Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“Serenity” Vol. 1-4

Serenity: Those Left Behind (Vol. 1)
Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories (Vol. 2)
Serenity: The Shepard’s Tale (Vol. 3)
Serenity: Leaves on the Wind (Vol. 4)

My first venture into the digital comics was the four volumes that have been published for the Serenity franchise. If you’re not familiar, Serenity was a movie that came out in 2005, as a continuation of the short-lived but amazing TV show Firefly. These comics take place over a span of the timeline, mostly being used to fill in gaps between the show and the movie. Volume 4, Leaves on the Wind, is the official follow-up to the movie.

Out of the gate, let’s make one thing clear: there will be spoilers here. I’ll try to keep the comic spoilers to a minimum, but if you haven’t seen the show or movie, turn back now. Then come back after you’ve watched it, because holy crap, western in space. Seriously, this show was so underrated.

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Those Left Behind is a mini-series that was put out in 2005 as a bridge between the show and the movie. The crew of Serenity are attempting a heist on a border planet, while Shepard Book is giving a sermon as a diversion. Another team steals the job from under them, and alert the townspeople to Mal and his crew. Shepard Book “borrows” some transport, and the team race to the ship.

The Hands of Blue reach out to Lawrence Dobson for help in locating River and Simon Tam. I’ll admit, when I was reading the comic I was scratching my head trying to remember who this character was. Turns out he’s the Alliance agent in the pilot episode of Firefly, who Mal shot in the eye and left for dead on Whitefall. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched the show, and the comic doesn’t really offer any hints. I had to look up information online to figure out who he was.

The crew return to Persephone, and take another job from Badger, another character from the show. Refusing to detour for Inara’s duties as a Companion, Mal gets in a fight with Book over the validity of his word.

The job goes south, and both the ground crew and those left on the ship are left facing adversaries with Dobson and the Hands of Blue. We’re left with Inara’s departure from Serenity, and Shepard Book announcing his own intentions of leaving the ship.

This was a good bridge, even though it wasn’t everything I wanted it to be. I was hoping we’d get an explanation of Haven (the world Book ends up on in the movie) and perhaps a little more information as to why Inara chose to leave in the first place. There just wasn’t a lot here in terms of character development. But the story was good, and it was nice to see the return of some characters from the show.

The artwork is decent, though it’s nothing like the covers. This is an issue I have with a lot of the Dark Horse media tie-in graphic novels. They use photo-realistic art for the covers, and not for the comic itself. The people tend to feel a little flat in the art, recognizable only by a few trademark differences.

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Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories collects a variety of short stories into one volume. Better Days is another mini-series that was set between the show and movie. However, it takes place before Those Left Behind.

Better Days has the crew pull a job, only to be hounded by a new security drone from the Alliance. They manage to disable and steal it, in exchange for money that’s been hidden in a temple. Upon collecting their payday, the crew realize that it is far more money than they were expecting. Several of the characters share their fantasies of what they would do with such wealth, as they take a vacation to a luxury world.

Inara’s client is an agent who hunts down “Dust Devils”–rogue Browncoats who continued to attack after the War and are considered terrorists. He targets Mal and Serenity, leaving the crew to deal with a standoff.

This was a good story, with the crew all together. It was fun to see the different fantasies of the characters, and it fleshed them out. Overall, I really enjoyed it. It was also interesting to see the Alliance’s view of remaining Browncoats, especially as it makes a lot of sense. We don’t see Mal and the crew as bad guys, because they’re lovable scoundrels. But there are Browncoats out there still acting like the War is on, and yeah–they would be considered terrorists by the ruling government.

The other stories in this volume are shorter. “The Other Half” features the crew trying to transport an injured passenger, who is their cargo for their current job. River detects something isn’t right about the man, and her psychic abilities save the day.

“Downtime” is a short featuring a bit of daily life on board the Serenity. Zoe and Wash enjoy some quality time together, Kaylee and Inara fantasize about food, and Jayne comes to Simon with a sensitive problem.

“Float Out” is set after the movie, and features three men christening a new ship. They share stories of their lost friend Wash, reminiscing on their past adventures. “It’s Never Easy” is also set after the movie, well into Zoe’s pregnancy, as the crew depart for supplies and a would-be passenger tries to steal Serenity.

I enjoyed the shorts collected in Volume 2. They provided a bit of character development, and were fun. My least favorite was “Float Out,” mostly because the three men telling tales are people we’ve never met, and Wash barely features in the stories or artwork. It’s all mostly about clever flying, so is mostly action scenes of ships. It was apparently the first reveal of Zoe being pregnant, but as I read the volumes out of order, I already knew about it, so the reveal was wasted.

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The Shepard’s Tale gives us the much desired backstory of Shepard Book. Told in flashbacks, we get glimpses of his life leading up to when he joined the crew of Serenity. I won’t give anything away here–but it was a fascinating take on the character.

My one complaint is that, in hindsight, it makes the events in the episode “Safe” make less sense. But as a backstory, it was great.

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Finally, we get to Leaves on the Wind. Oh my god. This book. Honestly, it’s everything I could hope for as a follow-up to the movie.

The crew of Serenity, minus Jayne, has gone into hiding after the events of the movie. Zoe has her baby, and complications demand that she be taken to a hospital. She begs Mal to leave her, knowing that she’ll be captured, so that the Alliance doesn’t get her baby too.

The crew then have to figure out how to rescue her from a remote prison planet, while the New Resistance recruits Jayne to help them find Mal.

I’m not going to say anything else about it, because honestly, this is one that you want to go into spoiler free. All I can say is, I can’t wait for more.

The Serenity comics are solid pieces of work. Joss Whedon had a hand in all but Leaves on the Wind, which he passed off to his brother Zack. However, they are not good jumping on points for those not familiar with the series. These are true tie-in pieces, meaning that watching the show and movie are required before reading.

Final Verdict: If you’re a fan of the series, absolutely check out these comics. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. If you’re interested in the series but haven’t been exposed to it yet, start with the TV show, watch Serenity, and then tackle the comics.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Posted in Adult Fiction

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Authors: J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
Publisher: Pottermore from J.K. Rowling; Special Rehearsal ed. edition
Publication Date: July 2016
ISBN: 9780751565355

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’d read a plot summary about the play, but I didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other. Fortunately, that allowed me to be pleasantly surprised upon actually reading it.

Added to my enjoyment was getting to go to a midnight release party with my sister. Because of how and when I really got into HP, I missed most of the releases the first go around. But we had a ton of fun.

So anywho, the book. Well, as most of you know, it’s actually the script to the play. But to be honest, that doesn’t detract from the story itself. The format makes itself known in two major ways: one, the condensed passage of time. Two, the lack of exposition and expansion on various plot points. For example, one of the major conflicts of the book is the relationship between Albus and Harry. But we never really know why their relationship is so strained other than basic teenage angst.

But really, that’s a nitpick. The plot of the story trucks along just fine, and the tension of what’s happening kept me invested the whole way through. It was a fast read (the first time I’ve read a book all the way through in ages) in part because of the format.

We open with the epilogue of Deathly Hallows, with Harry and Ginny sending their younger son off to Hogwarts for the first time. Albus makes friends with Scorpius Malfoy (Draco’s son) on the train, much to the consternation of Rose Weasley. We then see him sorted into Slytherin, and a condensed version of his first two years. This time is mostly used to highlight the differences between Albus and his father.

The main plot revolves around Albus and Scorpius deciding to use a time turner to attempt to save Cedric Diggory from death. It’s a good time travel plot–we see a few alternate timelines, which make sense. The solutions for fixing the mistakes that result from the time travel also make sense. The authors were wise enough to not try to over-complicate the premise.

There’s a rumor in the wizarding world that Voldemort had a child (many believing that Scorpius is that child). Through the story, we get hints that Voldemort might be coming back, via the child. I won’t reveal the payoff, but I didn’t see it coming.

My favorite part of the book was easily Scorpius Malfoy. I wasn’t expecting to like this character, but damn, does he surprise you. He’s sweet, funny, and awkward, and honestly, miles more likable than Albus. It’s a nice mirror to Harry and Draco’s relationship.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a great follow-up to the series. Hardcore fans may be disappointed, just because the characters aren’t like we remember them. But they shouldn’t be. Harry, Ron, Hermione…they’ve all grown up. And I thought that they were very believable. When you take into account Harry’s childhood, his parenting missteps are perfectly understandable.

Is this a perfect story? No. There are certainly flaws. But it was enjoyable, and a little bit heartbreaking. As much as I would like to see the play, I’m a little glad I was reading this–it allowed me to hear the characters like Harry in the voices of Danial Radcliffe and the rest.

Final Verdict: If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, I highly recommend reading the eighth book. Ignore the negative reviews you may have heard, and go in with an open mind.

Posted in YA Fiction

“M is for Magic”

M is for Magic
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Teddy Kristiansen
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: April 2008
ISBN: 978-0061186479
Lexile Level: 880L

M is for Magic is a collection of short stories from Neil Gaiman. The stories are generally considered to be more child-friendly than many of his works, and most of the pieces had been previously published in other works.

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite fantasy authors, and I especially love his short fiction. You never quite know what you’re going to get with Gaiman–he runs the gamut of humor to sci fi to fantasy and occasionally even touches on horror.

There’s a bit less variance in this collection than some of his others, but as it is shorter and generally meant to be for a younger audience, that can be forgiven. That said, Gaiman doesn’t talk down to his audience, no matter their age. In this, he reminds me of Roald Dahl–seeming to share the mindset that children can handle a great number of things in their stories. However, Dahl felt that children need the assurance of a happy ending, whereas Gaiman is often ambiguous than comforting.

The collection has an overall theme of faerie tales. “The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds” is a detective noir piece set in a world of such characters. The mix of language from the two genres is incredibly entertaining, and it makes me wish Gaiman would write more detective stories.

“Troll Bridge” gives a twist to a classic villain, and I admit, I’m a sucker for such tales. “Don’t Ask Jack” stems from childhood fear, playing on the element of children knowing something that adults do not.

“How to Sell the Ponti Bridge” is a fun story about the ultimate twist to a classic con. “October in the Chair” presents the months of the year in a way you’ve never seen before–and gives you a hint at the stories they tell. “Chivalry” is about an old lady finding the Holy Grail, and what comes after.

“The Price” is an unsettling tale that illustrates why it’s good to be kind to animals. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” has the hints of a cautionary tale against youthful indiscretion. “Sunbird” is an…odd story, about a group of people searching for new culinary adventures.

“The Witch’s Headstone” is actually an excerpt from The Graveyard Book, which was published after this collection. It is a tale of a boy who lives in a graveyard, and the lengths he goes to to try and help a ghostly friend. Finally, there is “Instructions,” a poem that details how to behave if you find yourself in a faerie tale.

These are short descriptions, but then, the stories themselves are fairly short. It is difficult to summarize them without giving anything away.

Final Thoughts: This is not my favorite collection of Gaiman’s (that honor goes to Fragile Things) but it is a good one, and worth the read. It is classified by my library as a Young Adult book, so you may not find it with the majority of his works. It is well worth the read, especially if you’re a fan of Jane Yolen or faerie tales in general.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: None

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“One for the Murphys”

One for the Murphys
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Publisher: Puffin Books
Published: May 2012
ISBN: 9780399256158
Lexile Level: 520L

One for the Murphys tells the story of a girl named Carly, as she is put into foster care after being beaten by her stepfather. She is placed with the Murphy family, a first-time foster family with three boys of their own. The change catches Carly off-guard, as she struggles to understand this normal, happy family dynamic. The book follows Carly trying to adjust to her new life, while dealing with the aftermath of her abuse.

The majority of this book is amazing. It seems to accurately capture what the foster care experience would be like from the child’s perspective. One early line that is particularly haunting is how Carly starts out expecting her foster care experience to be horrible–that she’s “seen the movies and TV shows” and therefore knows that foster parents are greedy and mean. It really made me realize just how few positive portrayals of foster care there are in the media–and the impact that has on children in foster care.

Carly is a fantastic and heart-wrenching narrator. She is incredibly witty, and I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good child protagonist. The characters are interesting, and you feel for those involved in the struggle. Mrs. Murphy genuinely wants to help Carly, and Carly is dealing with very real feelings of not knowing what she wants–and the guilt that comes along with wanting to be with someone who is not her mother.

However, there is a big problem with this book–and here, I’ll have to get into spoiler territory. I usually try to avoid them, but I feel this is too big an issue to ignore.

First, it’s important to remember who this book is written for. My library classifies it as a Juvenile book. I would say it is for late elementary through middle school ages. Second, who is likely to pick this book up? A lot of kids, sure, but I imagine those in foster care or abusive situations themselves would be drawn to it.

So let’s look at the ultimate message of this book: It doesn’t matter if someone hurts you–if they do something nice, that makes up for it.

This is an incredibly dangerous message, and it plays on one of the major tactics that abusers use, and the mindset that keeps many victims from seeking help. That because life is good sometimes, the abuse doesn’t matter.

Throughout the entire book, we see hints that Carly’s mother was always, at the very least, neglectful and emotionally abusive. In the first two meetings when Carly is allowed to see her, she says hurtful and emotionally abusive things, even going so far as to say that she doesn’t want Carly anymore. She helped hold Carly down so that her stepfather could beat her. But at the end of the book, all of this is magically hand-waved away. Why?

Because her mother “changed her mind” and tried to stop Dennis when he started to go too far in his punishment. She risked her life to stop him–and that PROVES that she loves Carly. The book also implies that this means Carly should love and want her.

Bad enough that the mother is getting out of this scott-free, with no criminal charges (supposedly in exchange for her testimony against the stepfather, and he has said that she wasn’t involved) but no one is taking any of the previous history into account. No one talks to Carly about what she wants–we see her social worker all of two times in the entire book. But worse is the message that Mrs. Murphy and the other adults are giving Carly–that because her mother supposedly risked her life for her, that this means that her mother loves her unconditionally, and that Carly should appreciate that.

Think about the message this sends to children in potentially dangerous situations. This tells them that “it’s okay mom/dad hit me, because they were nice this other time.” It tells them that an act of kindness balances out an act of abuse. That one can mark out the other. And that is incredibly dangerous.

I can forgive this book for a lot. Some of the characters are underdeveloped–but it’s a kid’s book, and there isn’t room for every side character to get a lot of development. Several of the characters are good, so I can overlook that. I can forgive that we don’t get into the legal side of Carly’s case–again, it’s a kid’s book. 90% of this book was great. It was a positive portrayal of foster families, and we don’t get enough of that.

Maybe the author thought it would be too cliche for Carly to get adopted by the Murphys. But her ending just makes me sad. Because with everything that we’ve been shown of her mother, what are the odds that this woman will change? Carly is going back to a life of stealing from Salvation Army boxes and being told that crying makes you a sucker. And in a year when her mother has forgotten what a horrible man Dennis was, she’ll find some other worthless abusive asshole, and the cycle starts over.

I have other issues with this book, but they are discussed far more eloquently and with more authority than I can give them by Goodreads reviewer Shelley. I highly recommend that you check out her review here. She is a social worker, which gives her review a bit of extra weight (in my opinion).

Final thoughts: this is a good book on the surface, but the final implications are terrifying. Don’t give this to a kid who has dealt with abusive situations if you don’t want to confuse them and send them the wrong message. If I were to recommend this book to anyone, it would be to potential foster parents, just to give them some perspective. But even then, it’s problematic.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Child abuse

Posted in Picture Books

“The Most Magnificent Thing”

The Most Magnificent Thing
Author/Illustrator: Ashley Spires
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Publication Date: April 2014
ISBN: 978-1554537044
Lexile Level: 380L

The Most Magnificent Thing is about a girl and her dog as they do things together. The recommended age range is 3-7 years and the grade level is listed as preschool to 2nd grade.

We meet a regular girl and her best friend, her dog. They do all sorts of things together. And she loves to make things. So one day she has an idea for the “most MAGNIFICENT thing” and sets out to make it.

The book follows her multiple attempts to make her dream a reality. Her frustration grows as things keep going wrong. She quits, takes her best friend for a walk, and finally realizes that while her previous attempts were mistakes, there were things about them that worked. She sets off to try again, taking her previous knowledge and finally making it work.

This simple, good-hearted story is quite excellent. It provides a straight-forward message that is positive for children. It acknowledges the difficulty in turning one’s idea into reality, and how sometimes we just want to give up and quit. It also provides a solution to this frustration: stepping away, calming down, and allowing oneself time to think.

The illustrations are cute, with a simple color pallet and clean backgrounds. They supplement the story, but a child unable to see the illustrations would still be able to understand what’s happening (though the reader would need to specify that the girl’s “best friend” is in fact a dog, as the text treats him as human). And quite frankly, I want that dog. He’s adorable.

Final Verdict: This would make a great book for story time or one-on-one readings. It’s fun, and has the added benefit of featuring a little girl building and experimenting.