Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Graphic novels

I thought Runaways would be my first graphic novel. The pictures are gorgeous; the storyline seemed interesting; it reminded me of a not unpleasant two weeks I spent reading comic books in my sister’s sunny corner bedroom when I was 16 years old and recovering from whooping cough. But every time I opened that hardcover compilation of volumes 1-18, and felt the giant weight of 300? (unnumbered) pages of conversations in white bubbles, I gave up, and instead selected a plain old text narrative from our reading list of Young Adult novels.

In fact it was Dramacon, not the Runaways, that got me over the “story in pictures” hump. Dramacon, with its ever-so-slight but ever-so-easy-to-scan storyline, and dropping jaws and repartee dripping icicles or flames–depending on the characters’ shifting emotional barometers. I started reading it on the RedLine, from Quincy to Park Street. Then on the Green Line, from Park to The Museum of Fine Arts. Then walking, from the Museum to Simmons. And when I had to put it away? I immediately looked forward to my commute home so I could finish it. The perfect fast read for summer…or winter…or spring…or fall! Yes. Even for a 50 year old dyed in the wool English major–Dramacon exerted a strange and soothing fascination: who hasn’t had a head full of all the things we’d wished we’d said? Or an image of ourselves that is a world apart from what other people see.

I liked the low-techiness of manga. I liked how I got into a rhythm reading/scanning the pages. I liked that I read it better and enjoyed it more the less I worried about catching every word, and going instead for picking up the storyline and out-sized characters and, oh yeah!–the drama! the pulp paper equivalent to an afternoon soap opera for teens with a sense of humor as well as angst. Even now, writing this entry, I’m thinking–I can’t believe I read–and liked!–manga. I don’t know whether to feel like I’m just a little bit hip–or like I’m “chasing it”– a middle aged librarian dressing in in too-short, too-tight Abercrombie and Fitch. I kept the cover covered on the subway.

After Dramacon, American Born Chinese seemed easy. The pictures were easy to follow, and the various story lines and text–while complicated–were both fresh and interesting. I liked the lay out too–not so many pictures that I couldn’t take in the frames with ease, and not stumble on my way from page to page. It wasn’t until our class discussion of ABC that it occurred to me that the book might be little too much to my taste–that of an adult reader rather than a teen reader. More an award winner than a teen crowd pleaser. A point I have found myself coming back to again and again, because it makes me realize I tend to be a slave to award lists–not a quality you necessarily want when it comes to recommending books for reluctant readers.

Overall though, our class discussion of American Born Chinese was most useful as a starting point not for examining the values of personal identity, but for discussing a book with this format. How the lay out and pictures and visual cues and visual “tone” contribute to the meaning and experience of the story. I can (unfortunately it sometimes seems to me) talk about identity until hell freezes over–but i have a limited vocabulary and background when it comes to manga and graphic novels.

After both Dramcon and American Born Chinese and our visit with Robin over at Brookline Library, I thought Runaways would finally be the lush walk in the park I had expected when I first cracked the cover. Not so! Isn’t that strange? Mostly it was the size and design: the pictures were more dynamic than the ones in ABC and Dramacon–and without page numbers and white space borders, I had trouble orienting myself to the page. I felt like the story was getting ahead of me; that I couldn’t organize it as well in my mind as I can a narrative or a graphic novel with fewer and smaller frames per page.

This is not a criticism of the book or the storyline, which are both good examples of teen empowerment. I think my own experience would make my recommendation of this title to teen readers more informed and genuine–especially if the reader were new to graphic novels. I’d be more sympathetic to a reader who shied away from the picture format, and more apt to encourage them to stick with it, or to try some other selections that might “feel” more inviting and easier to eyeball.

Finally–Cathy’s Book. Teens–especially and perhaps exclusively!–girls, might be charmed and intrigued by the doodling in the margins, the important bits of paper stuck in the cover, the sketches of the main characters, and the cross outs that suggest a work endlessly in revision. In some ways, this felt like the equivalent of spending a long afternoon with your best friend dressing up paper dolls and fabricating a fantastic life story to go with each new outfit.

I liked the mystery part of the novel. I generally liked the characters. I liked the ethnic diversity. I liked the humor. I liked the girls’ independence and close friendship. I liked having bad guys in there who seem genuinely threatening. I didn’t take it too seriously, but seriously enough to want to know how everything turned out. I mostly liked the format, because at the same time it seemed a little precious and cliched–it wasn’t a format I’d seen before, and I did think it is one that might have at least browsing appeal to teens.

Put all that stuff together though, and I had the sense of a book that was trying to serve too many masters. I became too aware of the process and design of the book to lose myself fully in the story.

Would I recommend it? Yes. Would girls like it? Is it for tweens or teens? Is the age difference between Cathy and Victor problematic? Is the dialog a little too cute? I’m not sure. I also don’t know whether to marvel at the fact that borrowers had not lost any of the “parts” of the book–or whether to assume that maybe they had not actually opened the envelope and explored all those bits and pieces.

I tried to interest my 13 year old in this book, but after a dutiful glance she put it aside and within a day it was buried under napkins and magazines and volumes 1-6 of Harry Potter.

I do know that I might never have given these books a chance if they had not been on our reading list. That would have been a loss–not just for me, but more importantly, for teens who might come to the library–and to me– looking for a suggestion on what to read.

I don’t know how you put together your reading list for LIS 483, but from my perspective, this syllabus is valuable less for the absolute quality of each book; more for the fact that the list as a whole and the themes around which each week is organized, made me think outside the box and get in touch with my own personal biases as a reader, as an adult, and as Jessie Thuma. If I can take that awareness with me into the workplace, LIS 483 will have exceeded its promised outcomes.


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Sometimes, we don’t get the choice.

I don’t want to be crazy is as much a memoir of a disorder as it is a memoir of the person who suffers this disorder. The story is absorbing enough that this distinction is not necessarily one the reader will make on a conscious level, but it is nonetheless a distinction that drives the action and pulls the reader into Schutz’s world. The anxiety attacks that come out of nowhere on an otherwise fine day–that send Schultz packing whether she’s in a classroom at college or in France for her Junior Year Abroad–simply don’t care. They come and go with the indifference and weird majesty of any other Act of Nature–or God. And they leave destruction in their wake. We feel for the author–we also feel for the family. And what we feel–or at least what I feel–is not always sympathy. This, to me, is the beauty of I don’t want to be crazy: the reader is right there hyper-ventilating with Schutz–and the reader is also wondering (like a traitor!)–how can that be? She has so much! Can’t she just GET BETTER?? I mean–for crying out loud–the girl is at a restaurant in PARIS!

And in that moment–whether we know it or not, we have come face to face with the main character: uncontrollable panic. But it could also be anything else uncontrollable: paranoia; manic depression; anorexia; severe depression. Anything that lays claim to us, to our families, our friends–and, in a story well told–to the reader. At least for the hours we spend between the pages of books like this one.

By using blank verse rather than conventional narrative, Schutz telescopes her perspective without making us feel that we have lost important detail or context. When we see what looks like “poetry”–we are instantly prepared for a story that is pared down to its essentials. In this case, the chronology of events or the larger canvas of Schultz’s life play second fiddle to the effect on both of her anxiety disorder.

My 21 year old daughter is bi-polar. My father, my aunt, and my grandmother were also manic depressive. By the time I was in college, my father was making regular trips to the state hospital, and later, when age had put him beyond the embrace of a straitjacket–he spent time in private psychiatric hospitals. Some nicer than others. To the outside world, I think there is something persistently fascinating and even romantic about “madness”. But up close and personal? It’s like a 100 headed hydra: lop off any one head and two grow in its place. More exhausting and hopeless than it is creative, noble, or even just plain unfortunate.

But Schutz spares us too much commentary. Instead, she just takes us with her on her wild ride through one anxiety attack after another. In between, she is a college student like any other: she’s got boy problems, she’s got family problems, she’s got job problems, she has good shrinks and bad shrinks. She’s also got money and resources, and no matter how tempted we might be to pin the blame for the pressure she feels on her parents–the bottom line is that mental illness and mental disorders can create a hell even out of Eden. It happens that Schutz has a family and community that care for and about her; that she has the benefits of education, money, health insurance, and a roof over her head whether she works or not–and that she is articulate enough to tell us her story.

By pointing her reader to a list of mental health resources in the back of the book, Schutz is generous in reminding us that for every person like her, who has a face, and a name, and story we want to hear–there are thousands of other people whose lives are also dominated by a disorder or mental illness, and for whom there may be far less sympathy or understanding–or relief.

Yes–Linda–you are exactly right. It was reading this book that made me decide to blog about my daughter. Evan’s story is fragmented and haphazard. But I don’t want to be crazy made me think that’s OK. That stories can be told all different ways–and still be interesting and helpful. Evan’s story is written in all the journals she kept starting in the 5th grade. It’s written in my journals too. And it’s written in the fabulous and fearful collages Evan used to make, and in the hundreds of bracelets and necklaces she strung, using alphabet beads to spell out not-so-profound truths like “peas they judge me” and “hysterical mother”.

Maybe there IS a book in there. I keep thinking that’s the case. But the problem for me had always been–how to tell it so it isn’t a story about something that happened–it’s the thing itself. What it looked and felt and smelled like to be those people–in that situation.

I don’t want to be crazy is not just a good read. It’s Help with a capital H for any teen or any parent who has felt the trapdoor of sanity give way under their feet. It’s about friends and family and personal boundaries–and the absence of any boundaries at all. And it feels truthful. If you’re going to write about this stuff–you need to keep it close to the bone.

I’m really glad we read this book. Thank you.

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I thought this book was great. After poring over the pictures of tattoos and the terse stories behind the ink–I left it out on the kitchen table and watched with interest as each of my three children browsed through it over breakfast bowls of Cheerios and Honey Smacks.

My 12 year old daughter took one look and decided tattoos were boring. “Why would somebody just want a bunch of words, and no pictures?”

My 18 year old son was enchanted–and inspired. “I want a tattoo,” he said. The next day he wrote his own body type up on the dri-erase board: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even so, my soul shall rise.” He’s still working out what font to use. Meanwhile his girlfriend, the Beautiful Rachel Dill, wants to know just where Johnny plans on packing all that text.

M y 21 year old daughter Evan already has tattoos. Sort of. She was a cutter, and over the course of her Junior and Senior years in high school, she etched her own intimate messages into her flesh. She did it with great deliberation and in some moments artistry–but she did it without ink. So her tattoos are a silvery lattice of lines and cross hatchings and stars and astericks.

I wondered what she would think of this book, and whether she would see her own compulsion to cut in these pictures of people and their glyphs.

But that is the wonder of youth. Evan looked through Body Type the same way she looks through Glamor Magazine: with an unerring eye for what looks good, and what looks bad. Then she snapped the cover shut. Which struck me as an entirely unsentimental and overly critical approach to a practice that for me at least, brought back dreaded images of Evan’s personal fascination with razor blades. Or maybe Evan has just had enough of intimate messages etched in her own flesh. “I’m too old for a tattoo,” she said. End of conversation.

For a teen, reading and looking at this book is certainly a constructive use of time. It’s like a collection of the flash memoirs–each super-short personal history illustrated with an image that is worth way more than a thousand words. It is also a cattle prod to the imagination of the YA librarians: as we mentioned in class, the spin-offs for teens are endless, from imagining what kind of tattoo a particular literary character might have, to writing about the kind of tattoo that would best express their own personal visions.

But this book is also all about boundaries, and self identity, and self expression. To the mother who committed suicide, no message of pain and loss could be more graphic than her son’s response, burned into the skin of his forearm: “Hatred”. And later–“Forgiveness”.

We all need reminding. To stay balanced. To withstand temptation. To love. To heal. To hope. To stand out in a crowd. In a culture of labels and brand names, these tattoos are a way to name and declare our selves.

Finally–this book found its most enthusiastic and attentive audience in me–the 50 year old single mom who had to think about it for 35 years before she could get her ears pierced. I loved the fact these images were of text tattoos, and I loved that instead of seeing the airbrushed and perfect bodies that people popular magazines, I was seeing something genuine: real bodies, real skin, and raw emotion.

When it came to tattoos and my own children–I always reacted like any fearful and defensive parent: “Over my dead body! I MADE that skin! You are not going to wreck it with some picture you’ll hate in 20 years!”

That is still my basic take on tattoos, and that is my public line to the kids–but since spending a week with this book? I see tattoos in a new and more positive light. After I met with a lawyer yesterday to figure out how to answer my ex-husband’s latest demand that I get my degree and a 50,000 dollar a year job by last month–I thought about having 346.7 etched in MY arm. Something topical –and oh so Dewey!–about personal bankruptcy and repaying your debts.

Not only would I have Body Type in my YA collection –I’d have to restrain myself from insisting that every teen who walked into the library had to look at it.

Thanks! A fun choice for our reading list.

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It was hard to like What Happened to Cass McBride because it was hard to like any of the characters in the book. On the other hand–because personality takes a back seat to the mechanics of the story–it is easy to rattle off a list of where Cass formed her sense of values and self-identity–or lack thereof. Thank you dad! for teaching me to use and manipulate people–and for all that cozy interior design work! And if we want to get heavy here, we can also say thank you Cruel World! for the pressures and expectations you place on teens with a penchant towards over achievement.

Whatever. That’s the sad thing about Cass McBride: it’s just hard to care about her. It’s also hard to care about her tormentor, even though the author takes a page out of Cass’ book (so to speak!) and manipulates the reader with that back-story about how Kyle is really just acting out his rage and hurt towards his mom who basically abused Kyle’s younger brother to DEATH-by-suicide.

As a thriller/mystery–this book was a diverting and fast read. When it comes to our list of developmental assets, Cass is not without value. The story is a cautionary tale about the importance of family–for good and evil–and also about boundaries–literal and figurative. In fact, Cass spends all but the last few pages of the book underground, buried alive in an interrogation room that is not unlike the suffocating, hidden, and terrifying world of the abusive family. We see echoes of confinement throughout the book: the sterile white walls and carpet of the McBride house, the police interrogation room, the jail cell that awaits our narrator, and the psych ward Cass wakes up to when her underground ordeal is over, and her psychological ordeal is still going strong.

But is Cass really so bad? OK–she wrote that mean note that pushed her would be date to the breaking point. OK, she is manipulative and calculating. OK, she is not exactly warm and cuddly. Hello?? That describes all of us at some time or another in our lives. It also describes a stereotype most of us know all too well: the IN girl from hell. Plus–Cass is still just a kid. At least from where I stand at 50 years old. Her punishment–less for the narrow incident of the note, and more for who and what she represents–seems excessive. And her defense? To pierce the psychological veil of her captor? That seems pretty smart, even if she did come by those skills if not dishonestly then at least in a way that repels us. I felt sympathy not for Cass the person but for the injustice of her situation.

I also felt the older brother gets off easy, although I liked him no better than I liked his victim. The real culprit–bad parents–get skewered off to the side. I’d ask–“What do make of THAT??” except I never got quite invested enough in the characters to pursue their lives and motives after I closed the book on them.

I’m coming down hard on What Happened to Cass McBride, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t feel this hostile when I was reading the book. Maybe I’m just out of sorts. It was a decent read–the author breathed plenty of life and color into the “buried alive!” plot device, and teens may find Cass’ descent into madness at the end weirdly satisfying and thrilling. But not for long. Satisfaction and thrills were fleeting: when I put this book aside I felt like I’d just eaten a whole bag of greasy potato chips and canned onion dip. Good in the moment, but not in the long run.

Would I recommend Tyrell rather than Cass McBride? No. Both books touch on values of boundaries and self identity, but there the similarity ends. Tyrell is a high quality and gritty novel that explores rather than exploits those themes. If a teen is looking for a mystery or something easy and “fun(??)” I’d probably recommend Cass and ask them to get back to me on what they thought. If someone is looking for a character to love or relate to–or a window into the world–I’d hand them Tyrell, and ask them to get back to me about what they felt.

Where did Tyrell’s values come from? I was only kind of joking when I said they came from Coe Booth. The fact we even ASK that question shows how real Tyrell feels to the reader, and the degree to which he seems to have transcended his environment. Maybe he gets some of those positive values from the good parts of his dad; from his friends; from the concern and kindness of Novisha’s mom; from the sweetness of people like Jasmine; from the kindness of the woman at the “soup kitchen”. But there is something more here–I think the reader feels–and hopes–that there is some innate, incorruptible, and indestructible quality in Tyrell that also “gives” him his values. Like a divining rod bends to hidden water, we want to believe, for his sake and for our own, that Tyrell will tend towards what is good in Life and in himself. If he can do it, there is hope for all of us.

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I didn’t want it end. And when it did? I went straight to Barnes and Noble and bought Gaiman’s American Gods. I wanted more of the rich world this author conjures–whether it’s the world below London, or an American landscape peopled by old and abandoned gods in almost-human forms.

Neverwhere is more magical fiction than it is fantasy. We spend almost as much time in the London we can find on a map and in Fodor’s travel guides as we do in the World Below London. The seam between the two is so imperceptible that one seems no more or less real than the other. Neverwhere is also a classic quest, in which the literal objects for which the main characters are searching represent larger and deeper human desires: acceptance, forgiveness, love, power, redemption, independence, understanding. This metaphor never overwhelms the story, which is peopled with characters and creatures so fresh and real that when Door falls through the portal between London and London Below, we never think twice–we just fall right along with her.

If you are a teen librarian looking for a big dose of the 40 developmental assets for Youth, you will find everything here–from empowerment to social competencies and self identity. Any one of our characters alone could not accomplish the task in front of them, but together, they–literally!–save the world. This is an excellent story, well told, in which the events seem to unfold only a word or two ahead of Gaiman’s writing, making us wonder with every page how things will turn out in the end.

Along the way, teens will find monsters, beasts, villains, love, betrayal, a fallen angel, an elfin heroine, and an unlikely hero–along with the girlfriend from British Upper Class hell. It’s worth the price of admission just to find out what really happened to the lost city of Atlantis.

Of the books I’ve read so far, Neverwhere is the best written, the least didactic, and the most surprising. Variously shelved in YA, fiction, and science fiction, it is an adult book, but more teen friendly than Gaiman’s darker and more explicit novel American Gods. But if I had a teen who liked this fairy-tale-esque adventure, I would not hestitate to recommend all Gaiman’s other work, which includes the critically acclaimed graphic novels from the Sandman series.

Gaiman does a wonderful job offering up what seems at first a modest power–being able to open doors–and makes us think about what that might really mean, and where such a power might take us–and at what personal cost.

Two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

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After reading this book, I was so low I had to be scraped off the ground.

But I also had that “ah-ha!” feeling you get when you know you’ve read something really good. No easy answers or happy endings in this story of a homeless young black man who lands, with his 7 year old brother and not-much-of-a mother, in a seedy hotel room/emergency shelter in South Bronx, and tries to bounce all them out with a plan for making some big bucks fast. Along the way we meet two young women of color, whose involvement with 15 year old Tyrell is sexually intimate, ambiguous, intense, and and yet as fragile as everything else of value is in Tyrell’s world. Even characters we meet briefly or only hear about–like Tyrell’s father who is in jail–are so vivid they stand out like bright splashes of disappearing ink. Because in this grimy hotel, and in the projects, everything bright seems to vanish.

Except life. That’s the beauty and tension in this novel. No matter how chaotic and damaged, the world Booth conjures is driven by the same desires and emotions that shape more tidy and prosperous worlds outside the edges of poverty and the projects. But the currency in Tyrell’s world–drug dealing, pimping, violence–guarantees ruin right along with hard cash and the possibility of “a better life”. The dialog, story, and people shine.

This YA novel is a gritty eye-opener. To me at least–a 50 year old white single mom whose child support check arrives like clockwork; whose (basically) clean and sober kids are aimed in the direction of college and good jobs; and who is winding up a Masters after graduating debt free from an Ivy league college back in 1979. For teens, this novel is all about the dog that DIDN’T bark: how the absence of positive family, school, and neighborhood boundaries, expectations, and roles models results not in freedom as many kids might imagine, but in an claustrophobic sense of stress, anger, and pressure–to do it all–to do SOMETHING! without guidance, and practical, caring support and help from institutions and adults.

Eye-openers can be hard to read, and hard to forget. I want to wave this book under the nose of every teen who walks into the Library’s computer Lab. Booth doesn’t let any of her characters off the hook, but she makes them real enough that even readers like myself–a universe apart from Bennett Motel where the night manager charges 14 year old Jasmine sex for a couple of cigarettes–will feel a start of guilty recognition when Tyrell’s mother ditches her kids for a night on the town.

I wanted this book to end differently. I wanted Tyrell to get his money, to say NO to anything to do with drugs or dealing, I wanted him to go back to school, I wanted his mother to clean up her act and be a decent mom, I wanted Tyrell’s little brother to have the life Tyrell imagined and wanted for all of them. I wanted them to have a house, hot showers, clean clothes. I wanted Jasmine to somehow reclaim all that she had lost, given away, or had taken from her.

And that’s why Tyrell belongs on the shelf at your library. Understanding doesn’t happen because you KNOW something. Understanding happens when you FEEL something.

Coe’s novel delivers—big time.

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Lord Loss

I think my 12 year old daughter would love this book. Except for the part about Grubbs Grady chopping up those dead rats he finds in the dump. Yeah. THAT seemed sadistic, even if the rats were already dead.

I got over it though, and I think most readers would. Even those who didn’t know until they read this weirdly upbeat tale of werewolf-ism and demons that in fact murdered families, un-charming uncles, and blood splashing around by the gallons can be lots and lots of fun.

After the static landscape of Seventeenth Summer, a blowjob gone bad in Good Girls, and the fucking amazing NYC nightclub scene in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the novel Lord Loss– a reference to the story’s very creepy villain whose appetite for human sorrow is both his weapon and his undoing–was a breath of fresh air.

Grubbs Grady saw his family slaughtered, but he seemed to get over it–with the help of his matter of fact and mysterious uncle who rescues him from a mental hospital only to deposit him in a mansion that connects directly to Hell. A few chess games and bargains with the devil later, and this enterprising and resilient what–13 year old? 14 year old?– with the rogue werewolf gene run amok in his family tree, emerges stronger, wiser, and heroic from an encounter with something a lot more complicated than evil.

Even when the rat guts are flying and the deer are being ripped apart by Grubbs’ half brother, and we learn that Grubbs’ father was not quite the family man he appeared to be– we love this boy, and we are right there with him when he enters the bloody spiderweb Lord Loss calls home.

This book is too busy moving and too busy having fun to linger on the down side of being an orphan or nearly losing your mind or finding out you might turn into a werewolf on your 16th birthday. Shan takes his writing and storytelling seriously, without getting hung up in political correctness.

In the process he delivers a fast paced thriller for ‘tweens and teens that–by the way!–also delivers an upbeat message about resourcefulness, hope, and families cobbled together from spare parts and tragic accidents.

Shan’s world is a seamless blend of the ordinary and the demonic. His characters have a vinegary edge guaranteed to sharpen the reading appetite of kids who don’t even LIKE books.

I’ll never go back to Seventeenth Summer, not even to retrieve a glimpse of the pre-WW2 American mid-west–but when this class is over, I’m going to treat myself to the rest of the Darren Shan’s Demonata series.

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