Sunday, November 19, 2006

vaughan's pride of baghdad

Brian K. Vaughan has been hailed as one of America’s most critically acclaimed graphic novel writers and his talent is clearly evident in this latest venture. Inspired by true events, “Pride of Baghdad” tells the story of a pride of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the spring of 2003. Vaughan has teamed up with artist Niko Henrichon to offer readers a unique and heartbreaking look into what it’s like to live in a warzone. After their escape from the ruined zoo, the lions encounter other animals that offer unique perspectives, such as the tortoise that survived WWI. During the course of the story, the animals begin to question what, exactly, is freedom. Can freedom be achieved without being earned? What’s the price of freedom? What do the lions owe the zookeepers who took care of them at the price of keeping the lions in captivity? Where should they go? What should they eat? The four lions soon realize that a desert city is nothing like the grassy savannas of their memories. The lions’ stories mirror the story of the Iraqi citizens displaced by the war. The story succeeds on both the graphic novel level and as an account of the current crisis. Henrichon’s use of browns and grays evoke the sands of Iraq, while the long brush strokes and careful attention to detail mirror the precise and minimalist dialog that Vaughn uses. A highly allegorical story grounded in compelling and believable characters, “Pride of Baghdad” makes it clear that without self-determination there can be no freedom.

Monday, July 03, 2006

erlbaum's girlbomb: a halfway homeless memoir

Janice Erlbaum’s childhood was not a pleasant one. Her mom’s string of abusive boyfriends and husbands had left her with no choice; after her mom kicked her last stepfather out, Erlbaum told her, “If you take him back, then I’m leaving.” When she was 15, Erlbaum left her Manhattan home after her mother once again reunited with her stepfather. After spending several weeks in a shelter, Erlbaum eventually ended up in a group home. Her journey didn’t end there – Erlbaum then embarked on a course of self-destruction, having casual, unprotected sex with a string of boys and abusing alcohol and drugs. Just over a year after she moved out, Erlbaum moved back in with her now-single mother, and the book’s title (a play on the author’s last name) begins to make more sense; life as a high school student clashes with the cocaine-fueled club scene of 1980s New York City. Her memoir illustrates the conflicting desires of adolescence – the desire to fit in, the desire to be loved, and the desire to be independent. Erlbaum’s writing is concise and engaging, but most of all, it’s honest. Erlbaum doesn’t try to excuse her behavior; rather, she analyzes why she turned down that self-destructive path, and what made her change her ways. Readers will find solace in the knowledge that, despite the lack of structure in her home life, Erlbaum still managed to pull it all together. She graduated high school, worked at an after school job, starred in a school play, and got into college, showing that, if you try hard enough, you can accomplish anything.

umezu's scary book (volume 1): reflections

Known as the “Stephen King of Japan,” Umezo Kazuo is the master of horror manga. Several of his stories have already been adapted to film, and fans of Japanese horror movies like “The Ring” and “The Grudge” will recognize the style that Umezo employs in his stories. This first volume of his Scary Book horror anthology contains two of his novellas, “The Mirror,” and “Vengeance Demon.” Umezo doesn’t need to rely on violence or gore to scare his readers; the horror is more primal, more psychological. In “The Mirror,” a pretty girl who has spent too much time in front of her mirror learns just how tenuous a power beauty is when her reflection escapes from the mirror and takes over her life. In “Vengeance Demon,” a warlord seeking revenge for his son’s injuries finds himself the object of revenge. The artwork is black and white; the illustrations are simple yet powerful. What sets this manga apart from others is the starkness of the drawings and the simplicity of the dialogue. No word is wasted. There are no extra words. Like Hemingway, Umezo understands that less is better. Readers looking to understand the influence of Japanese horror will enjoy this collection.

rinno's ju-on: video side

Ju-On: Video Side is the manga adaptation of the original Japanese horror movie “Ju-On” that was later remade for American audience as “The Grudge.” Although fans of the movies will recognize some similarities – the house is haunted by the spirits of a mother and son who were murdered – the rest of the plot is different. The movies focus more on the house, while most of the action of the novel takes place at the local school. Much more attention is given to the new family in the novel than it was in the movies. The novel opens with the murder of a woman and her son. Their house is soon sold to a new family. Each of the family members sees a creepy little boy and soon after each is attacked by a multitude of cats. The story doesn’t follow a linear timeline, which lets us learn more about the story of the house and the grudge. We see the real estate agent trying to sell the house, despite warnings about the evil in the home. The father of the new family dismisses the warnings as nothing more than a childish prank. The artwork is in black and white, which perfectly conveys the sense that evil is palpable. Since there is no color, we are forced to see the story unfold, for lack of a better phrase, “in black and white.” There is no gray area, just as there is no escaping the grudge. Since this is a novel and not a movie, there can be no audio sound effects, but that doesn’t affect the story in any way. The eeriness and horror are conveyed in the bold strokes of the artwork, especially in the scenes at the school where the mother’s ghost is encountered.

browne's the da vinci mole: a philosophical parody

Like the book that it parodies, The Da Vinci Mole is full of conspiracy and puzzles. The mysterious Dr. Ian Browne (a well-known figure whose real identity is not revealed) weaves together a suspenseful story that ties together Scientology, Karl Rove, W, aliens, Mars, and Proctor & Gamble. When Eric San Leté (anagram for “Secret Alien”), curator of New York City’s Whitney Museum, is found dead, modern art professor Hank Thomas is called in to figure out the cryptic message hidden inside a reproduction of a Jackson Pollack painting that Leté left next to his body. French exchange student and granddaughter of Leté, Saphie Paradise, joins Hank in his quest to decode the riddles that Leté has left behind. Browne has combined research with fiction (there’s a bibliography at the end of the book), leaving readers to wonder what is fact and what is fiction. Browne pokes fun at The Da Vinci Code, too; at one point, Hank asks, “But what if we spend many days and risk countless dangers tracking down this secret, only to have it turn out to be a secret that your grandfather never wants revealed anyway and so our efforts would be pointless?” Saphie replies, “That would be absurd, Hank. That would make no sense at all.” Black and white line drawings help illustrate the puzzles and add dimension to characters that couldn’t happen otherwise in such a short book.

gaines's digital photo madness! 50 weird & wacky things to do with your digital camera

Thom Gaines has made an easy-to-use guide to digital photography and photo manipulation that readers of all ages can use. There are 50 tips and tricks in this guide; sections on photo manipulations, light and shadow composition, avoiding camera shake, color combinations, and how to use a digital camera are all clearly explained and accompanied by example photos. Gaines spends time going over basic camera functions; even though readers may not have the same camera that he uses, they will be able to do the same things, because Gaines explains the basic digital camera function symbols that are the same for all digital cameras. Gaines’ guide is much easier to understand than trying to comprehend any user manual that comes with a digital camera. Readers of all ages and skill levels will be able to learn from this guide, and Gaines makes sure that you’ll have fun doing so.

mccullough's the essential book of presidential trivia

Ten-year-old Noah McCullough wants “everyone to know about the history of the United States and about important political events and issues and how they work.” A future presidential hopeful and one of the country’s youngest historians, McCullough has compiled a book of presidential trivia sure to please the most reluctant reader. Every chapter of the book contains a brief bio about one of the presidents along with a section of facts that ask “did you know?” The fun doesn’t stop there – McCullough has added a quiz at the end of the book to test your smarts (don’t worry – there is an answer key included). The book is easy to read and very approachable; students will relate to the fact that McCullough is a child. Perhaps the best part of the book is the fact that you can pick it up and read a chapter in a matter of minutes, making the book perfect for browsing as well as research. There are whimsical drawings of the presidents that preface each chapter, providing a visual aid for the curious. McCullough caps the book with a well-rounded bibliography.

powell and hotz's billy the kid's old-timey oddities

Eric Powell begins the book with a newspaper account of Billy the Kid’s capture and death, then asks what if Billy the Kid had faked his own death? Billy’s free to roam, or so he thinks; Fineas Spoule, the Human Spider, approaches Billy and tells him that he’s discovered Billy’s secret. He offers Billy a deal: help him retrieve a precious jewel from Dr. Victor Frankenstein and he’ll keep Billy’s secret. If Billy doesn’t help, then Spoule’s contacts will release Billy’s information and whereabouts to the authorities. All Billy wants to do is retire in anonymity, so he agrees to the plan, and soon finds himself in the service of a caravan of carnival sideshow performers who have their own unfinished business with Frankenstein. It’s not until the end of the story that Spoule reveals the real reason for their trip to see Frankenstein; one of their performers had been kidnapped. In the sideshow business, your fellow travelers become your family, and that’s not something that Billy can fully appreciate when we first meet him in the story. The story is fast-paced and the artwork reminiscent of both spaghetti westerns and B-movie horror. The illustrations are in full color, but have a dark tone to them that provides the right blend of quirky and macabre. The treatment of the “freaks” (as Billy calls them) is an accurate portrayal of the time period and, as Billy grows as a character, his attitude changes.

robotham's lost

Robotham’s second mystery brings some of the cast from his debut, Suspect, including Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz and clinical psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin. The novel’s fast-paced action opens with a half-dead Ruiz being fished out of the Thames. When Ruiz awakens from his coma, he discovers that he has no memory of why he was in the river, almost dead from blood loss as a result of a bullet wound to his leg, nor can he remember anything from the week leading up to his injury. With the help of O’Loughlin, Ruiz begins piecing together details that show he was following up on the disappearance of 8-year-old Mickey Carlyle. Ruiz was on the Thames to make a kidnapping payoff. The only problem? Mickey disappeared 3 years ago and a sexual predator has been convicted of her murder. As Ruiz retraces his steps, he relives several incidents from his past that are linked to his need to investigate a closed case. Readers looking for a fast-paced thriller will find plenty of adventure here; Ruiz’s hunt for answers takes him deep into the sewers below London and into the cold waters of the Thames. Robotham has expertly created complex characters; Ruiz, the son of a Gypsy woman raped by German soldiers in World War II, is haunted by the childhood drowning of his half-brother, even though he’s estranged from his own children. Robotham understands that some quests are worth any sacrifice no matter how long the odds of success may be. The result is a subtle and taut thriller, with convincing characters and strong psychological components.

forbeck's blood bowl: dead bowl

In Matt Forbeck’s fantasy kingdom where the most popular sport – Blood Bowl – is a violent form of gridiron football, anything goes. Dunk Hoffnung is a thrower for the Blood Bay Hackers and was the most valuable player his rookie year. Now it’s his second season and the gridiron football is more bloody and violent than ever. This time, though, the stakes are even higher, as he has to battle not only opposing players, but also his own teammates as well! Dunk’s coach, a retired sea captain named Pegleg, has vowed that his team will no longer be losers. To become winners, Pegleg decides that the team needs to find the Far Albion Cup, a trophy that’s said to make whoever owns it a winner. The only problem? The cup has been missing the last 500 years. That doesn’t stop Pegleg, though; after a grueling game where the Blood Bay Hackers lose 11 of their teammates, the team heads over to Albion and meets up with Olsen Merlin, a wizard who just might know where to find the cup. Along the way, the team picks up a treeman and a cast of undead players, and the coach becomes possessed by an evil spirit that inhabits the cup. The moral of the story? Don’t try to cheat to win. Readers looking for humorous fantasy along the lines of Robert Aspirin’s M.Y.T.H. Inc series will love the offbeat characters and game. Even better – you don’t need to be a football fan or know much about the sport to be able to understand the game.

cox's storyteller's club: the picture-writing women of the arctic

Hailed as the Joy Luck Club of the Arctic, Loretta Outwater Cox’s book captures the world of the Inupiaq of Alaska. Interwoven into the story of her great-grandmother’s daily activities are the oral stories of her ancestors. These stories have been kept alive by a group of late-middle-aged women who have decided to meet regularly during the dark months to share stories. The storyteller weaves the story while the other women carefully draw on a piece of brown paper symbols, lines, or shapes that help the women to be able to remember the story. The book is set in the 1920s, but the stories told are from the women’s youth, around the late 1800s. The stories range from the everyday – favorite recipes – to legends of giants and spiders that live amongst the people. Each story describes the culture, history, and geography of the people and region; a recipe about fish soup, for example, describes how the fish were caught, tells what the people were doing and saying, and records the weather that day. The stories are a lesson in history, both because these are women who never learned to read and write, but because the stories record the history of the Alaskan Indians. The power of the stories is not that these are the oral history of a group of people, but that they are stories that contain universal themes: family unity, respect for others, welcoming strangers, building up the weak, overcoming difficulty, and wrestling with grief. Readers will learn about the federal government’s plan to bring education to the people of Alaska and how the Indians responded. In the end, readers will appreciate how difficult life is in the far North.

choron's planet dog: a doglopedia

A powerhouse of an encyclopedia, Planet Dog: A Doglopedia will appeal to dog lovers, trivia seekers, and those looking for more dog information before buying a puppy. The husband-wife authors of this book have compiled over 300 lists about man’s best friend. Some of the lists contain information that will be difficult to find in another source (the top 10 Russian dogs sent into space, for example), while others compile practical information (“20 Tips for Preparing Your Dog for a New Baby”), but all focus on Fido. The book addresses not only the care of dogs, but also their characteristics, competitions, and culture. Both Sandra and Harry Choron’s graphic design skills are evident in the layout of the book; the pages are visually appealing. The book is a comprehensive and easily accessible resource that every dog and animal lover should own.

lack of updates

I apologize for the lack of updates. There have been a lot of things going on in my life over the last 6 months that have taken my full attention. In the meantime, I've been reviewing books and am preparing to create a website for others to review as well.

Monday, January 23, 2006

alexander's the $64 tomato

William Alexander had always dreamed of having his own garden, where he can grow his own organic, healthy fruit and vegetables. When his family moves to the Hudson Valley, he gets his dream – there’s more than enough land for his vegetable garden, his apple orchard, his wife’s flower garden, and a swimming pool for the family. Alexander’s done his research; he knows what crops to plant and when, what type of fencing he’ll need, and how to defend his garden against predators. What he hasn’t counted on were the problems that would crop up – that planting sod around the swimming pool would kill his corn, or that planting rosebushes would kill the sod. On top of the organic problems, there’s also landscaping contractors who are always behind schedule, a gardener who is a dead ringer for Christopher Walken, a groundhog that’s figured out how to get through a 10,000 electric volt fence, and the deer that think his garden is a feast for them. After years of fighting pests, Alexander realizes that there is no such thing as an organic garden in the Northeast and that, for each tomato he’s taken from his garden, he’s spent $64; ultimately, what was once his hobby has become a second full-time job. Throughout it all, Alexander manages to maintain a sense of humor, riffing on everything from the ugliness of garden ornaments to the politics of giving away vegetables to friends. The hilarious horticultural memoir manages to impart an existential lesson on the interconnectedness of nature and the fine line between nurturing and killing.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

knoll's creating the worlds of star wars: 365 days

Star Wars Visual effects supervisor-in-charge, John Knoll, serves as a tour guide on a behind-the-scenes journey into the worlds of Star Wars. This addition to the 365 Days series is the only Star Wars book that covers all six films in the series. The book is a comprehensive visual effects resource that includes breathtaking 360-degree panoramic shots of sets and models, as well as concept art, props, film stills, and memorabilia. Knoll includes first hand descriptions of both the shots and techniques that made the movies a success. In addition to never before seen images, the book contains enough trivia to make any fan happy. The format is easy to read; each day includes one full-page photo on a facing page and a half a page narrative that explains the techniques in a way that even non-techies can understand. The size of the book lends itself to easy readability – it’s not a large book (6.5 by 9.5 inches and is 2.25 inches thick), which makes it easy to hold. Included with the book is a CD-ROM that contains over 100 QuickTime VR 360-degree panoramas. An extensive index allows for quick access to any photo.

meltzer's identity crisis

After the tragic death of Sue Debny, the wife of the Elongated Man, the members of the Justice League of America and most of the DC superheroes are brought together to investigate. Sue’s murder is unsettling for a couple of reasons: she was a friend and whoever committed the murder knew enough personal information to be able to sneak past JLA security. Even more troubling are the letters that the family members of other heroes receive, indicating that they are the next targets. The superheroes split into teams to follow the leads that they are most suited (pun not intended) to solve. While the script contains strong elements, it is writer Brad Meltzer’s ability to manipulate the reader with the heroes and villains’ characterization that makes him capture our imagination. Meltzer’s novel asks: how far do you go to protect your loved ones? What if everything you stand for goes against your need to protect your family? The story moves quickly and the full-color artwork is splendid. Illustrator Rags Morales captures human emotion in such a way that he breathes life and authenticity to the characters. Alex Sinclair did a superb job with the coloring; the dark somber tones perfectly set the mood of the story. Some of the action occurs off-screen – the flashback to Sue’s rape – which makes what happens even more dramatic and powerful. Featuring a good mystery, great fight scenes, and good writing, Identity Crisis is a good read for most fans of the DC universe.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

foster's the light-years beneath my feet

Former Chicago commodities broker turned gourmet chef Marcus Walker and his alien companions – George the talking dog, Braouk the poetic Tuuqalian, and Sequi the intelligent K’eremu – just want to go home, but they don’t know how to get there. They escaped from the slave-trading alien race, Vilenjjii, only to find themselves on another alien planet; no matter how peaceful Sessrimathe is, it’s not home. Walker’s increasing expertise in the kitchen nets him a job offer by a star-crossing race much further out on the Milky Way’s spiral arm. Even though none of them know if it’s the right arm of the galaxy, at least they’ve found a way to leave Sessrimathe. The four set off to a world where warfare is a game, played by traditional rules that restrict military technology to a medieval level, but simultaneously give newscasters sophisticated broadcast equipment to beam live action to every city. Reluctant readers seeking an engaging science fiction novel will gravitate toward this book. Although this is book two in “The Taken” trilogy, it’s not necessary to read the previous book in the series. Alan Dean Foster’s trademark dry wit, colorful characters, and talented retelling of the traditional fish-out-of water story will keep the attention of even the most reluctant of readers.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

gilson's avigon

Avigon has to escape. A beautiful clockwork given sentience by her creator, Avigon has begun questioning who she is and whether she is human. Everything around her is mechanical; robots – clockworks – are designed to act as bodyguards, servants, mechanics, and there’s more than a few “pleasure” clockworks roaming the streets. Each day Avigon winds herself with a specially programmed key and each day she feels as if her soul is dying. There’s no challenge or future in being a clockwork. She realizes that there is only one thing she can do – run away. But can she hide in a surreal world of machines where she herself is one? Along her journey, Avigon falls in love, but she also learns that there is truth to her creator’s statement that a clockwork can never be human. Several years ago, Ché Gilson released a graphic novel called Avigon, which told the story of a robot girl who runs away from her master to the outside world and the painful lesson she learns there. In this updated version, Gilson and illustrator Jimmie Robinson give the background of Avigon and provide us with what happens when Avigon returns home. The duo work well together. Gilson’s style of writing may be minimalistic, but it is not bare of emotion. Robinson’s use of black and white and greyscale adds to the somber tone. The drawings are simple, yet dramatic, similar in style to Tim Burton.

elster's what in the word?

For the fan of random thoughts and word play, this book has it all. Every chapter features original brainteasers, challenging puzzles, and a trove of literary trivia. Want to know the meaning behind “pushing the envelope”? Would you have guessed that most people mispronounce Brontë (it rhymes with Monty). Did you know that the phrase “happy as a clam” is really an abbreviated form of the simile “happy as a clam at high tide”? Perhaps you’re looking for that perfect word to describe something very unique. Charles Harrington Elster has it all. Elster uses a lively question-and-answer format to cover a variety of topics, word and phrase origins, slang, style, usage, punctuation, and pronunciation. While the book is enjoyable as a browsing book, it would’ve benefited from having an index. As it is, the book is fun for casual reading, but not for those coming to the book with a serious question. Although it’s not an ideal reference book, it’ll benefit those who are curious and those looking for some brainteasers.

lundberg's olympic wandering: time travel through greece

Part travelogue, part mythological tale, David Lundberg’s book takes the reader on a journey through time to prove that the Greek people are the modern day equivalents of the characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The first part of the book follows the seldom-told tale of Ulysses’s life as a young king in Greece and the events leading up to and after the Trojan War. The second half of the book focuses on Lundberg’s travels to the various Greek Islands and other parts of Greece, weaving together travel narrative, history, and culture. Lundberg masterfully utilizes historic references as a framework for introducing the reader to modern day Greece and Greek culture. The first half of the book reads as both a novella and a history book. There’s plenty of adventure, from Ulysses’s quest to find Achilles to his 10-year perilous trip home after the war. Lundberg places the reader alongside Ulysses. Readers need not know much about Greek history or Greece before they pick up this book, as everything is explained in an easy to understand manner. In the second half of the book, the reader follows Lundberg in his travels across Greece and her many islands. By using this approach to history and culture, Lundberg shows that the people of Greece embody everything that existed in Ulysses’s time. Although the few illustrations in the book serve mainly as decoration, Lundberg’s descriptions of the scenery and people provide more than enough information to paint a vivid portrait of Greece.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

mcgough's bat boy

McGough was 16 years old when he wrote a letter to the New York Yankees and asked for a position as a bat boy. After persistently calling the Yankees switchboard over a period of weeks, McGough was finally granted an interview with the clubhouse manager. He got the job and spent two years, 1992 and 1993, as a bat boy. McGough focuses on the positives and tells his story without turning the players into gods. While he got to meet famous ballplayers and cute girls, he also had to deal with outsiders who sought to gain an “in” with players like Don Mattingly and bigwigs like George Steinbrenner by cozying up to peripheral personnel like McGough and other clubhouse workers. McGough conveys the beauty of the game with such humor and heart that readers will feel they are actually a part of the story. This memoir is much more than an all access pass to Yankee Stadium and baseball – it is an exquisitely written and observed book about growing up. McGough is honest and self-effacing in his recounting – he almost failed high school when he placed his job before his studying – and he later mentions that being a bat boy gave him confidence as he fulfilled his childhood dream. The book is a quick, fast read, full of humorous anecdotes involving spring training, bat stretchers, a pyramid scheme, and 50 illegal CDs.