Sunday, October 1, 2017

A Proper Young Lady

A Proper Young Lady by Lianne Simon (Faie Miss Press, 2015, 227pp.)

This story tells the romantic tale of two childhood sweethearts, the tomboyish Melanie, and her graceful, intersex lover, Danièle. (Danièle looks feminine, but produces sperm, and has no uterus to bear children herself.) Separated as teenagers, the two are reunited five years later when Danièle, now engaged to the ambitious Ethan, looks for a woman to serve as the surrogate mother for their children. After Melanie agrees to the role of surrogate, she conceives twins using in vitro. Little does she or Ethan know, however, that the sperm sample used to fertilize her eggs is not Ethan’s, but Danièle’s! When Ethan realizes the truth, he demands that the children be put up for adoption. Now, the same societal rules that originally tore Danièle and Melanie apart—rules that say people should be either male or female—threaten to rise again and compromise their happiness.

In addition to telling a very simple romance story, A Proper Young Lady also serves as a protest against the societal expectation that people classify themselves on a strict male/female basis. While the premise itself is interesting enough to drive the novel forward to a sweet, uplifting conclusion, the writing was neither rich nor compelling, which proved to be a disappointment. Readers looking for stories outside the mainstream, however, may find themselves interested. Since A Proper Young Lady belongs to the New Adult genre (meaning readers who are college-aged and a little older), I recommend it for readers ages 18 and up.

A Tale of Human Frailty

Lucille by Ludovic Debeurme (Top Shelf Productions, 2011, 544pp.)

Lucille, a young anorexic woman, and Arthur, the son of a disgraced sailor, fall in love and run away together to Italy. Along the way, they fall prey to fears of abandonment and insecurities that test the bonds of their relationship. Debeurme’s bare ink sketches suit the story well with their storyboard simplicity, and his examination of the characters’ past histories and motivations turn an otherwise flat storyline into a moving tale of human frailty. Recommended for an adult audience due to sexual content, language.

Quirky, Magical Fun

Gingerbread Girl by Paul Tobin. Illus by Colleen Coover (Top Shelf Productions, 2011, 112pp.)

How many people would willingly describe themselves as a “tease”? Annah Billips does. She’s a sweet but fickle girl in her twenties, an American Amélie who fears commitment, has a thing for girls with afros, and likes to set up two dates when she intends on keeping only one. Why does she act the way she does? The answer is a complicated one. Like the Gingerbread Man, she constantly defies the other characters—as well as the reader—in their attempts to pin her down. Through the course of the story, a handful of her peers step forward to examine her character: her friend and part-time lover, Chili; a phony psychic she hired to help find her missing sister; even a pigeon flying over the city, just to name a few. Annah’s story is a quirky, magical portrait that’s as strange as it is delightful. Recommended for mature readers due to adult content.

A Bland Noir Knock-Off

Liar’s Kiss by Eric Skillman. Illus by Jhomar Soriano (Top Shelf Productions, 2011, 120pp.)

Tragedy and melodrama abound in this less than capable noir tribute. Nick Archer, the Sam Spade figure of the piece, is a shabby, wise-cracking private eye who’s been hired by a rich art gallery owner, Johnny Kincaid, to spy on his sultry, unfaithful wife, Abbey. Instantly attracted to one another, Nick and Abbey begin an affair right under Kincaid’s nose. All runs smoothly until Kincaid is found murdered, and the police decide to name Abbey as the prime suspect. As Nick struggles for clues alongside hostile police detectives, he discovers that the key to solving the crime lies in a botched burglary at Kincaid’s art gallery years ago. What could very well have been a great homage to the noir genre if handled properly is instead botched by its well-meaning author. The killer’s motivation feels a bit forced, the story itself is unremarkable, and the characters lack substance. Skillman would have done better had he tried a more satirical approach to the story, and focused more on characters than plot. A bland noir knock-off that’s good for one read, nothing more. Recommended for mature readers.

Intriguing, Informative True Detective Story

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen. Illus by Jonathan Case (Dark Horse, 2011, 240pp.)

In 2001, the nearly twenty-year hunt for the “Green River Killer” ended when a specially appointed task force arrested Gary Leon Ridgway, the man responsible for murdering at least 49 women during the 1980s. He later accepted a plea deal with police in exchange for his cooperation in locating the burial sites of any undiscovered victims. One member of the task force was the author’s own father, Detective Tom Jensen, and it’s really his story that’s the focus of this graphic novel. Reminiscent of From Hell, Alan Moore’s mammoth treatise on the Ripper murders, this is a riveting, intriguing look into the world of the Green River investigation and the effect the decades-long manhunt had on the lives of the task force involved. Recommended for mature readers for content.

The Next Day

The Next Day by Paul Peterson and Jason Gilmore. Illus by John Porcellino (Pop Sandbox Inc., 2011, 98pp.)

The Next Day is both a graphic novella and an interactive animated documentary website co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Both depict the suicide attempts of four individuals, and ask the question: “What if they had just waited one more day?” The purpose of both mediums is to raise awareness of suicide, and how to prevent it.

The graphic novel is little more than a comic strip montage. The four life stories of Jenn, Chantel, Ryan, and Tina—all who survived their suicide attempts—are interwoven together by similar themes and events, including sexual abuse by a relative, bipolar disorder, depression, and substance abuse—all in just 98 pages. This method, however, disturbs the flow of each individual’s story, and prevents us from getting a clear picture of each person’s situation.

The concept works better in the form of an interactive website because you actually hear the stories of these four people, rather than just reading about them. The interactive “experience” begins by showing us a house, very simply drawn, very spare in detail. There’s a front yard with shrubs, a swing set out front. Emotionally charged words appear on the screen, words like “fear,” “death,” “helpless,” etc. As you click on a word, the site takes you through an animated tour of the empty house. Hallways are lost in shadow, and poorly affixed wallpaper begins to deteriorate. While all this is going on, you hear about the lives of four different people, some who had happy childhoods, others who had miserable ones—but all of which follow the inevitable path to self-destruction.

The worsening of depression is depicted in the animation by the presence of a storm. As the interviewees speak of contemplating suicide, the storm begins: water rattles against the windows and shadows deepen. But, as the website reminds us, things won’t always be this bad. As this portion of the animation wraps up, we are shown a calm scene: water drips from the roof of the house onto the ground and onto the seat of the swing set. In the background, the four survivors deliver their closing comments on their life choices and what they are doing to deal with mental illness.

So skip the graphic novel, and go straight to the website. I guarantee the “experience” will be worthwhile. Recommended for mature readers.

A Heartbreaking Graphic Memoir/Biography

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. Talbot. Illus by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse, 2012, 96pp.)

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes is a heartbreaking graphic memoir/biography that focuses on the lives of two women: Lucia Joyce, daughter of author James Joyce, and Mary Talbot, daughter of the Joycean scholar, James S. Atherton. With deft skill, Talbot crafts her story by drawing parallels between Lucia’s relationship with Joyce (a kindly dreamer, but ineffectual as a parent), and her relationship with her own father (a brilliant scholar, by turns loving and tyrannical). An excellent read, and highly recommended. Appropriate for both adults and teenagers.

Recommended Only for Serious Beatle Fans

Baby’s in Black: The Story of Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and the Beatles by Arne Bellstorf (First Second, 2011, 224pp.)

Baby’s in Black is told from the point of view of Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer who befriended the Beatles in their early years, before they hit it big. The story focuses primarily on the romance between Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe, the “Fifth” Beatles member, while the band was playing in Hamburg in 1960.

I can only approach this graphic novel in review from the angle of someone who likes the music, but isn’t a serious fan. This biography showed me just how little I know about the Beatles (they had a drummer before Ringo? And—holy cow! There was a fifth Beatle?) So, yes, for someone who knows admittedly little about the band, this was completely uninteresting. All the characters look alike. We get no sense of who these people are. In the case of the “romance,” it holds you at a distance. So, while informative, I can only say that it’s completely forgettable as a piece of art. Recommended only to serious fans of the Beatles.

A Chilly Read

The Coldest City by Antony Johnston. Illus by Sam Hart (Oni Press, 2012, 176pp.)

Bodies pile up and twists abound in The Coldest City, a complicated espionage thriller that features a gutsy female spy on a mission in West Berlin, 1989. Fans of John le Carré’s spy thrillers will definitely enjoy this dense tale of intrigue, but readers not familiar with spy jargon, or not in the mood for challenging material, may want to look elsewhere.

Eerie, Darkly Romantic, But Flawed

Interview with the Vampire: Claudia’s Story by Ashley Marie Witter (Yen Press, 2012, 224pp.)

When most people think back on their early childhoods, the memories they’re most likely to recall are attending preschool, going to birthday parties, and making friends. For Claudia, her first memory is of the night she was turned into a vampire. Her two guardians (the ones responsible for her transformation) are Louis and Lestat. Louis guides her towards studying the classics, enjoying music, and appreciating the beauty of the natural world. Lestat, the sleek and sophisticated alpha male of their trio, on the other hand, is more interested in exposing her to the carefree life of murder and mayhem that their dark lifestyle has to offer (in other words, he’s the “fun” parent). Because of the peculiar nature of vampire biology, Claudia cannot outgrow her childlike body, though her mind has quickly matured past the point of childish interests. She soon begins to question the oddity of her existence, and wonders: Is her little coven of three the only vampires in existence, or are there others of their kind elsewhere? Although she presses her guardians for answers, both are reluctant to explain and continue to treat her like a child rather than the young woman that she has matured into. When the truth is at last revealed to her, it’s more devastating than she expected, and puts a nearly unbearable sense of strain on their family life.

Interview with the Vampire: Claudia’s Story is a graphic novel adaptation of the 1976 novel by Anne Rice. Instead of tracing the story as originally told entirely through Louis’s POV, Claudia’s Story is seen through Claudia’s eyes, and manages to fill in the gaps of Louis’s narrative. Although it provides no surprising revelations into Claudia’s character, I have to applaud the adapter’s efforts for approaching the story from this particular angle, by highlighting Claudia’s predicament as a metaphor for teen angst and rebellion.

At times eerie, twisted, disturbing, and darkly romantic as the original novel, Claudia’s Story starts out strong, but is flawed by the change of pace at the three quarter mark. From this point to the end, the story’s pacing speeds up considerably, and inevitably causes it to lose some of its dramatic power. Fans of the Vampire Chronicles and the 1994 movie should be able to follow the action as it wraps up, but first-time readers of the story may need to consult the original source material. Recommended for mature readers for violence.

Lean on Both Substance and Character

The Curse of Dracula by Marv Wolfman. Illus by Gene Colan and Dave Stewart (Dark Horse, 2013, 82pp.)
“The undead deserve no mercy. They’ve earned no compassion.”
Set in San Francisco, Jonathan Van Helsing, CEO of Sunlight Industries, leads a dream team of vampire hunters against Count Dracula, the historical devil who’s been slinking through the centuries using deceit and guile. Presently, the Count is investing his time in politics, lending support to Charles Waterson, a slimy senator who’s signed over his soul in exchange for a chance at the White House. While it has some potential, Curse ultimately proves to be disappointing, being lean on both substance and character. Recommended for mature readers for language, violence, and sex.

An Interesting (But By No Means Comprehensive) Introduction to a Fascinating Crime

Capote in Kansas: A Drawn Novel by Ande Parks. Illus by Chris Samnee (Oni Press, 2013, 128pp.)

In the winter of 1959, two convicts on parole, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, made their way to the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, where they had heard that the prosperous Clutter clan kept a small fortune hidden in the family safe. When they discovered that this was, in fact, untrue, Smith and Hickock murdered the four resident family members and made their escape. After a massive manhunt lasting months, they were finally caught, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. They were interviewed by Truman Capote, an Alabama-born writer, before their executions in 1965. Capote in Kansas focuses solely on Capote’s journey and meditation on the crime, an investigation that what would ultimately culminate in his true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood. While there is some foul language, no violence from the murders is shown, with the exception of the beginning scene, where the killings are enacted off-screen. An interesting (but by no means comprehensive) introduction to a fascinating crime, appropriate for older teens and adults.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


Twin-Bred (Twin-Bred, #1) by Karen A. Wyle (Oblique Angles Press, 2011, 359pp.)

As a young human girl growing up on planet Tofarn, Dr. Cadell saw the unrest that results from the inability of two species to successfully interact. As a young woman, she vowed to make it her life’s mission to bring the planet’s native species, called the Tofa, together with humans. The idea she proposes is radical: what if a select group of human and Tofa females agreed to carry twins—one of each species—to term? What if the resulting children were raised together, educated in the same school? With enough diplomatic training, these “Twinbred” just might bring about a lasting peace to the planet…

First of all, major points to Wyle for creating an alien species that is both completely believable, and completely inhuman. While many authors craft aliens that are simply humans with green skin and extra arms, Wyle manages to make the Tofa everything that humans are not: they have no system of writing, no creative impulse, and even perceive colors much differently than we do (the color blue, apparently, makes them drunk). With differences like these, no wonder the two species have trouble getting along! However, the cast of characters is quite large, and not everyone gets the fleshing out that they deserve. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend it for lovers of character-driven fiction. But for devotees of Asimov, Heinlein, and other classical science fiction authors? Look no further!

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Quick But Sobering Read

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 240pp.)

For most of her life, Texas-born writer Sarah Hepola used alcohol to combat her painful shyness and meager sense of self-worth. She started drinking at age 12 and didn’t stop until decades later, when it threatened to ruin her life, friendships, and career. Her memoir mostly covers the memory blackouts she suffered, but also confronts societal double-standards about drinking. While some “issue-driven” memoirs lapse into preachiness as they strive to push their agenda, Blackout has surprisingly few of these moments. For the most part, it’s a genuinely honest account of how the author dealt with her blackouts, with added commentary on how alcohol affects issues like consent. A quick but sobering read that gives the non-drinking public a glimpse into the mentality of alcoholism.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Suzuki Reinvents Ring's Premise in Thrilling Sequel

Spiral (Ring, #2) by Koji Suzuki (1995; Vertical, 2016, 283pp.)

In Ring, newspaper reporter Asakawa and logic professor Ryuji tackled the mystery of a cursed videotape that left four teenagers dead. They learned that the videotape, which causes you to croak in a week’s time after watching it, was created by a beautiful, but vengeful young psychic who died at the bottom of a well. Despite their efforts, Ryuji succumbed to the videotape’s curse, and, in Spiral, winds up on the dissecting table of his former grad school classmate. The last person Ando expected to dissect is his old friend, but even more disturbing than that is the result of his autopsy findings: in addition to a perfectly healthy man dying from a sudden heart attack, Ryuji was also suffering from smallpox. To those who don’t know, smallpox was eradicated by scientists decades ago, so its appearance on an autopsy report should be impossible—except a little investigative work reveals that at least seven other people have died of similar causes. To make things even more bizarre, Ando finds an encoded note in Ryuji’s stomach cavity which may have the answers to defeating this mysterious new “ring virus.”

In this souped-up science fiction/medical thriller, Suzuki reinvents his curse, causing it to evolve from the simple case of a cursed videotape to a radical new life-form. The author’s new explanation for the curse is interesting, well thought-out, and works well with the rules previously laid down in the Ring universe. On the downside, however, Suzuki spends way too much time educating the reader on code-breaking and DNA in order to validate his premise, and thus runs the risk of alienating impatient readers to an otherwise excellent thriller.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Slow-Moving, Bleak Tragicomedy

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light by Cordelia Strube (ECW Press, 2016, 372pp.)

Life hasn’t been fair to 11-year-old Harriet. The adults in her life are too consumed by their own thwarted desires to pay attention to her needs, and her hydrocephalic little brother, Irwin, faces a life of pain. Just as unbearable is her mother’s insistence in dating the awful Gennedy, a man convinced that Harriet is trying to kill her brother—which might be true, but when everything she’s faced in her too-short existence has convinced her that a life of pain is not worth living, how could she not try to free the brother she loves? The story, divided into two parts, first covers Harriet’s unhappy living situation, and then follows her brother years after a devastating family tragedy. On the Shores is a book that is as hard to read as it is to review. If I had to cover my opinion of it in a single sentence, I’d call it an incredibly bleak, though sometimes redemptive, tragicomedy. While some parts of it are very touching and almost subtly quirky, some readers will be unable to see past its slow-moving pace and depressing content. Readers who encounter this unusual novel will either treasure its discovery, or discard it before they even reach the story’s half-way point.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Moving Creep-Fest Serves as Tribute to Female Friendship and 1980s Pop Culture

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (Quirk Books, 2016, 336pp.)

Ah, the ’80s. When most people think of this decade, they probably think of three things: shoulder pads, big hair, and the distinctive sound of its pop music. They probably do not automatically think of Satanic cults. Alas, thanks to a commonly shared belief that lack of religion and sleazy pop culture was causing teens to turn to Satanism, the concept of demonic possession isn’t that far a reach.

The story told in My Best Friend’s Exorcism belongs to Abby and Gretchen, two childhood friends who grow up sharing late-night phone marathons, forbidden Judy Blume novels, Seventeen Magazine, make-up techniques, and later, drugs. During one drug-fueled evening at a friend’s lake house, Gretchen, a sweet, loving girl, gets lost in the woods and emerges hours later, a cruel, sadistic wraith. When Abby later learns that the woods by the lake was once the rumored site of a Satanic sacrifice, she is left to wonder: is the Devil at work?

Although the story suffers from a slow start, patient readers will be rewarded with a surprisingly moving creep-fest that is as much a tribute to female friendships and 1980s pop culture as it is to the joys (and terrors!) of high school. Yet while the heroines are both teens, I definitely would not shelve it in the teen section of your library. As I said before, the beginning is a little slow, and the plot itself is so steeped in '80s nostalgia that most teens probably wouldn't appreciate the references. That said, although it exhibits drug-use, discussions of sexual activity, and several gross-out scenes, it's nothing that most older teenage horror fans won't be able to handle.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

If Stephen King Wrote the Screenplay for "127 Hours," It Would Look Like This

Source: Goodreads
Gerald’s Game by Stephen King (1992; Pocket Books, 2016, 480pp).

Hoping to jazz up their sex life, Jessie’s middle-aged hubby, Gerald, handcuffs her to the bed at their secluded summer cabin for a good, old-fashioned sex game. What could have been just another unpleasant evening for Jessie to endure suddenly takes a deadly turn when, minutes after slapping the cuffs on her, Gerald drops dead of a massive heart attack. Now she’s trapped, miles from help. The handcuff keys are located on a far-away dresser-top. The telephone is in the other room. And—as she soon finds out—there’s a starving stray dog outside looking for meat. Unfortunately for Jessie—but especially for poor Gerald—someone forgot to close the back door…

Do you remember that movie 127 Hours, where James Franco finds himself trapped in a ravine with a boulder crushing his arm? Gerald’s Game is kind of like that: like Hours, it focuses on a protagonist trapped in dire circumstances, who experiences a requisite period of self-examination, and comes to a personal revelation that prompts her to attempt an all-or-nothing escape. Unlike 127 Hours, which is well-paced and inspiring, Gerald’s Game is by turns fleet-footed and plodding, an absorbing character study that runs on for far too long. Had King pared his idea down to a short story, he probably would have been the better for it. And while there are some genuinely prime scares in the story, these moments are all too often out-weighed by grisly descriptions of the stray dog nomming on pieces of dead Gerald. In other words, if you gross-out easily, avoid this book like the plague. For King’s regular fans? It’s not bad, but certainly not his best.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Try Not to Breathe

Source: Publisher Website
Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon (Ballantine Books, 2016, 368pp.)

Alex, a struggling freelancer, is visiting the Neuro-Disability ward of a local hospital when she stumbles upon former media sensation Amy Stevenson. A little more than a decade ago, news channels captured the unfolding drama of then 15-year-old Amy’s kidnapping and brutal assault by an unknown assailant. Miraculously, Amy survived—but just barely. For the last 15 years, she’s been in a coma at Tunbridge Wells Royal Infirmary. Her only regular visitor is Jacob, her now-married high school sweetheart who still surreptitiously visits her bedside. Inspired by the story that haunted her own youth, Alex decides to put Amy’s story to paper, and in doing so, ends up digging up dirt that some people don’t want exposed. Narrated by multiple points of view (including the comatose Amy herself), Try Not to Breathe is a fast-paced stand-alone thriller, as well as an intriguing character-driven mystery. It will mainly appeal to fans of Paula Hawkins’ Girl on the Train, and similar mystery/thrillers.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Poetic and Grotesque

Source: Publisher Website
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007; Hogarth, 2016, 192pp.)

Mr. Cheong finds his mild-mannered existence interrupted when his wife, Yeong-hye, wakes up from a horrifying nightmare where she is surrounded by meat—bloody, dripping meat. The dream so disturbs her, she declares that she will henceforth live as a staunch vegan. Her family, who see vegetarianism as an unnatural act of social deviancy, is shocked and upset. Her artist brother-in-law, however, sees her as the key to completing his next masterpiece—an act that could destroy his peaceful marriage.

Ponderous, poetic, and grotesque, The Vegetarian is a short novel that flowers into a kind of intellectual horror story over the course of just 192 pages. Being psychological fiction, it may prove boring to lovers of slasher stories, however those who like their books slow and surreal will find it to be a literary treat. Just don’t read it while you’re eating.