the “Weeping Woman,” which haunts the barrio, kidnapping children, murdering parents, and sowing fear and discord among the survivors.  But there’s something darker going on in the background, a mysterious force under the control of Medusa that’s set to unleash the Mother of All Monsters—and turn Gotham into ground zero for the end of the world.

I fell in love with Batwoman.  Admittedly, it took me some time to sink into the story and, moreover, get used to the confusing art direction, but, overall, I’ve enjoyed reading about Kate Kane and her surprisingly gifted “family” of superheroes.  Filled with beautiful art and complex character stories, which wind through the DC Universe with abandon, Batwoman is a singularly incredible series that struck just the right notes—all at once macabre, beautiful, and compelling.  Although I took to liking some of the later volumes more (see:  This Blood is Thick and Webs), I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the Batwoman comics available at my library.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Nevermore: Whipping Boy, Olive Kitteridge, Don't You Cry, and More!

Reported by Jeanne

Nevermore opened with Whipping Boy:  The Forty Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully by Allen Kurzweil which was described as “truth being stranger than fiction.”  At the age of ten, novelist Kurzweil  was sent away to a Swiss boarding school where he was terrorized by an older boy, leaving him with a life-long fixation about his tormentor.  As an adult, Kurzweil becomes determined to find the bully and to discover what became of him. As it turns out, the youthful tendencies did forecast adult behavior, as he finally encounters his bete noire who is, as it turns out, incarcerated. Our reader said it was about a sociopath who never took responsibility for anything.  It was a long book, but she persevered and finished it. 

The next two books were both by Dr. William Wright, about his experiences as a doctor for those incarcerated.  The first title was Maximum Insecurity:  A Doctor in the Supermax, in which the good doctor is burned out at his current job and accepts one at a prison instead.  By the second book, he has moved to what he thought might be a lower-key position as Jailhouse Doc: A Doctor in the County Jail. Our reader described both books as “eye-opening” and both funny and frightening. Prison culture is definitely different, an almost surreal environment.  Both books were recommended.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout was described as a fascinating collection of stories with common characters in each.  Olive, the central character, is teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine, and while she could be described as “difficult,” she is also made human by the author’s insightful writing.  Our reader enjoyed the book greatly, and found herself surprised by the ending.

The next selection was a mystery thriller by Mary Kubica, a young author who burst onto the scene with the best-selling book The Good Girl. Her new title is Don’t You Cry, a riveting psychological thriller in which a young woman named Quinn discovers her roommate has gone missing, but has left behind a troubling letter and many unanswered questions.  Meanwhile, eighteen year old coffee shop employee Alex finds himself intrigued by mysterious new girl in town.  The story is told alternately from the points of view of both Alex and Quinn.  Our reader enjoyed the book as she had the two previous books by this author.  All are standalone novels.

Huck Scarry’s Aboard a Steam Locomotive:  A Sketchbook entranced another Nevermore member.  Scarry is actually Richard Scarry, Jr., son of the well-known children’s book author, and has continued some of his father’s work as well as branching out into his own interests.  This book contained beautifully detailed drawings of steam trains with information on the inner workings of such locomotives.  Our reader recommended it highly.

As We Are Now by May Sarton is the story of Caroline Spencer, an elderly woman who has been sent to a nursing home by her relatives.  There she is subjected to ill-treatment, humiliation, and cruelties to the point where she is nearly broken.  Our reader felt it was a very powerful book about an important topic.  She found herself extremely moved.

Mountains of the Heart by Scott Weidensaul is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a new edition.  It is considered a classic work about the natural history of the Appalachian Mountain range from Alabama to Newfoundland.  Weidensaul discusses the flora, fauna, and geology in a style both entertaining and informative.  Our reviewer pointed out that very little of the book is given to discussion of the peoples of Appalachia, other than to explain human related changes to the environment.  Another reader pointed out favorite sections, such as the discussion of the near demise of the American chestnut tree. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Into the Grey by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

At long last, Dulcie Schwartz seems on the verge of finishing her dissertation:  she’s polishing the penultimate chapter, one she thinks might be good enough to submit to a prestigious journal, and has been encouraged by her advisor to add material based on one of her recent discoveries.  Then a professor who has just joined her thesis committee writes a scathing critique of her work, and her chances of finally graduating in a few months dwindle.  To top it off, he has restricted access to the very documents she needs to finish! No wonder Dulcie is angry enough to threaten to kill Dr. Fenderby—and no wonder that the police see her as a person of interest when the professor in question turns up dead.

Even worse, Dulcie finds herself on disciplinary probation, meaning she has to stop work on her degree, loses her teaching assignment, and is cut off from most of the university.

But there were others who would have had reason to wish Fenderby ill—or do more than wish. After all, someone did beat him to death with a book…. 

I always have a bit of difficulty deciding how to describe this series and do it justice. It’s not a Gothic, though that is Dulcie’s field of study; it is indeed an academic mystery, but some would take that to mean “dry and dusty,” which it isn’t.  There are supernatural overtones—Dulcie feels a psychic connection to the eighteenth century author she’s researching, and she often “hears” her dearly departed cat, Mr. Grey—but again, this isn’t a supernatural mystery. There are cats (almost always a plus for me) but it’s not a cat mystery in the vein of “The Cat Who” by Lilian Jackson Braun or the Joe Grey series by Shirley Rousseau Murphy.  For me, a new Dulcie is like coming home and slipping into a pair of old jeans and a comfy t-shirt.  It’s time to relax and enjoy a visit.

So why do I like this series?  First off, I like Dulcie Schwartz, our heroine.  I like character-driven stories in general, and Simon has done a wonderful job of creating a character who has grown and changed over the course of the series.  Dulcie is a graduate student who is working her way through her dissertation but who tends to get a bit sidetracked—well, okay, more than a bit.  This dissertation has morphed into work that may rival the Encyclopedia Britannica unless Dulcie can bring herself to stop researching and start writing. She also sees herself as an eminently sensible and practical when in fact she has much more in common with the Gothic heroines she studies, giving in to impulsive behavior and jumping to unwarranted conclusions—and don’t forget, she believes she’s in contact with the spirit of her late cat.  The impression is heightened by the snippets of (to us) wildly overwritten passages from the pages (“Goblets o’erbrimmed with Blood, the noble Ichor…”) but which often contain little clues concealed in the wording that either will reflect Dulcie’s mood or draw attention to a circumstance.  Dulcie comes by her tendencies honestly:  her mother, a long time commune member, calls to deliver cryptic messages from the ether, all of which Dulcie dismisses without a hint of irony as being too fanciful.  The fact that I find Dulcie so appealing is a real testament to Simon’s skill at characterization. I usually have very little patience with heroes or heroines who go off half-cocked, but with Dulcie I just imagine Mr. Grey and I are sitting on the couch, watching indulgently and bemusedly as she rushes in where angels fear to tread.

I like the whole atmosphere of the books: going down deep into the stacks of the library and the almost claustrophobic feel, like going through catacombs, to pan for literary treasure in the scraps of manuscripts. I like the supporting cast, folks I’ve come to know over the books and some of whom, unlike our Dulcie, have actually gone ahead and, um, graduated. It’s no surprise that I like Thomas Griddlehouse, the librarian, who understands and shares Dulcie’s passion for older literature, even though his demeanor is strictly old school professional. Finally, there’s the long-suffering Detective Rogovoy who has a soft spot for Dulcie even when she’s trying to convince him of her latest theory.  What a patient man…

I loved that when Dulcie hears that the murder weapon was a book she immediately wonders which title it might have been… because that was my reaction, too. I also love Dulcie’s shock and indignation when she discovers a book is shelved incorrectly, which is only heightened by the lack of reaction of outrage from the police.  Don’t they understand the implications?

At this point, I’ll beg indulgence for a story. A long time ago, the library had work study students who came in for some months and did things like shelve books.  Many were quite good, but a few were, shall we say, a bit less dedicated. One such young lady came to me to help her find a book she badly needed for a class.  I remembered the book.  I had seen it on a truck she had been shelving a couple of days before.  It was not in its correct spot and in fact I didn’t find it until about two months later.  I am quite the fan of poetic justice.

In short, Into the Grey is a bit like a trip down memory lane for me.  I get to wander the halls of academe, hang out with friends in my department, solve a mystery, and play with cats.  Best of all, there’s no homework and no exams!

"My favorite character is Esme." ~Contessa, Empress in training