Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: "The Manhattan Projects" Vol. 1 by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

Looking at this list of exceptional comic books got me thinking that I should take the opportunity to review some SpecFic that's written in a more nontraditional format than my usual fare. And by nontraditional I mean a graphic novel, as opposed to the word-heavy works of literature that I normally prefer. I am very picky about my graphic novels. They must include a compelling story line that's clearly communicated through both images and well-written text, instead of relying on just one or the other. Balance, in my opinion, between these two forms of communication with the reader can be a large part of what either makes or breaks a graphic novel.

A friend has been very patiently waiting for me to read the copy of "The Manhattan Projects" that he lent me a number of months ago. I finally got around to it, and genuinely enjoyed the read. The story (the series, actually) involves historical figures Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Robert Oppenheimer, and other scientists involved in the real-life Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. But their adventures begin as WWII is coming to a close. The novel starts out simply enough, with Oppenheimer being recruited by the U.S. War Department to the Manhattan Project. But soon our dour band of geniuses are dealing with trans-dimensional kidnapping, aliens, fractured personalities, and brain-eating goodness. Oh, and FDR is a supercomputer. I, for one, didn't see that one coming.

The art is well-matched with the story, clean line drawings that don't sacrifice detail but refrain from cluttering the space in each frame. The people themselves seem to mostly be drawn with big heads and gangly appendages, which could easily be a commentary on where their true prowess lies or just an artistic style. Since the characters' backstories also make appearances, it's helpful that the past is depicted in red and blue ink, while the present includes the whole spectrum. A big nod to Jordie Bellaire, who did the color for the book, for that ingenious way of indicating time.

If you like the tv show "Fringe," enjoy drastic departures from the historical record, and want to see your favorite physicist heroes come into their full scientific potential, check out the "Manhattan Projects" graphic novels by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra. Volumes One, Two and Three are available now at your favorite local bookstore.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Etherington's Top 10 Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Asterix and Obelisk

Robin Etherington, a successful British comic artist and author of Monkey Nuts, has come up with a list of his top 10 comic books. (Some people will argue that these are graphic novels, not "comic books," but that's a subject for a different post.) The selections are geared toward younger readers, but I still think that Craig Thompson's Habibi and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman should have been included on the list. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Book Review: "The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara

This is one of those rare books that truly defies any attempt to classify it: it's fiction, but written in the form of a memoir, based on a true story, involving adventure, discovery, horror, and science all at once. When I consulted with a friend and coworker on how one would describe the nature of this story, he thought for a moment before replying a little helplessly that it was "a well-realized first novel," and leaving it at that.

In the end I have to agree. I don't honestly feel like I knew what the book was really about until the very end, even though the blurb seemed pretty straight-forward: An unlikely young scientist discovers on a lost island a tribe of people who have found the secret to immortality. There follows the stunning revelation to the scientific community, the subsequent scramble of researchers and pharmaceutical companies, and the desolation of the once-beautiful island, its secrets exposed and then ripped away.

But there's more to it than that. As I mentioned, this book is written as a memoir. Doctor Norton Perina, the main character (whom I didn't like at all but who was very effectively written), relays his story to us through letters to a colleague, which he sends from prison. The very beginning of the book features a newspaper article about his arrest, trial and sentencing, but after that Norton takes us back to the very beginning of his life, and we're made to wait on the details of his incarceration.

This organizational decision was very smart on Yanagihara's part, because I found the first hundred pages or so to be about as interesting as watching dust accumulate on a flat surface. It does, however, help to inform Perina's character, so I pressed on and was rewarded with a vibrant, intense story as soon as Perina reached Ivu'ivu. This story arc, full of questions and mystery and some very creative thinking on the part of the author, was the first of two that I caught within the story.

That first arc was about the rise and fall of Ivu'ivu; the second was about the rise and fall of Perina himself, and was heavily informed by the first arc. With the artful way in which his story is told, one assumes his innocence of the crimes of which he is accused, even though it is never specifically claimed within the text. And in this second portion appears what I felt to be the true center of the story: one man's obsession not with immortality, as one would imagine, but with recapturing  feeling that can never again be attained.

This story is both fascinating and horrifying. If you can beat your way past Norton's childhood and life up until he leaves for Ivu'ivu, you're in for a real psychological treat. Read this if you're a Stephen King fan, if you like "American Horror Story," or enjoy twisted tales that play with your mind instead of simply spraying gore everywhere. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara was released in August of this year, and is available right now at your favorite independent bookstore.

Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 and a Resurgence in Book Censorship

As 2013 is winding down, and Christmas approaches, it's one of the greatest gifts we get as indie booksellers to see people remembering their passion for the printed word. Our stores are full of people looking for the perfect gift for the bibliophile in their life, generous community members purchasing books for Giving Tree programs, and reacquainting themselves with their neighborhood bookstores. I am reminded of how lucky I am to be living in such a community of readers.

But the past year has brought up some concerns about literary content and reading freely. The Kids' Right to Read Project, which fights censorship in schools, libraries, and other public institutions, recently had this to say on the subject:

"In November, the Kids' Right to Read Project investigated three times the average number of incidents, adding to an overall rise in cases for the entire year, according to KRRP coordinator Acacia O'Connor. To date, KRRP has confronted 49 incidents in 29 states this year, a 53% increase in activity from 2012. During the second half of 2013, the project battled 31 new incidents, compared to only 14 in the same period last year.

"It has been a sprint since the beginning of the school year," O'Connor said. "We would settle one issue and wake up the next morning to find out another book was on the chopping block."

The majority of challengers were parents of district students or library patrons, though a handful were local or state government officials. Of the more than two dozen incidents KRRP faced from September to December, most involved materials used in classroom instruction. Another trend that emerged during the fall was a substantial number of challenges to notable works by well-known minority writers, including Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits and Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima.

"Whether or not patterns like this are the result of coordination between would-be censors across the country is impossible to say," said O'Connor. "But there are moments, when a half-dozen or so challenges regarding race or LGBT content hit within a couple weeks, where you just have to ask, 'What is going on out there?' "

O'Connor also noted a positive trend this year in the notable increase in positive outcomes to book challenges, including two recent victories: Bless Me, Ultima was returned to sophomore English classrooms in Driggs, Idaho; and The House of the Spirits will remain in Watauga County Schools in Boone, N.C.

KRRP was founded by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and is supported by the Association of American Publishers and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund."

This article was posted in Shelf Awareness, an indie bookseller e-newsletter.

So if you're looking for a good New Year's resolution for 2014, and you want to blend your personal love of books with some community action, why  not educate yourself on what is or isn't permissible to read in your schools and communities? Odds are you'll learn something new, and even if you don't, it's always fun to get more involved with your fellow book lovers.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Best Books of 2013

Browse More Than 200 Of This Year's Standout Titles

As 2013 draws to a close, NPR has put together a list of what they consider to be the best books of the year. Note that both The Painted Girls and A Natural History of Dragons are included there! The list encompasses everything from adult fiction to children's picture books, so especially if you're still looking for a perfect gift for the book lover in your life, check it out! Just click on the image of each book cover to read a full review and learn more about it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: "A Natural History of Dragons" by Marie Brennan

Dragons: They're not just for kids! And aside from playing a prominent role in myriad RPG's, they star in a lot of adult sci-fi and fantasy books as everything from wise teachers to evil tyrants. In A Natural History of Dragons Marie Brennan suspends the idea of draconian sentience that appears in dragon classics like Dragonsdawn in favor of a more scientific approach that still provides a compelling, engaging story that will please readers across a wide range of ages and genders.

In a fantasy world that seems to resemble Victorian England, dragons are not considered an appropriate subject for young ladies to pursue. But from the time Isabella Camherst first learns how to sneak books out of her father's library, she's been in love with the creatures. This interest leads her to some devastatingly dangerous escapades as a child, and ultimately to far-off lands in pursuit of the fledgling field of dragonology. A Natural History of Dragons is the story of her introduction to dragons, and her first expedition to Vystrana in search of the rock-wyrm that lives there. The resulting story of mystery, discovery, corruption and tragedy that is related in this first installment of Isabella's memoirs launches what will become her long and storied career as a premier dragonologist.

Isabella is added to the expedition to serve only to organize the notes taken by the three men, one of whom is her husband Jacob, and to make sketches of the dragons and anything else that may need recording. Of course though, over the course of the study, she becomes much more than support personnel to the party and, indeed, makes some of their most profound discoveries. Her sketches are included in the book, which I thought was a very nice touch.

The qualities of her drawings, beautiful but also precise and scientific, reflects the nature of her admiration for dragons: she is fascinated, amazed and inspired by them, but isn't dragon-mad in the traditional romantic sense. Rather, she sees them as beautiful and noble creatures that have been overlooked by science and should be brought into the light as subjects of legitimate scientific study.

There is a frankness to Isabella's voice that really contributes to the genuine feel of this memoir. She openly admits to her sometimes foolhardy ideas and undertakings, but apologizes to no one for her unconventional life. She also admits to the high price of her expedition to Vystrana, and its implications upon her return. She makes comments aside about her opinions on certain customs or points of view, which really help to illustrate her as a character even though she's also the narrator, and made me giggle outright more than once. Additionally, she mentions when she has chosen to omit a certain event or theme from this book, and explains to the reader her reasons for doing so. For example, much of her journey to Vystrana has been skipped over in her memoirs, and Isabella points us toward another publication of hers if we are interested in further reading on the subject. I am very excited to see how Brennan fills in the gaps and continues to weave the colorful life of her protagonist in further books.

I can't think of a single part of this book that I didn't enjoy. It was beautifully written, with just enough plot twists to keep me guessing at the last piece of the puzzle, colorfully imagined and with enough emotion to make the story personal but not sappy. If you're a fan of the old classic The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, have an interest in cryptozoology, or just love both science and fantasy, I highly recommend A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan as your next read. It was released in February 2013, and you can find a copy on the shelf at your favorite independent bookstore.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Error Messages for Writers

Writing a novel involves lots of time, commitment, and hard work, yes. But it also requires copious amounts of coffee, tears of frustration, the banging of one's head on the keyboard, and questioning whether or not your life really means anything at all while trying to complete the next chapter. In honor of all these things,  Maggie Stiefvater has put together a list of error messages that one might experience while trying to finish that manuscript. Whenever you experience them, remember: You're not alone!