Posted in Picture Books

“Penguin Problems”

Penguin Problems
Author: Jory John
Illustrator: Lane Smith
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: 2016
ISBN: 978-0375974656

In this story, we learn that penguins just have so many problems. We follow an unnamed penguin as he goes through his day, complaining about everything from being cold, hunted, to looking stupid when he waddles. A surprise speech from a walrus encourages him to look on the brighter side of things…but whether or not he’ll take those words to heart remains to be seen.

I love this book, if only because there is one right way to read it–as exaggerated whiny as possible. This penguin is in a permanent state of ‘ugh’ and if you’re reading the story aloud, you’ll have the best results with making that as prominent as possible. I’m not very good at voices, but the sarcastic tone of speech in this book is right up my alley.

The illustrations are simple but adorable. I love the design Lane Smith used for the penguins. There’s not a lot by way of background or color, but it all works wonderfully. Smith’s speckled painted style is unique and effective. The story is a bit dependent on its pictures, but not completely. A strong storyteller could likely make this entertaining for visually challenged readers.

This book can be a big hit in storytimes–but be warned, it is just as easy for it to flop. This is truly a performance piece–if you don’t dial it up to 11, listeners are going to lose interest. Because there’s not much by way of actual story, you have to engain listeners with your reading. It also works well as a one-on-one read–especially in a household that is no stranger to snark.

This may be a book that adults find more humor in that kids–but it’s worth the read either way.

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists”

The Sandman: Season of Mists
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1990-1991
ISBN: 1-56389-035-6
Titles: The Sandman #21-28

In this volume we get back to the more traditional storytelling method, where the volume itself contains a cohesive storyline. Of the tales we’ve had so far, I hold this volume on par with Preludes and Nocturnes. Both volumes give us storylines that explore the Endless and their abilities, as well as the realms beyond Dreaming and the mortal world.

First, we encounter Destiny, the eldest of the Endless. I love Destiny’s concept design, perhaps more than any other Endless. He is shown carrying his book, which is chained to his wrist. He literally can never be rid of it. Beyond that, he can also read ahead, or behind, to gain further insight into events. Even his own existence is not immune to this recording. A chance meeting prompts him to look in the Book, and call a meeting of his siblings.

Most of them we’ve met, at least briefly, before. This meeting is an excellent chance to see them together, and to gain a better dynamic of them as a family. And there are family dynamics here, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

Desire makes fun of Dream for his treatment of Nada, and Death points out to him that perhaps his actions were not noble. Dream determines that he should descend into Hell to free Nada, despite his insulting Lucifer in Preludes and Nocturnes. The insult makes reentering Hell a risk, as Dream freely admits that Lucifer is stronger than he.

I do wonder Desire’s motivation here. We’ve seen in the past that they have tried to destroy Dream. While it is not explored, I do think that perhaps Desire’s mention of Nada and needling of Dream is just to try and get Dream to do something that is not in his best interest, and could get him killed.

Dream makes his preparations to descend into Hell, which is a great example of the care and forethought he puts into his realm. Upon arriving in Hell, he runs into a surprise–one too good for me to spoil here. Suffice to say, I thought it was a great direction to twist the story in.

I don’t want to give too much away about the plot of the volume, but I will say that I greatly enjoyed it. Seeds are planted for Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, as we see various pantheons and myths come to life. One thing I greatly admire about Gaiman is his dedication to research. He tries to be as authentic in his myth portrayal as he can to the original sources. It makes the stories more interesting, and can serve as arousing interest in old stories.

The ending was not one that I expected, and one that I have mixed-feelings about. While I like the solution to the problem, there are some timing issues that are raised once you realize what has happened.

This is a good story, and I loved the various elements that went into it. I’m interested to see how this might have further impact down the line.

Rating 5 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Gruesome images, child death, violence, magic

Posted in Adult Fiction

“Damned”

Damned
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Publisher: Anchor
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-224-09115-2

This week we’re looking at Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk. You might know him as the creator of Fight Club, among other things. I was introduced to Palahniuk with his novel/collection of short stories, Haunted, which I absolutely loved. The framework is a group of writers in a secluded “writer’s retreat” where they deliberately bring suffering upon themselves to improve their craft. All the while they exchange stories–while being knocked off, one by one. It’s an amazing book, and I highly recommend it.

Sadly, nothing of Palahniuk’s work has hit me with the same level of greatness since. And Damned is no exception. This book is problematic at best, and takes far too long to hit its stride.

Our protagonist is Maddie Spencer, a 13-year old child of Hollywood starlets who has recently died and awakened in Hell. Maddie is one of my biggest issues with the book. She’s more like a collection of catchphrases and character traits rather than an actual character. Early in the book she talks about her theory that girls lose their intelligence when they gain breasts–how they suddenly become superficial and all about boys when puberty hits. She then goes on to be completely enamored with a boy, and is revealed to be surprisingly sexual for a thirteen year old. She’s only virginal when Palahniuk wants her to be, and it’s usually mentioned in a context that is actually sexual. Some of this is pretty uncomfortable, and rather leads one to wonder if Palahniuk has some unsavory views towards prepubescent girls.

Most of this could have been solved with a simple fix–make Maddie a few years older. I would totally buy a sixteen year old having these feelings and desires. But thirteen just feels terribly young for some of the things that are revealed about Maddie, and it makes me wonder what kinds of teenage girls Palahniuk know. It honestly reeks of how creepy old guys think teenage girls are–Lolita-esque flowers of forbidden sexuality, wanting to tantalize and tempt these older gents–as opposed to how they actually are.

While I like Maddie’s snark and affinity for “The Breakfast Club”, she comes across as entirely too cynical and jaded for one so young. Still, the novel starts off on a good note, with Maddie’s core group of friends being assembled early, much in the vein of The Breakfast Club.

Sadly, Palahniuk fails to keep up this pace. Our teens travel through the landscape of Hell, made of areas of grotesque shock value. This is a staple of Palahniuk’s writing, and I advise you–don’t make the mistake I did in reading this book on your lunch break.

There is an out of place, intensely explicit sexual scene involving the pleasuring of a female giantess. I almost gave up on the book here, and it left a sour taste in my mouth throughout the story. For me, there’s a fine line in what sort of content is appropriate if you’re not going to market your story as explicit. Talk of sex and the less blatant actions are okay, but once you start throwing around terms like ‘clit’ and talking about juices, you’ve crossed that line.

After that horribly uncomfortable scene (whose only purpose was to provide the kids with transportation, and said giantess is never seen or heard of again) the kids embark on the paperwork division of Hell, to look up Maddie’s file. This is one of the more clever ideas of the story, and I wish we’d had more build-up to it. Babette, one of our side characters, unexpectedly goes from bimbo to useful as she reveals that she knows the ends and outs of bureaucratic Hell.

All of this is intercut with random facts or scenes from Maddie’s previous life. Afterwards, our side characters (the members of Maddie’s posse) all but disappear. With the exception of a rare appearance by Archer or Babette, we rarely see or hear anything else out of our Breakfast Club until the end of the book.

The story doesn’t start to pick up steam until after the halfway mark. As Maddie remembers the truth about her death, she takes Archer’s advise that, here in Hell, she can be whoever she wants to be.

The second half of the book has the best ideas in it, but it ends up feeling rushed compared to the beginning. Several good and interesting things happen, which I won’t spoil here. The second half of the book feels more like the book I wanted to read when I picked up this title. It’s just a shame it took Palahniuk so long to get there.

Damned is a relatively quick read, though the first half trudges quite a bit. Our side characters are all archetypes, and our protagonist–for all her “quirky” traits–comes off feeling a bit bland and off-putting.

Again, I think the major failing of the book is Maddie’s age. While it’s more interesting to think about a 13 year old girl taking over Hell, overall, it just doesn’t work. Maddie question’s her parents’ ideologies with far more conviction than I’d expect of someone that young. Yes, her parents are crazy, but Maddie clearly tells us that all of their friends are like this too. When you’ve been raised in crazy, surrounded by it, you don’t question it. It simply is. It’s usually not until one is much closer to adulthood that they begin to think differently on such things.

If Maddie had been sixteen instead of thirteen, I’d be able to accept a lot of aspects of this book better. But for me, in light of the sexual nature of the book, her age is something of a deal breaker.

Final thoughts: I’m not sure if I’m going to read the sequel or not. I might, since the second half of the book was better than the first. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but I feel they get mired down in Palahniuk’s desire for shock value. I feel like this book would have benefited from a good edit and notes of the ideas that deserved more time and could have been a lot funnier.

Trigger Warnings: Explicit sexual acts; mentions of necrophilia; gross and violent imagery

Posted in YA Fiction

“Fear: 13 Stories of Suspense and Horror”

Fear
Editor: R.L. Stine
Publisher: Speak
Publication Date: Sept. 2010
ISBN: 978-0142417744
Lexile Level: 650

Fear is a young adult anthology of suspense and horror tales, edited by R.L. Stine. It contains thirteen stories by authors such as Meg Cabot, Heather Brewer, and other young adult authors. Stine is perhaps the best known scary story author for those under 18, even if a lot of his works (namely Goosebumps) tends to end up being a little more goofy than truly scary. But given the ages that he writes for, his Fear Street series and other works are usually a great introduction to darker material.

Not so here. This is one of the flattest anthologies I’ve ever read. Worse, can’t even be argued that it is meant to be more for kids, not teens. Most all of the characters are teenagers, not children. But the stories are…maybe not terrible, but certainly not scary or tense. There’s maybe one or two moments that are a little suspenseful, but that’s it. Given the quality of work that most of these authors are known for, it was really disappointing. The first several stories are predictable at best, boring at worst. There’s simply nothing new here.

Stine’s introduction, in hindsight, is downright misleading. The story promos he gives are inaccurate, written in such a way as to make the stories sound scarier than they are. There’s certainly nothing here to invoke screams of horror. Unless one screams at the sight of poor writing.

There is precisely one story in this collection worth reading: “Tagger” by James Rollins. It is not scary in the least, but it is a brilliantly written short story, managing to cram an entire mythology into just a few pages. I honestly would love to read a full-fledged novel or even series about these characters. Sool-ling and Bobby are charming, and I could easily see them leading their own stories.

Stine’s “Welcome to the Club” opens the anthology, and like his Goosebumps series, features a decent setup with a disappointing payoff. “She’s Different Tonight” by Heather Graham, about a boy stalking a date on Halloween, is so predictable I’m fairly certain it could have been plagiarized from any number of TV shows. “Suckers” by Suzanne Weyn is about a family moving to a new settlement on another planet. It features a Twilight Zone type ending—like Graham’s story, I actually think it’s been used before.

“Jeepers Peepers” by Ryan Brown and “Shadow Children” by Heather Brewer do offer a bit of scary imagery, and honestly, I wish these stories had been longer. They felt rushed, and I think the suspense would have been more effective if it had been drawn out a bit more. “The Perfects” by Jennifer Allison, “Dragonfly Eyes” by Alane Ferguson, and “Tuition” by Walter Sorrells are just…depressing. With all of the other stories ending on a relatively up note, these three stories fell out of place. “Tuition” in particularly just feels mean-spirited.

The three stories worth reading are “Piney Power” by F. Paul Wilson, “The Night Hunter” by Meg Cabot, and “Tagger” by James Rollins. All three introduced me to characters I’d like to read more of. These are the best developed of the stories. It’s worth picking up the anthology just for these stories—the rest can easily be skipped.

Final verdict: Ugh. Just…ugh. Not worth it in time or money, and given the talent involved, it’s just disappointing.

Posted in Middle Grade Fiction

“Where I Belong”

Where I Belong
Author: Mary Downing Hahn
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: September 2014
ISBN: 9780544230200
Lexile Level: 640

Mary Downing Hahn was a favorite in my childhood, and I’m glad to see that she’s still publishing. Where I Belong is a slight deviation from her usual fare—at least of the works that I’m familiar with. Many of her stories are ghost stories or have an otherwise gothic feel. My favorite when I was young was Wait til Helen Comes (which I should really revisit at some point).

Where I Belong is about rising seventh-grader Brendan, a foster child who is struggling with finding his place in the world. He’s an artist, a self-professed dreamer, who is failing sixth-grade. He has no friends, is at odds with his foster mother, the world is against him, yada yada yada. Okay, so the way Brendan is set up is relatively believable (I have issues with the portrayal of his foster mother, but we’ll get to that). I’m not sure if kids would still be so cruel towards a kid because of something like his long hair in this day and time, but I do remember the jeers against the band Hanson was that they “looked like girls” back in the 90s, so maybe it’s still a thing. Kids can be cruel for any number of reasons. We never really see the bullies in Brendan’s school though, except for a mention at the beginning at the book.

It seems like a lot of the problems against Brendan and his state in the world is due to the fact that he’s a foster child. I talked about this a bit in my review of One for the Murphys, so I won’t take too much time on it here. But this is one of those negative portrayals of foster kids and the system that I dislike. Granted, this isn’t a major point in the story, and is tastefully done. While I’m not sure why a baby abandoned at birth wouldn’t have had a better shot at adoption (since infants are the big demand), Hahn does lay out his past, and I don’t have a huge problem with it. I can buy that this situation could exist, and yes, it would be pretty damaging to a kid’s self esteem. But the idea that a kid is “bad” just because they’re a foster kid? Does anyone actually think that? Maybe I’m naive, or sheltered, or just think better of the world in general…but Brendan mentions at one point that he heard an adult say that foster kids had “bad blood.” That’s just stupid, and in my mind, lazy writing. Again, I could be wrong, and this could be a thing. But I’ve never seen it, and I like to think most people would be better than to blame a child for their circumstances.

Related to this is Brendan’s foster mother, Mrs. Clancy. The first half of the book show her as being distant and not particularly interested in Brendan. Granted, most of her perceptions that we see are actually Brendan’s interpretation—things he thinks she thinks—so she very well may not be as cold as she’s painted. And to Hahn’s credit, she addresses this later in the book—Mrs. Clancy talks about how she’s raised so many foster kids, and she just doesn’t have the energy that she used to. Truthfully, this is a minor issue, but it still bugs me (see “negative portrayal of foster parents” as mentioned before).

Okay, so the actual story. Brendan is a big reader, and is particularly obsessed with the legend of the Green Man—a mythical figure who is the protector of the forest. He goes into the woods, finding a tree where he decides to build a tree house. He is very respectful of the spirit of the forest, and often feels he’s being watched. He meets an old man, who seems to possibly be the Green Man itself. This, combined with the meeting of a girl who shares his interests, helps set Brendan on a more positive course.

There are a handful of mentions that set this story in modern times (such as cell phones and Facebook) but overall, the story is pretty timeless. One of the strengths is the descriptions—Hahn sets us up early on that this is not a particularly wealthy area of town. It makes a lot of what happens later on more believable. For all my ranting, I did genuinely like this story. I’m a sucker for anything fey or Puck related, and the Green Man falls in that category. The twist, while predicable, was still well done, and I’ll confess, I teared up at the end.

Final verdict: a good recommendation for kids who like realistic fiction. Maybe not an essential addition to most collections, but a solid choice. However, I doubt kids will be quick to pick this one up on their own—it might take some marketing.

Posted in Picture Books

“One Cool Friend”

One Cool Friend
Author: Toni Buzzeo
Illustrator: David Small
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 2012
ISBN:978-1451741216
Lexile Level: AD (Adult Driven)

One Cool Friend introduces us to Elliot, a “very proper young man.” He dresses in a smart suit and dislikes hoards of children. When his father takes him to the aquarium, Elliot discovers the penguins. Excited by how they seem as prim and proper as he is, Elliot decides to take one home. We follow Elliot as he strives to take care of his new friend, named Magellan, after the explorer Ferdinand Magellan. He tries to keep him cold, and goes to the library to do research. Elliot’s father is oblivious to this, despite several near misses. Eventually, Elliot’s father discovers Magellan in the bath–and we discover that Elliot’s father has an interesting friend of his own.

This is a nice story, which doubles as a showcase of manners. In no way is Elliot criticized or made fun of for his properness, which is a nice change of pace. Normally in children’s materials, a character like Elliot would be made to “loosen up” by the end of the story. It is an honest misunderstanding that leads to him getting the penguin, with no deception on anyone’s part. It is especially interesting as a second read through, when hints of the father’s pet are noticeable throughout the story.

The illustrations are simple with a small color scheme. Everything is mostly black and white, with splashes of red, green, and blue throughout. Unfortunately, the story does rely on the illustrations to catch a good deal of what is going on, so it would not be ideal for a visually challenged reader.

This book is best for older readers, who will be more likely to catch the humor of the situation and ending. There are several references to things that young children will not recognize, like Ferdinand Magellan and Captain Cook. It rather feels like a sentence or two is missing, as we do not see Elliot name the penguin Magellan–the text simply stops referring to him as “the penguin” and starts calling him Magellan. This transition may be difficult for younger readers to pick up on. A bit more interaction with the penguin would have been nice too. On one page he goes “Grock” but for the most part he is silent, and simply in the background doing things.

With the right crowd, this could work as a storytime book, but I don’t recommend it. The length and subtleties of the story will go over the heads of most storytime listeners. Far better to tackle this one as a one-on-one reading.

One Cool Friend was a South Carolina Book Award Nominee in 2013-2014, and is honestly a lot of fun. The ending is a bit abrupt–my storytime crowd was begging to know what happened next. Fans of Eloise and Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem will enjoy this selection.

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country”

The Sandman: Dream Country
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1990
ISBN: 1-85286-441-9
Titles: The Sandman #17-20

This is the trade that first inspired me to pick up the Sandman series. Why? The story “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which won Neil Gaiman a World Fantasy Award in 1991. I am a huge fan of the play, with it being one of my two favorite Shakespearean comedies. But I’ll explain my love for it in a moment.

Dream Country collects issues #17-20 of The Sandman comic. Since these stories stand alone more than the previous issues, I’ll talk about them individually. The first story, “Calliope,” is a hard read. It is the story of a muse who has been imprisoned by a writer. Not only does he keep her locked away, but he assaults her physically. Yes, friends, there is a rape scene in this story.

Fortunately, the story itself can be skipped without consequence. While it is a well-written story, I understand that it contains disturbing content, and some people may feel uncomfortable reading it. I felt uncomfortable reading it (that is the point of the story after all–it certainly isn’t glorified) but survivors of rape may find it to be triggering. I don’t know if Calliope comes back in a later issue, but from what I can tell, the story can be skipped.

Rape aside, I did enjoy the concept of the tale, especially Morpheus’s punishment to the writer. All writers have struggled with the blank page. This story is an interesting take on what lengths someone might go to for those precious ideas. I would like to see this story done from a different angle–what if, instead of abusing and capturing a muse, a writer courts her, relishes her, maybe giving her a taste of human life that she hasn’t experienced. Could they fall in love, or is a muse simply too fickle for such things?

The second story, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” makes me both glad I like cats, and a little terrified to own one again. It’s a short story, and I don’t want to give anything away. But trust me, you’ll never look at Fluffy the same way ever again.

Ah, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Okay, backstory time. I first encountered this play in 9th grade, when my best friend introduced me to Puck’s closing monologue. We both memorized it, and I went around reciting it for months. I read the play, and was hooked. In senior AP English, we studied the play, and a local theater happened to be doing a production of it that season. I saw it twice in one week. It was absolutely amazing, and was also the first Shakespeare I’d seen performed live. Puck was played by a female, which totally lined up with how I’d always seen the trickster. It solidified the play as a masterpiece in my mind.

I initially came across The Sandman comics in researching media that Puck had appeared in. A few panels from this issue were posted on a website detailing some of the history of Puck, and so I bookmarked it to look up at some point. I came across the trade in a bookstore, and read through the issue for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was interesting–but not interesting enough for me to spend $20 on a trade that I otherwise wasn’t very interested in.

Now, reading the story as a part of the larger collection, I notice several things that went over my head before. While the story can stand alone (like many of the stories in this trade) it works best as part of the collective. In Sandman #13, Morpheus meets Shakespeare in passing, and the story alludes to them making a deal (presumably to make Shakespeare’s writing better, since at the time, it’s not very good). #19 shows the first part of that deal, which was for Shakespeare to write two plays playing homage to dreams. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the first of these two. Morpheus invites the Faerie Court to watch the play, and it is all around quite entertaining.

I truly love this story. The fey designs are brilliant (kudos to penciller/inker Charles Vess and colorist Steve Oliff) and the story introduces a truly terrifying and fascinating Puck. I absolutely love the design of the hobgoblin here, and the character is everything that Puck should be–scary yet mischievous. If you read nothing but this story, it will be well worth it.

The final issue is “Façade,” which tells a story of a character from the DC verse, Element Girl. I didn’t know who this character was, or who she was supposed to be, when I read the story, but it really didn’t detract from the story itself. It shows her meager life now that she’s retired, and the degeneration that has occurred to her body. It is a sad tale, about a woman whose life has become a trap for her. I especially loved that we got another appearance by goth girl Death, who is a surprisingly wonderful character.

All in all, this is a good trade. I enjoyed these stories, despite a decreased role by Morpheus. It gives us a look at the larger universe, and plants plenty of details that could come back in later issues.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (I detracted part of a point for the rape of Calliope–I really just felt it was unnecessary)
Trigger warnings: Rape, violence, gruesome imagery