Sunday, October 6, 2013

Marvel Firsts: The 1960s

A problem with myself that I've noticed is that, when I start something, I want to do ALL THE THINGS that are related to it. When I got back into board games, I wanted ALL the board games. (I don't know if you've looked at board game prices lately, but they're not cheap. Especially the more interesting, involved ones.) When I went to Disneyland for the first time last spring, I wanted ALL THE PINS. (No, Disney employee, I don't want to trade you. I want all the ones I have, AND all the ones you have. And then all the rest of them, as well.)

So now my problem is that I want to read all the comic books. Now, I don't want to say that's impossible. But also, that's impossible. I had no idea where to start, especially if I wanted to read the classics - Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Iron Man. All the men, apparently.

I thought this might be a good place to start. Marvel Firsts: The 1960s. I know that I like Marvel (who doesn't love Stan Lee?) and thought this would include a lot of "first appearance" issues. Which it did. And also included a lot of Marvel stars that I never would have encountered, or thought to read about, anywhere other than this book. It was super interesting. For example, the very first story is about the Rawhide Kid. Who? you ask. Fair question. I didn't know him either. But he starts his renegade nature after his Uncle Ben is killed. Sound familiar?

That being said, and as much as I really enjoyed most of it, oh man was it written in the 60s. Misogyny, potential racism, good times.

For example, the character of Dr. Droom, which the info in the book tells us was the "first 1960s attempt at an ongoing character with more-than-human powers." The issue included is the original story of Dr. Droom, who is a white doctor who goes to the "Orient" in order to take care of a dying lama. The lama bestows the doctor with his powers, and then the doctor takes on the features of the lama. Here's a picture of the panel where this is happening:

Obviously no worries about being P.C. in the 1960s. Or even not-racist. (The term "Oriental" is also used several times in this five page issue...)

Some other thoughts on various stories:

  • Having only seen the movie of the Fantastic Four, and never having read any of the comics, especially the origin issue, you might think that Reed and Ben were friends. Oh no. Not so, especially in the first issue. Ben blames Reed a lot for what happened to them (for good reason, since he's the one who advised against going into space in that way in the first place). He even attacks Reed, and basically tells Susan that Reed is a pussy, and she should obviously be in love with him (Ben).
  • Reed named himself Mister Fantastic. What a humble guy.
  • Reading about Ant-Man, all I could think was about Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! and Antie.
  • The colors of old comics, if they were true to history in this book, were...quite something. Like The Hulk wearing a super purple suit.
  • The first issues of The Hulk at least had him speaking in complete, full sentences. There was none of the "Hulk, SMASH!" He was completely coherent. When did that devolve?
  • Also, in the beginning of the Hulk, Bruce turned into the Hulk when it was nighttime, not because he was angry.
  • I loved that heroes were often tested out in other comics first. Kind of like a guest star or secondary character on a TV show who gets a spinoff.
  • In the beginning of Thor, he's just a regular guy who becomes Thor by holding the cane, which is actually the hammer. I thought maybe it was that the guy was Thor all along, and he only realizes when he holds the hammer, but no. Very interesting.
  • Johnny Storm, aka The Human Torch, lives in an asbestos room. Healthy.
  • There were several encounters with Native Americans, and apparently in the 60s, it was still okay to call them "reds."
  • July 1963 was the first Avengers, which was the "first 1960s team of pre-existing characters."
  • Lady heroes were pretty daft. For example, Ant-Man and the Wasp are about to go off on a mission and he says to her, "I can't see why you have to stop and powder your nose every time we have a mission!" Wow.
  • Also, in that same issue, Wasp says to Ant-Man, "Henry! Did you see that gorgeous Thor?! How can I ever make him notice me?" Really? That's how she reacted, and wasn't really focused on the mission. Ant-Man replies, "Stop acting like a love-sick female and slip behind this lens with me! I'd adjust it so it'll project our images on the wall!" Ugh.
  • What happened to the phrase, "In a trice..." We do not use that enough anymore.
  • What they thought was going to be the reality in the year 2000 is hilarious.
  • The lady in the Sub-Mariner might rival them all, who thinks that betrayal of the man she loves (the Sub-Mariner) will get him to love her. Smart, lady. I hate all the women in these 60s issues.
  • The dialogue of a Native American is another one of the most offensive things I've ever encountered. Did we really still think that Native Americans spoke in that stereotypical way in the 60s ?
  • Also, one of the native Americans has a swastika on his headband. What?!
  • There are yetis in the first issue with the Silver Surfer! Yetis!
  • It seems like a lot of these older comics had A LOT of words. Even for origin stories, the speech bubbles would often take up half the panel.

Overall, a very fascinating look at some of Marvel's most well-known characters. Sometimes offensive, but mostly just interesting.

Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars Volume I—Frank Beddor & Liz Cavalier, Art by Ben Templesmith

I found this while browsing the shelves of the graphic novels at the public library. I hadn't even known it existed, but had fairly recently read the first book in The Looking Glass Wars and was interested to see what this graphic novel would add to the world.

Of all the fairy tale type stories, two stand out as my favourites: Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. So I'm always interested in stories that relate to either of those.

This particular graphic novel is a companion to the aforementioned The Looking Glass Wars, and chronicles the beginning of Hatter's search for Alyss in what could be called our world. She gets sent here, and while he was traveling via the same method at the same time as her, they get separated, which means he has to try and track her down, since he's sworn to protect her.

I will say, the first thing that stood out to me was the cover art. Very interesting. And I'm a sucker for page quality, in all books, and the pages of the book are just beautiful: thick, glossy. Love them.

The artwork was phenomenal, although there were some panels that were super dark and hard to discern what was actually happening in them. I can only imagine that was intentional, but sometimes took me out of the world, because I was trying so hard to decipher what was happening. I did think it was very cool that, at one point, a girl who has imagination that Hatter runs across has her speech bubbles rainbow-colored. Something I've never seen in comic books. (Not that I've read an exhaustive number of them...)

This graphic novel was really interesting and well though out, and a great companion to the book. (Also excited that finding this reminded me that I wanted to go back and read the sequels to the book.) There was also a whole section at the end with answers to questions from fans, some original concept art, etc. Very cool.

I'm excited to go back and read the sequels to The Looking Glass Wars, and any other volumes of the graphic novels that might exist.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Death of a King—Andrew H. Vanderwal

This was another book that I received via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers lottery. Such an awesome program!

This book's synopsis mentioned time travel and William Wallace, so of course I had to request it.

I have to say, I wish that I knew more about the history of Scotland, and specifically the William Wallace period of history. I really know nothing. I haven't even seen Braveheart...Even so, this was an adventurous read.

Although it ended up being a very interesting, engrossing read, there were some things that were difficult to adjust to. The dustjacket and the synopsis both say, "From the Author of The Battle for Duncragglin." Nowhere does it say that this book is, in fact, a sequel of that book. Which would not be  ahuge deal, excpet for there are characters that are not in the synopsis of the book on the dustjacket, and just kind of show up, without any explanation of who they are. Now, if I had read the first book, I would've known. (As the book goes on, some things are made more clear if you read between the lines.) 

Once I got over that, and figured out who these seemingly random characters were, things moved right along. The basic story focuses on a boy called Alex, who is trying to track down his parents. They went back in time in an attempt to save the life of a king (King Alexander) who died and apparently set in motion the events of the Wars for Scottish Independence. Apparently they were never given a lecture about time travel and not interfering with past events. Like with many time travel tales, something went wrong. Of course, they were unable to stop the death of the king, and because they foretold it happening, it was assumed they were involved in the plot to assassinate him so they were sentenced to death.

Alex travels back in time to attempt to find them and save them, and along the way, provides the famed William Wallace with some much-needed information about how battles are meant to go. As you do, when you time travel.

After Alex had been there for a bit (and gone through varying degrees of pretending to be mute so that people would not notice that he spoke differently), he was joined by some fellow children - the ones I mentioned earlier who seemed to pop up out of nowhere - who were apparently some kids that he was staying with in Scotland before he time traveled. They join him in the journey, and the kids run around Scotland trying to find Alex's parents.

I have to say, it was all quite exciting. I wish there had been some more talk about how the time machine worked - it was a bit hokey, with animal heads on the wall of a cave that have to be turned a certain way to indicate where in time you'd like to end up. Perhaps there's more information about the mechanics of it in the first book. I also really appreciated that one of the characters is a girl that Alex meets in past Scotland who has had her hand cut off; I don't appreciate that she got her hand cut off, but I appreciate that there was a fairly main character who was not perfect.

Of course, all's well that ends well. As if there is any other way when time travel is involved. Quite an exciting book. I'll probably go back and read the first one.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Runaways: Pride and Joy—Brian K. Vaughan, Illustrated by Adrian Alphona

I've been trying to get back in touch with my geek self in the recent past, especially having recently moved my entire life to a place where I know very few people; it's given me more time to focus on my interests and hobbies.

This re-awakening has manifested itself in several different ways: my renewed love of board games, my desire to get back into gaming (although they don't really sell many N64 games in the stores nowadays...), and finally my introduction to comics.

I have to say, one of the things that I didn't get a lot of when I was a kid was comic books. I was a ridiculously avid reader, but for some reason I never really got into comic books. Of course, it may have had something to do with my father's influence, who constantly called video games "vidiot" games and was pretty averse to superheroes and comic book type things in general. He was more of a mechanic and beer type guy. Nothing against him, just different interests.

Well, I've been wanting to get into reading comics for a long time, but I would constantly feel overwhelmed about where to start.

I was inspired to figure it out, whatever that would mean, after watching the first season of Comic Book Men on the Netflix. The show is a reality show based around a podcast that Kevin Smith (director, actor, writer, comic book lover) does with his friends/the guys who work in the comic store he owns in New Jersey, Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash. Seeing those guys nerding out about particular 

Anyway, I actually found, on one of my favourite YouTube channels Geek and Sundry, a vlog from Amy Dallen about where to start with comic books. It was great, and one of the books she suggested was Runaways. She mentioned one later in the series that was written by Joss Whedon (who doesn't love Whedon?) but I wanted to start at the beginning, so I could fully understand.

The premise is interesting and I'm excited to read more. I'm especially looking forward to the Whedon-authored volumes.

Basically, it tells the story of six kids who discover that their parents are actually supervillains, and that they themselves have powers. As the title may indicate, they decide to run away from their families, not wanting to be follow in their evil parents footsteps. Of course, it's not that easy, to just "run away" from supervillain parents. In this first volume, 

An exciting thing about starting these series at this point is that many of them have books and books worth of issues to get through. Hurray! It's the same reason that I love the Netflix: because I can move at my own pace with television shows, rather than waiting at the edge of my seat each week for a new episode (or waiting each Wednesday at my local comic book store, as the case may be).

The Last Dragonslayer—Jasper Fforde

I went to Half Price Books during a slight jaunt away from the office the other day. I was looking for the books for the next Vaginal Fantasy, something I'm finally getting more involved with (by reading the books, at the very least) after just watching the videos since the beginning. But I was super distracted by this book. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Jasper Fforde. If you haven't heard of him, read his Thursday Next series. It's a great world that he has created, taking some pieces from classic literature - Thursday Next is a detective who solves literary crimes by entering the books. They're fantastic and so well written. And Thursday is such a strong female character. So good.

So I was distracted by the fact that it was a new Fforde book. I thought, "Oh, a Thursday Next book I haven't read." And then I saw the label at the bottom: "The Chronicles of Kazam | Book One." A new series! And from the cover art, probably a young adult book.

Indeed. This is the first in a new series that Fforde is writing specifically for young readers. I'm a big fan of reading young adult and children's books already, and one written by Fforde?! You got me. I bought it and started reading it immediately.

I can't wait for the second one, which apparently came out recently (with a third arriving shortly as well!). Fforde created a great world, that is not incredibly different from other magical fantasy worlds that we have seen before, but that's not important. One of my favourite things about his writing is that he creates these incredibly empowered female characters. It's so enlightening to see that, especially since I've been reading a slew of Vaginal Fantasy books (as I mentioned earlier) where female characters are not always the bad-assest of ladies. Jennifer Strange, the main character in this book, is two weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday. She's been managing a group of previously powerful magic people, although the magic has been dwindling in recent years. They are hired out for jobs that would normally take a lot more time and money: for example, re-piping a house using magic. And making deliveries via magic carpet. Jennifer is part of this group because she was sent there from the orphanage she had been sent to as a foundling. That's part of the system - foundlings are sent out for apprenticeships at age 12, and are basically indentured there until they are eighteen. She manages all of these people, in addition to the new foundling that's sent to the organization, and juggles her new-found role as as the last dragonslayer.

Such a great addition to my Jasper Fforde collection. Looking forward to reading the others.

The Fellowship of the Rings—J.R.R. Tolkien

Although I'm not completely sold on Coursera, and many of my colleagues in the education field are not fans, I decided this course would be interesting. It's entitled Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative. (Notice the Oxford comma, which was not my own addition but the way that the course creators punctuated it! Joy!) Here's the course mini-description:

"Focused on Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings Online, this course explores what happens to stories and films when they are turned into online games."

Interesting, right?

This is the first time that I've actually completed the first book. I feel like I lose my nerd cred just by saying that. I haven't even been able to make it through the movies. I've tried the first one three separate times and fallen asleep every time. Which is saying something, because I'm an insomniac. Not for lack of trying. (I believe that later in this course there's the obligation to watch the first film, so I'll try to make it all the way through this time.)

I've also tried to read this first book several times, and all of those times have gotten about 100 pages in and then gotten distracted by something else. I'm not quite sure why I've never been able to get into it, because I LOVE The Hobbit. I've read The Hobbit at least three or four times, have acted in a play version once, and been involved as an assistant choreographer with that same play as well. For some reason, the Lord of the Rings books never seemed to catch me.

But, I determined that I would do so for this course, and try my best to make it all the way through the course as well. (I've tried a couple of other MOOC's and have always faltered around week 2 or 3...)

I can now finally say, I MADE IT!

I can understand now why it's been so difficult for me to get through this first book: it's A LOT of exposition. As far as I understand, the next two books (and movies) have a great deal of action in them. Not so much with this first one. Which makes sense. If you're going on an epic, dangerous journey, there's bound to be some explanation of why you're going, who is going, the initial stages of journeying, etc.

However, now that I've made it through this first one, I might just try to read the other two as well. And perhaps go back and read The Hobbit. And The Silmarillion.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough—Lori Gottlieb

My friend, who is working this summer in Chicago in a law firm before beginning her second year of law school, found this book on a shelf in the apartment she's subletting for the summer. The apartment belongs to a married couple. She, finding it amusing to have discovered this book in the apartment of this married couple, suggested that one of us read it as our "Instruction Manual." I took up the challenge.

I would say first off, the title is somewhat misleading. I wouldn't say that Gottlieb is necessarily arguing that women settle for "Mr. Good Enough;" I would say rather that she's arguing for women to temper our expectations, specifically in relation to expecting Prince Charming (and potentially giving up a man we'd be happy with in order to do so).

The book grew out of her own experiences as a 41-year-old never-married single mother. (She'd written rather publicly several years earlier about her decision to have a child, as she was running out of childbearing years, and then finding a partner afterwards.) She'd found that after having her son, it wasn't as easy as she was hoping to find someone that she thought she could make a life with. Part of this was because of her own perceptions of her worth and value for other people, and part of this was because of her expectations for finding a man. After much conversation with friends (both married and unmarried) and relationships experts, she realized that she had unrealistic ideals of what she wanted. Even as a twenty-something, especially one who was raised on Disney movies and romantic comedies, I can find the value in these points.

There were some especially poignant moments, that I've heard from girlfriends or considered myself:

Another married friend, Henry, who's 36, said that while some men are afraid of commitment, most aren't. They want to get married as much as women do. Often, he said, it's just a case of the guy not being into that woman, but also not wanting to give up the perks of the relationship. "He knows he's not going to marry her," Henry said, 'so he says, 'I'm not looking for anything serious right now' or 'I'm not sure I want to have kids' or 'I'm focused on my career right now,' which he thinks is telling her that if she wants this relationship to lead to marriage, she should look elsewhere. But women think the guy is confused and she can change him, when really the guy has made up his mind." [p. 29, emphasis mine]

The messages about love that we take away from the media are as contradictory as they are counterproductive. If the typical love story goes like this--Boy meets Girl, Boy and Girl hate each other, Boy and Girl exchange witty banter, Boy and Girl grudgingly realize they love each other, Boy and Girl live happily ever after (although we never see this part)--what message does that send? Should we look for the person who annoys us initially or who attracts us initially? And if love comes when we least expect it, does that mean if we actively seek love, it's not true love? (p. 41)

Dr. Broder says he sees a heightened sense of entitlement that previous generations didn't have...many women today seem to be looking for an idealized spiritual union instead of a realistic marital partnership. (p.131)

Fairy tales are to romance what fireworks are to the night sky. They are transient states...and while temporarily thrilling, not what one builds a life around. [p. 146, quoted from a Dear Prudence article]

Overall, an interesting read about being realistic with our expectations, rather than "holding out" for the fairy tale, movie-magic moments that we've come to imagine our lives will be.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America—Erik Larson

Although I started off my Grown Up Summer Reading Challenge, an adventure embarked upon with friends, by reading A Tale of Two Cities, I felt like a book that had been out 150 years had probably been reviewed to death. (Though I am always a sucker for anything French culture, history, or language related.)

My second book, which served as my Nonfiction selection, was Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. I will admit to a certain fascination with serial killers. (With the question, do we perpetuate the inclination to serial killing by sensationalizing it? Does even asking that question contribute to the problem? I feel like I've even talked about these same questions somewhere on this blog before.) Additionally, having recently traveled to Chicago for the first time in March, I was greatly fascinated with this history of the city and it's Worlds Fair.

One of my first questions upon starting to read this really had nothing to do with the serial killing (because, of course, the serial killings in Chicago came later). My question was: When was the last World's Fair? And the follow up question: Why don't we have them anymore? I did a quick Google search, and found that they still happen, although probably not to the scale as in the past, but are never hosted in the United States. Seriously, they have them planned out for at least the next ten years: zero in the U.S. I have to say, it made me a little sad. The fact that the Eiffel Tower and the design of the Ferris wheel had both emerged from World's Fairs makes me feel like we're cheating ourselves out of future innovations by not gathering to share. (And, admittedly, attempt to outdo the other countries.)

The story was artfully woven, gliding back and forth between the experiences of Daniel Burnham, essentially master of all things Chicago Worlds Fair, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, crazed serial killer and possible demon. Beginning a few years prior to the Worlds Fair in 1893, Larson chronicled the fight Burnham and his partner John Root to be awarded the contract to build the Chicago Worlds Fair, including the initial battle to even have the Fair held in Chicago. The struggle did not end after having attained the contract: John Root died before the Fair was even finished being built, there were many delays, weather issues, problems with fires, destruction of already-built pieces of the Fair. Honestly, it kind of seemed like a disaster the whole way, until they finally raised the Ferris Wheel and everything started to come together.

While Burnham and Root were getting started on designing and building the Fair, H. H. Holmes was busy being a crazy man. He moved to Chicago in 1886, convincing an older woman whose husband was dying to sign over their pharmacy to him. When patrons would ask him where the woman and her husband had gone, he would always say they had gone to visit relatives and decided to stay. (Yeah, probably not.) He was handsome and charming, which probably kept suspicion away from him far longer than it should have been. He was a master at avoiding paying bills, and built his entire "fortress," including chambers where he killed some of his victims, with essentially free labor; he would hire workers, work them as long as possible, then claim that things were built incorrectly, and discharge them without pay. He married several times over, without taking the time to get divorced from previous wives. He built this "fortress" just down the street from the Fair, and took advantage of all of the young women who were coming to the city for the first time on their own from places around the country. Because these girls didn't have contacts in the city, and the police force was a much different animal back then, it was often a long time, if at all, that girls who were reported missing were able to be tracked down. Several of these girls were victims of Holmes. After the Fair, in an attempt to evade increasing attention from creditors, Holmes left town, to some property in Texas that one of his wives (and murder victims) had "left" to him. Holmes was finally caught when he was accused of insurance fraud in relation to the "death" of one of his long-time associates, Benjamin Pitezel. (He probably did actually kill the man, as opposed to just claiming that he had died.) While in custody, he came to the interest of a Philadelphia cop, Frank Geyer, who was investigating the disappearance of a friend's daughter. Geyer came to find that three of the Pitezel children had last been seen with Holmes and were now missing. They found the bodies of the three children, and then more bodies and body parts at the old "fortress" in Chicago. The number of people that Holmes killed has never been confirmed, although estimates ranged as high as 200.

I thought it was very cool to see the stories of famous people/families that were just thrown casually into the book. He lists several at the beginning, and then elaborates on some.

"Never before had so many of history's brightest lights, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Henry Adams, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Nikola Tesla, Ignace Paderewski, Philip Armour, and Marshall Field, gathered in one place at one time." (p. 5) Think of the genius in that group!

Larson throws in, "In all, the workforce in the park numbered four thousand. The ranks included a carpenter and furniture-maker named Elias Disney, who in coming years would tell many stories about the construction of this magical realm beside the lake. His son Walt would take note." (p. 153) So striking, how almost flippantly Larson throws that out there. "Oh, by the way, the beginning of an empire was started here, among other things." He does much the same thing introducing George Washington Gale Ferris, who invented the first Ferris wheel for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. And when introducing Annie Oakley, who worked at the Worlds Fair as part of Buffalo Bill's gang.

He also throws in several legacies of the Worlds Fair that we still enjoy today: "Within the fair's buildings visitors encountered devices and concepts new to them and to the world. They heard live music played by an orchestra in New York and transmitted to the fair by long-distance telephone. They saw the first moving pictures on Edison's Kinetoscope, and they watched, stunned, as lightning chattered from Nikola Tesla's body. They saw even more ungodly things--the first zipper; the first-ever all-electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher; and a box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima's. They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit, and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack. A new cereal, Shredded Wheat, seemed unlikely to succeed[...]but a new beer did well, winning the exposition's top beer award. Forever afterward, its brewer called it Pabst Blue Ribbon." (p. 247-248) Pretty impressive collection there.

Overall a well-organized, captivating, engrossing read that I would recommend to anyone who's looking for a good nonfiction book.

I also just found out that Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the film rights to the book in 2010 (good thinking, Leo) and is apparently slotted to play serial killer H. H. Holmes, as well as co-produce. They all could be rumours. Except that Leo bought the film rights. That's for real.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Grown Up Library-Style Summer Reading Challenge—An Experiment with Friends

There is a group of people who I have known for just about forever. We've had our ups and downs, times where we were together all the time, times where we would go a while without seeing each other. But overall we've been together for a good chunk of time. And they're theatre people, so they're obviously awesome.

As we've gotten older and drifted apart geographically for school, jobs, other endeavors, we've tried to stay in touch. Mostly this has been done through a private Facebook group where we'll occasionally share what's going on in our lives.

Now we've added a new facet: a grown up, library-style summer reading program. Here's the Twitter conversation that created the idea:

We're still in the process of planning, scheduling, and determining prizes (!) but overall I'm pretty excited about it. I'm also looking forward to seeing what my friends choose within the genres as we go. There's already a great range in our "Classics" prompt.

And we've decided it's going to be our "First Annual" and we're going to try to do it every summer. One more way to stay connected when we're all over the country (and sometimes, globe).

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Bubble Gum Thief—Jeff Miller


(Warning: There be some spoilers below!)

One day, I made a date with myself to explore the Berkeley Public Library, having gotten a library card a few weeks earlier. So I took my lunch break and walked myself across the block to the library.

None of the books I went for were there, even though the website suggested that they would be. But that was just fine by me. I'm so instantly distracted by books, I easily found some other selections, books I never would have known to go looking for.

This was one of them.

At once a terrifying and intriguing premise, this book was so well and thoughtfully crafted. I found it difficult to put the book down when I got off the train in the morning and entered the office. (Let alone for the walk the two blocks to the office - I barely lifted my eyes to peruse the traffic conditions.) You know it's good writing - and a good book - when you want to read other books in the author's canon. It led me to investigate what other books the author had written, and this is his first novel! What! Don't tease. I hope that he's working on other things. (It seems like he may have something coming down the pipeline eventually, since the cover of this book proclaims it "A Dagny Gray Thriller." That insinuates that there will be more than one, in my experience.)

Essentially, the story is of a criminal whose crimes are escalating. It starts with a pack of gum, and quickly gets more violent and disturbing. He seems to be playing a game with Dagny Gray, an FBI agent who is investigating the crimes.

As she is investigating, Dagny Gray has her own personal struggles, particularly her struggle with anorexia. When Miller first introduced her calorie counting, I was inclined to be offended. Another stereotypical woman who counts her calories, and so precisely and obsessively too? Gag me. But it quickly becomes clear that Dagny's obsessive counting is related to her essentially lifelong struggle with anorexia.

There were quite a few twists and turns throughout the book. It was an interesting juxtaposition to be presented with these descriptive, lively characters, and then to have such clinical descriptions of the deaths - very matter of fact and non-emotional.

An especially poignant moment, in light of the Sandy Hook shootings in December, was one of the crimes taking place at an elementary school. At first, the shooting in the book seemed just as pointless and impossible to understand as those at Sandy Hook. But later we see that the villain in the book did have a reason. It's not a justifiable one, but it's more reason than we will probably ever have for the tragic shooting in December.

One of my favourite parts of the book was the Professor, an old FBI agent who initially pulls Dagny onto the case. She is taking his class at Quantico when he offers her the opportunity to do some work for him. At first, these Bubble Gum Thief cases seem like nothing. Anyway, the Professor is right away one of the most eccentric and lovable curmudgeons that I've encountered in a book - if you love curmudgeons, as I do.

I also thought this was some of the best male-author-heroine-voice writing that I've read. More on point and realistic than some female authors writing for female characters, in my opinion.

Miller presented an intriguing idea - that of crowdscourcing crime solving. I have a friend who works for a crowdsourcing company, so I was particularly drawn to this idea. In the book, Dagny's partner Victor utilizes criminology students, law enforcement agencies, and Wiki editors in order to help track down some further information about their suspect. Because of the nature of the work, and the need to be on the ground in those particular cities, it was much easier - not to mention more time- and cost-effective - to use the civilians who were already in the area and ready and willing to help.

I thought the story-arc of the villain was so artfully presented. From the beginning, he seemed like such a thoroughly irredeemable character: he seems to have no emotions or hesitations when murdering these people, even the children that he's resolved to kill, and is completely un-remorseful. But towards the end, we are introduced to the man before he became the monster, and we see a part of his slow descent into "madness" and hatred. We even learn the "why" of the crimes. And although, of course, the why does not mitigate the crimes, although it still seems a rather drastic course of action, we come to understand how this man was pushed over the edge.

I loved the ending. About thirty pages from the end, something happened that was completely unexpected to me, and it seemed like a rather abrupt ending. I momentarily forgot all of the things that can happen in thirty pages. But then Miller went back and tied it all up for me with a nice bow, exactly how I like it. He even made sure to pull back small pieces that had seemed inconsequential earlier in the book.

One of the best, most engrossing books that I have read in a long time. Looking forward impatiently to further Dagny Gray thrillers.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Night Circus—Erin Morgenstern

I LOVED this book. Amazingly compelling and full of wonder, it was unlike anything else that I have read and kept me enthralled the entire time I was reading it. Based on a challenge between an old "magician" and his one-time mentor, a young woman (Celia, the magician's daughter) and a young man (Marco, the mentor's choice) are unwittingly pitted against each other - bound by supernatural rings - in an effort for the old men to prove the dominance of their personal philosophy on magic. Both of the competitors are blessed with remarkable powers, and each of their instructors attempts to prepare them for the challenge, the platform for which is a traveling night circus.

As the circus continues, the participants begin to realize that they are unnaturally held in time - they are not aging, or at least are aging slowly enough to seem as such. Marco, stuck in London taking care of the paperwork side of the circus, creates new marvels remotely, while Celia, working as the illusionist at the circus, responds on location. He knows that she is his competitor, but she does not until a great deal into the challenge. Both of their instructors have informed them of the competition, but they do not have all of the details, as the two old men have been purposefully vague.

How much did I want to be with the night circus and be able to see the spectacular feats of magic that these two had created! I was not as compelled by the love story as I was by the existence of the circus itself, and the remarkable goings-on.

Great read, recommended to anyone who likes things that are awesome.

Insane City—Dave Barry

“Any man fleeing from the police with three women, two children, and an orangutan is a friend of mine.” (298)

This is yet another of my Early Reviewers books, from the November batch. I was particularly excited about this one because it was written by an author that I am quite familiar with: Dave Barry. While most of the books that I’ve gotten through the Early Reviewers program have been good reads, essentially all of them have been by authors I had never heard of before. I’ve actually read a good bit of Dave Barry books, starting when some guy friends in high school introduced our group of friends to Dave Barry’s Guide to Guys. And as a lifelong lover of all things Peter Pan, I loved Barry’s collaborative writing with Ridley Pearson about the early days of Peter.

Anyway, as it is widely publicized, this is the first book individually authored by Dave Barry in over ten years. What a great return. While I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a mystery (one of the reviews on the back of my review copy states that it is…), I think it’s a great adventure. Taking place across the span of three days, the events begin with Seth going to Miami for his wedding to rich girl Tina Clark. He’s traveling with his three friends: best man Marty, Big Steve, and Kevin. While out for his bachelor party a few days before the actual event, the four men meet Duane, his pet snake Blossom, and hot bod contest participant Cyndi. They get drunk, and hilarious – and unpredictable - hijinks ensue.

While there were a few things that were pretty clear from the beginning (who ends up with who, the very Hangover-style shenanigans) for the most part the story kept me on my toes. I mean, how could I have predicted that the orangutan would fall in love with Cyndi and knock out three bouncers in order to protect her as his mate? I found myself laughing out loud several times, which is the sign of a really good adventure comedy. I wanted to smack Tina in the face throughout the entirety of the book, which I imagine is part of the function of her character. Other than her, really, the characters are all extremely likeable, or at the very least have redeeming qualities. I also appreciated the efficient use of the epilogue, in a very un-lazy fashion (not true of all epilogues), tying up the loose ends following the crazy storyline of events prior.

I received an uncorrected proof, so I’m going to imagine that most of the small mistakes that I noticed are fixed in the final version. There was a page that referenced Tina’s father, Mike, and then was clearly talking about things that his character was doing, but incorrectly had him called Steve. Kind of strange, but I figured it out, so in the long run not horrible.

A great read, and one that I probably would’ve gotten from the library or purchased myself in order to enjoy, which makes me feel like even more of a winner. I would definitely recommend this one to any adult (in no way is this book appropriate for children) who is looking for a good, light-hearted romp through the streets of Miami.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Cornerstone—Anne C. Petty

There be spoilers (as it's almost impossible to describe what I liked about the book without revealing some).

Finally, faintly, the banshee’s wail could be heard riding the wind, a keening scree just at the edge of hearing, then louder. Suddenly it was deafening, a sound so painful it could stop the heart, and it seemed to be inside Dee’s own head, as if some raging animal were trapped there and clawing its way out. (15)

The third of the three books I won in the December batch of Librarything Early Reviewers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical fiction supernatural thriller, of sorts. I mean, if you kill someone in such a brutal, bloody, unemotional manner in the first ten pages of the book, you've definitely got my attention. Petty suggests an alternate "ending" for Christopher Marlowe - that he gave his soul to the devil in exchange for ongoing life (via a banshee trapped in a stone to whom he must constantly sacrifice lives).

Branching nicely with Marlowe's revamped story of Faustus, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus, the story begins with the original trapping of the banshee in the cornerstone, by none other than famous historical figure John Dee. John Dee was a trusted scientist in Queen Elizabeth I's court. While involved in the more traditional scientific side, he balanced that with a healthy investigation into the supernatural, especially in the last half of his life. He was also a well-known book collector, which is referenced somewhat briefly in the book. (To learn more about John Dee, and get references to real scholarly information about him, check out his Wiki page.) Little did Dee know, but the witch who helped him to trap the banshee was also consumed by the stone.

Fast forward to relatively current day. We are at a modern-day theatre, which is presenting a version of Marlowe's Faustus. Plucky stage manager (?) Claire has been trying to get more involved, to get a bit of a break from her day job as an EMT. On the first night we meet the theatre crew, a real knife mysteriously replaces the prop knife, and the lead actor, Danny, inadvertently cuts himself. Although she offers to take him to get stitches, the director Kit Bayard (get it? Kit?) takes Danny into his office to tend to his wound. Next rehearsal, Kit tells them all that Danny has decided to leave the show, and the theatre company. There have been lots of suggestions of haunting in the theatre, which is fairly typical of theatre's, really. At first Claire thinks that whatever is haunting the theatre has something to do with Danny's disappearance. And she's not entirely wrong.

Claire seems to be the only one really concerned about Danny's disappearance. She convinces a few of the actors (including practicing Wicca Addie) to help her investigate his disappearance, and explore the much-protected basement.

I did think that the "Kit" continuity there was a bit of a giveaway. Not right away, of course, because your first thought is not, "Well, that's a 400-year-old renowned playwright." But definitely as you get further into the story, it makes the surprises less. However, even given that, this book kept me completely engaged and constantly guessing as to what would happen next. I thought there were some well-grounded, but still surprising, reveals, which was great and impressively accomplished. Really enjoyed it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Eleven—Pierre Michon (Trans. by Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays)

Francois Corentin numbered among those writers who were beginning to say, and surely to think, that the writer served some purpose, that he has not what he was believed to have been until then; that he has not that exquisite superfluity at the service of the Great, that resonant, gallant, epic frivolity to be drawn from the sleeve of a king and exhibited for scantily dressed young girls in Saint-Cyr or the Parc-aux-Cerfs; not a castrato or a juggler; not a beautiful sparkling object set in the crown of prince; not a procuress, not a chamberlain of the word, not a steward of pleasures; not any of those things but a way of thinking - a powerful mix of sensibility and reason to throw into the universal human dough to make it rise, a multiplier of man, a force for man's growth like the retorts for gold and the stills for wine, a powerful machine to increase man's happiness.

This was one of the three Early Reviewers books I got in the December batch.

The story was something of a labor of love for author Pierre Michon, who wrote it after something like 15 years of research and work on it, and is based on actual historical events and paintings. The fictional main character, Francois-Elie Corentin painted an important historical piece representing the eleven members of the Committee of Public Salvation during the French Revolution. The story alternates between the commission of the painting and its subjects (more of the historically accurate parts) to telling about the life of the fictional artist.

Beautiful language. Lots of quote options. I would be interested to read the original French version (especially since that's actually a pre-translated language I could read!) and see how literal is the translation; how many of the well-stated phrases are Michon's as opposed to the translators. A short book with an intriguing, concise story. I will say it's kind of a throwback to the French writers of the 1800s, who utilized a great deal of exposition in their stories. Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its ridiculous amount of pages of description of Paris before you even meet Quasimodo. Additionally, like the Classics, there are long passages of exposition with very little punctuation. Which leads to long pages with not a lot of stopping points. But definitely a worthwhile, short read.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dead Reflections—Carol Weekes

It is ubiquitous. It walks naked through sunlight and dances through the nocturne. It sings quiet tunes that fade in and out with the melancholy discord of broken chimes. It keeps rooms and it takes in guests on a regular basis. Some chambers are darker than others, temporal scorpions hiding within the folds of time and space. Death is a dark flower, its perfume heady and dangerous as it pulls you into its bosom. It maintains many levels within the bloom of its existence, some of them pockets of toxic waste. (3)

Yet another of my wonderful prizes from the Librarything Early Reviewers program, although my first e-book. My strategy has been to "bid" on any of the books that I find even slightly interesting, and it seemed to pay off this time because I won three books in the December batch. All three of them were ebooks, which may mean that you have a higher chance of winning because less people are bidding on that mode of publication. Either way, exciting to win three books!

I read this one first, in conjunction with another of my recent wins: reading this one during the day, and the other after dark when my overactive imagination made it ill-advised to continue in this book.

That's a good sign, that the book was something I couldn't read after dark. It was sufficiently creepy and supernatural, while also keeping my interest. I appreciated the structure of the book, and actually found it very interesting; it began with a novel, then was followed by alternating poems and short stories. I greatly enjoyed the writing, which was thoughtful and expressive. As someone who is often accused of being morbid - which I can't claim to understand, imagining that everyone just assumes if somebody doesn't answer their phone they've probably been murdered - I appreciated that particular aspect of the book.

There were some things that were not necessarily bad, but rather observations of trends that were not necessarily realistic. Not that stories with supernatural slants are intended to be realistic. I found it odd that all of the lead characters in the novel and short stories were male. Especially considering that the author is a woman, it seemed like the lead characters were terribly inclined to not share the weird happenings with their wives, and in fact sometimes made comments to themselves about their wives freaking out or not believing them.

Additionally, it seemed that all of the children who were featured in the stories either didn't have natural intuition or chose not to trust it. While kids don't always know what's going on, and they are fairly trusting, they also have great instincts.

Overall, an entertaining and fairly quick read.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Thirteenth Tale—Diane Setterfield

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. (8-9)

Perhaps it was the particular nature - and biblio atrocity - of the last book that I read, but less than ten pages into this book, I knew that I was going to like it. As is evidenced by the quote above, it was eminently clear to me from the get-go that this author had a love of books that was at the very least equal to my own.

This book is a wonderful portrayal of a story-within-a-story. Our narrator invites us into her life, as she herself is invited into the life of a reclusive author, Vida Winter.  The mysterious author has long been an enigma to interviewers and those interested, especially with regard to a first printing of one of her books. The original title was Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. However, the book only contains twelve chapters. For years, people have been wondering about the thirteenth tale - even though the book was recalled and the title changed. Readers have long memories.

All her life, Miss Winter has made up a different story every time she was asked for personal information. Now, as she is dying, she feels the immense desire to tell her own story, the true one. She chooses Margaret Lea to assemble her biography, having read an amateur biography that Margaret had written about two brothers. As Miss Winter (aka Adeline March, as we come very quickly to learn) relates her story, it seems as though she is telling a ghost tale, of a sister who lost a part of herself when her twin died in a house fire. Setterfield does a remarkable job of making the March manor seem haunted, making in fact even Miss Winter seem haunted, as a result of the tragic events. She doesn’t allow Margaret to ask questions, insisting that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there will be no peeking at the ending of this particular book. This insistence by her character allows Setterfield to hold onto the twist - resolution - of the story a bit longer.

Along with learning about the life of Vida Winter, we also get snippets of the sadness that is Margaret Lea. She feels a kinship with Miss Winter, as she discovered a long while ago that she once had a twin - who died soon after their birth - and her parents never told her. She struggles with having a relationship with her parents following what she sees as them withholding information essential to her identity. She is able to grow and learn from her experiences with Vida Winter, to gather the strength to discuss her twin with her father, to acknowledge to those outside of herself the immense incompleteness she has always felt as a result of that loss.

While reading, I marked so many quotes as possible openers for this blog post, that I had to share some particularly poignant extras below. Setterfield’s way with words is so unassumingly poetic, I found many turns of phrase that particularly resonated with me.

People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex  you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic. (17) 

Peasants and princes, bailiffs and bakers’ boys, merchants and mermaids, the figures were all immediately familiar. I had read these stories a hundred, a thousand, times before. They were stories everyone knew. But gradually, as I read, their familiarity fell away from them. They became strange. They became new. These characters were not the colored manikins I remembered from my childhood picture books, mechanically acting out the story one more time. They were people. The blood that fell from the princess’s finger when she touched the spinning wheel was wet, and it left the tang of metal on her tongue when she licked her finger before falling asleep. When his comatose daughter was brought to him, the king’s tears left salt burns on his face. the stories were shot through with an unfamiliar mood. Everyone achieved their heart’s desire - the king had his daughter restored to life by a stranger’s kiss, the beast was divested of his fur and left naked as a man, the mermaid walked - but only when it was too late did they realize the price they must pay for escaping their destiny. Every Happy Ever After was tainted. Fate, at first so amenable, so reasonable, so open to negotiation, ends up by exacting a cruel revenge for happiness. (27) 

The other rooms were thick with the corpses of suffocated words; here in the library you could breathe. (41) 

Why recall the picture now, you must be wondering. The reason I remember it so well is that it seems to be an image of the way I have lived my own life. I have closed my study door on the world and shut myself away with the people of my imagination. For nearly sixty years I have eavesdropped with impunity on the lives of people who do not exist. I have peeped shamelessly into hearts and bathroom closets. I have leaded over shoulders to follow the movements of quills as they write love letters, wills and confessions. I have watched as lovers love, murderers murder, and children play their make-believe. Prisons and brothels have opened their doors to me; galleons and camel trains have transported me across sea and sand; centuries and continents have fallen away at my bidding. I have spied upon the misdeeds of the mighty and witnessed the nobility of the meek. I have bent so low over sleepers in their beds that they might have felt my breath on their faces. I have seen their dreams. My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people, anxious for a life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.(113) 

His voice had the unmistakable lightness of someone telling something extremely important. A story so cherished it had to be dressed in casualness to disguise its significance in case the listener turned out to be unsympathetic. (220) 

I’d definitely read other books by Setterfield, and would strongly recommend this book to anyone. (Thanks to Jess - and Rose - for their recommendation of it to me!)